As Divine Providence — or, in this case, my doctor and the fine folks in Sports Medicine at Spaulding Rehab — have sentenced me to several days of physical inactivity and a few sessions with my new best friend, Hydrodocone (Lesson: friends do not let *older* friends try to jump large horses over tall obstacles), I figure I could use the little coherence I retain to summon up a productive blog post. Of course, I could spend it railing against the latest Colonial Williamsburg crime against its donors (You have to admit, they keep setting new and interesting standards. I mean, having the Marquis de la Fayette directly solicit contributions almost 200 years after his death puts a whole new spin on “The Future Should Earn From the Past”), but I’ll leave that as a bottomless pit of fodder for discussion with my students as we proceed through the semester. I could also go into the ongoing saga that is the joint attempt of me and my terrific TA to come up with ways to productively use Zoom to promote in-class interaction, or continue to plan for our Public History Master Classes, with folks like Ric Burns and Tony Horwitz, which are coming up. Or I can wonder how a talk I timed at 45 minutes to give last Sunday for the Friends of Minute Man National Park (who are doing terrific things, by the way) wasn’t over at the 90-minute mark. But, instead, before it fades farther into my personal past, I wanted to share my observations about a visit to Old Sturbridge Village (OSV), just a few weeks ago.

Now you might well say, with no little legitimacy, that it’s not fair for me to hit a heritage site during the so-called “slow” season. Especially these days when almost all I can do when I see such sites is calculate donor and guest efficiency ratings, from parking to signage to guest services to site maintenance to, well, you know the drill. My students certainly do at this point. I keep thinking about mission, experience, and sustainability, almost in that order. Of course, it doesn’t make for the most magical time for my wife or our dog, but, in the end, if a donor — whether of one’s time, in visiting, or of one’s money, as a member or higher contributor — loses confidence in a site’s ability to achieve its mission, then the game is, more or less, up. Moreover, despite a lower level of programming, it’s not like we were charged a seasonal rate for the experience, so why not? If they’re not giving guests a break for their slow season, why should I give them a break? We’re paying the same price whether we were there in July or January (I think). What’s more, I’ve been a bit unfair to OSV in the past, judging it more by its not very pretty 990s than by the total experience. So I thought we’d take the plunge.

As my own students are putting together their site evaluations for our class, I’ll reveal a bit of my own process. I first looked at the online presence of OSV, including its social media feeds and mobile optimization, to find out what I could about the guest experience — how easy it is to find the prices, the programming schedules, a rationale for visiting at all — and the institutional history, mission, and vision of the place. In other words, to answer the questions of why we should visit, how we will find it, how much it will cost, and what should we find when we get there? And once I got through all that, and tasked Bring Fido to help us find a pet-friendly hostelry, it was off to the races. But I must admit, having done my usual homework, that I was not brimming with enthusiasm when we stepped out of the car and made the short trek into the Visitor Center.

I won’t bore you with the play-by-play of all the evaluations that I did in my head, and notes I took on my iPhone, over the course of our visit. Suffice to say that OSV is a quirky place, a town that never really existed, literally constructed out of buildings and materials from across the northeast to roughly represent Jacksonian New England. In a bow to modern interpretive methods, it was nice to see, both onsite and online, the stirrings of a master narrative: to represent a typical Massachusetts village in 1838, as America’s version of the industrial revolution and stirrings of Manifest Destiny were beginning to transform almost every aspect of society. But that is a nicely coherent guide that should serve them well in developing programming, marketing, and targeting audiences. The tickets appear to be set at a nice price point, especially with the addition of an optional free extra day and the chance to take the price off the cost of basic membership. It shows confidence in the experience, which was largely self-guided through the buildings bedecked with explanatory panels that generally supported the narrative, although the number of missed opportunities grew as we encountered one silent, roped-off room after another, some of which tried very hard to (like at the Parsonage) assign a fictional role to a building the architecture of which was telling a much different, and perhaps more interesting, story, while others completely ignored the historical elements of the buildings (such as the textile exhibit, which was devoid of any real discussion of the people who gave life to both the house and the materials). And a few attempts at soundscapes or using Guide By Cell recordings fell flat. Regardless, one understands what OSV is trying to do, even if the guest experience, when left to one’s own devices, is uneven and a little narrative development, to tie together the whole site and its components and means, would go quite a long way.

