Nolan Cool, Public History M.A. Candidate, UMass Amherst
As representatives of cultural institutions and museums, how can we meet our audiences in an increasingly fast-paced world? This past summer, I confronted this question during an internship at Hyde Hall, an early nineteenth century mansion (built 1817 to 1834) overlooking scenic Otsego Lake at Glimmerglass State Park in Cooperstown, New York. Mainly, my work at Hyde Hall involved the digitization of the papers of the Clarke family, the home’s founding occupants and longtime land barons in Upstate New York. Beyond digital archiving, additional experiences working at the site included disseminating digitized materials via New York Heritage Digital Collections, brainstorming and event planning, leading tours, and expanding Hyde Hall’s online presence and social media. Simultaneously engaging audiences in physical and virtual spaces proved a challenging endeavor. In tackling these challenges, I piloted some of the ideas that Frank Vagnone and Deb Ryan present in their 2016 work Anarchist’s Guide to Historic House Museums. Through adapting some of these concepts, I shared Hyde Hall’s story with visitors on the ground and audiences online.
The brunt of my digitization work on the George Hyde Clarke Family Papers (available here) required me to structure a sustainable digital archiving process for future interns or site personnel to follow. This process included organizing previously digitized JPEG files into more manageable PDFs, cataloging the files, and creating metadata for and uploading this material online. Through this process, the history of the family’s business and personal networks in America and England, and details of the mansion’s construction and occupation became accessible online. In this virtual space, this material delivers the story of Hyde Hall to not only scholars and genealogists, but also to visitors should they wish to learn more about the site after their visit. Ultimately, these physical remnants provided our audience with an digitally accessible connection to the past through a variety of documents, papers, letters, and business correspondence involving the Clarke family and their home at Hyde Hall.
Through social media, I worked to share our digital collections, build our following, and actively engage with the surrounding community. To share Hyde Hall’s story and collaborate with our neighbors virtually, I connected with businesses, museums, community organizations, and other cultural institutions in and around Cooperstown and Central New York. Echoing Vagnone and Ryan in the Anarchist’s Guide, I not only attempted to get to know and collaborate with our neighbors, but tried to “Get Chatty” with Hyde Hall’s Facebook and Twitter followers. The authors advocate to meet your audiences where they are online and communicate a more informal and collaborative dialog with followers, visitors, and other institutions .
After reaching over one hundred followers in a week, I experimented with Facebook and Twitter to share “behind-the-scenes” views of Hyde Hall, one that few visitors have seen. Fortunately, the mansion was undergoing substantial renovation as New York State Parks workers installed additional electrical components throughout the house. Their work literally upended floors and revealed the anatomy of the house, as well as the secrets buried within its interior. Visitors to the site enjoyed catching a rare glimpse of these spaces and witnessing more than most visitors see in an average trek through the mansion. This exclusive scene gave both new and repeat visitors a different perspective on the historic house museum and historic spaces. As a result of their reaction during tours, I took this same premise online and created several posts sharing the intimate interaction between the State Park workers and the pieces of history they uncovered throughout the mansion. Sharing these rare pieces of Hyde Hall’s history alongside the details of the home’s life as the domestic sphere of the Clarke family allowed me to interact more informally with followers and past, present, and potential visitors online. By sharing a bit of interpretive authority about the Hall’s physical spaces online, people could make their own conclusions about what the work revealed. Users ultimately responded well to the images, videos, and live-streams of what historic house management looks like under the surface (literally).
Connecting with community partners and visitors both online and off constituted a challenging endeavor. Armed with a smartphone and insatiable curiosity, melding physical and digital spaces proved easy enough through Facebook and Twitter. However, gauging the diverse response from our audiences, providing fresh and engaging material, and further incorporating the visitor experience remained difficult goals to attain for the duration of my internship. I believe implementing Vagnone’s and Ryan’s approach to historic house museums opens the door for exciting collaborative experimentation on the part of site staff and visitors alike. However, sustaining and democratizing this vision presents a challenge to sites big and small, as everyone needs to be on-board, on the same page, and intimately invested in not only preserving and interpreting, but sharing the diverse narratives and stories inherent in the fabric of historic house spaces. Ultimately, I felt that I had more to build at Hyde Hall in these endeavors, but I left a devoted staff that has all the tools to share the depth of the Clarke family’s stories in elegant nineteenth century home.
Lastly, people really love museum cats…
 Franklin D. Vagnone and Deborah E. Ryan, Anarchist’s Guide to Historic House Museums, (Walnut Creek, CA: Left Coast Press, Inc., 2016), 71-80.