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

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