This past summer, I was asked to join a City of Dallas Office of Cultural Affairs task force regarding contextualizing the Confederate symbols scattered around Fair Park. We would also be discussing a memorial to Allan Brooks, victim of Dallas’ most notorious lynching. And then I went into panic mode.
Like any good public historian, I had been following the many conversations regarding Confederate memorials over the past several years. Of course, I closely followed the conversation here in Dallas, though we didn’t take part in that conversation in any official capacity. Mostly, we were just grateful that the memorial erected in City Park in the 1890s had been moved off of park land when Interstate 30 was built. I tried to keep up with how other communities were handling the conversation and taking action. But let’s be honest: that’s a lot of news articles to keep up with. It’s a really big story, as it should be. However, research gives me great comfort, and so with that invitation, I knew I was going to have to pay a lot more attention to what my colleagues were doing in other cities.
Luckily, the first meeting of the task force wasn’t until mid-December. And I’ll admit that I was a little nervous about that first meeting, especially after an article like this appeared. It’s never good when people start talking about task forces before you even have a first meeting.
One of my goals for the holiday break was to finally read Controversial Monuments and Memorials. I’m so glad this book was waiting for me–I feel almost caught up! In one place are all the big stories of the last few years of how communities are reckoning with their complex past. There’s a concise chapter about the historiography of Confederate memorials. There’s an examination of international approaches as well. It helped me synthesize my own thoughts, both about the task force and some ongoing reinterpretation work we’re doing at DHV regarding our signature house, Millermore. This should be on every public historian’s desk (not shelf, desk, so it’s close at hand). Whether your site has any connections to the Confederacy or not, there’s probably something in your site’s history that has to be examined through new lenses. This book will help you do that.
We have our second meeting tomorrow, and I feel so much more prepared. It’s almost impossible to keep up with all the professional literature out there. And usually, it takes a while for books to catch up with current events. But kudos to AASLH and editor David B. Allison for getting this out in such a timely manner. And I’m glad I finally found the time to read it.
Reading this book was also an excellent reminder of how important it is to keep up with professional literature. And so, my new year’s resolution for 2019 is to take one day a month to work at home, focusing on catching up with professional literature and maybe even a bit of writing. Friday was the first day I did this, though I was only moderately successful with the “only reading” part of the day. What’s in your pile of things you’ve been meaning to get to?
Somehow, two big projects I’ve been working on for eons landed at City Hall for big votes on the same day. In truth, I found this highly annoying. Seriously, what are the odds? And who wants to spend all morning at City Hall?
Spoiler alert: both projects passed unanimously. And though on the surface, the two projects are very different, their origins are rooted in the exact same question: are there needs in the neighborhood that we can meet through our existing assets?
The story begins in late 2014, several months after I became ED. Some conflicting ideas came up about how to use certain museum spaces, so I gathered key staff together for a series of meetings. We sat down and discussed each and every one of our buildings. The public spaces. The office spaces. The storage spaces. We asked ourselves a series of questions: what is the highest and best use for this building? What needs to happen to get this space to reach its highest and best use use? We saved the most challenging building for last–the Park Avenue House.
Back in 2004, my first office was located in this house. It’s one of two homes on their original locations, facing the historic City Park land. Past master plans had called for that building’s demolition. But the 2006 master plan was sitting on a shelf, and meanwhile, the building was starting to really fall apart. With the rapid gentrification of the Cedars, we knew that original Cedars homes are rare and becoming more rare every day. These two homes tell an important story of what the neighborhood used to be, and there’s no one better to tell that story.
So, we made the decision that we needed to figure out a way to save that house. But it was going to cost a lot of money. It was currently being used for storage of items that didn’t need super-great environmental conditions–so exhibit cases, stanchions, signs, things like that. Even with my non-expert eyes, I knew renovation would be six figures–and who is going to give us money for storage? With our current staff size, we didn’t need additional office space. So, what is a purpose for that building that might attract funding? Was there an opportunity for us to provide some stability in a neighborhood where all rents were skyrocketing? And could that opportunity also result in some revenue for us?
