Paper Butterflies Are Better Than Nothing


As they were hanging paper butterflies on monofilament, I walked up behind my then-director and heard them mutter to themself how much they hated exhibit work. I was flabbergasted. Doesn’t everyone enjoy installing exhibits?

These are not the ones they hung. Source.

I’ve always loved exhibition work. Every aspect of it is fun for me, even when it’s hard. And it’s often hard. Especially the writing and designing. You slog through months, if not years of thinking, writing, rewriting, designing, redesigning, and editing. Not to mention dealing with needy lenders and objects that seem to want to dissolve just in time for the show to open.

All of that can be painful. But installing an exhibit is the opposite in many ways. Unlike exhibit writing, which can be plagued by self-doubt, exhibit install is all about progress and success because there’s no time for anything else. There’s a path, a starting pistol, and a finish line. Everything in between is made simple – do what the design says or change it so it works. This makes the work immediate, obvious, and real. It can also be chaotic and maddening, but they can be fun too. 

I’ve done some exhibit installs alone, some with just the museum staff, and some with outside contractors. Each process has its own merits. Alone means it’s all mine (for good or else). With staff it can build a tighter team. And with outside contractors new skills and approaches are introduced, making everyone a little better (usually).

No matter the process, I get excited about exhibit install. Sometimes to the point of sounding high. Its clarity of purpose after the pain and wandering of writing and designing is exhilarating. Install requires you to work with your mind and with your hands. Because of that, it uses many of my skills – historical and material culture knowledge, attention to detail, problem-solving, collaboration, and object handling.

I just helped install an exhibit at the museum. Thanks to COVID it’s not in the form we originally envisioned. It was hard to see it altered, going from having its own large space to being interspersed throughout the main exhibit. Even so, the it still achieves its goals, if not as dramatically as we had hoped for. Despite our feelings, install doesn’t concern itself with scope or scale. It’s sole task is to alter a space to tell a new story there. We did that, on time and with all the usual headaches and joys.

Those joys are real. Which is why, to this day, I still don’t understand why the director didn’t love hanging those paper butterflies.

Stranded Reading, or How I Got Through This Before

I was stuck at home like this once before. In the late spring of 2006 I was unemployed and suffering from the double-whammy of having just left my first museum job after almost ten years and finishing grad school. Suddenly I had a lot of time at home. Which, I told myself, meant I now had time to read all of my books.

The flaw in that logic was I didn’t want to read. After grad school I felt like a marathon runner fifty feet after the finish line – proud, but not immediately interested in more of the same.

Instead of reading, I turned my attention to movies. A friend had gifted me a Netflix subscription for graduation and I began watching films like a young Roger Ebert. I would see the film and then read the IMDB or Wikipedia page (let’s be honest, it was both) about them. I told myself this was museum-related because I had always thought of exhibitions as movies. I was enthralled with the behind the scenes and making-of details as much as the films themselves. So began my self-directed summer course in filmmaking.

As the movies rolled by, I looked at all the books just sitting there patiently waiting for me to take an interest in them. Each day I picked up a book, started to read it, and put it down. As time went by, I started to worry this lack of interest in reading meant something more troubling for my career. I was worried had lost my mojo.

As the unread pile mounted, I came across a book I had purchased years before, Past Imperfect: History According to the Movies, by Mark C. Carnes. Because I have an interest in how history and Hollywood work (or don’t) together the title caught my attention, but not enough that I read it once I bought it. The problem was the book is a list of movies. I had no idea how I was going to see all of the films. It sat unread.

Looking at it that afternoon in 2006, I remembered my new Netflix subscription. Surely, they had most of these. Since I was already watching movies, why not a little directed watching?

So my summer filmmaking course took on a thesis project.

Past Imperfect consists of 59 essays covering 75 films, an opening conversation between John Sayles and Eric Foner, and a closing script by Simon Schama of two fictional reviewers, Fiscal and Goodpart, discussing period films.

The essays are arranged in chronological order of history. The first chapter is about Jurassic Park and then it moves forward in time up to All the President’s Men. Each essay is written by a scholar focused on that particular moment in time. The essays are 4 or 6 pages long, and include a cast list, biographies of the historical people the characters are featured or based on, a history v. Hollywood comparison, a wrap-up (called “Later…”), and suggested background reading, which was often the essay author’s premier work on the subject.

In many history circles, it’s easy to find those who will condemn all historical films. Sure, they get details wrong, mix up people and chronology, and generally muck around with reality in the name of “truth.” Yet, even the haters are drawn to historical films for at least one viewing. Past Imperfect strikes a useful balance between lifting up historical details and finding the heart of the dramatizations. None of the essays are solely critical of their target films. That might be a disappointment for some readers, but it is a useful reminder that all history-based works have their own utility or beauty.

