February 16, 2012

Engaging the public in "Public History:" Strategies and tactics for getting more people into historical museums, sites, and landmarks

Starting in early April I'll be making a trek from Massachusetts, along the Great Lakes, and on to Des Moines, Milwaukee, and Chicago, before returning to Massachusetts at the end of the month. 

In Milwaukee I'll attend the annual joint Organization of American Historians/National Council on Public History 2012 conference, April 18 - 22.  Thanks to John Dichtl and Cathy Stanton of the National Council on Public History and fellow member and Boston NPS Ranger Chuck Arning who had helpful insights and suggestions about why the conference would be a good place to connect with others from across the country.

If you're attending, I hope to meet you in Milwaukee.  In advance, you can send me a message; at the conference, send a Tweet (@TheHistoryList). 

I've also proposed this topic for a Dine Around (Friday, April 20; 7:00 pm – 9:30 pm):

Engaging the "Public" in "Public History:" Strategies and tactics for getting more people into historical museums, sites, and landmarks

(Discussion continues below the program)

Update: March 22: The topic was approved, so the next question: Where shall we go for dinner?

Update: April 18: See the blog post above for updates on the conference and this Dine Around.


If accepted—not quite sure of the selection process/criteria/voting—this would offer the opportunity for individuals responsible for a museum, site, or landmark the opportunity to share ideas, successes, and lessons learned.  Recent meetings in Boston with prominent institutions resulted in these insights from their experiences.

This is a rough schedule:

  • April 9 - 15                Central Iowa
  • April 16 - 22              Milwaukee (OAH/NCPH 2012 Conference: April 18 - 22)
  • April 23 - 29              Chicago
  • April 30 - May 4        Great Lakes Region

To arrange a meeting in one of these destinations, or somewhere along the way, contact me.

Looking forward to attending the conference and to the meetings and conversation before, during, and after.

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February 9, 2012

Meeting with the USS Constitution Museum and the Bostonian Society

Meetings this week with Jodie and Samantha at two of New England's leading historical institutions provided more ideas for the way in which The History List can help increase awareness of their institutions and activities.

Jodie at one of the exhibits on the second floor of the USS Constitution Museum

Jodie at the USS Constitution Museum pointed to the 33rd annual USS Constitution Model Shipwright Guild's Ship Model Show, going on now, as the kind of special event that would attract people from outside the area if they were aware of it.  As we've heard at every institution, one of the biggest challenges is reaching beyond their existing base and e-mail list.

The other challenge they face, and one similar to what the Bostonian Society faces with the Old State House, which they operate, is helping those very nearby who are looking for an enriching experience understand why they should visit the USS Constitution Museum in addition to the USS Constitution itself, or the Old State House in addition to the many stops along the Freedom Trail.

The History List provides these organizations with nearly unlimited space to describe their institution, exhibits, and events in words and pictures.  in addition, the design of The History List ensures that all of the events an institution enters show up as individual items based on date and time, and are also listed with the institution on their page automatically.

Our meetings also touched on another challenge they and several other historic buildings in Boston and elsewhere face: Visitors questioning why they're being asked to pay an admission fee, assuming that that their tax dollars, in the form of funding from the National Park Service, are already going to support their operations.

This isn't the case.  Each is a private non-profit organization.  The USS Constitution Museum, which opened in 1976, is the work of a foundation formed in 1972  to tell the full story of the USS Constitution.

The Old State House is operated by the Bostonian Society, an organization formed in 1881 to save the Old State House and ensure that it remained in Boston.  To put that in context, Hancock Manor, home of John Hancock, had been torn down in 1863.  Other Revolutionary-era buildings were threatened and continued to be threatened, leading to other groups of individuals forming organizations to save the Old South Meeting House, the Paul Revere House, and others.  As such, admission fees make up a significant share of the annual operating budget for each organization.

The Old State House (1713), operated by the Bostonian Society

This background information usually gets cut or greatly  shortened in the space provided for an institution's description in most online listings.  However, The History List enables organizations to tell their story in as much detail and with as much background information as they wish.

Looking at the details of The History List, Jodie and Samantha provided valuable feedback in several areas, including  . . .