Looking back in the file, my first email about this idea was sent to the Office of Cultural Affairs at the City of Dallas (they own all DHV buildings) in spring 2015.
Around the same time, we started looking at updating our master plan. The neighborhood was changing–and our former plan, with a visitor’s center facing east, no longer made sense. With major properties being purchased to our west and south, we realized that we couldn’t have a back side. The master plan had to reflect the new reality of the Cedars.
We formed a committee and started exploring options. We have about 26 acres under our control. The core of the museum experience is on about 13 acres. The parcels that were undeveloped currently serve as overflow parking. But with the changing neighborhood, what was the highest and best use of that land? We don’t need more historic buildings to maintain. We only need that land for parking a few times a year. Our biggest need is a Visitors Center–and we just didn’t need all of that land to make that happen. But there was something the neighborhood desperately needed–a public park. The Cedars has no public park. They once had the only park in the city, but now it’s a ticketed museum. So, what if we turned some of our land back to the neighborhood and created a public park?
We first shared the new master plan with the public at our annual meeting in September 2017. Though there were some questions–what about Candlelight parking? Will we ever be able to take down fences?–the general feeling was (and still is!) excitement. This is something different.
Around the same time, I became aware there was about $800,000 available for a district wide project. Could some of that money be directed to DHV?
So, I began to put together a proposal for the Park Avenue House. The city wasn’t used to a non-developer asking for TIF funds. They had to create a new application for us. Lots of back and forth. Lots of meetings. We developed a heck of a plan–and a different way of thinking about possibilities for these funds.
Last Thursday, my architect, Craig Melde, and I presented the master plan to the Park Board for approval. It passed unanimously. And then, I headed to the Cedars TIF Board to request $650,000 to renovate the Park Avenue House and turn it into leased office space for other nonprofits. It also passed unanimously.
These projects are far from over. The Master Plan represents the beginning of a capital campaign that will probably be in the $25 million range. To receive the $650,000, we have to raise another $550,000. This money will be used to fix the house next door, take care of pretty things like landscaping and furniture, and establish a maintenance endowment for both buildings.
Though both projects will certainly benefit DHV, the ideas that are being applauded came from us looking not at what we need, but what our community needs. How many museums do you think are asking those kinds of questions? How much more sustainable would museums be if they looked at both internal and external needs before coming up with big ideas?
So, yes, it was annoying that both votes landed on the same day. But I wouldn’t have it any other way. We are inextricably linked to our neighborhood, and it’s making us a better museum. How many other museums can say the same thing?
At a professional conference, what is usually the very first question someone asks you?
“How are things going at work?”
And if I was to be perfectly honest, my answer right now would be “Not great.”
In mid-July, shortly after returning from a wonderful MAP (Museum Assessment Program) review in Montgomery, I got a phone call from the Office of Cultural Affairs at the City of Dallas. You know, the department where we get 20% of our funding? We hadn’t done well at all at our bi-annual panel review–and our city funding was at risk. Though there are nuances to the scoring, it really boils down to diversity and inclusion issues.
The next several weeks were full of meetings and tough conversations–with the staff, the board, and the city. As an organization, we have never fully faced the truth: we were founded to save the home (Millermore) of a prominent local slaveholder. And we are in a city that is ranked as one of the most racially divided cities in the nation. You’ve seen the headlines about Confederate Memorials and Botham Jean. Long before the call from the city, we began taking steps to start facing all this. We were exploring options for cultural awareness training. We planned to begin a deep dive for all staff into the primary sources for Millermore so we can tell the stories of everyone who lived and worked there–enslaved and free, men and women, first and second generations, children. And we were already in talks to bring Joe McGill of the Slave Dwelling Project to Dallas, in what would be just his second visit to Texas.
