A Good Story: The Lifeblood of a Public Historian

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Tell A Good StoryAlmost everyone within sniffing distance of public history these days, in any capacity, is on the lookout for the silver bullet that will somehow “rescue” their particular site, or organization, or even the entire field, from the edge of a financial ruin.

For many boards and staff, technology has become the most sexy aphrodisiac around. Even though I haven’t yet seen it effectively used, partly because it becomes dated so quickly, museum and other sites continue to reach for phone tours, or apps, or touch screens, to add that extra element of engagement that will magically connect to those ever-elusive younger audiences that sites yearn to attract.

Others go for something rather less expensive, but perhaps more seductive, like innovative, even avant garde-sounding terms to describe fresh approaches to interpretation, such as “anarchist” or “rogue,” that tend to deliver very little if not sincerely intended – but that requires a major willingness to take risks, something in short supply at historic sites these days. And then there are the sites that head over the edge of integrity and into the abyss of caricature by embracing ghost tours, or any other off-mission programming designed to pump up revenue and guest numbers so that uninformed board members can be pleased enough with the monthly profit and loss statement and senior staff can rest easy until the next finance committee meeting.

Sorry, public history folks, but they’re all wrong, and, to quote one of my favorite movies, “anyone who says differently is selling something.” All that any historic site needs as a foundation for sustainable success is a good story. Just one. A good story is, in fact, the lifeblood of a public historian. As long as that story is real (first rule of public history: don’t make it up), relevant (second rule: go with what you’ve got), and engaging (third rule: Freeman Tilden’s “information is not interpretation”), the rest is just details. Find your narrative then build around it an interpretive structure that can tell it.

Writing as someone who reads IRS Form 990s for fun, I think that I understand what makes up the bottom line of historic sites better than your average bear. After all – and this is something that not enough Boards of Trustees understand – I know that every invoice that comes across a director’s desk, or program she or he approves, or marketing contract that she or he signs, does not get paid out of thin air; The director is on the hook to the board and the membership to find the money to pay for it – not the business officer, not the education planner, and not the grounds manager. The director and, with luck, a guileless development coordinator have to come up with every dime that a site invests in its preservation and its programs, and they had better do it in ethical, mission-oriented ways, from personal solicitations to grant applications. That’s another reason why the story is so important, as it will help define what sets one’s site, and therefore shape the search for and application of the dollars that are pledged to support it, apart from all the rest.

I received more than a few object lessons about the top three rules of public history during my recent trip to the Adirondacks, where me and my wife visited six museums and historic sites in seven days. And those sites could not have been more different from each other. They were all important in their own ways, but remarkably distinct in their ability to – going back to the rules – be 1) real, 2) relevant, and 3) engaging.

RLSAt the top of my list is actually the only proper “rogue” site we saw, the one that didn’t need velvet ropes to be removed in order to make a dramatic statement about interpretive philosophy: the Robert Louis Stevenson Cottage and Museum in Saranac Lake. It properly broke every single one of the modern tends. There was no gift shop, no interpretive scheme per se, conservation issues that would make any self-respecting collections manager weep, and not an iPad in sight. But it has an amazing story, one about a teller of stories, no less, an extraordinary author who lived every day thinking it might be his last, and therefore wrote ageless adventures that readers of all ages could, and do, use as reminders that there could be such things as heroes in our dreams, even if they are in short supply in real life. And the museum is fortunate to be in the hands of a great storyteller and have a collection that most other sites, especially those dependent on famous inhabitants, would covet. And after the rather analog presentation – which nevertheless hit all the rules – my wife and I were left completely alone with collections in the house, to spend as much or as little time as we wanted in the space occupied by Stevenson and his family. We were so impressed with the entire approach that we became members of the supporters’ society.

By most popular modern public history standards, discussed ad nauseum at conference after conference across the country, the Stevenson museum is a certifiable mess. But that might well say more about the current state of public history and its leading expositors than it does about that museum. What you saw was the real thing, rooms and artifacts associated with one of the world’s greatest authors, who wrote there amazing pieces that continue to resonate a century later, on the page and on the screen. The interpretive narrative could write itself, yet it was handed over to us by the director, whose father and grandfather helped save the place. Now that’s rogue history.

MASCOTIn between were the easy sites, and ones I about which be I cannot be especially objective, if we’re being frank. I’m particularly writing about the Olympic Center and Lake Placid Olympic Museum, all run by the apparently nicely managed Olympic Regional Development Authority (ORDA). To be honest, the small museum itself was, in a word, wretched, unless you’re really into Sonjia Henne (but do read the museum archivist’s terrific regular column on Olympic history in the local newspaper). But that’s where this essay gets back on track.

