Putting On a Really Big Shew



GW Reviewing

And over there we’ll put the sutlers…

No matter which side of a reenactment you find yourself on, host site or participant, reenacting events can be a strange and difficult experience. Reenactors often think historic sites should be begging them to come and bring the place alive. For historic sites it’s tempting to believe reenactments are plug-and-play events – that reenactors come already informed, uniformed, and ready to talk to the public.

Both both sides often find themselves sadly disappointed.

It can be challenging to navigate the site-reenactor relationship. In part because helpful resources can be difficult to find. A recent addition to the museum-reenacting conversation is the reenacting resource packet, “Reenactors at Your Historic Site” at Sustaining Places: Resources for Small Museums and Historic Sites. It brings together a broad range of essays in one handy, shareable, and free document.

I’m honored that an article I wrote for the 2010 ALHFAM Bulletin, “Reenactors in the House: Planning the Big Event” was included among the essays.

With articles from museum people and reenactors (and many who are both), there’s a lot there to help improve events for everyone. Even the public.


Is Money a Barrier to Visitation?

grasped2I’ve heard a fair number of museum people say something like, “visitors will pay $18 to see a two hour movie, but they won’t pay the same for a day-long experience at a museum.”

If I’m honest, I’ve never understood why museum people always seem to be so surprised at this. They think it’s all about the money. But is money really the barrier it’s often thought to be, or is there something else going on? Do visitors really misspend their money and time?

The director at the small New England museum I worked at had an interesting theory about this. To lower the perceived barriers, we didn’t charge an admission fee. Instead, there was a donation basket at the end of the tour. Her feeling was that the guide earned the donation by offering an engaging tour and that the amount put into the basket was generally an accurate a reflection of the guest’s enjoyment and satisfaction.

She added that small museums have an image problem of sorts. Small museums are a very mixed bag. Visitors don’t know what to expect or what kind of service they’ll get. Instead of making them pay for an unknown, she felt we should earn the money by providing a great experience. In general, this approach benefited us. We were often given more than the suggested donation.

My next job was at a small county-run historic site. We were also free (your tax dollars at work), and had a donation basket at the end of the tour.(1) The idea that the better the experience provided, the better the donation seemed to be true. Yes, there were people who paid only the “suggested” donation, but many offered more. There was something of an unofficial and friendly competition amongst the staff to see who could earn more per tour.

Putting the donation at the end of the experience helped raise the bar of our tours. However, it did nothing to increase our visitor count. Which raises an interesting question: if money is a barrier, and we were free, shouldn’t people have been flocking to the site?

They weren’t. Our visitation, like so many historic sites recently, saw visitation highs in the 1990s, which then leveled off and has declined since then.

This suggests it’s not money that’s the barrier. Could it be that our story, our interpretation, or our programming wasn’t engaging enough to them?(2)

We never knew. There were never resources for market research to ask people who weren’t at the site why they weren’t coming. The most commonly given reason (unscientifically collected) for why they were coming was that they had passed our large sign on a local road for years and that day they finally had a moment to stop in.

So maybe visitors know something we don’t about ticket pricing – that they go to what’s appealing them, avoid what’s not, and money is not necessarily the reason.


  1. It had a sign saying “Donations gleefully accepted.”
  2. Also, there’s the marketing and PR question which we often overlook, but is important to the success of our events.

Lessons From an Article I Never Intended to Write



I never meant to be a basket historian. I intended to take a jumble of illustrations and texts and turn them into a respectable, but short, material culture study. I figured there wasn’t that much, so why spend a lot of time on it? Besides, I just wanted more experience writing material culture articles. This seemed like a quick way there.

Of course, since it never had a real deadline, it never quite got finished. The writing was always in progress, and so was the research. I kept running into the basket in the background of some painting or advertised in a tool catalog. Slowly my source count blossomed and so did the scope of the work.

As it grew, it became known among a few friends as “the basket article.” They knew it as something always on the verge of coming out. Soon, I kept promising and asking them not to share the images I had shared with them.

It was eight years of such research and requests. Finally, in the Spring of 2016 I was finished. It came to over 80 pages, encompassing thirteen pages of text and over 65 images ranging from the 16th century through the 21st. There was a lot of information.

Basket Cover

You can find the online article here.

I self-published the basket article online. I chose to self-publish for pragmatic reasons. It had a high page count and the use fees for all of the images was prohibitively expensive. I didn’t think there was a journal that would pay to publish some, much less all of them. The images were the article’s strength, so online it was.

Once it was online I started sharing it on various social media sites, figuring some people might be interested. It got a few shares and reads. Through those shares it had been recommended to the editor of The


I was honored to have the article be the cover story.

