Finding Inspiration at the 2012 American Association for State and Local History Conference

The American Association of State and Local History held their Annual conference from October 3-6 in Salt Lake City, Utah.  This year, the Santa Barbara Trust for Historic Preservation was able to send two staff members.  Below is a report from Anne Petersen.  Brittany Avila’s report will follow in a subsequent post.   

Every good conference has its field trips, and AASLH was no exception. Here, photos from the spectacular, recently completed new facility for the Natural History Museum of Utah. Photos by Anne Petersen.

Conferences always inspire me with new ideas for programs and exhibits, but they often also give me confidence that SBTHP shares ideas that undergird some of the most innovating current programming at the nation’s historic sites (even if our means are sometimes more modest).  One of my favorite panels at the AASLH conference brought together staff from the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, MA (where, coincidentally, I interned in 1997) and Strawberry Banke in Portsmouth, NH, with Public Historian Cathy Stanton. The participants discussed ways living history sites can reinvigorate their relationship to agriculture and food production as interpretive themes, and as a way to connect their sites to a broader audience.  You can find Cathy’s great new blog on this subject here.  As our readers know, we are very proud of our own Presidio Heritage Garden, and are continually looking for ways to expand its interpretive potential to connect our community to local history through gardening and food production. I am now in touch with Dr. Stanton, and will work to provide her with information about our programs and plans for her study.

Conference trip to the largest human excavation on earth (you can see it from space!): Bingham Mine and the company town of Copperton, Utah. Photos by Anne Petersen.

I was also captivated by the participants in the “Technology in History Institutions” panel, which featured staff from the Follett House Museum in Sandusky, Ohio, the Indiana Historical Society in Indianapolis, IN, and, most relevant to interpretive planning at SBTHP, Connor Prairie Interactive History Park in Fishers, IN. All of the represented institutions had, through careful planning, introduced technological enhancements to their traditional interpretation, which resulted in increased attendance and enthusiasm from their communities. Connor Prairie’s new program, “1863 Civil War Journey: Raid on Indiana” (which you can read about here) involved an immersive historical environment on their site that incorporated audio and projection techniques to draw visitors back in time.  SBTHP will be pursuing many of these same strategies through implementation of our 2010 Visitor Experience Plan, and it was valuable to hear the designer’s and educator’s perspectives on challenges and lessons learned from their experience.

South Temple Street Walking tour led by the executive director of the Utah Heritage Foundation. Photos by Anne Petersen.

Several panels presented strategies for reorganizing historic house museums and generating more participation and interest in local history sites from communities.  One of the most engaging projects, “If This House Could Talk” was featured in its own panel. This grass roots project, first held in a Cambridge, MA neighborhood, has now been replicated several times in other communities.  Participants in the project create signs for the street-front of their homes that include a story about the building that has been either passed down or researched.  On a given weekend, neighbors stroll the streets, chatting about each other’s homes, sharing historical information, and generally getting to know each other.  Historical organizations can provide any number of program enhancements for the event, including walking tour maps, setting up a booth with relevant resources about the neighborhood, and documenting the research generated by the event. The staff at SBTHP are very excited about our recently launched Memories Project (Have you participated yet? If not, click here!) and “If this House Could Speak” provided great ideas for ways we might expand it in the future.

Anne Petersen is the Associate Director for Historical Resources at the Santa Barbara Trust for Historic Preservation. 

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