While a proper, experiential museum or interpretive area could do wonders for the place (Note to the ORDA), the museum was an after-thought compared to being able to walk around the facility for free and just happen upon the 1980 Herb Brooks Arena, being used now as it was and as it should be – for skaters training for the same Olympic gold that was won on that ice. But the tour that we stumbled upon (quite literally; another note to the ORDA) was spectacular, and all that took was a fantastic guide, augmented only by a two-minute DVD of the end of the Miracle on Ice shown at the rink where it occurred. The experience enthralled about 20 people who paid $10 for an hour that extended to two – and I would not have blinked an eye had it gone longer. Place. Story. Storyteller. There’s nothing anarchist or rogue about that.

DSCN5662The John Brown site was also important, but similarly problematic in that Brown (like the entire 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team), is in my personal Pantheon, and the guide’s understanding of Brown’s history was a little shallow for my tastes, which was a minor violation of rule #1, but, along with other the other fantastic Olympic sites in and around Lake Placid, what was right – place, story, storyteller – made all the difference. Even if you don’t set foot in the house, the site is still the final resting place of Brown, his sons, and others whom at Harper’s Ferry, to paraphrase Frederick Douglass, could die for the slave in 1859 and spark the beginning of the end of the infernal institution. Talk about a story, even before you get to the terrific tale of Gerritt Smith’s plan for helping free blacks reach the statutory requirements for suffrage, which is what drew Brown to the Adirondacks in the first place.

Then there was the other end of the spectrum. For the moment, I’ll let Fort Ticonderoga off the hook. I’ve worked at various sites on developing a number of the interpretive and narrative techniques the fort is admirably trying to employ. I just wish I’d been able to encounter any of them. Surprisingly, it is, like Colonial Williamsburg, almost entirely a reconstruction, and one that is showing its age. The narrative wasn’t clear, but that certainly had more to do with the fact that we were there on a re-enactor programming weekend, which always tend to interfere with the guest experience, unless properly structured with contextualists. Otherwise guests tend to wander and wonder. But I look forward to getting up there on a proper interpretive day in order to see the plan properly in action. The marketing certainly is good, the institutional infrastructure and programming plan seems sound, and the terroir unmatchable. Fort Ticonderoga is one of the most important historic sites in North America, so get there when you can (and, for fun, read Robert Louis Stevenson’s piece about it on the way).

Fort William Henry Ghost TourThe site that doesn’t get off the hook is Fort William Henry in Lake George. It’s quite possibly one of the worst historic sites I have ever encountered. It violates all of the rules despite, it appeared to me, the best efforts of the staff (including the only female Grenadier I’ve ever seen). The reconstructed fort is barely true to Eyre’s original 1750s plan because of the blacktop and other hokey silliness almost everywhere; the buildings abound in French and Indian War mannequins that should be an exhibit – or horror show – of their own about 1950s historic interpretation; and, of course, they rely on ridiculous ghost tours. Yet it is a site that has one of the great, tragic stories in early American history: the massacre of part of the garrison of the fort, how many depends on one’s source, after its surrender in 1757. And it’s a familiar story, enshrined by James Fenimore Cooper and embodied by Daniel Day Lewis. How could a site with that kind of story, and the modern controversy that goes with it, go awry? Just go to Fort William Henry and find out. Talk to the solid interpretive staff that I encountered, however, and something might be salvaged from your visit.

That gets us back to the point of this piece. Fort William Henry has an incredible story to tell that could easily hit all the rules, if properly structured, and properly drive revenue and education. Actually, Fort William Henry might make another rule: don’t avoid the one thing for which the site might be known. Go with what you’ve got, don’t run from it. And – in our one visit – it has some of the right people to tell that story, if given half the chance.

Trustees, practitioners, professors, and students of public history should take heed: Don’t be anything your site isn’t. Go with what you’ve got. Maximize it. Accentuate its relevance. Leave the high tech and the slick vocabulary – and the ghost tours – to the side. Just remember what a different doctor said in one of my favorite television shows: “We’re all stories in the end. Just make it a good one, eh?”


