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

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