It is no secret that visitation at historic sites like Stratford Hall has been declining. This is not a new development, but part of a long-term trend that began over 30 years ago. Careful observers have lots of opinions on why this is happening, but it is clear these trends reflect a significant cultural shift in the way Americans understand the past. In short, being led around an old house and being lectured about the dead (and usually white) occupants is not the attraction it was for our grandparents.
So what to do about it? This is the big question. For those sites that are no longer viable economically, they may be better off as private homes than public institutions. This way, the buildings would be preserved and perhaps occasionally opened to the public. This solution was adopted by Colonial Williamsburg when they sold Carter’s Grove. In contemporary Wall Street parlance, however, there are some sites that are “too big to fail.” Or putting it another way, their stories have such national significance that they must be preserved as public institutions. Stratford Hall is one of those places.
For this reason, we are embarking on an ambitious effort to remake the Stratford experience in a way that is designed to appeal to a new generation of museum visitor. Many of the comments posted on this blog are pieces of this bigger plan. One of the most important components of this plan is re-thinking how our visitors experience Stratford Hall. Or more specifically, how do we convey educational content to our visitors?
In October, we hosted a conference entitled “Re-Discovering the Historic House.” This conference brought together people from a variety of disciplines, like game designers, story tellers and cultural critics, that could help us think differently about how this experience can be re-fashioned for a new audience. If you want to hear about these ideas, you can listen to the podcast on our website.
As the next phase of this process we are planning to implement a new tour experience here and at two other sites, probably in Boston and Philadelphia. The new tour experience would be developed at all three sites simultaneously, accompanied by extensive visitor evaluation. The hope is that this will lead to a replicable model that can be adopted by other sites across the country. It will be a multi-year project.
What will this new experience be like? Right now we don’t know the specifics. That’s the principal question we need to answer. However, it is fair to say that the new experience will be much more visitor directed and will allow the exploration of history from multiple perspectives. We will still offer the guided tour for those who want them. But for most visitors, we will provide another way for them to explore Stratford at their own pace so they can learn about and discover the things about this place that are important to them. As this process unfolds, we will provide updates here. Stay tuned!
Posted by Paul Reber, Executive Director