Netflix had a surprising number of the films. Most of them, in fact. I began watching a film, reading the essay, and finding more online (including academic articles when possible). I looked at everything from how the film captured the historical moment, to their visual decisions. I was also interested in how much of the film’s story was a faithful retelling of events versus how much was filtered through the moviemaker’s time.


I checked off each film as I watched them.


Many of these films I saw for the first time. For instance, I finally watched Birth of a Nation (1915) and Gone With the Wind (1940). While both are seminal accomplishments of moviemaking, I came to see them as beautiful images of an ugly reality. Among other things, this ability to dress up cruelty has made me wary of historical films as useful avenues for sharing history.

On the other side, I saw how a film could be used to humanize historical figures, creating an empathy for them that might not otherwise exist. The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) portrayed Joan’s trial and execution intimately. Because the actors wear no makeup, her suffering has an unexpected air of realism from such an early film. And, because it is one of the last silent films, it does all this with only the actors’ close-up, natural expressions.

I never finished my thesis project. I only saw 37 of the 75 films in the book. Happily, it’s because I got a new museum job. The book has stayed with me though. I often think about those hours dissecting films, comparing it to how I might tell the same story through an exhibition or, if I was really dreaming, my own big-budget film.

I also remember how much that project saved me from sinking further into the couch. As that summer wore on and the rejection letters kept coming, I was starting to think that perhaps I had chosen the wrong career. The prospect of finishing all of the movies and the book gave me something to continue to work toward and kept me focused on history and storytelling. In fact, I was so excited about it all that I told myself when I was done with Past Imperfect I would work my way through Carnes’s other book, Novel History: Historians and Novelists Confront America’s Past (and Each Other). Obviously I never got to it.

Since I’m home again with more time on my hands than usual, I picked up Novel History. Maybe now would be a good time for it? Then again, there are 20 novels and 20 chapters and 37 essays to work through. Maybe I’ll just finish the movies from Past Imperfect instead. Then again, there are all these books I still haven’t read.


Inviting Interactions: Observations on Visitor-Centered Guides for Living History Events


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There’s a difference between visitors attending a living history event and visitors interacting with the event – it can be the difference between going to a concert and sitting in with the band. It’s easy for many living history interpreters to think they’re engaging to visitors by being accurately informed, dressed, and equipped. Sometimes those very achievements, which can feel foreign and unapproachable or which have assumed new meanings in the modern world, can make it difficult for visitors to want to talk with interpreters. This has led many interpreters to unfairly ridicule visitors for asking “dumb” questions or appearing uninterested.

One way to lower these barriers is to create a visitor guide. Unlike a schedule, which tells visitors where and when events are happening, a guide can help shape the entire visitor experience, even well after the event.

A good guide does a few things:

Tears Guide

Plus the guide makes a great sunshade while talking with interpreters.

  • Orients people to the event’s physical landscape and story.
  • Introduces visitors to who they will meet – you can’t tell the players without a program – and how they are part of that story.
  • Can be tailored to be as general or as specific as the event requires.
  • For museums, it is an opportunity to share resources and highlight relevant books available in the shop.
  • It’s a visible way to attract and recognize sponsors.
  • Offers icebreaker questions to help visitors engage with interpreters.

This last one might seem novel. It’s not simply leading people to say what we want them to say. If you offer suggested icebreaker questions, the usual “are you hot?,” “is that real?,” and “do you always dress this way?” (valid questions themselves) are quickly bypassed and richer conversations can happen. It helps bring all of the preparatory work – the researching and recreating – into focus and allows living history to more effectively do what it does best: share the revelations of personal stories and material details.

As mentioned above, visitor guides can be as general or as specific as the event or event circumstances call for. Below is an overview of three events that have used visitor guides and icebreaker questions. Each had their own needs, opportunities, and lessons.

“To Wipe Off the Tears”


In 2002 I produced a five-part series focused on the events of the French and Indian War-era Treaties of Easton. It included three living history events and two formal lectures, all at separate locations. These events were developed with a few goals in mind – 1. to introduce Lehigh Valley residents to this little-known, yet internationally important local event. 2. To put great interpreters in front of the public. 3. To narrow the gap between visitors and interpreters as much as possible.

Forest Diplomacy WY2K

None of this is my idea. I was inspired by the Schoenbrunn Village interpreters and the “Forest Diplomacy” event and visitor guide.

Taking inspiration from other events I had participated in, I put together an interpretive plan, a resource list, and a visitor guide. Because we represented diverse groups and individuals involved in the treaties, including various Native nations, colonial officials, missionaries, religious figures, and tradesmen, there was a lot for visitors to take in. It would have been easier to let the interactions happen on their own, but I was worried that the events would then quickly devolve into visitors simply gawking at the interpreters and vice versa.

The guide was written to help people move through each event and across all five events. Brief backgrounds and introductions were written and a question tailored to each individual or group was included.

The guide encouraged and indicated groupies. We had people who came to every event. It was easy to spot them because they had written notes all over their guides.