Chronicle of the Early American Industries Association. I was fortunate enough to work with their editor, Patty MacLeish. Not only did she take great care editing the work, making suggestions, and taking the time to clear up any issues, she was able to obtain permissions for almost every image in the original article. It was published as the cover story of the December 2016 issue.

In endeavoring to get new and renewed experience at writing and publishing, I wound up with two times the experience. So what did I learn? What will make next time easier?

  • I needed to finish researching before starting to write, because…
  • The research dictated the structure. Every time I tried to impose a structure on it it didn’t feel right. It was only when I looked at the shape of the material that I saw how it fit together.
  • Since I wrote for a historically-minded audience, I chose footnotes instead of endnotes because they would most likely want access to the sources as immediately as the story.
  • I wrote in large blocks, which wasn’t always the best choice. I had Mondays off at the time and could devote the day to writing. I should have written in short spurts with breaks in between. I often wrote till I was distracted, and then still kept trying to write in an attempt to not “waste the day.”
  • I didn’t write a first draft quickly and then edit the hell out of it. To quote others, I am a better editor than writer.
  • As often happens mid-project, I found I had to talk myself out of stopping because I thought nobody would be interested or it wasn’t worth all this effort.
  • Building, editing, and checking the footnotes took the most time. Technology now allows that to be automated too. I need to explore Zotero, or a similar program. Perhaps it will make writing the next article easier.
  • I like a good editor and was fortunate to work with one for the magazine version. It was helpful to have a “technician” spend time on the article, seeing where it needed a little more or a little less.
  • While working with an editor is helpful, I still needed to know exactly what I wanted the magazine version to say and be. I was perhaps too laid back at times about certain things.
  • I thought I would write the article, put it out there, and move on. However, the attention it got kept bringing me back to it. I didn’t plan enough time for the whole project, but then I am not sure I could have. Certainly a nice problem to have.
  • It was surprising who took an interest. Not only did a magazine want to share it, there were a couple of responses from magazine readers. Both were kind and offered evidence that pushed the earliest date of the baskets back by centuries.
  • The excitement of being almost finished with the online version meant I made some editing errors. I should have taken a little more time to double check the citations and links.
  • I like the idea writing the article first for an online, self-publishing platform and then finding a print home for it. It means I can take my time and get it where I want it and then work with an editor for publication.

Since the article came out more references have surfaced. So I’m back where I started, trying to figure out if it’s worth updating the article or just doing a blog post. A blog post won’t take that long, right?

Back Cover.jpg

Got the back cover too.

Looking for a New Living History Interpretation?


Let us suggest a refreshing one…


Click HERE to read



Upcoming Presentation on Early Night Life

On April 25 Kimberly Boice (the educator where I’m curator) and I will be presenting The Ballad Singer by Henry Robert Morland, 1764“Eine Kleine Nachgeschichte: A ‘Little Night History’ at a Pennsylvania German Farm” based on our semiannual immersive experiential history program for the Peter Wentz Farmstead Society Spring Meeting.

For more information check out https://www.facebook.com/events/354104414760170/.

The event is free and open to the public.

When You Wish Upon a Plan



“A goal without a plan is just a wish.”

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry


How it often feels to write a strategic plan.

There are lots of reasons to dislike strategic planning and plans. It is easy for them to be unnecessarily extravagant, noncomprehensive, and impractical. If the strategic plan fails it’s usually because the goals were misdirected, the plan meandered too far into the future, or the necessary resources and known challenges weren’t correctly identified.

I collect plans that seem to offer counterpoints to the above (admittedly I am not as diligent in finding out how well those plans worked).

Recently I ran across the Morris Arboretum’s “Strategic Plan 2012-2016 … A Vision for the Future”

Among the more noteworthy points are:

  • It’s for only four years. This is both well within the reach of the current staff and does not burden future staff with a plan that doesn’t fit future realities.
  • While understated, they clearly say the economic downturn affected them.
  • They are looking for unrestricted, as well as restricted, funds.
  • They recognize that some staff will be retiring in the near future and they need a succession plan to address those changes.
  • Every project has a monetary figure associated with it, but they don’t have a summary page of all the expenses. No one person or foundation is going to fund the whole thing anyway, so why unnecessarily overwhelm the conversation?
  • It’s short (9 pages) and heavily illustrated. They even included an image of a grounds staffer with a snowblower (recognizing all the departments and kinds of work).
  • They mentioned the need to mitigate and prevent damage from increasingly extreme weather patterns.

No one strategic plan is perfect, but the Arboretum’s strikes me as one of the more thoughtful ones.

