2015 has been a curious year for heritage institutions, one that has generated fundamental questions about what they do and how they do it. We have seen the spectacular, the exciting, the innovative, the bizarre, and the inscrutable (sometimes all wrapped into one), which have sparked necessary and long overdue discussions of the ways in which we preserve the past–including, importantly, debates over whose pasts are worth preserving. And I don’t mean that as part of some tiresome, pseudo-intellectual conversation about the construction of multiple memories, but, rather, an intense consideration of the point where it really matters, when money changes hands and real-world decisions are made over the present and future of buildings, landscapes, and people. Moreover, thanks to the IMLS, we have a much better idea of just how many history-related organizations there are (an eye-watering 19,000 of them) and the wide variety of forms they take, from house museums and “living history” farms and local historical societies to podcasts (Ben Franklin’s World and the Bowery Boys are my faves) and Instagram feeds. We also know that the vast majority of them increasingly face demands to do more with less as donors change the way they make financial commitments, looking more to organizations that have a clear, relevant mission and can be relied on to stick to it, as well as preferring targeted projects, including those highlighted on sites such as Kickstarter and Indiegogo, to general fund contributions.
I know this because one of the things I do is counsel donors, large and small, about heritage sites that are worth their investment and those that are toxic. The hundreds of millions of dollars regularly contributed or granted to such organizations are an enormous part of public history–the business side–and it is rarely taught, but the business of public history is critical to a proper understanding of the ways and means of practicing it. Of course, the primary returns one expects from investing in a heritage organization cannot be counted in a monthly P & L report. Once the mission statements of our very particular kind of non-profits become a thinly disguised collective synecdoche for customers and profit margins, then the game, as Belarius says, is up. At that point self-preservation, even on the institutional level, replaces historic preservation. But the ability and capacity to deliver the intangible returns that are, and should be, at the core of every heritage organization’s raison d’être certainly can be gleaned from P & L reports and the like. Consequently, a close examination of the business side of the field helps us shed light on one of the biggest questions raised in 2015 about heritage organizations and, therefore, heritage fundraising: are there just too many of them? Of course, as my experience in academic history, public history, and politics (both my successes and, often more so, my failures) tells me, that’s a question only the market can answer (Lenin got one thing right: people vote with their feet, or maybe with their debit cards these days).
In any case, as I sit here in unexpectedly balmy New England, in the glow of our lovely Christmas tree, listening to our dog’s oddly comforting snores, and being reminded by everyone from Charity Navigator to each of my alma maters that December is the biggest giving month of the year, I figure it’s time for me to create my annual list of heritage institutions worth your consideration (every year I put together a private version of it for a set of high donors and occasionally make parts of it public — think of it as a Morningstar report for public history). This is, unsurprisingly, weighted to the Northeast and doesn’t claim to be comprehensive. And it includes sites to which my family has donated in 2015 or made 2016 commitments (denoted with an asterisk). There are only two other points for your consideration. First, as part of my ongoing effort to build a better language for the practice of public history, I take a broad church approach to what that term means. Public history can reflect a genre (tennis) or a trade (boatbuilding) or a concept (civic education) or another sort of idea (civil liberty), as much as it is about bricks and mortar (or, maybe, wattle and daub). That is largely, I suspect, a reflection of the factors that are shaping donor behavior, as they become increasingly wary of institutions that stress “experiences” over missions. Consequently, the below organizations are crystal clear when it comes to what they’re all about, which can make the difference in how many zeros a Development officer adds after a number on a pledge sheet. Second, it would be less than candid of me to suggest that absence from this list is nothing more than that. For some, absence is simply a matter of practicality — I visit, crunch the numbers (I have created a collection of metrics that probably would bore anyone this side of Bill James), evaluate the marketing and programming, and analyze the mission and mechanics of dozens of organizations every year, but I can’t get to them all, and making a recommendation based on insufficient data, and therefore inadequate evidence, would be irresponsible (I do, however, include an organization that I have not visited this year, but those reasons are clearly set out below). For others, I have a list of institutions to explicitly avoid that is part of my yearly private memo to heritage philanthropists, although I’ve hardly held my tongue, publicly, about organizations that I think donors should avoid and others about which I’m beginning to worry.
