in PUBLIC HUMANITIES
Festivus for the Rest of Us
The holiday season is upon us and in the museum/public history world it can be a challenging time. Do you decorate for Christmas? What about Hanukkah? Or Kwanzaa? Then there is programming. What kind of December programming is appropriate? A lot of these questions might already be answered for you if your institution is administered by a public entity such as a state, county or city. But for those of us who are in the non-profit world, December can bring some tricky propositions.
As private non-profit organizations, your mission should be your ultimate litmus test whether it is holiday recognitions or just day to day operations. Your strategic plan focuses your efforts toward achieving your mission and provides specific goals to work toward. I know that in my organization which has too few people for the myriad of needs that are to be met, the strategic plan helps everyone know where to apply limited resources.
But how, you say, does one look at a mission statement of a historical organization and come away knowing what do to for the holidays? Of course, you could just say, “it’s the holiday season people expect festive decorations and fun activities so what does it matter that it doesn’t serve the mission, it’s just once a year.” Maybe, like Colonial Williamsburg, your historic site has been doing the same type thing every year and if you deign to change it a hue and cry would arise from the public. (Who, by the way, may never darken your door at any other time of the year.)
This question occurred to me recently when I was visiting Colonial Williamsburg. There, buildings are decorated for Yuletide using natural materials. Evergreen wreaths are adorned with dried flowers and berries, swags are studded with oranges, door lintels are festooned with pineapples and pomegranates. There are whole fruit salads on the front of every house. And the visitors eat it up – not literally. (Honestly who would want to eat fruit that has florist’s wire jabbed through it and has been out in the damp and or freezing weather for weeks?) The tradition as it has come to be does not have roots in colonial holiday customs. They preferred to eat their fruit not hang it on their front door. It dates back to the earliest days of Colonial Williamsburg in the 1930s and speaks more about the Colonial Revival than actual colonial history. For a good article about this go to http://www.history.org/almanack/life/christmas/dec_doors.cfm
But woe to anyone who would suggest going toward a more historically accurate and for the most part austere decorating scheme. The thousands of visitors who travel every year to see the wreaths, roping and swags and who take part in special guided walking tours, purchase ready-made examples for their own homes and acquire special stands to make towers of apples for the centers of their tables would be scandalized. It would also mean a big hit in the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation’s wallet. After all the money spent in its stores, expended for tour tickets and hotel rooms all go to support some exceptionally good historical research and interpretation.
So does the end justify the means? Should we as non-profits cater to the public’s expectations for the holidays if it is ahistorical or misleading? Should we provide activities which do little to advance our organization’s mission but get people in the door in hopes of either a return visit or more importantly, to foster the feeling that the institution is a critical part of the community? If it is ok for the holiday season, where do you draw the line during the rest of the year?