Upcoming Moravian Mission Talk

On April 3 I’ll be presenting on one of my favorite topics “Without Noise or Parade: The Spiritual and Material https://i2.wp.com/www.readingeagle.com/storyimage/RE/20150408/NEWS/304089964/AR/0/AR-304089964.jpg&exactH=300&Q=80&exactFit=crop&RCRadius=10Culture of Moravian Indian Missions” at the Conrad Weiser Homestead.

You can find out more at http://www.gogreaterreading.com/event/spring-lecture-at-conrad-weiser-homestead/

It is free and open to the public.

…The Seeker


I forgot this museum reality in my previous post:

No one person is responsible for a museum’s success.*

Which is also to say my last post was perhaps unfair to the site, my coworkers, and myself. It was the sum of all of my anxieties and frustrations about museum work as I’ve experienced it. But it was inspired by more than a selfish perfectionism or a “god’s-gift” complex.

Whether we admit it or not, a museum’s internal politics, ignorance, and laziness are on display just as much as its diligence, knowledge, and aspirations. As one of the staff responsible for what we show the public (intentionally or not) I am hyper-aware of this.

All of which keeps me coming back to one question: if museum work is supposed to be collaborative at what point am I the reason that things don’t get done?

This where my head has been lately. Wondering how to consistently reach the place where my intention and my action meet, despite not being in charge (whatever that means) or even charged with change.

I say lately as though this is a new pursuit, but it seems like I’ve never not wrestled with this. For all the time I’ve pondered it I’m still at the same conclusion: it is always site- and staff-specific. And even then things might change from day to day. So I’ll keep looking.


And maybe use a little Illudium Q-36 Explosive Space Modulator to remove the occasional obstruction.


* Though one person can sink a museum.

Like a Rolling Stone…


Museum work has several inherent truths. Lately I was reminded of a few of them:

  • Project-focused research is never comprehensive or complete.
  • Nobody’s collections or exhibitions are ever in a perfect state.
  • Public interpretation is never as engaging or informed as it could be.
  • Not everyone on staff shares the same approach to the work.
  • Changing the organizational culture is always hard.
  • Nothing happens immediately.

These truths came to mind during my historic site’s annual (history-lite) holiday event – a night full of people in funny clothes doing oldey-timey things. The evening is not as research-based as one could hope. Sure everything visitors see has a history to it, but it’s most likely not one connected to our particular story (like the list above, this is not unusual to our site). This looseness of historicity was brought into sharper focus because we asked a very talented colleague to help out during the event. I felt she was going to quickly and accurately identify all of the junk that’s crept into our site interpretation over the years.

Along with a concern that the program itself wasn’t very interesting and that we were utilizing a talented interpreter for what was nothing more than “industrial interpretation” (pumping visitors through a predetermined path as quickly as possible), I worried that all of my failings at trying to introduce or inspire new research, new material culture perspectives, and new interpretation would be glaringly obvious to this colleague.

It probably doesn’t help that this event happens at the end of the year, just as I’ve been reviewing my 2015 goals and realizing how many went completely untouched.

This isn’t a case of “imposter syndrome” (one needs to be successful to feel that). Rather, it’s feeling ineffective.  After four years at the site I sometimes think not much has changed despite everything I’ve tried to do. And it’s hard to see the change that has happened when your looking to help bring the whole of the place along, not just a bit of it.

(hours have passed since I wrote the above)

I’ve been sitting here all day trying to figure out what comes next in this story I’ve started. It seems like the place to insert platitudes about needing to find a way or (always the least helpful) that I should get a new job. I could instead discuss the lack of resources, staff, and talent, but not workload. Or I could simply take cold comfort from the truths listed above knowing that it’s not just me or my site.

But everything keeps coming back to one final truth:

  • Effective museum work is utterly, terrifyingly, and exhaustingly overwhelming.

Even on the good days. Especially then.

No wonder I feel ineffective more days than not.


Sure it’s difficult, but I do occasionally get great results.


Bringing Museum Work Into Focus


A little while ago I got to do something I’ve never done before. I was invited to participate in an exhibition focus group for a new museum, which shall remain unidentified, in Philadelphia.

The museums I’ve worked at haven’t typically had the luxury of time or resources for focus groups. The best I could do was steal a few minutes from the administrative staff (those who didn’t have museum backgrounds) and ask what they thought of an idea. While that’s a pretty unscientific approach, which provides only limitedly useful results, it was the best we had and it was helpful. Still, I would have loved to have had a test audience.

The new museum had already hosted two focus groups before ours, one for tour operators and one for educators. I would have liked to sit in on the tour operator group. I feel like all of their questions would have been about the bathrooms, cafe, and gift shop. Our group consisted of museum professionals who work directly with the public. We were invited to offer our perspective on how visitors would engage with their exhibit. I felt a little like the country cousin. The rest of the participants represented Philadelphia museums, while my museum is outside of the city in the Montgomery County sticks. Plus, I represented the smallest museum at the table.

