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Heritage Philadelphia Program: 8 Sites, 1 Bus, 100s of Stories

Heritage Philadelphia Program – 8 Sites, 1 Bus, 100s of Stories
Virginia Trip June 9-11, 2010
Matt Herbison’s Raw Notes

Matt’s main topics for follow-up meeting June 28

-If HPP’s goal is to ask people to think beyond the obvious when it comes to public history, to develop meaningful engagement strategies in the 21st century, it is naive to not discuss online engagement and how to tie it to in-house/onsite interpretation
–How does an institution/site/museum engage and interpret in an online environment?
–Is online approach standalone, an alternative, an extension, a primer, or a carrot to come to the site?
–It is a mistake to not incorporate a online interpretive plan into overall (see DUCOM planning grant)…but not unexpected since tech incorporation is unfamiliar, all over the map, and expensive
–Will sites be in trouble if they can’t start creating a tighter connection between online and on-site offerings (especially as money for field trips is shrinking). Is it possible to move the initial engagement to an online setting?
–What are the digital humanities trends that can be applied to historic sites and institutions?
–Would be a good exercise to assess each site’s website (see links in site-specific notes later in doc)
–Conferences like AAM online conference “Technology, Interpretation, and Education 2010” June 22-24, 2010 — http://www.aam-us.org/getinvolved/learn/interpretation2010.cfm

-Hard to discuss what works in engaging people with history without establishing the “engagement setting” and the priority of “engagement goals,” since completely different approaches may be needed depending on the combination

Engagement Setting
1 – Guided school groups (or other kids’ groups)
2 – Guided groups of adults and kids who don’t know each other
3 – Walk-in or self-guided individuals or small groupings
(4 – Preparing teachers to take our interpretive content back to students)

Engagement Goals (how to organize these?)
1a – Inspiration
1b – Knowledge
2a – Conversation
2b – Information
2c – Critical thinking skills
3a – Relevance
3b – Novelty/Coolness/Quaintness (?)

These two variables (ES & EG) form a matrix that could help drive the designs of interpreted engagement opportunities — see draft table below.
…these goals and settings are often at odds with each other, e.g.:
-Conversation works best with people who know each other or have fairly focused interests (e.g., a K12 class where teacher knows who doesn’t speak up versus Tenement Museum discussions where very little discussion happens)
-Inspiration is hard to predict, especially in self-guided settings
-Relevance works better when interpretation is tweaked to match the audience (e.g., Monticello house guide talking about several Philadelphia connections)

Museum Engagement Settings and Goals

(regarding this matrix)
I feel pretty good about the row-items, but the column ones need a lot more refining.

As it is, it has started to help me think about:
(1) for a particular interpretation approach, what audiences and purposes does it fit (“fitting into”)
(2) before designing your interpretation approach, figuring out what audiences and purposes you want to meet (“getting out of”)

-Considering the different requirements of combinations of Engagement Setting and Engagement Goals, how do you then deal with the inconsistent experiences of visitors?
–Even guided tours and packages can end up being quite different in focus (e.g., Bill A’s women-centric Monticello tour in 2009 versus our 2010 tour)
–Value of having a baseline-setting experience, like a 10 minute introductory movie

-What are the interpretive and engagement values of authenticity of objects and place? (A variation on one of Seth B’s questions)
–Thought and research questions:
—-What if Frederick Douglass House was 100% reproductions instead of 70% original — what if you could sit in his spot at the table? What would be gained and what would be lost?
—-What proportion of visiting audience experience a gut reaction to authentic objects? My only time has been with bits of Lincoln’s skull at National Museum of Health and Medicine (at Walter Reed) but what proportion of people get this feeling touching original documents and artifacts AND is it worth actively acquiring them (like the $50K china pieces bought by Montpelier)
—-Photocopy historical newspapers then throw out originals; photocopy 20th century typescripts then throw out; photocopy 19th century manuscripts and throw out; …what is the point it stops being OK? …and what is the original of a digital object that you print out?
–If a guide/interpreter doesn’t actually use the place, they are missing out on having a anchor to tell the stories, doing teaching not interpreting, and wasting the visitor’s time in coming to that location (E.g., the Mount Vernon slave tour didn’t use place well but the Monticello one was better; our house tours did a better job of using each room as the focus of the story/description)
–There is an assumption that individuals or groups visiting your institution are getting an experience that they can’t get from home, school, television, or the Internet. (Unless you are providing companion material on your website, but that is a separate discussion.) If you are giving them something that would work just as well if they were not visiting, why not save them the money and go to them?