But in a situation like this, words and plans don’t really matter. Only actions do. So, I made the decision that we are closing Millermore for reinterpretation while we do this work. We have some that are upset by this decision, but they’re not saying anything directly to me. In the end, I’m actually grateful to the city for giving me this very powerful tool. These are plans and projects I’ve been pushing for a long time and getting resistance at various levels. It’s much harder to argue when inaction could result in the demise of the organization. So, we carry on with these plans and wait for word from the city on how deep the budget cut will be.
At the same time, we’ve been struggling with our fundraiser, History with a Twist. About a year ago, I suggested to board leadership that we not continue this event and outlined a plan to make up that revenue. They decided to carry on–and we invested in a top-notch event planner, found an off-site location (no more weather worries!), and secured a great honorary chair. We moved the event from spring to September. It will be a great party. But sponsorships and ticket sales never really came in, and though we probably won’t lose money, we’re not going to make much either. More money woes.
On the bright side, there was very little discussion at the board meeting about making this the last Twist. And I have a pretty fun dress to wear.
In early August, my Director of Education, who has been with us for 5 years, announced that she was heading to the classroom to teach PreK for Dallas ISD. All of our work with Vogel Alcove and early childhood education made her realize that her passion is with the little ones. It is absolutely the right decision for her, but oh! The timing for DHV!
In the middle of all this, I left for a two week trip to Europe in mid-August and removed the work email app from my phone. It was glorious. With everything going on, maybe the timing of the trip wasn’t the best. On the other hand, with everything going on, I desperately needed the break. I only had a few nightmarish dreams about work while I was away.
The day I got back to the office, my brand new part-time educator (started in July) told me she was taking a full time job at another museum in town. The good news about these education departures–they’re both working part-time for a little while to help with the transition. The bad news: with all of our budget question marks, it’s impossible to finalize a plan for the future of our education department. Not that I’ve had time to think much about it.
So, here we are, ten days from the end of our fiscal year. We have no budget for the next fiscal year. No real idea on how bad the operating deficit will end up being this year. No idea on who will carry on the work of the education department–or how that will be possible. And we have to make sure every step we take is perfectly placed, because all eyes at the city are on us.
This isn’t to say there aren’t some remarkable bright spots. The wonderful thing about a crisis is that there is an opportunity to really see what people are made of. Staff are stepping up. Board members are stepping up. And as always, our neighborhood has our back. And there are other signs. A surprise $25,000 gift from a long time donor who had never given more than a few hundred at a time. The news that one of the premier food and wine events in Dallas is moving to DHV in early November. My appointment to an AAM task force on museum education standards. The Board Engagement Committee (that I’ve been asking about for over a year) has finally formed–and is doing things.
Last Sunday, the sermon at church was about the gap between what you have and what you need–and how sometimes that is absolutely the best thing. That gap can force us to grow. So many parallels for where DHV is right now! I’m taking courage from Andrew’s word as we continue to step into the gap. All of these recent challenges are a powerful reminder of how precarious our financial situation is. Some days, I think we’re in the middle of what will be a remarkable turn-around stories. Other days, I’m not so sure–and feel completely inadequate for the work ahead.
I know I’ll enjoy my time in Kansas City (once I get through Twist and finalize those session powerpoints!). I know it will be refreshing and that I’ll come home with some new tools and idea to face these very big issues.
But I also know that when colleagues ask “How are things going at work?” I’m not going to say my usual “Great!”
I might say “interesting.”
I might say “challenging.”
I might say “not good.”
And I encourage you to be honest also–because we’re not always honest about the challenges we face in this work. Or the emotions. I can now say that I have cried at a staff meeting. I cried at our Annual Meeting. I have cursed a fair amount. And I’m not always sleeping well–I’m finishing up the rough draft of this at 12:30 a.m.
So yes, I’m heading into AASLH absolutely emotionally exhausted. I’m writing this post partly so I don’t have to explain everything quite so many times. I’m happy to talk more about any of this, though I may also say “I don’t really want to talk about it.” And it won’t be because I suddenly no longer believe in transparency. It will be because I am tired.
However, I will gladly accept hugs. Let’s face it: after the year we’ve had, we could probably all use a hug or three.
