Making the Most of the Maker Movement

As one of those rapidly aging Baby Boomers, inventing and building things were staples of my childhood. Sure, we had TV (but only one), but Mom would throw us out of the house after a couple of hours of Saturday morning cartoons with instructions to “Go do something.” We had grand adventures exploring the creek, hiking through the pastures, building forts or taking things apart to see how they worked. Admittedly that last one sometimes got us into trouble.

You learned how to build things, and you learned how to repair things by helping the adults around you. At least this was true for those of us who lived in the country.  If something broke you figured out how to fix it or you found a neighbor to help you. Now part of that was because, like most farm families, funds were limited, but more than that, people like my dad truly enjoyed building and fixing things. Somewhere along the way we traded the satisfaction of making something ourselves for cheap, mass-produced, thrown-away items.

But that might just be changing. The Maker Movement has been around for a few years and is gaining in popularity. This is a community of DIYS (do-it-yourselfers). This seems to be a group just waiting to be tapped by our living history sites. Many who would like to learn how to make things no longer know where to go to find the knowledge.  Our sites can be their resource.  I just took a quick look at MAKE, the movement’s magazine, and in a quick glance found the following articles:  “8 Tips and Techniques for Making Homemade Cheese,” “Building a Child-Sized Kayak from a Single Sheet of Plywood,” “Crochet a Wonder Woman-Inspired Coaster Set,” and my personal favorite, “Building a Pumpkin Throwing Trebuchet.” Sounds like a great post-Halloween activity with the grandkids! Their website has how-to videos on blacksmithing and knife making.

Trebuchet kit available at Makershed

Trebuchet kit available at Makershed

You can also find step-by-step instructions for making this battleax prop. So many of the ideas are adaptable for exhibit/interpretation use.

You can also find step-by-step instructions for making this battleax prop. So many of the ideas are adaptable for exhibit/interpretation use.

What a possible treasure trove of new volunteers waiting to be tapped! The Maker Movement organizes Maker Faires around the globe. These are usually two-day events for the community to come together to share exhibits, knowledge, and skills.  Have any of your sites participated in a Maker Faire or maybe even hosted one?  I would love to hear about your experience.

–Kathy Dickson

ALHFAM board member Kathy Dickson is the director of Museums and Historic Sites for the Oklahoma Historical Society. She stumbled into the museum field over 30 years ago and never left.

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Ideas on Preserving and Sharing Collections

Uniform worn by Second Lieutenant Myron Aubineau of Flagstaff, Arizona during WWI. Photo courtesy of Sharlot Hall Museum.

Uniform worn by Second Lieutenant Myron Aubineau of Flagstaff, Arizona during WWI. Photo courtesy of Sharlot Hall Museum.

While ALHFAM is not an exhibit-oriented organization, some of its members deal with collections on a daily basis whether it is storage, care, loan or exhibition. Pieces from collections are used as patterns to reproduce that item so that it might, in some sense, provide an “up close and personal” experience for visitors when the original, for whatever reason, is cannot be on exhibit, or perhaps continuously on exhibit.  The sharing of our collections with the public, which is one of the reasons we have them, then becomes a check list of things that have to be answered before any action can be taken.

In a semi-recent post, someone shared the following: While it deals with artifact captions in an electronic rather than traditional printed format, it brings up the question of whether an enhanced electronic exhibition of certain artifacts would benefit the public in a static exhibit. This is not to suggest doing away with three- dimensional objects in exhibits but rather give sites the opportunity to have more on exhibit than space would permit if all that was used were the physical artifacts themselves.

As an example, I am currently working on an exhibit on how World War One affected the people of Arizona. We have in the collection three attributed Army pilot’s uniforms as well as other pieces of uniforming and equipment. Space allows only one of these to be on exhibit; however each is interesting in its own right. While there is the option of changing them through the year’s duration of the exhibit, it is not practical from the perspective of staff time.

The thought is to have the other two uniforms digitally photographed from all sides and then use a program to give a rotating view of them so that they can be viewed from the front, back and sides. While this is not the perfect solution from the visitor’s point of view, it would allow them to see pieces of the collection that would not be on exhibition. Another way to do this would be to put the digital images on an inexpensive media player and allow the images to scroll through in a three-dimensional side show.

This is not a revolutionary idea, but does present possibilities for giving access to parts of the collection that would otherwise not be available to the public.

Feel free to share the interesting ways you make your collections available when not on exhibit.

Mick Woodcock

Mick Woodcock is Chief Curator at the Sharlot Hall Museum in Arizona, ALHFAM Western Region Representative, and recipient of ALHFAM’s prestigious Schlebecker Award in 2015.

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Promoting ALHFAM “in the Field”

The ALHFAM booth in the exhibitors hall at the 2016 AASLH meeting in Detroit, Sept. 13-16. Right after setup.

