As this blog has discussed previously, the landscape surrounding your institution can serve as much more than a backdrop for your buildings. With exciting interpretation, it has the potential to become a portal to the past, just as artifacts do. Consider taking advantage of North Carolina’s beautiful spring weather and planning some outdoor experiences that can connect your collection and institutional mission with the surrounding landscape.
The North Carolina Maritime Museum at Beaufort has been particularly active in developing public programs that bring the mission and interpretive themes of the museum beyond the structure’s walls. Curator of Public Programs Ben Wunderly, who presented on this topic at last month’s NCMC annual meeting, has turned a variety of outdoor experiences into maritime heritage learning opportunities. Last weekend the museum offered a guided hike through the Rachel Carson Reserve, focusing on the area’s flora and fauna. Other recent spring hiking destinations included Shackleford Banks. In areas with tourist traffic—like Beaufort, where other companies may already be offering tours, Wunderly recommends discussing plans for outdoor guided walks and other activities first with tour business owners and explaining how your institution’s programs will differ from theirs. Also, be careful not to undercut their prices for programs with overlapping content.
Several historic sites have gardens that literally help enliven visitors’ sense of the past. Historic Oak View County Park has an exhibit on cotton culture in a barn and a growing cotton patch just outside. The effect is an exhibit component that’s multi-sensory, educational, and fun to revisit. Children can get up close and personal with the plant that was once such an important, “King,” cash crop and see the various stages of seasonal growth and harvest. How would they know, without this kind of experience available, for instance, that the cotton flower is really pretty? In recent years Bennett Place has added a kitchen heirloom garden to its interpretations of Civil War homefront and denouement. See page 3 of the Site’s newsletter for more details. Bennett Place’s garden has become so prolific that its surpluses can even be used to benefit the community.
Does your institution have land for gardening? Is it in an urban landscape with possibilities for guided walking tours? Are there other forms of transportation available, like sailboats in Beaufort, that can add to the authenticity of the outdoor heritage learning experience? Exploring outside connections can open doors to new audiences and help both your staff and community enjoy the spring!
Thanks to Sara Drumheller, Patrick Golden, Andrew Talkov, and session participants for their contributions to this post.
Early in November some of our C2C staff participated in a roundtable discussion as part of the Southeastern Museums Conference in Williamsburg. The topic was “Traveling Exhibits for Small Museums: What Works?,” and several important points emerged from the presentations and discussion.
- The typical traveling exhibit format consists of graphic panels that include text. This is not a very effective way to engage participants with information in and of itself. Venues must add artifacts, interactive components, and/ or programs to flesh out the borrowed skeleton and encourage audience participation. Borrowing that foundation, however, can be a cost-effective shortcut for host staff who want to offer additional graphic content and related community events at their sites.
- For museums establishing traveling exhibits, remember to reach out to libraries as important venue possibilities. According to Andrew Talkov, Coordinator for the “Virginia’s Civil War” traveling exhibit, an initiative of the Virginia Historical Society, libraries make up approximately 70% of the borrowers for their shows. Also, many libraries have an active schedule of public programs. They often possess the staff and the audience to connect with exhibit themes successfully. Some libraries borrow exhibits regularly from the American Library Association, which requires public programming components as a condition of hosting.
- Flexibility is crucial for smaller host sites. Panels must be able to be configured in various ways and still make sense. The show should still work even if one or two panels must be deleted. Chronological stories, then, are not so compatible for small venues, which often need to arrange in ways that deviate from the expected formation. Themes that can dovetail well with materials that a venue can add in are most desirable. Topics that are too specific to a lender’s location may not have broad appeal for potential borrowers.
- Consider incorporating technology when building traveling shows, but be aware of its limitations for audience engagement. For example, QR codes are the current fad and hold promise as a way to connect interested exhibit participants with more in-depth information than a panel can provide. However, currently only half of the population has the necessary mobile devices and an even smaller proportion has downloaded the software to enable reading the codes. Additionally, some websites take several minutes to load, leading to participant frustration. An added complication is the lack of cellular service at various potential venues. Read more here about alternatives to relying on visitors’ mobile devices.
- Borrowing fees for traveling shows should be scrutinized. Preparing the shows for your own institution can be time consuming and involve additional mounting and programming costs. Some organizations create traveling exhibits as a revenue-generating measure. These are often cost-prohibitive for small institutions. The Smithsonian Institution produces Museums on Main Street as a low-cost outreach program for smaller, often rural, venues. Here in North Carolina, several institutions offer low-cost or free traveling shows. Our State Library lends framed images and accompanying labels at no cost, provided the borrower transports the show to another regional venue. Oak View County Park in Raleigh has produced several framed panel exhibits for their own site and staff has adjusted them for travel. Staff have also decided recently to waive borrowing fees. The North Carolina Collection at UNC Chapel Hill offers a free traveling exhibit on the photography of Bayard Wootten. Preservation North Carolina has a number of graphic panels on North Carolina architecture and related topics. Several cost $600 to rent.
Has your institution tried traveling exhibits as a way to augment the materials your own staff can provide? If so, what worked?
This post is by Sara E. Drumheller, Assistant Park Manager, and Katie Spencer, Education Aide.
About a year ago, Historic Oak View County Park experienced a major breakthrough when we discovered the names of eight people who were enslaved on the farm prior to the Civil War. The names of these people were scattered in documents long held by the Wake County Register of Deeds, but recently made available online. Oak View staff first found the name, age, and record of sale of a woman named Eliza, unexpectedly, when they were searching the database for land records. Prior to this discovery, we knew very little about the people who were enslaved at on the farm and consequently, their lives here were little represented in interpretive material around the park.
Our discovery of Eliza prompted a tireless search through deeds associated with the farm to gather as much information as possible. We found the names of 8 out of 12 of the men, women, and children who were enslaved at Oak View: Eliza, Isabella, Walt, Levy, Sandy, Patsy, Sam, and Celia. We then revisited the records that were already in our archives, using our new information to fill in some of the gaps. Names from Census records after the Civil War took on new significance as we found former slaves sharecropping at Oak View, leaving to live in other parts of the county, or in one instance, purchasing a parcel of Oak View land. Eliza appeared with her husband Reddick, who was enslaved on a farm nearby and testified on the Williams’ behalf in their post-civil war plea for reimbursement for losses in the war.
This new information not only allowed us to fill out our knowledge of antebellum Oak View, it inspired a more personal approach to our interpretation of the park. We undertook a major genealogy effort in order to connect with families descended from Eliza, Levy, and the others. We learned information about other farms and people who were enslaved there, and we worked with local churches to share that information. In return, the community shared their knowledge of the history of the area. We are now planning a permanent exhibit that will focus on the people who lived and worked on the farm, rather than only the agricultural history of the region. This personal approach is a new chapter In Oak View’s interpretive focus. By putting Oak View people at the center of our exhibit, we will be able to provide visitors with an opportunity to step into their shoes and imagine their lives many years ago. Their stories and experiences are windows into the past; they do not offer a bird’s eye view or a complete narrative, but what they do provide is rich, meaningful, and personal.