Right now, some theater kids in Dallas are doing some of the most amazing historical work I’ve ever seen. Cry Havoc Theater Company is a young organization, formed in 2014 , full of active and involved young people. I first heard of them when they opened their play, Shots Fired, a play about the July 2016 police shooting in downtown Dallas. What intrigued me wasn’t so much that they were doing a play about recent events–it was that they had interviewed so many people directly connected to those events.
I missed the first run of the show, but a museum colleague and I attended when they brought it back in July 2017. Both of us were incredibly moved, and at the same time, our museum educator brains were working overtime. Here were these kids, taking documentary evidence about a very complex subject, and turning it into a compelling narrative. They were historians! They’re also pretty great actors, and at times, I completely forgot how young they are.
We chatted with Mara, the founder, after the performance. The informal education community in Dallas is pretty tight-knit, so we already knew each other and were able to openly rave about what we had just seen. It was then that she mentioned the origins of their most recent production, Babel. They were going to tackle one of the most contentious issues of our day, gun violence, and they were heading to Sandy Hook, Washington D. C., and the NRA Convention (conveniently held in Dallas last May) to talk to as many people as possible. There has been amazing media coverage through our local NPR affiliate of their journey to create this play.
The idea of documentary or devised theater was new to me, and I remain incredibly intrigued about the possibilities of blending these techniques with museum programs. After all, it’s not totally unlike what we’ve done with some of projects through our own Junior Historian program at DHV. Mara wrote in the program notes for A History of Everything (from January 2018):
Devising theater isn’t for the faint of heart. Each sixty seconds the audience sees onstage in the final performance takes roughly sixty minutes to create. In devised theatre, a lot of really great ideas get worked and reworked only to be discarded hours or days later. The process is tedious and time-consuming. It takes herculean self-discipline and a willingness to leave ego at the door. For this reason, very few adult, professional theatre companies devise theatre. And there are only a handful of youth theatre companies in the United States that solely produce devised works. We are one of them.
I saw Babel about 10 days ago, this time with another museum colleague and her family. It’s a long, sprawling play that hits every nuance in this debate. It was as emotional and gut-wrenching as expected. What I didn’t expect (and should have known better since I’ve worked with a few teens over the years) were the injections of humor and sarcasm and the occasional f-bomb into the show. You can read some more great coverage of the performances, now over, here and here and here.
But why talk about a teen theater company on a blog ostensibly about museums? Besides the obvious of “finding inspiration everywhere” or my usual soapbox of believing that teens are capable of far more than we give them credit for, I believe this is an incredible example of historic relevancy. In this field, we spend a lot of time moaning about how to connect with young people. Or current events. Or whether we should even talk about current events. And at the same time, we often make it out like history is this magical, mysterious thing that only certain people are allowed to create. We, as a field, neglect to show the process of DOING history, and with that neglect, we’ve helped create a world that is incapable of collecting a variety of sources, analyzing them, and forming some sort of narrative to share with others.
But the teens of Cry Havoc show that it can be done, even with incredibly difficult subjects. Did some people walk out during intermission? Yep. On the other hand, did almost everyone in the theater after the two-and-a-half-hour show stay to talk about it some more? Also yes. These kids are on to something, and there are lessons in there for all of us that work to teach the public something.
I abhor a mess. But for most of the last month, my dining room table has looked like this.
As an executive director, I do an enormous amount of writing–grants, emails, newsletter articles, and blogs. But I had almost forgotten how historical writing stretches your brain in entirely different directions. It was almost like my brain was out of shape–but eventually, muscle memory took over. And it felt so good to be doing that kind of work again.
So, how did I get back into doing that sort of thing again? Several months ago, a friend asked if I would be willing to do a talk at her organization about the local suffrage movement. Though I continue to do extensive reading in the area of women’s history, I hadn’t done any real historical research or writing in almost a decade. My last big research project had been about Dallas clubwomen and their involvement in World War I. I knew there would be some overlap between that work and the suffrage movement–and I had always been curious about the local movement. Plus, she’s a good friend, and the anniversary of the federal amendment is approaching, so I figured it was manageable. And I had plenty of time.