The ALHFAM booth in the exhibitors hall (right after setup) at the 2016 AASLH meeting in Detroit, Sept. 14-17, 2016.

I realize the title of this blog could confuse. It is quite logical, given our organization’s mission, that I might literally be referring to promoting ALHFAM in a field. However, in this case I’m speaking of the larger “museum field” at the American Association for State and Local History conference last week. Still bountiful but with fewer draft animals.

As ALHFAM and AASLH appeal to a similar audience, we decided to participate in the exhibit hall and spread the word about our volunteer-run organization. I’m happy to report that the booth was very well received. During my shifts I had an almost steady stream of people stopping by and, during refreshment breaks in the hall, it was sometimes hopping. People seemed genuinely happy that we were there. Many lapsed members came by and reminisced and chatted about joining again. A lot of people who work at ALHFAM appropriate sites stopped by and were pleased that such a group as ours exists. We gave out dozens of past Bulletin issues, t-shirts and tote bags from conferences, and business cards promoting We showed off the website on a laptop (not featured in the above picture) and promoted our regional and national conferences.

Jon Kuester, ALHFAM member and MOMCC board member, chats with visitors to the booth.

ALHFAM member and MOMCC board member Jon Kuester (that’s his back) chats with visitors to the booth.

Susan McCabe tells folks about ALHFAM and the Bulletin.

ALHFAM member Susan McCabe tells folks about the organization and the Bulletin. Thanks to Susan for all the time she spent setting up and staffing the booth.

In addition, a group of ALHFAM members including  Jim McCabe (The Henry Ford), Deb Reid (Eastern Illinois University), Deb Arenz (Nebraska State Historical Society), Debbie Grinnell (Naper Settlement), and Jon Kuester (Volkening Heritage Farm) presented a session titled “From Farm to Fork: Narratives that Connect” as a webinar and live. The webinar had 90 users logged in and will be available for future viewing on the AASLH website. There was good attendance at our live presentation as well with lots of questions and discussion afterwards. One person, who used to come to ALHFAM long ago, said our live session was like a “breath of fresh air” and made her remember why she thought ALHFAM was great. I’m certainly glad we could jog her memory.

Happy ALHFAM members at the booth. From left to right: Dale Jones, Jim McCabe, Deb Arenz, Leo Landis, Jon Kuester, Deb Reid

Happy ALHFAM members at the booth. From left to right: Dale Jones, Jim McCabe, Deb Arenz, Leo Landis, Jon Kuester, Deb Reid

Although I haven’t yet quantified our success, I do believe we made a positive impression on at least some of the 850+ AASLH attendees. Anything we can do to maximize our exposure in the field (literally and figuratively) helps the organization.

–Deb Arenz

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Is Your Site a Super Collider?

Large Hadron Collider. Image courtesy of Maximilen Brice, CERN.

Large Hadron Collider. Image courtesy of Maximilen Brice, CERN.

I recently came across a TED talk that combines my inner science nerd with my history nerd.  I have long been a follower of the exciting work taking place at the Large Hadron Collider at CERN in Geneva, Switzerland, but never had it crossed my mind that experiments there could be related to my history world.

The Super Collider takes something really big to discover something tiny. The Collider is a 27-kilometer ring buried deep beneath the earth’s surface. Inside the ring, particles are thrown around the ring in opposite directions. As the particles approach the speed of light, they are smashed into each other, a massive wreck on a microscopic scale. In this crash what is important is what is thrown off during the collision as the particles disintegrate. Often the particles fly apart without anything much happening, but sometimes you make a discovery like the Higgs boson, a fundamental building block of our universe.

In her TED talk Julia Marciari-Alexander from the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore compares her 1979 visit to St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome to the super collider. When she stepped into St. Peter’s she collided with history, art, and objects, and what was thrown off from that collision was a sense of wonder and a personal discovery that places and objects could speak if only you listened. You can see her entire TED talk here:

Our sites are places where the past and present collide in a safe environment. Sometimes in this collision the best we can hope for is that the visitor spends a pleasant day and leaves with fond memories of their experience, but you may never know when someone collides with the past in such a way that it changes their life the way St. Peter’s changed Ms. Alexander’s. That one visit with her family set her on a new path with a mission to help visitors to the Walters understand what objects are trying to say.

Your thoughts are welcome.

–Kathy Dickson

ALHFAM board member Kathy Dickson is the director of Museums and Historic Sites for the Oklahoma Historical Society. She stumbled into the museum field over 30 years ago and never left.