Purpose of the Trip (Seth B on Wednesday)

1 – History of preservation
2 – How sites handle hard topics
3 – Other ways to interpret these sites and issues

Keep alert for:
-How house museums battle it out for memory (within the culture wars?))
-Presentation of history vs memory (memory is politicized history)
-How sites deal or do not deal with difficult subjects

The Big Log House Discussion (GW Birthplace on Friday)

-[Bill A] HPP goals: Asking everyone to think beyond the obvious when it comes to public history
–Especially considering 21st century considerations
–Creating meaningful engagement

-[Seth B] How significant is location in engagement and interpretation?
-[Melissa J] What is the average person on the street intrigued by or what can they relate to? The importance of raising awareness.
-[Ang R] Are we the people that should be telling the stories? Should we be bringing in community involvement (like pulling in modern-day analogues from community to discuss topics we want people to relate to?)
-[Bruce L] The importance of ability to be a storyteller {not sure I got this one right}
-[Philip S] says that it is our responsibility to teach or convey knowledge since “If the students don’t get it from us, they won’t from the schools” while [Kristen Q] says that simple exposure (to science concepts) is valuable for when the students see the material again later
-[Linda N] We need to spark an interest in a topic
-[Brandi L] Need to provide inspirational experience for something that will drive their later interests
-[Bill A] Do we need a different interpretive strategy that starts with immersion?
-[Laura K] How to use integrated tours versus focused sub-tours
-[Dena D] Visitors have no ownership of history without experiencing it
-What about entirely discussion-based experiences, maybe using short contradictory readings
-[Philip S] Engage people in conversation about something they want to know “the truth” about
-[Rick F] How to handle a new breed of learners who are very diverse in backgrounds and learning styles

–Having a PhD is just the thing to push people away

–Allowing people to work through their own “truths”

–Maybe sites should have more Choose Your Own Adventure narratives and paths

-[Sadly, I missed so many good comments at the log house and the ones I caught are thin]

Matt’s running list of topics that came up in small and large group discussions
-Face-to-Face versus Face-to-Case interpretation approaches
-Amateur historians versus enthusiasts
-Facts and truth versus history
-Facts and truth versus memory
-Interpretation and contextualization
-How is cause and effect established in history?
–Kim Stanley Robinson’s essay on “A sensitive dependence on initial conditions” printed with “The Lucky Strike” (alternative history story about bombing of Hiroshima/Nagasaki) – www.worldcat.org/oclc/318427314 (PM Press, 2009, ISBN 1604860855)
-Maybe students (or other tight groups) will be better served by reading a short passage and discussing it
-What is more useful, facts or critical thinking skills? For which audience(s)?
-Inspiration and critical thinking skills are two of the most valuable outcomes
–Inspiration meaning generally inspired or inspired to action?
–Example of critical thinking skills: NHD student who said she read two different primary source items that contradicted each other and she had to figure out what to do with that.