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Taylor Stoermer

About Taylor Stoermer

A native of Baltimore, Maryland, Taylor was educated at the Johns Hopkins University and the University of Virginia where he earned his PhD in American History. Taylor’s scholarly work focuses on the interaction of political economics and political culture in the 18th-century Atlantic world. A public history consultant for museums and historic sites, he appears regularly in print, on the radio, on television, in public lectures, and in social media to comment on the people and ideas of American history and their modern relevance. Currently he is an adviser to C-SPAN for history content, a regular contributor to the Journal of the American Revolution. He was formerly the director of strategy, development, and historic interpretation at Historic Huguenot Street, the chief historian of Colonial Williamsburg, an invited scholar at Brown and Cambridge universities, and has held fellowships at Brown, Yale, the International Center for Jefferson Studies at Monticello, and the Huntington Library, among others.

6 thoughts on “A Good Story: The Lifeblood of a Public Historian

  1. Bob Ulrich

    Interesting comments about Ft William Henry, and I sadly have to agree with them. Add to them the fact that several of the items displayed n the “museum” appear to have been obtained from flea markets, out of context, and can’t even be explained by the staff on duty there.

    They also miss the opportunity to describe several important sites just south of the fort that could add to the total experience. Ex: Just a couple of miles south is the site of the most southerly incursion of the French into the Colonies (“Bloody Pond”). Also, nearby, the site where the Williams of Williams College was killed in a surprise attack while trying to reach Ft Edward, NY. In a premonition of his death, he wrote a will that left a stipend to create an institution of higher learning. Nice signage and a monument there, just off the road (Rt 9N or 9P) today. Why find it by accident when the Fort could indicate what is nearby of interest.

  2. Ellen Apperson Brown

    The Kelly Adirondack Center (Union College) is sitting on a fabulous story…that of John S. Apperson, Jr. (1878-1963) …a pioneer preservationist who saved the islands at Lake George from erosion and then spent the rest of his life fighting off various threats to the forever wild clause of the NY Constitution. I have sent off a manuscript to Smithsonian Books and hope to continue to write more books about him. I’m working on a digital archive of the Apperson papers, but sure could use some help and encouragement! For a taste of his accomplishments, have a look at my website, http://www.appersonassociates.com. I also have other Apperson family stories posted on my other website, http://www.vahistoryexchange.com. Ellen Apperson Brown

  3. Pam Malcolm

    I agree in principle with much of what is written here about the core importance of telling one’s story well, applicable certainly when one is thinking of historic sites as a location to deliver a story, through interpretive strategies, to convey the history a site represents. I do feel however that sites can be things other than this, such as a comfortable, beloved resource and meeting place for the local community, and a place for unique recreation activities.

    With the exception of ardent history lovers, many folks will come once to hear your story well told. After that, the “been there, did that” attitude often prevails, unless fun, relevant, diverse programming is offered to bring them back.

    As to good use of technology to entice the younger generation, I have seen successes. The local example that comes to mind, in the Albany area: Crailo SHS’s Dutch genre painting that comes to life to expand on the narrative and connect the painting to the site’s history.

  4. Maria Reynolds

    Even though it probably would be to the benefit of Fort William Henry to remove the creepy statues of men mid-amputation, I would be sad to lose such a unique cultural artifact. It is a fascinating remnant of the 1950s and the way Lake George developed into a tourist town full of kitschy attractions despite being inside the Adirondack Park. I get the impression that the fort has always thought of itself more as an attraction than a historic site and not just because the reconstruction was headed by the businessman that owned the hotel next door. When I was doing dissertation research (for which I wrote about the way the park’s history has been interpreted), I found many newspaper ads from the 1950s and 1960s that advertised the fort with illustrations of cartoon canons right next to similarly styled ads for Enchanted Forest and the Lake of Make Believe.

    So many of these attractions popped up throughout the park at this time in order to appeal to the middle class vacationer…and many have not lasted (RIP Frontier Town, Land of Make Believe…) It’s not the history we normally think about when considering the history of the Adirondack region, but it certainly is an interesting story that such places opened in the middle of the wilderness. It was great to read this piece and think about these issues again!

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  6. Miguel HernandezMiguel Hernandez

    Unfortunately, Dr. Stroemer’s “story well told” theory it is not a “silver bullet” for small local history museums either. Regardless of how well the story is told, the true test of a museum’s success is, would the first-time visitor go back to hear it again? My answer is it depends. There have been many studies on why various kinds of museum audiences make return visits and otherwise support them and it would take too much space here to list them but as a start I suggest a book entitled The Engaging Museum: Developing Museums for Visitor Involvement by Graham Black and put out by Psychology Press in 2005.


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