Monday, January 14, 2013

A New Interpretive Planning Process

When the interpretive planning team began thinking about how to create a new interpretive plan for the  Joshua Hempsted House, we quickly realized that before we could think about what we could do at the site, we had to completely understand the who, that is the people who lived and worked on the  property and its audiences today.  Only after that took place could we start planning the exhibitions that would fill the space (in whatever shape they might take) and the programming that would engage those audiences.

Thus, we began fleshing out a four-part planning process designed to cover the who and the what. 

The Who
  • Historic Research:  The Joshua Hempsted House is an incredible place.  A 17th-century house with challenging and moving stories of race, slavery, social justice, and dramatic societal change.  This research serves as a complement to existing scholarly research (primarily that of historian Allegra di Bonaventura) and pulls together disparate sources to give us a better sense of how the house played both as an actor and as the set for these stories. 
  • The Audience:  We want the house to be compelling not only to traditional historic house museum goers, but also to the residents of the local, vibrant, and very diverse neighborhood the house is located in.  Given the stories of race and social justice embodied in this property, we’ll dive headfirst into audience research, focusing on:  traditional historic house museum goers; museum goers who do not visit historic house museums; Connecticut teachers; local residents; and teens.  In particular, the teen component will be a fascinating study as we will hire them next summer, via a youth employment program, and ask them to reinterpret the house in a way that they think will be compelling to their family and friends.  We have no idea what they will come up with, but we are hopeful that their ideas will spark new methods for the who of what stories are compelling to them, and the what of how we share those stories. 
The What: 
  • Exhibitions:  Building on the historic and audience research, we’ll need to get down to nuts and bolts of what a new interpretation at the Joshua Hempsted House will actually look like.  That is, the exhibition plan.  Will it be set up with period rooms?  Will there be interactive components?  Will there be interpretive panels?  How will technology play a role (or will it at all)?  How will people physically, intellectually, and emotionally engage with items in the spaces?  How will we immerse them in the time period(s) we choose to interpret?
  • Programs:  Hand-in-hand with the exhibitions is the program plan, from day-to-day interpretation building off of the visual and multi-sensory exhibits to special programs for the public or community members to school programs.  How will the people of Connecticut Landmarks (CTL) convey the stories in vibrant ways, and in what formats?
At the end of this process we intend to have a “shovel ready” plan in place to reinterpret the Joshua Hempsted House, and the rest of the property, in what we suspect will be a very different way than historic house museums have done in the past.  We also intend that this research and plan will serve as a blueprint for a process that will take place at other Connecticut Landmarks properties, and we’ll be sharing much of it with the museum field along the way, including on this blog.

As a final note, the interpretive planning team includes:
  • Louisa Brouwer is serving as our curatorial consultant, and will be posting some of her research about the history of the property, and its furnishings, over the next few weeks.
  • Susie Wilkening of Reach Advisors will endeavor to get into the heads of the different audience segments over  the coming year, and posts will appear periodically from her, and likely some of the participants in the research as well.
  • Robert Kiihne of RK Exhibits will also participate in the teen audience research with Susie and will draft the exhibitions plan in the fall.
  • Cindy Cormier of Connecticut Landmarks will serve as the primary liaison with the consultants and, building on all of their work, draft the programming plan.

We are all looking forward to sharing this project with you as it moves forward!

Susie Wilkening is a Senior Consultant and Curator of Museum Audiences at Reach Advisors.  She will be leading several phases of audience research for this project.

Photo: 2012 Hempsted Houses youth employment program

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Why this project?

It is no secret that historic house museums across the country have largely been struggling.  Struggling to keep up increasingly creaky old buildings.  Struggling to draw income for said upkeep (and utilities, and salaries).  Struggling to attract audiences in a time when our population is becoming much more diverse and there are more and more options for our leisure time.

In many ways, it is a puzzle that historic house museums are struggling quite so much.  Aside from the question if there are too many of them (likely yes), historic house museums are relevant to all of our lives.  After all, we all live in homes our houses of some type, and we all have families.  And just like our own homes, historic house museums embody the complexities of human nature.  They have stories of heartbreak and joy, domestic tiffs, sibling rivalry, celebrations, and love.  They are also places where people lost their keys, had chores to do, and dog hair collected in corners behind doors.

Thus they are highly familiar, but each one is also unique and unknown to visitors, and given the human drama that likely took place in most of them, they should be hugely popular with visitors.

And yet they struggle.

Perhaps it is the medium?  Connecticut Landmarks’  previous work with Reach Advisors shed light in how polarizing guided tours, the default interpretive mechanism for most historic houses, are to museum-goers, but it also began to get us thinking about how a house could be a more immersive experience for visitors as well.  Clearly we needed to think about new ways of sharing these houses. 

But perhaps it is also the stories that we have chosen to share.  We must be honest . . . a good number of historic house museum tours focus on the lives of (mostly wealthy) white men and/or their wives . . . and not necessarily on the other members of the household, such as slaves, servants, extended family, or children.  Sometimes the story of these white men is the appropriate story to tell, but often the stories of others are more compelling, relevant, and interesting to visitors. 

At Connecticut Landmarks, there is constant discussion of how to cost-effectively yet also engagingly share the stories of the significant properties we own around the state.  We also are looking carefully at trends that are shaping the future of Connecticut, including shifting demographic patterns, an aging population, and how technology is shaping our daily lives and expectations for our leisure time and informal learning.

We decided that waiting to figure out how to better engage broader audiences was too risky.  Simply relying on guided tours was too risky.  We cannot expect our visitors to change . . . we have to change to be more relevant, engaging, and most of all, meaningful to our visitors.

We don’t have the answers, and we likely don’t even have the right questions yet, but we decided to begin asking questions and seeking solutions by putting together a crack interpretive team to develop a new interpretive plan for one of our properties:  The Joshua Hempsted House, located in New London, CT.   This blog shares the process they will be taking to develop that plan.

Susie Wilkening is a Senior Consultant and Curator of Museum Audiences at Reach Advisors.  She will be leading several phases of audience research for this project.

Photos: interior and exterior of The Joshua Hempsted House, courtesy of Connecticut Landmarks