Posts Tagged ‘historic houses’
The other day I was preparing handbooks for the newest members of my Board of Directors and my eye fell on a copy of our Code of Ethics. All staff, members of the Board and volunteers must adhere to the provisions outlined in this document. Included in the Code is a section on interpretation. It states, in part, that interpretation shall be based on sound scholarship and documentation and must not dilute or ignore historical accuracy for the sake of entertainment and popularity.
This may seem like a no-brainer but it is a real and ongoing concern to those of us in the trenches. The pleasure of working with the public is getting to see your research reach people, witnessing the proverbial light bulb go on. The important thing is to make sure that look of enlightenment is based on the discovery of information that is actually true.
In my travels I have witnessed to my dismay, visitors at a historic site respond with fascination to a guide who told the old saw “there are few closets in this house because they were taxed as rooms.” I have read an exhibit label that said, in essence, “women’s skirts would catch fire when they cooked on a hearth and kill them and was the second leading cause of death for women next to childbirth.” Apologies and omissions are a little harder to spot but I’ve heard things like so-and-so owned slaves but he was a kind owner and did not like it but that was the way it was back then.
Mythbusting has been an interest of mine for more years than I like to admit. I have given presentations to numerous groups on how to identify and combat myths. The most important part of my presentation is not the debunking of individual scurrilous stories but impressing upon my audience of the importance of adopting and cultivating a culture of historical accuracy at their particular site. You would think that this is just common sense but historical myths and worse, conscious distortions of history happen every day. Is it a problem that can be solved, an illness that can be cured? Not entirely.
We can’t entirely rid our culture of these myths because of the nature of our public history reality. In the U.S. anyone can open a museum or historic site for any reason. Though most sites have the best of intentions, most also do not have professional staff who can help with getting interpretation on the right track. So that leaves volunteers gleaning information from visitors, other volunteers, popular culture and visits to sites similar to their own (which creates a self perpetuating chain of myth). I am encouraged by greater availability of information online and in print, but I believe it is the duty of those of us in the profession to offer our assistance – not in a mean or know-it-all way – to organizations with fewer resources. So let’s go bust some myths!
This time of year is known for many things: holidays, the beginning of winter, and a barrage of end-of-year fundraising appeals.
Online giving is especially important in December, as people rush to make donations before the end of the tax year. In fact, a significant portion of online giving apparently happens in the final two days of the year. I guess we’re a nation of procrastinators. Fortunately, according to the Chronicle of Philanthropy, many nonprofit groups are seeing better fundraising results this year compared to 2010.
One interesting strategy I ran across this year was organized by the Connecticut Council for Philanthropy. The Council’s “Ways to Share . . . A Holiday Wish List” compiled organizations’ needs from around the state into one go-to resource for potential donors. Groups could list specific items they needed, as well as volunteer opportunities and a “big wish” item. Then, in addition to posting the resource on its own web site, the Council posted highlights from the list to its 450+ followers on Twitter and Facebook — making it very easy for donors to retweet or share on Facebook to their own social networks.
I’d love to see an association of museums or public history sites try a “history holiday wish list” or something similar. Sure, groups would be competing for donations, but we all know that we’re competing no matter what. Pooling marketing efforts just might reach a broader audience than individual organizations would reach on their own.
For other ideas for online fundraising, check out these tips for creating effective online campaigns. And for next year, make sure to investigate some of Mashable’s picks for the best online fundraising platforms.
Happy holidays, and happy fundraising.
This week, Nina Simon at Museum 2.0 wrote about institutions with a public service perspective – museums that have transformed their mission and made their work about community-wide advocacy. For me, the Lower East Side Tenement Museum in lower Manhattan is a model for civic engagement. This is the museum that inspired me, as a graduate student, to think outside the box of history museum offerings and consider the many ways a museum could contribute to social change.
The immediacy of those tenement apartments, interpreting the lives of Irish, German, Russian Jewish, and Italian immigrants in the 19th and early 20th centuries, generates a feeling of pride and a connection with the American experience, the story of immigration. That sounds a bit simple, I know, but there is a quiet power to witnessing the recreated worlds of people that share the same struggles as you do – paying the bills, feeding a family, acclimating to new surroundings, finding work. This was the first place I toured where the dominant story was about the working class and the poor, and thus felt relevant to a broad audience.
The Tenement Museum could stop right there and I would be impressed by the quality of their research and interpretation. But, it doesn’t. Instead, the museum is committed to using history as a means to get at contemporary debates, namely immigration, and inspire community action on a range of issues. There are some who would find the phrase “using history” worrisome, but the Tenement Museum is living proof that you don’t have to choose between rock-solid scholarship and policy. (There are institutions which strike that balance poorly, but that’s a different story for a different day.)
Visitors participate in a Past & Present discussion at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum. (Photo: Lower East Side Tenement Museum.)