The meeting progressed as one might think. They introduced themselves, we introduced ourselves. They had us fill out a written survey about our backgrounds and historical awareness, followed by a brief overview of their goals for the group. Then they asked us a short round of open ended questions, presented a slide show of the draft exhibit designs and interpretation, and asked our reaction to the designs. It was efficient, collegial, and thoughtful. While it was pleasant all around, I was secretly hoping for a little argument. You don’t often have that many history people in a room and expect so much agreeing. What the group lacked in academic drama, it made up for in interesting conversation.

Perhaps the conversations were only interesting to me. I think such conversations are important, no matter the project, but all too rare. They’re important because they give the participants on both sides of the table time to learn, reflect, test, and tweak without consequences.

While our conversations ranged all over, a few of them stuck in my head and got me thinking about the field, my current museum, and my own work.

First, I learned a new term: “witness object.” I don’t recall having heard that one before. I’ll bet I don’t even need to explain what that is, but in case I do, it’s an historical artifact which was actually present at the moment which is being interpreted. It’s a much more expressive term than the rather clinical “artifact.” The new museum seemed full of witness objects. That reminded me that my own museum is, for the most part, full of whisper-down-the-alley objects.

Because we were museum people, we were required to have a history v. heritage discussion. Have you ever noticed that every museum, no matter the size, thinks it is the keeper of history, while at the same time thinking some of their sister organizations only care about heritage?

Part of the heritage v. history conversation included the perceived visitor itinerary, which included the Liberty Bell, State House, Betsy Ross House, and a few other ending with the sports stadium. A couple of reasons were given for this, including it’s what people heard about in grade school and now they want to see it and they’re free. Which led to a discussion of how to break that pattern. Maybe because it would sound too cynical, but I didn’t say that I don’t think any amount of marketing money and widespread PR is going to overcome most people’s long-held and often simplified understanding of American history. It has always been a challenge and it always will be.

During the exhibition presentation the new museum laid out their intention to offer a layered approach. The exhibits would be written in such a way that visitors could drill down for greater detail as they went along. I love this approach. It allows us to reach visitors who are new to the story and those who have more familiarity with or interest in it. I’ve done it with a few exhibits, using design elements to differentiate the big ideas and from the details. But I wonder, with all the work that goes into creating those layers, if we forget to tell visitors about them? Instead of hoping visitors will independently discover the layers as they go, perhaps we need to put up a short key identifying the layers, so those who want to get the general story know where to look, while those who want more and more detail know where to find it. I guess I’m suggesting that we need to publicly interpret our public interpretation a little better.

Since this is a modern exhibition we had to discuss technology in the exhibits. Tech comes standard now, and like many standard features, it can be more or less useful. These conversations often seem to be less about what’s the right medium for the message, and more about how much technology can we include. Fortunately, the new museum was a little more reserved with their tech talk. They asked us what we thought of immersive theater (movies augmented with sensory components). My view of them is a little different than the rest of the group’s, who all seemed to think they were a fine and fascinating addition to the exhibit. While sensory experiences can help set a mood, they can also overwhelm the story. The visitors I’ve talked to about their immersive theater experiences almost always remember the rumbling seats or the fake snow, but never why the seats shook or the snow fell. True, museums who offer immersive theater productions can claim to be cutting edge, but I’m not convinced they can claim effective interpretation. Guess it comes down to what the museum wants visitors to remember about their visit.

Perhaps the most interesting question was how did we see the new museum fitting in with the existing Philadelphia museum landscape, both thematically and logistically. Everyone felt the museum could tie several thematically-related sites together, but they were less sure about the logistics. It was felt that most visitors spend a day in the city and they’re already loaded with places to go (as mentioned above). No one was sure there was enough time for visitors to see the new museum, which could take an hour or more, and still see everything else. I thought it was a very necessary and real question to pose.

The one question I had difficulty with was what did we think visitors wanted to know about the history interpreted by the new museum? This supposed that visitors already had a historical framework in mind and were curious for more, but didn’t know how or where to express that curiosity. It felt like it would have been more appropriate if the nouns were changed from visitors to scholars, hobbyists, or reenactors. While not endemic to the new museum, it often seems to me that many museum professionals think our job is to turn visitors into mini-museum people.

I wish the new museum well and I’m grateful for the invitation and giving me so much to think about. Hopefully they found it as interesting and useful as I did. Now that I’ve participated in a focus group, I want to watch one being planned or, better yet, help plan one.