  • Innovative ways to look for institutions and activities tied to specific time periods—Now on our list to examine as an enhancement post-launch.
  • The ability to accommodate seasonal hours—Will be added in the coming days.
  • The importance of making it clear to users which things in a list of activities are ongoing and which are special, happening, for example, one weekend this year.  Or, perhaps one week or weekend every 200 years, as is the case for activities planned by the USS Constitution Museum and other institutions and organizations in many states and provinces to mark the bicentennial of the War of 1812—Incorporated into our design specification.
  • For major events that cross multiple organizations, using special sections that combine content, featured activities, and all related activities  to help tell a coherent story and give users a better way to find special activities.  In some cases these may be once-in-a-lifetime opportunities—the kinds of things that some, having read about a certain period in history, have dreamt of doing but didn't think possible—Special sections will be included shortly after the public launch, if not before. 
  • Video as a part of organization and event descriptions—Being investigated; will be added at some point, probably post-launch.
  • Bundles of advanced features that provide additional help to organizations in attracting an audience—There are ongoing discussions to understand the needs and logical bundles.

Looking ahead, we're planning meetings in New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and the Washington, DC area.  If you and your history-related organization would like to meet or receive access to The History List, let us know

And for occasional e-mail updates, including notification of the launch, sign up here.

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January 30, 2012

Meeting with The Massachusetts Historical Society, Historic New England, the Massachusetts Society of Genealogists, the New England Genealogical Society, the Freedom Trail Foundation, and the New England Museum Association

Over the last few days of January we introduced The History List to some of New England's—and the nation's—leading genealogy, historic preservation, and museum organizations.The main reading room at American Ancestors (formerly known as the New England Historic Genealogical Society)

Our thanks to . . .

. . . for their interest, questions, suggestions, and support in meetings and briefings over the last few days.  Each organization puts on dozens of events a year, and a few put on more than 100 different events.

Our initial group presentation took place in November with presidents and board member at all-volunteer historical societies. Following that was a December meeting with executive directors of the historical societies, historic building organizations, and history museums that are part of the Charles River Group.

The major points of feedback from our most recent meetings, along with where we stand with each:

  • A submission form that makes entry easy and allows for a complete listing—Text can be cut and pasted from Word, other documents, and sites while maintaining basic formatting and without introducing odd characters or spacing.  There is essentially unlimited space for text and pictures formatted in the way the organization wants.
  • Ease of entering repeating events—The time we've invested in handling the multitude of repeating event scenarios seems to have paid off.  We were told that we've made it easier than any other event entry form used.
  • Institution hours—An area that we've been working on and will improve further.
  • Covering all types of locations—The ability to handle all locations—cities and towns as well as properties that may be far off the beaten path—has been a central part of The History List from the outset.
  • Reaching beyond their base—The History List provides a way to reach both individuals in the area and those traveling to the region that they don't reach with their own site and list.
  • Reaching a younger audience and the future—Through the web and mobile (see below).
  • Focused on the type of person they're trying to attract—The focus on history creates a positive editorial environment and gets them in front of the very people they wish to reach.
  • Analytics are of interest—Analytics will be added, though probably after the launch.
  • Tools to include events from different partners into one calendar—We are exploring this based on the use cases we were given.
  • Mobile—It's been a part of the vision from the earliest days and is definitely on our roadmap.

We also received this challenge: "Win the Revolutionary War!"  And we took it to heart, working now to make a special effort to reach organizations and institutions closely related to the Revolutionary War, in New England and throughout "the Colonies," to enlist their participation in this early stage.  (Our scope remains national and the focus is history into the mid- to late-20th century.)

Coming up, we'll meet with representatives of the USS Constitution Museum—"Old Ironsides" gained its legendary status during the War of 1812, whose bicentennial is being celebrated starting this year—and with the Bostonian Society (est. 1881), which operates the Old Statehouse Museum. 

If you and your history-related organization would like to meet about or receive access to The History List, let us know.  In the coming weeks, we'll be in Philadelphia, New York, Baltimore, and Washington, DC and are interested in hearing from organizations in or near those cities.

For occasional e-mail updates, including notification of the launch, sign up here.

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January 19, 2012

Thank you, David Rubenstein—to your parents, too

Updated May 12, 2013: The Washington Monument reopened today.  This time lapse video shows the repairs.

Updated November 27, 2013: David Rubenstein bought a copy of the Bay Psalm Book, printed in 1640 and believed to be the first book printed in what is now the United States, after the Old South Church voted to sell one of the two copies they own.  The sale, for around $14 million, set a record for a printed book.  He has indicated that he "plans to lend it to libraries around the country."

Updated February 24, 2013: According to news reports, David Rubenstein is again making a large donation connected with President Washington, this time donating $10 million toward the new National Library for the Study of George Washington, which is scheduled to open September 27, 2013.  This donation puts the group over their fundraising goal for the project and was announced on what would have been Washington's 281st birthday.

The Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association, which owns and operates the site, does not accept federal funding.  The campaign to construct the Library was led by a $38 million contribution by the Donald W. Reynolds Foundation.