In April, I was lucky enough to participate in a roundtable discussion about civility and civic engagement in public history practice with Lokki Chan, an educator at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum. In this current political climate, it can be hard to imagine people who disagree coming together to discuss the past and try to build upon some kind of shared experience. But that is exactly what the Tenement Museum’s dialogue program aims to do. Starting with a seemingly innocent question, “Where are you from?,” educators like Lokki work to deromanticize the past and complicate the present, making space for difficult dialogues about immigration today and in history. The program has been remarkably successful; in the past year alone, over 5,000 people have chosen tours with this discussion component and the responses have been overwhelming positive.
A perspective shift is an important goal. The museum also makes space for a different kind of engagement, through the “Agents for Change” initiative. In this section of the website, the museum highlights stories of community leaders, both historical and contemporary, who have brought about positive change in the community. The stories are meant to galvanize the reader into action; there are links and tips for pursuing similar goals in your own neighborhood. The initiative is bold and compelling.
For many of you, this love letter will feel familiar. But for those of you who haven’t yet been to the Lower East Side Tenement Museum, or for those of you who are seeking out institutions where civic engagement has become part of the mission without cannibalizing their other goals, this post is for you. Now is as good a time as any – better even, as their new visitor’s center is slated to open soon – to visit and be inspired.
Lower East Side Tenement Museum
108 Orchard Street
New York, NY 10002
This season marks the fifth year of an urban farming experiment at Wyck Historic House and Gardens. The 18th-century homestead, located in the heart of upper Germantown in Philadelphia, has been a museum since the early 1970s. With the help of an extensive collection of artifacts and documents, the house relates three hundred years of history – the daily trials and tribulations of one family of Philadelphia Quakers. Except it hasn’t always been clear who’s listening.
Historic houses are struggling. Many of us don’t feel connected to the house on the hill; our ancestors came in through the servant’s entrance, if they entered at all. We want museums to be relevant, to connect to our own lives and experiences. That can be a tall order, of course (and maybe one that some historians feel uncomfortable serving), but the staff at Wyck knew they could find a way to interpret history and build a stronger relationship with their visitors at the same time.
Children from an area Head Start program get their hands dirty at the Wyck Home Farm." (Photo by Wyck Historic House and Garden)
The Wyck Home Farm was born. In the face of a growing movement to eat local foods and support sustainable farming practices, many historic sites have been embracing their agricultural past and exploring the farm as a rich interpretive arena. But few have expanded upon that idea in the way that Wyck has. By developing a small urban farm in Germantown, Wyck is providing a crucial service to its neighbors. The Home Farm is both an agricultural and an educational space. The weekly farmer’s market – Fridays throughout the summer (starting this Friday!) if you’d like to stop by and pick up some local produce – is one of the only local options for fresh fruits and vegetables. When I visited last August, women were appraising late-summer tomatoes while their kids waited impatiently to visit the chickens. This neighborhood is particularly in need of such a service; there is no supermarket within walking distance and access to healthy foods is limited. Wyck ensures that the products it sells are accessible to everyone, both by controlling price and by encouraging conversations about creativity in the kitchen. The Home Farm allows the staff to work with the local community to address issues of nutrition and equitable access to fresh foods.
The farmer’s market is only one piece of the Home Farm’s mission. Wyck’s most vibrant school programs are now about nutrition and growing food. The farm is a sort-of laboratory where kids raised in urban environments can begin to make sense of the path food takes from the field to their lunchbox.
And, it doesn’t end there. The house is open for visitors to wander through after they do their shopping at the farmer’s market. The kitchen and pantry are a particularly popular area; visitors can see an excerpt from an early receipt book and get a glimpse of the family’s 19th century china. In this way, the history of these distant Quakers seems less remote. Even if we can’t relate to their religious beliefs, or their political passions, or their community status, we can all understand the struggle to feed a family. And once that common ground is established, the door is open for public historians to find creative ways to tell the rest of the story. Wyck has managed to enhance the site’s history by renewing its agricultural past in a way that is relevant today.
What struck me (well, in addition to the black raspberries I couldn’t wait to get into my kitchen) was the atmosphere. On market days, the double lot – a full block of Germantown Avenue – feels a bit like a county fair. People are wandering through, swapping recipes, ogling the harvest, and making a connection between their kitchen and the efforts of farmers, from the earliest Quaker residents to the 21st century farm crew. Here is an 18th century property brought back to life by an urban community.
Wyck Historic House and Gardens
6026 Germantown Ave., Philadelphia, PA 19144
Admission: $5/$4 senior citizens
Guided Tours: Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday, 1-4 p.m. from April 1 to December 15.
Home Farm: Fridays, 1-4 p.m., May 27, 2011 through early November.
Gardens and Grounds: Monday-Saturday, 9 a.m.-5 p.m. year-round.