Highlights from the VAM 2020 Annual Conference, “Making Museums Essential”

The session, Native American Artifacts in Virginia’s Museums was a discussion of the unique concerns for museums that have Native American artifacts in their collection or possibly on their property, importantly keeping in mind the issues of repatriation in accordance with the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act ( NAGPRA).  The session centered on museum collections. Cherry Hill has only a few arrowheads and several hand tools in its collection. While we are careful of these, Cherry Hill also needs to be mindful of undiscovered African American artifacts on our a site. In fact, Cherry Hill and the City of Falls Church need to be alert to the possible presence of all the types of the archeological artifacts when building or digging in the area.  However, as far as we know, the Native Americans who lived in the Falls Church area were nomadic. There do not seem to have been permanent residents in the area.

Panelists on the session, Confronting a Legacy included Lori Kimball of the Loudoun County Heritage Farm Museum, and Kevin Grigsby, historian, and descendant of Sophia and Jacob Howard who were enslaved at Oatlands Plantation. There were no empty seats and many questions, demonstrating how much of an issue this is for Virginia historic sites. It was led by Jana Shafagoj of Morven Park and the topics covered were how to be accurate, sensitive, and transparent; getting started on a descendants’ program, and making the interpretation of this aspect of your site’s history a priority. Kimball spoke about the “Reclaim Your Story” program that she organized at Oatlands with its Descendants Day; the database she created of named individuals and letting the descendants tell the story, rather than staff.

Preservation in the Public Eye covered the pros and cons of taking conservation work out from behind-the-scenes to address the growing interest in teaching the public about the efforts involved in conservation, as well as the cost of caring for collections.  Several museums spoke on their individual programs, demonstrating a huge range of options for how Cherry Hill might do this.

Mary van Balgooy, vice-president of Engaging Places, LLC,  Interpreting Women at Historic House Museums raised the issue of whether portraying women in traditional roles was a complete and accurate recognition of their lives and importance.  Were women only “pleasant homemakers” or “radical feminists?”  The lecture and discussions focused on how historic house museums can expand their interpretations of a variety of women during the period of time reflected in their museums. She also suggested making comparisons to women’s lives at the present time.

She explained the concept of “agency,” or the ability to make choices within the limits of a person’s status, race, class, occupation, and location. Agency was described as a way to provide a more nuanced understanding of women during various historical periods. Balgooy noted that whereas, for example, there is a frequent citation of the war efforts of Abigail Adams and Betsy Ross, they actually had more complex lives and hardships. Abigail Adams not only made bullets in her oven but over time rose to influence politics.

Balgooy suggested that in addition to the common themes of war and economics, house museums should also analyze broader aspects of women’s lives in the relevant historical period, e.g., if they had property rights and what technology impacted them. Suggested reading:  The Women’s Fight: The Civil War’s Battles for Home, Freedom, and Nation by Thavolia Glymph.

Jeffrey Allison from the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts and Peter Armstrong of the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation described their experience and provoked interest in a session whose title, Contemporary Art in the History Museum, seemed a contradiction. The presenters described how the American Revolution Museum at Yorktown undertook the exhibition, “Forgotten Soldier: African Americans in the Revolutionary War.” It featured the work of the contemporary artist Titus Kaphar, as a way of attracting new audience members and donors. Titus Kaphar is an American painter whose work reconfigures and regenerates art history to include the African-American subject. (https://kapharstudio.com/forgotten-soldier/)

The Focusing Your Interpretive Message session argued that a museum’s mission statement should guide what it wants to say but, just, more importantly, museums must ask “Why should my audience care about that?”  Museums should link the two purposes to achieve an emotional response from or connection for their audiences.  This requires determining who its audience(s) is and making the museum’s interpretation relevant to their expectations and interests, provoking emotion or relevance to the visitors’ experiences. Honor, danger, shelter, fear, loyalty, and persistence are things all people can relate to.

For example, a museum blacksmith making a nail has only 10 seconds to attract an audience. Giving a physical description of the nail is much less effective in reaching people than noting the importance of the nail in keeping a roof over your head in the 1700s. Such an approach appeals to the broader themes of shelter and security.