Fort Ticonderoga’s 2009 Grand Encampment


While I was on staff at Fort Ticonderoga I inherited the reenactments. Among our most popular events, they also offered great potential for increased visitor interaction. Since they were established events, I was unable to hand-pick the living history participants, which meant we had no way to know the quality of every interpreter attending or of the potential interpreter-visitor interaction. I wrote a guide for our French and Indian War Grand Encampment to help make it more visitor-focused and friendly.

The Grand Encampment guide included FAQs about the reenacting and our reenacted battles. I wanted to answer those more modern questions before they got to any interpreters, so face-to-face interactions could focus on history.

The guide was also meant to help visitors compare and contrast the experiences of each combatant group, Native, British, and French. The questions were written so that all three could be asked the same questions and visitors would hear very different answers from each. This was also a way to make sure we presented each group equally.

The Ticonderoga event was larger than any of “Tears” events, so it was harder to gauge the effectiveness of the guide. As before, visitors used it to start conversations and record thoughts and notes, but I have little sense of how common that was. What was clear was that we handed out all of the printed guides, yet found few littering the site or in the trash. Hopefully that meant people took them home and used them to continue exploring the French and Indian War.

Occupied Philadelphia

In October of 2017 the Museum of the American Revolution in Philadelphia hosted “Occupied Philadelphia.” This two-day living history event included several recreated British regiments and civilian interpreters occupying three sites throughout Old City Philadelphia. The event was structured so that walk-ons could spend time at any or all of the sites, but to have the full, “unlocked” experience, guests took a guided tour of the sites. The Museum’s education and curatorial staff put together a visitor guide for the weekend, including a map of participating sites, a brief background on the British occupation of the City in the winter of 1777-78, and icebreaker questions.

As a site coordinator, I had a much more active public role in this event than the others mentioned above. This left me less time to observe how guests did or did not use the guide. What I did notice is that guests had the guide in their hands, but rarely opened it. Instead their focus was on the tour guide who introduced the officer, and then on the officer who proceeded to energetically interpret. When finished, the officer invited people to talk with the enlisted men and women in small, more casual groups. Instead of the visitor guide’s questions, these conversations were focused on the clothing and equipment the interpreters were wearing. This format was a much more directed experience than “Tears” or the Grand Encampment.

These interactions were not only directed, they were, by design, short. The structured nature of the tour seemed to reduce the effectiveness of the guide. The timed tour gave potential interactions an artificial, but real, ending. When the guided guests left to go to the next stop that often signaled to walk-ons that it was time to go too.

This is not to say that the event was not interpretively successful. Instead of the paper guide, guests had a human guide to help them navigate the experience. Further evidence that no paper guide can truly replace effective personal interactions. Nor should it try to.


Admittedly, the following outcomes are based on anecdotal evidence and personal observation, but I have used these guides for a few different events now and have found them effective. My observations include:

  • Visitors and participants said they valued how the guide helped them navigate the event’s opportunities.
  • Guests and interpreters stayed in conversation longer, and both left feeling positively about the interaction.
  • The guide and icebreaker questions are most effective when an intermediary guide is unavailable and when there is time for longer, less structured interactions.
  • Many people started with the suggested icebreaker questions, but quickly asked their own.
  • The printed questions demonstrated the interactive nature of the events and inspired some people to ask their own questions right away.
  • Having the suggested reading list increased book sales.
  • There was an awareness of who was running the event (a museum), who was participating (reenactment groups), and that they were different.
  • Sharing the guide with the interpreters well in advance allowed them to know what to expect. A few even suggested better ways to frame their particular piece of the story.

Perhaps the most heartening result of these guides is that they helped people overcome whatever hesitation or uncertainty they had in talking to interpreters. During “Tears” and the Grand Encampment it was wonderful to watch some people read, almost rehearse the icebreaker questions before approaching an interpreter, ask the questions, and quickly start asking their own. Sometimes those questions were a deeper dive into the brief histories included in the guides (which might be all the history of that topic they had ever seen), and sometimes they went in different directions. Using those brief backgrounds and icebreaker questions helped give guests the invitation they needed to feel comfortable talking about things they probably hadn’t thought much about or knew of before the event. Standing in front of a strangely-dressed “authority” isn’t always the optimal time to find one’s words. Since not everyone is already a historian, the guides gave guests the tools (background and conversation starters) to engage with the event quickly and intelligently.

Certainly visitor guides add more work to your event, but experience suggests it’s worth it. An effective guide increases engagement, curiosity, and satisfaction for visitors and interpreters alike. Write one for your next event and see if it makes a difference. And let me know what you find.



I would like to thank my colleagues Mary Jane Taylor, Kimberly D. Boice, and Tyler R. Putman and my wife Jane Coughlin for their comments and support.

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…


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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

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 of Moravian Indian Missions” at the Conrad Weiser Homestead.

You can find out more at

It is free and open to the public.