Letting Go: Decommissioning with Dignity?

The threat facing the Queen Mary is a serious issue with which, ultimately, every museum or other site with major physical resources has to grapple. Maritime museums of all sorts — from the Queen Mary to Fall River’s Battleship Cove or Mystic Seaport — are like zoos in that way: the first responsibility is to the care and preservation of the reason(s) they exist at all (check out the AASLH’s guide to Interpreting Naval History at Museums and Historic Sites). That alone is a tremendously expensive effort, and while certain things can be deferred, they cannot be avoided and will only become more expensive to fix. As someone who once ran a site with a few dozen historic buildings, some dating to the 1600s, maintaining them (to the point of spending winter mornings shoveling snow off 18th-century roofs), let alone interpreting them, was a daunting task. How can you completely fulfill every site’s implicit core mission — not just to protect, but to project — when you can’t let anyone experience the space because it’s dangerous to the structure and to the guests, and you simply don’t have the money?

As funding sources decline, and schemes to find more become more wild and ineffectual in their desperation, when does the answer become “let it go”? More and more sites will face the question that the Queen Mary — a unique, immersive site that has a special place in my heart and where my Disney connection began — now must answer. Communities have done, and are doing to do, what they can, but the need is quickly outstripping their capacity. The differences among Long Beach to Fall River to smaller towns are in degree, not in kind. In the end, while we talk a great deal about succession plans in museum and public history leadership, and sustainability of programming and human capital, must we now include a new discussion about decommissioning with dignity, responsibly and thoughtfully turning experience into memory and history?

And, keep in mind, this has already begun. Does anyone remember Johnsonville, an Old Sturbridge-type (meaning totally fictional but with period buildings shipped in from other areas) Victorian “living history” village in Connecticut that closed more than 15 years ago? They have already been decommissioned, the site is abandoned, and its caretakers are selling historic resources to anyone with cash. Other sites are taking different tacks, but are no less transformational. Old Sturbridge itself, for a site that is losing $1 million a year per its last 990, is shifting its scarce resources to creating a charter school. Colonial Williamsburg, now hemorrhaging guests, has dropped all pretensions to the history education vision that created the place, and inspired Walt Disney himself, to embrace “theme-based interpretation” that promotes, as the Wall Street Journal just promoted, hotels, golf, fine dining, and craft beer (the new motto, according to the WSJ, should be “Give me luxury or give me death!”): Its idea of a Women’s History Month program is a group of patriot men, talking about women, which basically happens every day ending in a “y”. As for many of the rest, the unique stories they can tell are being buried underneath an increasingly anodyne and banal series of cookie-cutter programming. Bold, original programming, except at places like Plimoth Plantation, appears to have largely evaporated. Perhaps, as has been suggested elsewhere, it is simply that an era in the history of heritage tourism — that of the large-scale living history museum — is over, a relic of post-World War II prosperity, highways, and a love-affair with car trips. At least some places, such as Historic Deerfield, seem to be resolutely holding on to their integrity, keeping within their financial compass to focus intently on mission-related efforts, to their credit. But for many others, is there a pandemic of the same sort of “mission rot” that the Queen Mary more seriously and directly faces in its hull deterioration, but leads, nevertheless, to the same metaphorical end: a sinking ship that can never sail again?

In any case, it’s a situation that’s certainly calls for a new chapter for my upcoming book, and might require a serious re-read of The Anarchists’ Guide.

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The Past is Never Dead, Only Deadly Boring: A View of the Field from the Newport ‘Radicals’

Several weeks ago, a group of admittedly self-proclaimed radical public historians, led by NHS Executive Director Ruth Taylor,  descended upon the Colony House in Newport to dispel a rumor that is growing like a pernicious weed through certain quarters of the field: History is dead and the heritage sites that depend on it are dying.  It’s a rationale being deployed by some of the largest and oldest living history sites in America to justify dramatic changes in their programming to chase revenue from other, hopefully younger, sources, such as the coveted, yet elusive, Millennials whom, the thinking goes, are searching high and low for the next unique background for a strikingly similar, and similarly anodyne, series of ghost tours, craft beer tastings, modern art installations, and weddings (lots and lots of weddings).  Millennials want leisure experiences, they say, like spa treatments and wine pairings, not challenging engagement with the people, events, and ideas that continue to shape our collective lives.  They want resolution, not conflict.  History is dead, these wishful trailblazers declare, and the only way to save heritage spaces is to kill them and their archaic missions.