Tackling a big topic, Creating an Equitable Museum Experience – How Museums Foster and Respond to Change, suggested museums identify their community, whether defined by geography, interests, age, or membership. In planning, museums need to ask themselves if they desire to expand their community or maintain the status quo. They need to analyze their current attendance patterns.  Visitors are attracted to interactive and experiential exhibits, even though these may be context-dependent.

In relating these recommendations to Cherry Hill we could do more research on the workers the Blaisdell’s must have employed. While it is doubtful they would have hired the enslaved from local owners they might have employed members of the substantial free African American population in Falls Church. This might be hard to research.

Museums as Community sessions dealt with the need to reach into their communities to establish synergy. A museum can be a resource for its community, a place for meetings and celebrations. Small town museums need to foster a sense of ownership or pride within the community, although museums must also adjust to changes in their community. (Cherry Hill is very successful in connecting with and providing for Falls Church citizens.)

Some museums offered special tours to acquaint the citizens better with special aspects of or changes to the museum.  Session attendees also offered a number of creative ideas for increasing community interest and participation, such as using museum storytellers and putting up small exhibits in a government building or library, or school. (Cherry Hill has considered doing special tours of areas not open on regular tours.) Maintaining relationships with city councils and local government and gaining support from local businesses were considered very important.

The representative from the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation encouraged museums to attend the session, What Do You Want to Say? Focusing Your Interpretive Message, to seek the help of scientists, experts in the field, and other museums for special partnerships to help museums stand out. The speaker provided several examples of novel activities.

To expand their educational programs beyond 4th graders, Jamestown-Yorktown invested in special, though costly, history carts to share its programs with schools and at special events. (Cost with shipping is $5,000 per cart from Museum Explorer). Cart artifacts conveyed a story from the museum. One example, a cart with a piece of corn, a beaded necklace, and a bow and arrow, told viewers that the native Americans were agricultural, lived in one place, and probably had an advanced, socially stratified culture. These artifacts told a story that could evoke an emotional connection.

The Foundation spokesman also encouraged museums to sponsor events that were unrelated to their mission in order to create greater attention. For example, they did a Halloween “fright nite” as a team-building exercise and to draw new participants. It included photo opportunities and was both popular and financially successful.  Cherry Hill might try this by having re-enactors dress as ghostly former Cherry Hill inhabitants, providing vignettes in each room of a candlelight house tour.

This year’s Historic House Forum took place at Ben Lomond Historic Site in Manassas VA which was used as a field hospital following the Battle of First Manassas. This site is a leader in providing visitors with an immersive sensory experience using scent machines, soundscapes, and a virtual reality opportunity.  In addition, Gatsby’s Tavern offered inexpensive ways to create more engaging tours such as their postcard project, a beloved 2D pig, and small recording boxes. Cherry Hill benefits from the ideas shared by other small museums which can easily be incorporated into our tours in the future.

The current multi-million dollar rehabilitation of Arlington House, which includes new exhibits and programming, was presented in Division and Reunification: Re-imagining Arlington House.

Mark Benbow, Associate Professor of American History at Marymount University, discussed the depiction of slavery in many American museums and how, like Arlington House, they are working to create better content and programs. Arlington house staff provided a list of training they recommend for staff and docents that Cherry Hill hopes to explore in the future.

Creating a Sensory Friendly Program highlighted George Washington’s Mount Vernon project to create a special program for people on the autism spectrum.  Specific autism traits that might need addressing were explored and possible ways museums might address them to create a better visitation experience were provided. Resources included the Autism Society, Autism in Museums website, Museum Education Roundtable in NY, Smithsonian Accessibility site, and the Carol Gray Social Stories.

During Into the Classroom! Making Museum Education Essential in Public School Curriculum speakers from Morven Park’s Center for Civic Impact shared how they created a more active partnership with schools. They explained that by offering classroom programs, museums can become an outside voice for students and acquaint them with the benefit of using primary sources. It was suggested that a great way to support students is by offering your space and content as resources for Virginia’s History Day.

Participants at The Role of Museums in Inclusion and Combatting the Idea of “Us” vs “Them”  discussed the need for museums to be intentionally inclusive and create programs accessible for all, as well as be culturally competent.  Resources for such efforts were provided by Virginia Center for Inclusive Communities, Teaching Tolerance, and the Moton Museum.