Well, we all know about the lies we tell ourselves. Like “It won’t take that long,” and “I have plenty of time.” I might have been wrapping up my powerpoint the day before my presentation. And I did get a little stressed about finishing up. But I had such fun!
One of the unexpected joys of this project was learning more about a very familiar name. As a longtime staff member at Dallas Heritage Village, I definitely knew the name Barry Miller and that he was active in state politics. He and his wife, Minnie, were the second generation to live in Millermore, which today is the signature building at Dallas Heritage Village. When Minnie’s parents died in 1899, she and her family moved back to Millermore (and yes, a Miller married a Miller. It’s not confusing at all.) She ran the farm while Barry drove the five miles into town to continue his law practice. Evelyn, their youngest child, wrote a sketch about her parents, sharing the following about her father’s political career:
Papa became increasingly active in politics. Most often, he campaigned for friends or causes in which he believed, but occasionally for himself. He served in the Texas State Senate from 1899-1901, received a gubernatorial appointment to a district judgeship in Dallas in 1911, and served in the Texas House of Representatives in 1917-1922, and as Lieutenant Governor of Texas, 1925-1930. At first mamma HATED politics, and never came to like having her husband a candidate. (“Portrait Sketch of Mamma: Minnie K. Miller” by Evelyn Miller Crowell)
Among his early political accomplishments was authoring the legislation that made the bluebonnet the state flower of Texas in 1901. Apparently, the wife of the lawyer he apprenticed with when he first came to Texas always loved the flower—and he did it to honor her.
Barry Miller certainly didn’t change his opinion through conversations at home. Evelyn writes: “Mamma had NOT wanted the vote, but when she got it, she took it very seriously.” The Dallas Equal Suffrage Association used recent war work efforts as an opening. Clubwomen in Dallas were raising funds for the Women’s Oversea Hospital Unit, and Barry Miller contributed. “Dallas suffragists take this as a hopeful sign and hope that Judge Miller may yet be counted among the friends of equal suffrage.” (Dallas Morning News; March 5, 1918) Judge Miller, ever the politician, set before the suffragists a challenge to gather 5,000 signatures, though no legislation was currently pending. Two days later, the News reported that 1,000 names had already been collected. “These signatures are necessary,’ said Mrs. Nonie B. Mahoney, vice president of the Equal Suffrage Association, ‘in order to persuade one man, Barry Miller, that there is a silent sentiment in favor of suffrage in Dallas County. We are going to win. There is no chance for us to fail.” (Dallas Morning News; March 7, 1918) In addition to canvassing the women in their immediate circles, they also made special efforts to reach out to working women, visiting such local businesses as Sanger Brothers, Neiman Marcus, Butler Brothers, Brown Cracker and Candy Company, and the Wilson Building. In a March 9 article, announcing that they expected to go over the 5,000 mark that day, Mrs. Mahoney stated “The interest in this petition is not confined to any one class. The women of Highland Park and the mill districts are equally interested and equally anxious to sign.” Anecdotes about the signing efforts include a mother who had five daughters working in the factories who believed that their working conditions would improve with suffrage. Another women, ages 70, brought in a petition with over 200 signatures—and apologized. “I would have got a good many more, but I happened upon so many of my old friends that I just had to stop and chat with them a while.” (Dallas Morning News; March 9, 1918)
By March 10, they had reached 8,000 signatures. Upon their success, Mrs. Mahoney declared “The suffragists of Texas welcome the support of Mr. Miller. The suffragists accepted Barry Miller’s challenge and have shown what they are capable of doing, but they refuse to accept any more such challenges to unproductive labor. They can not spare any more time from war work.” (Dallas Morning News; March 19, 1918)
On March 15, just a few days after Mrs. Mahoney delivered 10,000 signatures to Rep. Barry Miller’s office, the House voted 84 to 34 to give women the right to vote in primary elections. Within a year, Barry became chairman of the Men’s League of the Dallas Equal Suffrage Association and was campaigning throughout the state, advocating for the federal suffrage amendment.