But this is the season for good cheer and, having just read “A Christmas Carol” with my family, I think I can manage to keep Christmas in my heart for at least another few days. Maybe I can even last until Twelfth Night. So on with the show, in no particular order.
Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello (Charlottesville, Virginia). Yes, a behemoth to kick-off the list. Monticello has–like the other two members of “The Big Three” (Mount Vernon and Colonial Williamsburg)–changed considerably under relatively new leadership. Leslie Bowman, who succeeded the courtly Dan Jordan on the mountain top in 2008, vastly expanded and enhanced the scope and depth of programming, reorganized internally, and has begun to recreate important parts of the Monticello community. The result has been a transformed visitor experience, both onsite and on-line, and enhanced scholarly endeavors (the new Mont Alto center is being put to fantastic use by Andrew Jackson O’Shaughnessy, a first-rate scholar) to inform them. From a variety of digital history apps and MOOCs and teacher education programs to an array of family-friendly experience packages, Bowman has done it, with the help of heritage all-stars like Gary Sandling (the single best practicing public historian in America, IMHO), without sacrificing the institution’s integrity or threatening its sustainability. That’s saying quite something given that Monticello’s guest acquisition costs are among the highest of any heritage site on the Atlantic seaboard (its donor acquisition numbers are much better, though). But one could ignore all that and still recommend Monticello for what it’s doing to, in an important sense, resurrect the enslaved women and men for whom that place was home, every bit as much as it was for Jefferson and his free family. And it’s not just the ongoing reconstruction of Mulberry Row, or the rooms reinterpreted to focus on the Hemingses and others who breathed life into them, or the apps built to project their memories into new media. That’s all part of it, of course. But the main thing is the courage to not only tell, but to honestly and earnestly embrace, their story, which is the single most important job facing historians of early America today, academic or public. As one of those historians, and one who has, moreover, taught the subject at the University of Virginia and recreated the lived experience of members of Jefferson’s extended family (his wife, Martha Wayles Skelton, and his enslaved valet, Martin Hemings) for first-person interpretation elsewhere, I know how difficult it is, but also how crucial it is to get it right. That’s why I think that whomever Monticello hires to fill its position of Public Historian for Slavery and African American Life will be in one of the toughest jobs in the business. It has also the potential to be among its most influential. Either way, that kind of commitment flies in the face of anyone who believes that visitor numbers and TripAdvisor reviews and surviving quarterly Board meetings represent the kind of success for which we collectively reach. As I have written about the splendid crew at Plimoth Plantation, Monticello’s path forward appears to be better history and more of it. That’s the kind of investment to make anyone sleep well who wants to go to bed knowing that their contributions will ensure that future generations learn what they absolutely need to know from our past.
Royall House and Slave Quarters (Medford, Massachusetts). From slavery in the south to slavery in the north, the Royall House and Slave Quarters represents what might well be the new breed of heritage sites: those that, with apologies to W.W., recognize the unique verse they each can contribute to the powerful play that is American public history and are committed to shouting that verse from the rooftops. I have encountered few more impressive heritage sites this year, as the staff and Board of this one are clear about their mission and aggressively pursue it, whether in a house tour or on Facebook. Somewhat similar in degree to the splendid Harriet Beecher Stowe Center in Hartford, the concept infuses an entire site that both housed Royalls and quartered slaves, and projects from there into a vision that seeks to inform debate and controversy on related subjects wherever they may be found–from Ferguson, Missouri, to Harvard Yard. From a more practical standpoint, a little will go a long way at this site. The core interpretation is more than sound, some terrific archaeology has been conducted, and the mansion house is a Georgian jewel, but physically the site is, well, challenged, given its extensive preservation needs and the fact that its location is less than guest-friendly (It’s perfect for Road Scholar and similar groups, though). So your contribution, of whatever amount, will not only be well spent by an informed leadership, but also of immediate use.
Plimoth Plantation (Plymouth, Massachusetts). This place makes me smile just thinking about it. As I’ve written before, Plimoth is the place to watch for what’s coming next in public history. It’s quite possibly the most dynamic site on the East Coast, with a clear, relevant mission and the right people in place to execute it.