-Guides at historic houses where enslaved people were kept generally mention it briefly in the main house tour (without prompting) and can respond to questions about figures and responsibilities. Slavery is addressed in more depth in newer Interpretive Center displays, through additional tours, and through newer video productions.
-What is the split between visitors who do self-guided browsing versus self-guided tours versus guided tours (at places where you have the choice)
-The historically important impact of the battle against shitty cooking/meals
-Provide Pantone colors for rooms tat have been painted in unusual colors
–Variant on Pratt & Lambert “Williamsburg Palette” paint line
-Is there value to having paired tour guides having an argument from conflicting points of view?
–E.g., If one guide gives the “If you had to be a slave, this was a good place to be” argument, the other guide could call them on it
–Could this be done with station interpreters? E.g., Telling the same story from different rooms and different person’s viewpoints within the same house/site
-Effectiveness of using explicitly conflicting points of view as a interpretive tool (related to above point about paired tour guides)
–The idea came to mind during the Monticello slavery tour. The guide was diplomatically using the “if you *had to* be a slave, this was a decent place to be” argument. At that point, I was wishing that someone spoke up with a well-informed argument that would boil down to “that argument is a slippery slope.” And what better person to be there to consistently provide the counterpoint than another guide? It would get across conflicting viewpoints, but (ideally) also the concept of conflicting historical records.
–One of the biggest downsides to this approach is the purely logistical one of needing twice the number docents, matching their work schedules, and them requiring pair-wise training.
-Ang R talked about an adult program that is set up as a mock trial with “Rural” and “Urban” fighting over custody of “Suburbia” — the outcome is decided by the jury made up of event attendees
-Which is more effective in engaging people (and in which situations): The Quaintness of History versus the Horror of History?
–On the Monticello Plantation/Slavery Tour, there was kind of a “slavery wasn’t so bad vibe,” despite numerous comments about bad conditions/situations for slaves; How much horror is necessary to really get it across…and this begs the question about comfort level for visitors

-What if Frederick Douglass House was 100% reproductions instead of 70% original — what if you could sit in his spot at the table? What would be gained and what would be lost?
–Compare to Abraham Lincoln’s Cottage (which many had visited)
-Maybe I only know how to relate to things if there are commercial products and signs
–Like “Esso” station we turned around at while getting to Montpelier; Maybe it just a lack of imagination to not be able to get into the setting
-It is much easier to get the feeling of a historical site/house when there are only 1 or 2 people around
–Easier to suspend disbelief
–Easier to commune with site, stuff, panels, and labels
–Asked Rick F about this and he agreed — he had walked down from Monticello house alone and was able to get the vibe of the place and read panels at his leisure

(Thoughts from Wednesday night – page1)
-What is the difference/relationship between:
–Interpreting (Seth B gave a definition of this)
-Are some aspects of our interpreting a result of having less time to interact (face-to-face or face-to-case) or the restriction of having to use fewer words (face-to-case)?
–At Grumblethorpe and Philadelphia Society for the Preservation of Landmarks, repeat visits from kids’ groups over 6-12 year timeframe can make cumulative experiences work
–Philip S says that it is our responsibility to teach or convey knowledge since “If the students don’t get it from us, they won’t from the schools” while Kristen Q says that simple exposure (to science concepts) is valuable for when the students see the material again later
-How do you determine the transition point between the responsibility of teachers/parents and the site’s/museum’s interpreted content (especially with face-to-face interpretation)

(Thoughts from Wednesday night – page2)
-How much can be done when schoolkids visit a museum, site, or repository as far as giving them the interpreted content of the site? Is the goal meaty content or a flavor of content or some critical thinking about different points of view plus a discussion? {this question became more refined later in the trip}
-Is an online collections database “interpreted?”
–No, if just physical descriptions
–How much of a concern is an image taken out of context (because little context is provided)?
–How much description/context is necessary?
–Difference in common practices of describing objects, manuscripts, photos, painting, prints, etc.
–E.g., compare descriptions/context in Ohio Memory (http://www.ohiomemory.org/) project to those at PMA (http://www.philamuseum.org/collections/search.html) to those at SAAM (http://americanart.si.edu/collections/search/)

-If a site is different from one’s normal experience, is it more likely to have a greater impact?
–Sites like Eastern State are not the same as historic houses
–But for kids who have never walked on grass, a property like Grumblethorpe may provide the same experience of doing something out of the ordinary
-Bruce L: The ham in one’s mind is always tastier than the fake ham on the table. (Comparing the audio-quote breakfast description at Montpelier to the plastic ham in the dining room at Mount Vernon.)
-Material culture is needed to expose the lives of undocumented people and events
-Seth B saying that the “document” of historic houses have been “edited” over the years
–Is this why “interpret” is used so rarely in archives and libraries?
-What are the policies and practices for people leaving keepsakes at memorial sites?
–Vietnam Wall and Flight 93 are one thing, but what about at older sites?
–Dave (archaeologist) at Ferry Farm said they treat (these rarely left) items as just another point documenting the continuum of the site

