Saturday, November 19, 2011

What's Plan B for Museums in Canada?

by Cynthia Wallace-Casey
PhD Student, University of New Brunswick

Just over two-and-a-half years ago, during the keynote address to the 2009 Annual Meeting of the National Council on Public History, Harvard historian Jill Lepore spoke about the absence of historical sophistication within the realm of public discourse. Quoting a recent article by Motoko Rich in The New York Times, in which the author coined the phrase: “an unprecedented pileup of historic news”, Jill Lepore suggested that it is during times of dramatic change that societies feel a need to look back on the past for answers. In our fast-paced world of instant information, she explained, the news cycle speeds the process ahead so quickly that we expect no less than instant gratification; and when our search for understanding cannot be easily fulfilled, we turn to the past. Thus, she reasoned, it is during times of dramatic change that historical sophistication is valued the most.

Because the past “is always ending and always beginning”, societies actually live on the edge of history. The “unprecedented pileup” of events, to which both Motoko Rich and Jill Lepore were referring to in 2009 was the election of President Barrack Obama as the first African-American president of the United States; a spiraling economic crisis (that we are still experiencing) equated only to The Great Depression of the 1930’s; and an unimaginable series of financial scandals that have shaken the entire global economy. In our naivety, back in 2009, those of us listening to Jill Lepore’s words knew that North America was in the midst something big; but none of us could have predicted just how dramatic the pile-up would become. On this point I am referring to the current world debt-crisis, combined with shifting demographics in the workforce, leading to a belt-tightening in public service resources. It is seems inevitable that museums and other public history sites in Canada are going to feel it (if they haven’t already). How this on-going pileup will relate to public history is undoubtedly on the minds of many. Perhaps now is a good time to ask ourselves: “What is our plan B?”

In 2009, Cary Carson was awarded the National Council on Public History’s G. Wesley Johnson Award for outstanding writing in The Public Historian for his article “The End of History Museums: What’s Plan B?”. Written nearly 2 years before the “unprecedented pile-up of historic news” to which Jill Lepore addressed in her keynote speech, Cary Carson presented a worrisome discussion on the threats facing history museums in the 21st century, and how these institutions might adapt to new realities. These new realities seem to be even more apparent in the United States, since many of the history museums there are funded by private foundations. The collapse of money markets will have long-term ramifications on their operations; meaning, in the words of James Vaughan (2009) of the National Trust for Historic Preservation:

If no one is coming to your site, then you are going to fail.

…With the current economic decline, many who were on life-support will now fail…

Now is the time to carefully re-think all the things we do, because actions will happen – not because of the economy, but – because it’s what should have happened in the first place.

In anticipation of such failures, the National Trust for Historic Preservation has developed guidelines on how to “transition” a house museum into private hands, with the mindset that such a transition is not necessarily failure but inevitable progress, because a private owner will be able to preserve the site more cost-effectively. As Cary Carson indicates in his article, however, such transition philosophy is not unique to the current economic condition. In 2007, Colonial Williamsburg sold-off nearby Carter’s Grove Plantation to a private owner for 15.3$ million, with the requirement that it be opened to public visitation one day each year. Last February, this historic site was once again on the auction block, when the owners defaulted on their mortgage payments. This 400 acre historic site had operated as a museum since 1969 and is still considered to be one of the best examples of Georgian architecture in the United States. Likewise, in 2000, the National Trust for Historic Preservation experimented with privatization when it helped the Lee-Jackson Foundation “save” Robert E. Lee’s boyhood home in Alexandria, Virginia, which the foundation had operated as a museum since 1967, by decommissioning it as a public museum and selling the site to a wealthy private owner. By 2008, the museum was again on the buyer’s market and it is now a private home.

Not all predictions for the future of public history sites need be doom and gloom, however. By contrast, as Cary Carson has indicated, some history museums were fairing very well before the recent economic collapse, and therefore are expected to weather any financial difficulties they may face in the near-future. The Sandwich Glass Museum near Cape Cod, Massachusetts, for example, which has adopted a “community-centric” approach to engaging the public, continues to report record-breaking attendance figures each year. The newly restored James Madison’s Montpelier Estate, remotely located near the small town of Orange, Virginia (population 4,580), is one of 28 sites across the United States that is owned by the National Trust for Historic Preservation but operated by an independent non-profit foundation. In 2008, the site reported an annual attendance figure approaching 60,000 visitors each year, outnumbering the nearest community population by 13 to 1. Likewise, the waiting lists for guided tours through the Lower East Side Tenement Museum in New York City are reportedly becoming longer each year.

In Canada, with recent reports in the news about threatened museum closures, (see: “Museum fans have message for Ford: ‘Hands off’” ), the experiences of our public history colleagues to the south may be an indication of things to come here. For this reason, perhaps now is the time for museums and historic sites in Canada to start thinking about their “plan B”. Closure need not be an option.

As history educators, we need our museums and historic sites to remain open! And perhaps this opinion cannot be expressed more clearly than in the words of fellow bloggers The Two Palaverers:

We (our youth in particular) are losing the connection to our past. In order to have children visit museums, we need to have parents visit museums. We need to do a better job of engaging and teaching our children history, something that can be done both in school and outside of it – as a family or among friends. There is no better place to do that than here in New England. Once we fix our society’s connection to the past, our local museums will be the beneficiaries. What’s the contemporary challenge? Think about Old Sturbridge Village (a working museum) versus Grand Theft Auto (a video game). Fortunately, it only takes a brief afternoon to open up a whole new world. And that new world is in our own back yard.

The “Plan B” for history museums that Cary Carson has proposed, draws upon the necessity of engaging a new generation that is multi-media savvy. This necessity translates into, not-necessarily more expensive ‘bells and whistles’ but, how the visitor interacts with the past:

  • History museum visitors today expect to be transported back to another time and place in their imaginations. It is not enough merely to be told about times past. They are fully satisfied only if they live it – feel it – experience it.

  • They want to meet ordinary people to whom they can relate… they are not content to be mere spectators even in these virtual worlds. Instead they expect to become personally acquainted with the historical figures they meet there, share their joys and sorrows, and in effect join in the action of the story being told.
Carson’s “Plan B” for history museums embraces a more humanistic style of engagement with the past: one in which visitors become active participants in their learning experience - not just observers.

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