IYRS School of Boatbuilding & Restoration* (Newport, Rhode Island). This entry on the list doesn’t represent as dramatic a change of gears as one might think. No, IYRS students and faculty wear no funny clothes and should not be confused with interpreters, and no guest will be asked for an entrance fee (you can watch them at work for free). Yet they are as public in their history and as active in their practice, and preservation and promotion, of our heritage as anyone who wears breeches and a waistcoat, or a petticoat and mob cap. A visit to their workshop, and to the massive historic yacht Coronet, which is being restored next door, is a must for any visitor to Newport who is interested in proper living history, and a donation, moreover, will further contribute to its sustainability by assisting students to carry those skills into the workforce or on to their own businesses.
Golden Ball Tavern Museum (Weston, Massachusetts). A work-in-progress, but one on the ladder of the new breed of house museums, the Golden Ball Tavern might be the most important heritage site you’ve never heard of, and the story it has to tell is another of those muted historical voices that need to be understood today if Americans–and, it must be said, Canadians–are to understand who were are, or at least who we might have been. Although the Royall House and Slave Quarters has its claim to part of the tale, the Golden Ball is set to become the epicenter for exploring the loyalist experience in Massachusetts, if not all of Revolutionary America. It’s all here — spies, patriot mobs, Paul Revere’s ire, an outspoken devotion to the rights guaranteed by the British constitution, and a boatload of unanswered questions about why and how Isaac Jones and his loyalist family, free and enslaved, successfully navigated the turbulent waters of the War for Independence and the Early Republic. Part of the fun of the Golden Ball is that neither Jones, a publican and Congregationalist, born and raised in Weston, and his immediate family don’t fit into the orthodox characterization of loyalists, suggesting, if not demanding, that our definition of that term is long overdue for refinement. Another part of the fun is the house and grounds, which have barely been touched in 350 years, having remained in the Jones family until it became a museum in the 1960s. Given that the staff and Board of the Golden Ball are just at the beginning of developing a new strategic plan for the site, and reorganizing a tremendous collection of manuscripts and decorative arts to better understand its residents, the sky is the limit. If there was a futures market for heritage sites, this would be my bonus buy. Any venture philanthropists out there? Oh, and did I mention that the Joneses are Henry David Thoreau’s family? The Golden Ball’s future, given the many different avenues its interpretation and development can take, and the dedication of its leadership, is as bright and promising as any heritage organization in New England. Moreover, its terrific Executive Director, Joan Bines, literally wrote the best book out there on colonial American language with her splendid Words They Lived By, so you know it’s on solid interpretive ground.
The Robbins House (Concord, Massachusetts). None of the sites on this list has a purely local history. Each is part of a broader narrative that is still emerging as we reshape and redefine and redetermine those pasts that now require preservation and projection. The Robbins House in Concord might be small, but it packs a wallop of an interpretive punch. On the one hand, this former home to generations of free African Americans is another side of the same interpretive coin told about the Minute Men nearby at the Old North Bridge, while, on the other hand, it is an extension of the arc that could begin on the Newport wharves or at the Royall House and Slave Quarters. Moreover, this organization is interesting because of its organizational structure: it truly is a community effort of the best sort, one in which the people of Concord appear to be determining what of their history deserves to be preserved and how. Given their historical track record, I’d bet that past performance is a reliable indicator of future returns.