Site-Specific Notes

Arlington House, Home of Robert E Lee
Site #1, Wednesday June 9
-Mostly interpreted as Custis-built and Lee-lived
-Slavery addressed matter-of-fact and with flyer
-Restoration plan says to take house to as-Lee in 1855
-Includes panels of bios of earlier residents
-Cell phone tour (703-342-4682)
-Slave quarters featured more recent interpretive gallery with focus on indivuals

Frederick Douglass House
Site #2, Wednesday June 9
-Park Service Rangers Braden Paynter and Shoshi Weiss
-Excellent familiarity with the topic and easy engagement on larger issues of the time
-70% original items in the house
-Guides pulled in issues in women’s rights (trouble with some educated Northern women)
-Suggestion of new program about teaching controversy
-Programs to try to engage surrounding community

Mount Vernon, Home of George Washington
Site #3, Wednesday June 9
-Acknowledgment that George Washington knew he was a public/observed figure
-Offer one slave tour each day
-First time we heard the “If you had to be a slave, this was a OK place to be” argument
-No whips, only birch switches
-George Washington did not come across as a mythical person on slave tour but did in house tour
-House tour was station interpretation and moving people through the house at a quick pace; minimal discussion of slavery (except in upstairs landing)
-Ms. O’Connell in the dining room
-Interpretive Center handles more issues of slavery
-No photos allowed in house
-[Afterward note: Recent Southern Living magazine article on Mount Vernon’s gardens saying (paraphrased) “George Washington was like a CEO and he delegated the grunt work”…I like it: “delegated the grunt work” is my new fav euphemism]

Monticello, Home of Thomas Jefferson
Site #4, Thursday June 10
-Don McCracken, house guide
-Ed(?) ___, slavery/plantation tour guide
-Strong object and architectural focus due to Jefferson’s inventiveness
-No photos allowed inside
-House tour was very practiced and fast but not strictly scripted, was able to adapt to include Philadelphia-specific details (since he knew we came from Philly)
-Fast paced, considering pressure from tour groups ahead and behind (kind of amazing timing, really)
-At one point, we were told that we were learning
-Sally Hemmings mentioned only in passing on the house tour, acknowledged that TJ had “fathered” children (male ones set free)
-No substantive questioning of Thomas Jefferson’s mythical stature during tours (especially house tour)
-There was kind of a “slavery wasn’t so bad vibe,” despite numerous comments about bad conditions/situations for slaves; Wondering how much horror is necessary to really get it across…and this begs the question about comfort level for visitors
-Kids were immersed a bit on slavery tour, with one 10 girl and one young teen boy being shown where they would be working
-(Didn’t see this) There was a good nail-making immersion in the Discovery Center, with kids using hammers to strike 40 blows to make a nail, then told they would need to make 200(?) nails a day
-On slavery tour, right at the end: Guide mentioned two enslaved men by name, one who was documented as being very bold who escaped and one who decided to not escape. Had a good effect showing the personal decisions at work, leaving the visitors to think about it. But then (as Ang R said), guide messed up the effect of the choices by saying “I would hope that I would have been the one to escape,” adding even more to the romanticism but not reality of escape by suggesting escape was “the right answer.”