Over the last several years, there just hasn’t been time to do this kind of deep dive into history, even the history at our own site. And though deep historical research has never been an official part of my job, it is certainly why I got into this field in the first place. We have so many hidden stories at the Village, and with the changes in scholarship and the digitization of important resources, there are wonderful opportunities to discover those deeper and more complex stories. In the next year, we plan to embark on a new interpretative plan and will be diving much more deeply—as a team—into all the history the buildings at DHV contain.
In the meantime, I was also reminded of how important work balance can be. We talk a lot in this field about work/life balance. But as we mid-career professionals move up the ladder, we often have to leave behind whatever passion we had that got us into this business in the first place. I remember talking to a friend a few months ago who was incredibly frustrated with his current position: “I just miss doing history.” And I’ve felt that frustration too—for example, when I was knee deep in the homeless encampment crisis, it felt like an absolute relief to get back to doing more typical history museum work.
These last few months have reminded me that I need to continue to make space for history in my work life. You would think that would be obvious, after 14 years at a history museum, but my work priorities have changed so much over the years. I’m so very grateful for the nudge to do history again—and I’m not planning to wait 10 years before diving into the Hollinger boxes again.
As a Dallasite, it is required that I dislike Houston. And after spending three days there recently for the Texas Association of Museums conference, I can’t say that I’ve totally changed my mind. However, there are some wonderful museums there, and much like my experience in Philadelphia, I was genuinely surprised by a few spots.
At museum conferences, you spend your evenings at museums, probably drinking and hopefully eating. (sometimes there aren’t quite enough appetizers to turn into dinner). Often, you just dash through exhibits, if you even take the time to stop catching up with old friends and see something. However, at this conference, at least once a night, I was absolutely delighted by at least one of the exhibits.
At The Health Museum, we decided at the last second to be good museum-goers and take the tour of the DeBakey Cell Lab. I had no idea what I was walking into, but it made my educator heart sing. Hands-on experiment activities for all ages. With all the official “scientist” stuff like lab coats and gloves and goggles. The science and technology on display was amazing. But what really captured my heart was the volunteer. You could instantly tell she loved the museum and the science and you. Someone asked her about her background and she replied “I was a psychiartist, but I always wanted to be a medical doctor. So as soon as I retired, I walked across the street and started volunteering.” The other thing that amazed me about the Health Museum was the diversity of its staff and volunteers. I’ve never seen a non-culturally specific museum with that level of diversity. And yes, Houston is a culturally diverse city, but museums don’t always reflect that. So, kudos.
The next night, the highlight was the Houston Museum of African American Culture. When we walked in, I noticed a banner about a Sandra Bland exhibit, but the date the exhibit closed was weeks before. Never fear! It had been so popular that it was held over through the end of April. It was an incredibly simple exhibit that talked about her life, her arrest, her death and her legacy. They divided a large gallery space into three rooms with black curtains, plus a large overview area. The first room contained a video reel of many of her social media posts. The second was video and audio of her arrest. Each of those rooms contained individual headsets. There was something so intimate about each person sitting with a headset, and yet it was still a collective experience. The final room was set up like her funeral, complete with programs from the service.
In the large gathering area, there was a video with interviews about the “talk” African Americans have with their children about police interactions, as well as comments on all of the recent police shootings. The whole thing had me on the verge of tears.
But perhaps my favorite part was the exhibit label that asked (paraphrased) “Can museums be involved in social justice?” I think you know my answer.
On the final night, I must admit we skipped most of the museums, but we did go to the final stop–the massive Museum of Fine Arts Houston. We walked through their giant galleries, feeling completely overwhelmed. Our brains and our feet were tired. But we decided that we should at least take a glance at whatever was across the street. And that’s where we found our final surprise–an incredible exhibit of Indian art and culture: Peacock in the Desert: The Royal Arts of Jodhpur, India. The art and material culture were absolutely stunning–such rich colors. And I found myself desperately wanting to read (again, often rare in a jaded museum professional under the best of circumstances) but with no real energy or time to truly explore the exhibit. At the same time, the whole thing felt totally new and I realized how little I know about Indian culture. Though a fairly traditional art exhibit, it still felt very new and different.