Jamestown Rediscovery Foundation (Jamestown, Virginia). If telling the story of the Scrooby Separatists and Wampanoag at Plimoth is a challenge akin to throwing down a gauntlet, preserving the site of the first permanent English settlement in North America is a slap in the face. It’s tough to find, sandwiched as it is between the National Park Service and the James River (one has to actually go through the NPS Visitor Center just to get there), and almost impossible for uninformed potential guests to distinguish from the reconstructed Jamestown Fort next door. Consequently, visitorship is anemic and operating costs–as an active archaeological site, with all the staff, conservation, and interpretive expenses it requires–are high. And given that the actual Plymouth site (and Salem, and Boston, and…) is underneath almost 400 years of continuous habitation, Jamestown is all the more important for what we can learn from its remains and the ongoing search for more of them. The Jamestown Rediscovery Foundation, charged with managing the site and keeping the digs and stories going, is relatively new, assuming responsibility when Preservation Virginia and Colonial Williamsburg went their separate ways, after their five-year attempt to jointly oversee the site. But failure for this site is hardly an option. Fortunately, the Foundation is in good hands, with America’s premier historian of Jamestown, Jim Horn, now running the show, with Bill Kelso and a splendid team of archaeologists plumbing the fort’s depths (although it’s unfortunate that the magnificent Bly Straube wasn’t retained), and Lisa Fischer, who established Colonial Williamsburg’s innovative Digital History Center, exploring the potential for digital archaeology projects and other outreach. The fact that Jamestown also represents the introduction of slavery into North America cannot be gainsaid. Consequently, this site is worth a closer look for your year-end contribution.
The Old State House (Boston, MA). Under the guidance of the visionary Nat Sheidley, The Bostonian Society is jumping headfirst into presenting engaging, informative, and–it can’t be overlooked–entertaining experiences for guests on Boston’s Freedom Trail. There are many heritage gems on the Trail, of course, such as the King’s Chapel (enthusiastic guides who deserve your support) and Old South Meeting House* (best use of static interpretation I’ve seen), and they would all benefit from greater cooperation to leverage their resources, but the team at the Old State House is breathing a new energy into interpreting the height of the revolutionary crisis in Boston. With nice price points and a rather strong donor efficiency rating, as well as a wide variety of interpretive options and programming to connect with diverse constituencies, the Bostonian Society is more than a safe bet for your philanthropic dollar.
Newport Historical Society (Newport, Rhode Island). While Boston has the Old State House to lead the interpretive way, Newport’s heritage is in splendid hands with the Newport Historical Society. The NHS has embarked on a range of interesting and engaging programming, with a variety of interpretive techniques, from costumed interpreters in the middle of its historic streets to programs in its impressive collection of colonial era structures, to tell Newport’s important history (the story of religious freedom alone is worth the price of admission), often in partnership with the tremendous Rhode Island Historical Society (which is doing interesting work of its own). And don’t take my word for it. You can gauge for yourself the infectious enthusiasm of the staff and leadership of the NHS as they leave no interpretive stone unturned to tell the stories that beg to be told on that end of Aquidneck Island. Just check out their website and see videos of past events and what’s next. I can practically guarantee that you’ll be sorry for missing what’s past and checking in regularly to find out what’s next. In fact, the NHS might leave every other heritage organization in the Northeast question why they close during the winter months and heritage tourists wondering why Newport isn’t on their list of places to return to every year.
Right Honorable Mentions
Whitney Plantation (Wallace, Louisiana). While this is the only site on the list that I have not visited, I do know Louisiana quite well. I went to law school in New Orleans and was a senior aide to one of its United States Senators for several quite formative and eventful years. I’ve also studied this site from afar, so I know both the boldness and necessity of a “plantation museum” solely focused on the experience of enslaved peoples. The sheer existence of this significant heritage site is worth one’s financial support. After all, while it might not take a sledgehammer to open a walnut, slavery in the American experience is no walnut, so I’m all for the interpretive sledgehammer that Whitney Plantation appears to be.
Menokin Foundation (Warsaw, Virginia). One for donors interested in preservation methods for our built environment, Menokin is certainly the most innovative and interesting of such sites. Forget about the Lees and Tayloes when thinking about this organization. The excitement here is all about the act of preservation and serves as a fascinating metaphor, and ongoing exercise, for what it might mean for protecting and interpreting less tangible reminders of our pasts.
Other 2015 Highlights
The International Tennis Hall of Fame* (Newport, RI).
Gilbert Stuart Birthplace & Museum (Middletown, RI).
The Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the U.S. Senate (Dorchester, MA).
Concord Museum* (Concord, MA).
Lexington Historical Society* (Buckman Tavern, Hancock-Clarke House, and Munroe Tavern in Lexington, MA).
Louisa May Alcott’s Orchard House* (Concord, MA).
Thomas Cole National Historic Site (Catskill, NY).
The Valentine (Richmond, VA).