On the ground and, I strongly suspect, in the Board Room, OSV has some serious issues to address, as the 990s and media coverage of a new charter school suggest. And there are the obvious problems, like material culture exhibits on glass and other objects that are eye-wateringly out of date. A considerable amount of deferred maintenance is glaringly apparent and the wretched “tavern” buffet was not one I intend to ever revisit. We also appeared, as paying guests, to have been in the minority of visitors, since most others we encountered wore member stickers. However, as I continuously counsel sites to use the “off-season” not as a chance to take a break, but as an opportunity to develop closer ties to core audiences (members and the local community), I can hardly see in that anything more than a trend for OSV to examine in terms of effective ways to address seasonal visitation patterns. But these are hardly hidden horrors and, for the most part, are not cheap to fix. I suspect that OSV’s leadership is keenly aware of the weaknesses and looking for the necessary funding to strengthen them.

But as quirky as OSV is as a, let’s face it, entirely fictional heritage site, and as clear as its shortcomings, it was not long before we encountered OSV’s greatest strength, its real power: its people. From the ticket booth and gift shop staff to the costumed interpreters and the tradespersons, I don’t know that I’ve ever encountered such a uniformly polite and, I can’t think of a better way to put it, genteel set of people — and I’m from the Chesapeake. Everyone had a smile — even when it was cold and about to rain — and a generous greeting, whether they were recommending (delicious) cookies or pointing out directions. Whatever emphasis they have placed on guest services as a key point of creating a positive experience, it has worked. Or maybe they just happen to hire the nicest people in New England.

Perhaps more important, though, as a reflection of the institution’s strength — its sustainability, the ways in which donors can rely on it to maintain and build quality programs — was in the quality of its interpreters and tradespersons. I maintain that is the single most important investment that a heritage organization can make: hire talented people, train them well, support them with good leadership and clear direction, then let them fly and watch the real magic happen. Granted there were rather few interpreters about when we were there, and they all appeared to be doing several different jobs on any given day. In fact, on Sunday, what must have been the hardest working woman in the public history world led four of the five programs we attended — and each required a different interpretive method. But they were all solid, engaging, accessible to a range of audiences, and supportive of the narrative (except perhaps for the shaky first-person program, which, in her defense, is the trickiest of all methods, but her “In the Moment” program on nineteenth-century fashions was stellar).

We were also fortunate enough to have been there for a talented artist’s program, who explained the nineteenth-century rage for profiles and created one — with striking speed — for any and all who wanted to sit (her Not-Quite-In-The-Moment persona [she was and wasn’t in 1838], which usually would have annoyed me, actually worked for the program, or at least it worked for her and the guests, so what difference does the rest make?). Then, of course, there was the Tinsmith, proving the universal point about the enduring value of supporting Historic Trades, preserving artisanal crafts while engaging guests in the process (Just perfect for discussing and demonstrating changes brought on by American industrialization, by the way). But, as in everything, it’s the unexpected that makes the greatest impression and OSV was no exception: a program about logging, of all things, in early America had me hooked for half-an-hour, learning about such things as how to turn a tree into a beam for a house frame. It was terrific, and I can barely handle a hammer without hurting myself. There are few higher compliments that I can pay to an interpreter than that she or he knows her or his stuff, and can communicate it without being pedantic or, worse, boring–all of OSV’s interpreters and tradespersons I encountered fit the best of that bill.

In the end, all of this is about gaining and maintaining donor and visitor confidence that what you see (the mission, the message) is what you’ll get (in the experience). That often comes down to one question: would you come back? Having already given a dollar (or $56, in OSV’s case, and that was before we hit the splendid gift shop), would you give another to them to help them keep doing what they’re doing or, hopefully, do more? My answer is a resounding YES. There’s lots of potential at OSV, telling the story of an oft-neglected yet critical moment in the making of America, and I have high hopes that they’ll hone the narrative, help it inform the programming, support the interpreters and other frontline staff, tighten the ancillary activities, and build an audience-base strong enough to serve as a foundation for growth —  all without a pirate or a musket range in sight. We’ll certainly be back and hope to see you there.

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One thought on “A Not-So Bleak Midwinter: Old Sturbridge Village and the Power of the People

  1. I haven’t been to OSV in many years, since my kids were small (maybe 10-12 years ago??) I was so nervous reading your narrative that your final verdict would be a negative one – so glad to hear there is much to enjoy and appreciate there still, despite the areas that could use some improvement. Excellent people who are knowledgable and welcoming can make up for quite a few things. I’m curious – have you been to/assessed the Mark Twain House? I just started working there last month as CFO and would be interested in your insight!

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