Nolan Cool, Public History M.A. Candidate, UMass Amherst
When I first walked into the Belchertown Stone House Museum, its potential hit me from all sides. This unique community fixture proudly houses the material and archival history of its community. After an eventful first year in the Public History Program studying museums, asking questions, and seeking answers about the value of historic house museums to the communities they serve, I viewed the Stone House as a canvass for testing, experimenting, and tinkering with potential ideas. Using the house’s spaces, I wanted to explore how the site could better serve its neighbors and visitors alike. Through several weeks of testing the ideological boundaries with Belchertown Historical Association (BHA) board members and the museum committee, my hope remains that I left a positive institutional impact toward the goal of building and sustaining a greater level of visitor and community engagement.
Although the site is only open one day out of the week, core tasks that I undertook included using PastPerfect software to catalogue documents, photos, and objects in the site’s extensive archives, as well as giving tours to visitors. Alongside developing a more simplified, flexible, and institutionally accessible tour script, I catalogued several historical photographs and some new collection accessions. Working only one day on-site proved challenging, but also provided time to study, and later digest, the ebbs and flows of the BHA’s institutional culture. As a very small organization of roughly twenty engaged representatives, all of whom volunteer, management limitations created some difficulty in figuring out my role as an intern. I opted to work on developing and presenting a core institutional message geared toward reevaluating the site’s relevance to its surrounding community, as well as its visitors. For example, I replaced basic “Do Not Touch” signs with wittier, more light-hearted text. Although only a small step, I believe that these minor actions present a more human side of the organization.
A more engaging social media presence constituted another organizational element that the Stone House lacked. To confront and promote change in this endeavor, I developed and delivered an internal workshop for museum committee and board members to explore the possibilities toward becoming a more engaged institution in the online realm. First, I shared a presentation emphasizing the benefits of engaging with online audiences, expanding those audiences, and developing a core institutional message. Additionally, I discussed methods toward embedding the site in contemporary discussions in Belchertown’s online circles and among different community organizations, members, and neighbors. My presentation underscored the importance of building a sustainable presence on different social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Lastly, I had the group traverse the house’s rooms and develop a social media post on any platform of their choosing. Challenging them to think about a smartphone-wielding visitor, I asked the group to draft the text, reasoning, and share a photo of their chosen, item, space, experience, or favorite element of the museum. My hope remains that this exercise highlighted the potential for better integrating social media platforms into the overall experience of the house and fabric of the organization’s plans meet both local and nonlocal audiences where they are – outside of the museum and online.
A second internal workshop served as my final act as a BHA intern. For this exercise, I challenged the museum committee and board members to work together, think as visitors, and rethink traditional historic house museum approaches. Through another brief presentation, I highlighted emerging historic house and local history museum success stories and trends melded from a number of sources and sites in the public history field. These sources included Museum Hack, and ideas generated from Franklin Vagnone’s and Deborah Ryan’s 2016 Anarchist’s Guide to Historic House Museums and John Falk’s Identity and the Museum Visitor Experience, as well as several other examples of history museums’ efforts to rethink the relationship between leisure and education, their site’s role in surrounding communities, and interconnectivity between visitors, collections, and interpretation. After the presentation, the group broke into smaller groups and traveled to different rooms in the house for a hand-on exercise. I urged participants to experiment with new ideas, brainstorm ways to make spaces more engaging, and to inhabit the different visitor identities, all toward the goal of challenging the normative small museum mentality of thinking “inside out” versus “outside-in.” Through taking on the role of visitors and exploring the possibilities beyond traditional approaches and static museum experiences, my hope is that the BHA will push the boundaries of what the Stone House can be to its neighbors, its town, its visitors, and its past, present, and future audiences.