Historic sites and historians (I try to not distinguish between public and academic historians but we’ll get to that later) do not exist to turn a profit for investors. Clearly, it isn’t for the money that we do what we do, but because we are guardians, even proselytizers and champions, of the importance of preserving the past and teaching its lessons to people who need to learn them, which is pretty much everyone. Learning how to look at the world thorough someone else’s eyes, to–perhaps literally–stand in their shoes, is a public service to today’s world offered by the close study of yesterday. That effort does, and should, go far beyond the antiquarians of not-that-long ago who insisted in keeping old stuff around just because it was, well, old, and therefore had some sort of inherent value just because of that fact, with little recognition that people make history, not a nicely shaped stick of wood. People, therefore, give meaning to things, like a nicely shaped stick of wood, and reveal how such things changed or remained the same over time in ways that also impacted other people, sometimes in profound ways that even the most clever historians still don’t fully comprehend (that little American Revolution thing is still a tough one). While vestiges of antiquarianism remain (sometimes I think just to spite the rest of us), the vision of most historians I know is to remember the people, prominent and obscure, whether through means of digital history or first-person interpretation or exhibitions of collections, who made us who we are and how that might help us guide our future, as individuals and as a community.
The fact remains, however, that there is a business of history. I don’t mean that in the crude, lost-the-plot way that some historic sites seem on the verge of fully embracing (reminder to self: queue up blog post about ghost tours), which is to focus more on revenue than on mission and vision. There is no escaping our need for the financial and other resources that enable us to reach out to those whom we hope to teach, whether through an engaging tour, a museum that interprets our houses and collections, or other educational technique. Public historians simply cannot dismiss the imperatives of revenue and the market–even our very particular market, where sentiment is of considerable value–because by ignoring them we stand the risk of wrecking endowments, destroying donor confidence, alienating guests, and therefore, after hiring consultants who frequently do more harm than good, unwisely spending ourselves into an oblivion from which only the most exceptional historic sites can recover. The business of public history represents a very fine line to walk between revenue and mission, but it is one that we must follow, which requires public historians, especially leaders of sites and programs, to be historians, marketers, media experts, tech geeks, entrepreneurs, lawyers, and politicians, all wrapped into one. But, as challenging as that is, there are few more rewarding endeavors, for our collective mission is a noble one: to speak for people who cannot speak for themselves. Now that strikes me as a pretty good reason to get up in the morning.
That leads to me to my first annual recommendations of historic sites that I think walk that fine line well enough to be worth your financial consideration before the end of the tax year, so that you can claim those all-important charitable deductions come next April. It is highly subjective, as being entirely focused on the northeast United States, particularly Virginia, and expressly excluding those sites with which I have especially close personal or professional associations, namely Colonial Williamsburg, Monticello, Historic Huguenot Street, and a few others (of course, give freely to those splendid institutions). Otherwise, I have selected these sites based on a considerable amount of study of what these sites do and how they do it, which sufficiently reflects my developing view of the principles of the business of history and what I see as good practices in maintaining the delicate balance between mission and money. Like history, it includes big names and obscure ones, sites devoted to one person or house and sites spread out over acres with a number of buildings. It does not include collections-based museums, per se. That’s for another time, but instead focuses on sites that blend different kinds of interpretation of the past. And it is all based on a set of unique metrics that I am creating to evaluate such things, topics (guest acquisition costs, anyone?) about which I’ll later bore you to tears, I’m sure.
So, with that mountain of caveats traversed, on with the show. What would you add to the list?
Go ahead and get the eye-rolling done and over with. While Colonial Williamsburg dwarfs almost every other historic site on the planet in terms of revenue and expenses–and therefore program offerings and outreach–Mount Vernon is the next biggest dog on the block (Monticello is in third place on that list). And, yes, it has a gajillion intangible assets that most sites would die to have (less than 45 minutes from Capitol Hill, depending on traffic in Alexandria). And, yes, I should probably have left it off the list because of my close connections with it. So why is it here? Because they spend your money just so bloody well, thank you very much. With intelligent investments in messaging, guest services, the physical plant (from the education center to the new library), personnel (nabbing Doug Bradburn was a coup for a number of reasons; their next hire should be Azie Dungey as director of comedic affairs or something like that; she’s terrific, and showing that a site takes its work seriously but can laugh at itself is pretty important) and ventures into new methods of interpretation. They stick to their mission and work in smart ways to advance it, and their balance sheet is solid, not masked by occasional, or even regular, dips into a deep endowment. Their interpretive shift from the house to GW the man, and the women and men, free and enslaved, who surrounded him and made Mount Vernon an active community, was subtle but critical. Simply put, the Ladies Association seems to know what to do with your history-minded dollar (it not hurting that its subject appears on it).
From the largest to one of the smallest, Historic Bethlehem is one of several historic sites that tells the story of the Moravians who arrived in America in the 1700s, built shockingly sturdy stone structures, and maintained their unique cultural characteristics long after most other Protestant religious sects had blended into general American culture. Historic Bethlehem, with a small budget and staff, does a fine job of interpreting the distinctive Moravians, preserving their sites, and introducing guests to Bethlehem itself, which is a pretty cool place any time of year. Even in the best of times, religious history is a tough sell, yet this site finds ways to keep people coming back for it, despite being more than an hour away from any major metro area.
There are dozens of historic sites that have a revenue/expense stream between $5 million and $8 million a year. Plimoth is among the best of them, especially for the way they cover some very sensitive interpretive territory, namely the contributions and experience of the Wampanoag Indians. Plimoth made a bold decision to not just focus on the Pilgrim story that every American schoolchild will have embedded into their historical consciousness by the age of eight, but to take seriously the story of the Indians who ensured their survival and have a deeply integral history of their own that is ignored at most sites, when it’s not being turned into a pantomime. At Plimoth, they are not interpreted, as such, but presented as they should be, as living history properly conceived, as a people who did not vanish into the mists of time but who remain vibrant in the lives of modern tribes in America and Canada. They even clearly instruct guests to leave behind their modern preconceptions about such people with as much directness as possible, which is somewhat refreshing. No subtlety there about a subject for which subtlety just won’t do. Moreover, although an entirely reconstructed site, the staff does a fine job of representing the life and times of the so-called Pilgrims, hardly the most sympathetic of groups, despite what Longfellow (and Wishbone, for that matter) tried to do for them, but they have remained true to their mission, in terms of programming, in a way that should generate admiration in the public history community, Keep in mind, Plimoth’s balance sheet is not something that its board will want to frame and hang on the wall any time soon. It needs an endowment to provide a buffer for economic downturns. But a year-end contribution will help continue to tell the important stories of several peoples who deserve to be remembered in our collective effort to make sure the future can learn from the past, while not ignoring the influences of the present.
Valentine Richmond History Center
Face it, anyone within driving distance of central Virginia, this place is just fun. No site has done more to reinvent public history as a concept, and the creative ways it can reach out and insert itself into a thriving, vibrant community, than this one. From their creative exhibitions to their Community Conversation to their celebration of modern tattoo trends in the city, it finds a way to engage young people by not being afraid of trying new things, even if those efforts might not succeed. In short, the Valentine pushes through many interpretive barriers and completely destroys others, and therefore deserves support–and attention. Watch this space as the site undergoes a massive renovation, setting the bar that much higher for the rest of us.
HONORABLE MENTIONS: Stratford Hall, Old Salem, Preservation Virginia, Sturbridge Village