David Rubenstein, billionaire investor and philanthropist, has donated $7.5 million to repair the Washington Monument following recent earthquake damage. 

The day before the press conference he said, "I come from very modest circumstances, and I'm very fortunate to have achieved wealth beyond what I ever expected."  The son of a postal worker, he underscored again the impact that coming face to face with history can have: “I visited when I was a little boy.  I was probably 8 or 9. I grew up in Baltimore. My parents took me to it."

According to The Washington Post:

Congress allocated $7.5 million in December on the condition that private donations would match that amount. The combined $15 million in public and private funds is expected to cover the cost of repairing damage directly caused by the quake, said National Park Service spokeswoman Carol Johnson. Repairing water damage will cost more, as would a seismic study or reinforcements to strengthen the structure against future earthquakes, she said.

Matthew Brady's photograph of the partially completed Washington Monument. (Photo from theLibrary of Congress)

The monument was built with private $1 donations eventually totaling over $1 million, Rubenstein said. Construction began in 1848, but funds ran out during the Civil War when the monument was left as an embarrassing stump for years. It was finally completed in 1884 and was the world’s tallest man-made structure until it was eclipsed by the Eiffel Tower. It remains the tallest structure in Washington.

While we're all generally familiar with this part of the history of the monument, the fact that stones with historical or social significance were donated, was new.  As described in the Wikipedia entry:

Excavation for the foundation of the Monument began in early 1848.  The cornerstone was laid as part of an elaborate Fourth of July ceremony hosted by the Freemasons, a worldwide fraternal organization to which Washington belonged. . . .

Construction continued until 1854, when donations ran out.  [Matthew Brady's photograph (right) of the partially-completed monument is from the Library of Congress.]  The next year, Congress voted to appropriate $200,000 to continue the work, but rescinded before the money could be spent. This reversal came because of a new policy the society had adopted in 1849. It had agreed, after a request from some Alabamians, to encourage all states and territories to donate commemorative stones that could be fitted into the interior walls.  Members of the society believed this practice would make citizens feel they had a part in building the monument, and it would cut costs by limiting the amount of stone that had to be bought. Blocks of Maryland marble, granite and sandstone steadily appeared at the site.  American Indian tribes, professional organizations, societies, businesses and foreign nations donated stones that were 4 feet by 2 feet by 12–18 inches . . . One stone was donated by the Ryukyu Kingdom and brought back by Commodore Matthew C. Perry, but never arrived in Washington (it was replaced in 1989). . . . [O]ne from the Templars of Honor and Temperance stated "We will not buy, sell, or use as a beverage, any spiritous or malt liquors, Wine, Cider, or any other Alcoholic Liquor.". . . In the early 1850s, Pope Pius IX contributed a block of marble. In March 1854, members of the anti-Catholic, nativist American Party — better known as the "Know-Nothings"—stole the Pope's stone as a protest and supposedly threw it into the Potomac (it was replaced in 1982).  Then, in order to make sure the monument fit the definition of "American" at that time, the Know-Nothings conducted an illegal election so they could take over the entire society.  Congress immediately rescinded its $200,000 contribution.

When it finally was completed, the dedication, on February 21, 1885, was a grand affair.  Here is the invitation and the full text of the speeches delivered:

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January 10, 2012

The value of real names

Two days ago I wrote about the very negative review that had been written in a LinkedIn group after the owner of a small company that gives tours of Old Wilmington posted a note promoting her tours.

At the time, I wondered whether the tour owner would respond, and I noted that one of the ways that The History List tries to ensure high-quality content is by requiring that those who post use their names (instead of a "user name").

In this case, it looks like a policy of using real names was key to straightening out what appears to be a misunderstanding.  Here's the follow up post:

The response to the critical review.

After the critical review, I wrote Lori and asked her about her experience in the LInkedIn group and explained that we plan to add reviews to The History List.  Her response validated our thinking that the combination of requiring that people use their real names and making it easy for those responsible to respond to individual reviews addresses these sorts of problems.  Here's what Lori had to say:

Yes, I think a review listing would be great.  It didn't sound like that she had taken my tour. Not sure if that is a way to combat that.  I'm the only tour guide and I'm sure that I would have remembered a disgruntled customer.  I also do not charge for the tour until the end to give anyone who didn't enjoy the tour a chance to speak up.
I think giving the company getting a bad review a way to respond is good.  In three years that was the first negative feed back I've received and I was glad that I had a chance to make a rebuttal.

If you have other comments and would like to send them privately, please do so.  We read all of the feedback and suggestions and take them into account as we continue the development of The History List.

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