It’s a topic that our panel of radicals — Old Salem’s Frank Vagnone (co-author of The Anarchists’ Guide to Historic House Museums), the American Association of State and Local History’s Bob Beatty, the Rhode Island Historical Society’s Morgan Grefe, History Communicator extraordinaire Kevin Levin, and myself, with a special appearance by Plimoth Plantation’s Tom Begley — were eager to tackle, perhaps because, for all of our claims to radicalism, and record of causing trouble in the museum world in several time zones, we were uniform, even resolute, in response: to channel Faulkner’s fictional attorney Gavin Stevens in Requiem for a Nun, “The past is never dead. It isn’t even past.”  In other words, history — especially a public history that actively seeks to connect the past to the present in ways that shape the future, and a preservation ethos that rehabilitates stories as much as buildings — is alive and well, even amongst Millennials.  As one of the panelists pointed out, just follow the money.  Lin-Manuel Miranda and his Hamilton: The Musical wouldn’t have reached their current astronomical heights of popularity if history is dead.  “Hidden Figures” and “Hacksaw Ridge” wouldn’t have been nominated for Best Picture Academy Awards, and grossed a combined $219 million at the box office, if history is dead.

More to the point is the evidence provided by the institutions that appear to be at greatest risk if history was headed to the morgue.  Closer to home, the mansions managed by the Preservation Society of Newport County reported welcoming an astonishing one million guests last year.  Plimoth Plantation — a prime candidate for extreme unction if there was one, with its dozens of costumed interpreters, a complex narrative that blends religion, Native Americans, and a core of Protestant extremists, and a 90-minute drive from the nearest metro area — is not only holding onto its historical audiences, it’s growing new ones, while maintaining a respectable balance sheet for donors and trustees.

So what’s the deal? Why are some sites losing guests and dollars, jettisoning boatloads of human capital in the process, while seemingly similarly situated ones are looking forward to a sustainable future?  In the end, we concluded that the issue isn’t about history being dead, it’s about history being deadly boring.  From Hamilton to Plimoth, success clearly appears to lie in a consistently strong yet diverse helping of mission-driven historical programming designed to educate and entertain, connecting audiences — even Millennials — in ways that are natural, that taste and feel real because they are.  But that requires a level of deep immersion in a historical past that draws heavily on academic resources of all kinds in order to get the details right, even the ones guests don’t see.  The important thing is the scope and nature of a 360-degree guest experience, one that’s not bland or artificial, and than can carry the serious ideas and conflicts that are going on in the heads of Americans and other visitors, regardless of marketing demographic, if for no other reason than because that is the only way through them. Immersive public history doesn’t work unless the past we present gets at the big stuff.  As my experience from Disney to Colonial Williamsburg consistently reminds me, engagement doesn’t work unless it gets at the core of a human condition that wrestles with the challenges we continue to face, whether over race, religion, gender identity, or other distinctions that artificially divide history into one that’s yours and one that’s mine.

But it can’t be fantasy.  That line can’t be crossed, even if, in the end, all we are really trying to do is tell a story and draw others into its pages.  Do that and, as we radicals discussed during and beyond the panel, your site will not just lose money, it will lose much more — it will lose credibility, which, for a heritage site, is the ball game.  Entertaining, provocative programming will convince your guests to come back to your site, but your reputation is what will get them there in the first place.

So Faulkner’s over-quoted phrase can continue to have real meaning for us as public historians, who see the past as vibrant and alive, with an important role to play in our daily lives, as it swirls all around us.  Because, in the final analysis of the Newport radicals, people don’t hate history, they just hate history done badly by people who don’t seem to care much about it.

Dr. Taylor Stoermer, Visiting Curator of Public History at the Newport Historical Society, Faculty Fellow and Adjunct Professor at Roger Williams University, and author of the forthcoming Public History: A Field Guide (Rowman and Littlefield).