Montpelier, Home of James Madison
Site #5, Thursday June 10
-Tour guide Pat Dietch (former NYC MTA bus driver)
-No photos inside house
-Generally called Madison “Junior”
-10-minute video shown before visiting house (established baseline story)
-(Sweet 3/4-inch diameter rough-finished steel banister leading up to 2nd floor)
-Had to be asked which furnishings were original, period, or reproductions
-Recently paid $50,000 for two pieces of original Madison china
-Madison big on Scottish Enlightenment
-In talking about new stainless steel rain gutter system: “Madison would have used stainless steel gutters if he had them at the time”
-Gilmore House (sp?) nearby, a freedman’s house
-Recognition of “how they do it in England” with regard to layered, through-the-years interpretation of historic houses
-“After all, the DuPonts do have Delaware”
-Very little unprompted slavery discussion in house tour
-Lots of Dolley Madison in tour

Ferry Farm, Boyhood Home of George Washington
Site #6, Friday June 11
-Seth B saying that the “document” of historic houses have been “edited” over the years
-Dave: Ferry Farm archaeologist
-“Ferry Farm is an archaeology park”
-They need to use artifacts since little archival documentation
-Dave used the word “viewshed” (like watershed)
-There was a spike in visitorship in October 2001; Abe Lincoln visited to reflect during war
-They have the need to interpret other stories, not just George Washington
-Archaeologists watch time roll by on their site while historians tend to follow the story location to location
-Diggers invited a little kid to look through the dirt from the site
-Lots of talk about George Washington’s mother
-“Self-liberated former slaves”
-Our tour was completely out of the ordinary tour (here and every other site)
-In the future, Visitor Center will be less thematically arranged and talk about objects over time
-Almost everything in George Washington Room in Visitor Center is archival material (although 2 plaques and busts)
–Multi-use room from 1991, that’s why everything is on the walls around the edge
–Artifacts in admission desk area
-Dave said that they are still collecting things the visitors lose or (rarely) leave

Stratford Hall Plantation, Birthplace of Robert E. Lee
Site #7, Friday June 11
-Slaves downplayed in “The Lees of Stratford” gallery in Visitor Center
-Edna Mae, first guide in side building
–Referring to the use of an artifact: “I’m sure itself explanatory”
–Put extra emphasis on “Birthplace of Robert E Lee”
-Miss Martha ____, house tour guide (24 years full time, started in kitchen for 2 years, was an oyster shucker before)
-Lots of history and comments piled on and less architecture than some house tours
-Enjoyable to watch everyone drop in their seats in the center room while Miss Martha interpreted drunken gambling far into the past (and overbearing board members in the recent past) for surrounding rooms
-Does Miss Martha vary her style according to audience?
-Some historical details were questionable

George Washington Birthplace
Site #8, Friday June 11
-Guide: Ranger Philip Greenwalt
-First term used for slaves was “workforce”
-Interpreter discussed history of (correct) house foundation and the (incorrect) memorial house
-“Heritage breed animals”
-Living history site
-Guide was more engaging after initial station on tour

HPP Questions, Program Ideas, and Grant Ideas

-It would have been interesting if Wagner Free Institute people had attended the Virginia trip
-And Margaret Graham from DUCOM attend 8S1B100S?

-Encouraging archives to do more face-to-face and online interpretation and development of content useful to K12 students and teachers.
–Like a workshop version of the HPP grant to Drexel College of Medicine, pulling in groups of teachers, museum/archives staff educators, and archivists/librarians.
–I attended Edcamp Philly on May 22 (www.edcampphilly.org) and Margaret Graham’s session was the very active and the teachers responded with wonderful ideas and useful comments.
–This is something that museums are good at but archives (even ones in museums) don’t do a good enough job with. There are not too many archives in town that have dedicated staff to work with teachers and students.

-How can low cost technology solutions and approaches be used to promote online engagement
–Online engagement to extend or reinforce onsite interpretation
–Use of open source software solutions, OSS service contracts, support from user groups.
–Wordpress, Drupal, Omeka, CollectiveAccess, Archivists’ Toolkit, Koha, Greenstone, etc versus…
–…LibraryThing, Flickr, etc
–Especially for very small organizations but could benefit small to midsized institutions.
–May be necessary for such a system to be run by volunteer nerds (yes, I’m volunteering myself) and for a funded Maintenance Fund to be created.
–How to quickly and efficiently deploy digital content and balance this with exposure, marketing, and audience engagement

-Discuss The Swarm idea
–Start in one or two institutions but get commitment for topic-based second round from half a dozen institutions
–Don’t limit to archives (but probably the main resource)

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