Houston will always be Houston. But it’s got some great museums.
Sometimes, being a museum professional ruins museums. We develop our inner checklist, the things that we judge others on. It may have nothing to do with anything a “regular” visitor cares about, but it causes us to think differently and move differently through an exhibit. I’ve warned family and friends not to visit a museum with me. I’ve learned to keep my mouth shut about certain museums that disappointed me. But the fun comes in when I’m truly delighted and surprised by a museum experience. That’s when I gush.
Last month, I visited Philadelphia for the very first time. The official reason was a conference, but I stayed a few extra days so I could see what’s required of every history nerd. So yes, we visited Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell and the new Museum of the American Revolution. And I really enjoyed those visits (the George Washington tent experience at MOAR is worth all the fuss). But that’s not what I keep thinking about.
Instead, I keep thinking about the Ben Franklin Museum. My colleague and tour guide, Jenn, used to work within steps of this spot, but she had never been.
We learned later that they had taken content from the tricentennial of Franklin’s birth and re-purposed them. We didn’t care. Unlike anywhere else we visited in Philadelphia, there was this wit and sense of humor in the exhibits. Between the two of us, I think we actually watched every video and did every interactive.
Do you realize how rare that is for two mid-career museum professionals? It takes a lot to delight us. It was stylized and engaging and used primary sources in an amazing way.
I loved the use of their mascot, a squirrel named Skuggs, dressed differently for each exhibit section.
If there had been Skuggs stuff in the gift shop, I would have bought one for every staff member. (they had squirrels, but no great outfits.) We noticed visitors of all ages equally engaged in the exhibit. They hit all the right notes and truly got the whole “Let’s appeal to the entire family” concept throughout the entire museum. Those of you who know me well know that one of my soapboxes is the museums that put their “kid-friendly” exhibit areas off in one corner, rather than integrating throughout the experience. Adults often need that level of engagement too!
Another unexpected delight was an exhibit at the Union League, a fabulous historic building just a few blocks from our hotel.
Jenn knew it was a great building, but it’s members only. Except for this lower floor exhibit area a few hours a week. So, we acted like we couldn’t read signs and at least made it into the main lobby. And then headed downstairs to the Heritage Center, where non-members are welcome, to check out “Risk and Reward: Entrepreneurship and the Making of Philadelphia.” It was a small exhibit, but truly spanned the entire breadth of Philadelphia history. It was diverse, went right up the present day, and borrowed from collections throughout the city. Again, we read most of it, talked about it, and did all the things a great exhibit should do. We even admired some of the casework! (As a curator, Jenn does this sort of thing all the time. It’s rarer for me!) It was also the first stop during my visit and such a great introduction to the city’s rich history.
And then there was the Betsy Ross House. Again, an example of us thinking “well, we don’t have a lot of time, but we’re close and I bet we can squeeze this in.” And it was a delight. They openly talked about the myth of Betsy and how it developed.
They integrated exhibits well into a historic house (something we’re struggling with right now at DHV). There was a wonderful re-enactor, which is so often done poorly. They reminded us of the risk she was taking by making the flag, something I had never really thought about.
And they spoke about all of the other people that made the house and business work.
We learned so much! They shattered all kinds of myths, but did it in exactly the right way. Plus, they had one of the best gift shops, and I totally bought an unnecessary souvenir for one of my nieces.
So even though I’m often a grumpy museum goer, perhaps my delight at these sort of surprises makes up for it? Our expectations weren’t super high for either place. National Park sites or tiny history organizations that are buried under a giant umbrella organization aren’t generally know for great, innovative exhibits. And yet. . .
This is why I always make it a point to visit a few spots slightly off the beaten tourist path when I visit a new place. You just never know what sort of surprises you might encounter–and how you might be inspired as a museum professional. Or just as a regular person.