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For the Love of Regionals

Ask any ALHFAMer what they like most about the organization, and nine times out of ten, the answer is sure to be “the conferences,” which provide a chance to learn new skills, share ideas with like-minded folks, and experience new places. Regional conferences help to widen our reach, introducing sites to the magic of ALHFAM, and drawing people who may not have the time or resources to attend our annual meeting. So that’s why I was thrilled to have the Innisfail Historical Village step forward to host the first-ever Western Canada Regional Conference. Armed with a small team of staff and volunteers, and amazing community support, conference organizer Anna Lenters pulled off a fun and informative weekend for those who attended. Here are some of the highlights:

Saturday’s key note address was presented by Johnnie Bachusky, editor of the local paper, who shared his passion for documenting ghost towns across the Canadian prairies. Through his photographs of abandoned grain elevators, schools, churches, and service stations we found a kindred spirit dedicated to preserving the landscapes and stories of bygone communities.

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A smorgasbord of sessions offered something for every interest as we learned strategies for training new interpreters, the history that can be revealed through quilts, costuming staff and volunteers, using music to enhance programming, social media for the utterly intimidated, and more.

Attendees also had a chance to wander the Historical Village, which is comprised of a dozen or so structures, checking out a fine collection of carefully restored farm implements and antique vehicles, and visiting with volunteer actors from the local community theatre who brought the past to life in the general store, school room and stopping house, highlighting a great local collaboration.

S.R. Blog 2And of course a regional conference provides a great opportunity to sample local cuisine.

Saturday evening’s “Field to Fork” dinner was held at the Danish Canadian Museum, where we were treated to a three-course meal featuring food grown or sourced within a 100 km radius: Alberta beef, fresh veggies and potatoes, Saskatoon berries, and rhubarb from the Museum grounds, accompanied by refreshments from Olds College Brewery and Fallen Timbers Meadery! “Eating local” is a great way to connect with our agricultural roots. Continuing with tradition, the dinner also featured a silent auction that raised over $300 toward a Regional fellowship.

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–Susan Reckseidler

Susan is the Manager of Interpretation at Heritage Park Historical Village in Calgary, ALHFAM Representative for the Western Canada Region, and a former ALHFAM board member.



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Warning! Museum! Do Not Touch!

Some signs stand out just from the nature of the message.

Some signs stand out just from the nature of the message. No cars were damaged during the shooting of this photograph.

Recently on the ALHFAM listserv a member, who is dealing with a horse nipping problem at their museum, wanted some advice on signage as they are ” . . . discussing posting more warnings/signage of some sort but also don’t want to litter the landscape with dire threats and graphic warnings in blood red and blaze orange.” I appreciate their dilemma and also their colorful description of signage options.

All museums and public buildings are required to post signs to comply with certain laws or codes. Often, there is little we can do, or would want to, to change this type of signage. Exit, AED, fire extinguisher, and similar signs benefit from their uniformity. Most of the population knows what to look for when they need to find these things and that’s the point.

What about the rest of our non-interpretive signage–especially the ubiquitous museum “Do Not Touch” sign.

Taken at the Nebraska History Museum in a quilt exhibit. Quilts are displayed on slant boards with stanchions but are otherwise out in the open. Each slant board has one of these Do Not Touch signs.

Taken at a Nebraska History Museum quilt exhibit. Quilts are displayed on slant boards with stanchions but are otherwise out in the open. Each slant board has one of these Do Not Touch signs.

The signs in the image above are the most basic. We need to let visitors know the quilts aren’t for touching but the commonality of Do Not Touch signs calls into question their effectiveness. There are so many you just stop seeing them (like Starbucks). Some might have the red circle with a slash image that universally means “NO!” or a few other words depending on what’s being dealt with–Do Not Touch the Dollhouse, Do Not Pet the Goat, etc.–but the message is all the same and likely, eventually, invisible.

So how to make them visible again without “graphic warnings in blood red or blazing orange.”

Sometimes the message alone is enough. Like the vulture warning in the top image (captured during a family vacation to the Everglades). The sign is boring, standard issue NPS but the message is quite unique. I was so intrigued I hastily inquired about car-damaging-vultures at the visitor center. Needless to say, the message alone caught my attention.

The sign in the image below works for a different reason:

At the Nebraska History Museum there's no flash photograpy in the photography exhibit. Irony works to the museum's advantage here.

At the Nebraska History Museum there’s no flash photography in the photography exhibit. Irony works to the museum’s advantage here.

This one, though, is my favorite from my personal “collection:”

Taken during a family visit to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park Mountain Farm Museum.

Taken during a family visit to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park Mountain Farm Museum.

This was clever. It was on its own on the side of a building in an area with nothing of note nearby. That alone made it stand out. The title was intriguing and the “Don’t Vandalize the Buildings” message laid out like exhibit text. Of course, after reading the sign I noticed all the words/names carved into the building (you can see the evidence in the picture).

More effective than your typical “Do Not Touch” sign? Not sure, I didn’t talk to staff about it. It was, however, a novel approach that made me stop, pay attention, and think about the message. Isn’t that what we want?

Please share your anecdotes and images of unique and effective museum signage.

As an aside: I take odd photos at museums while on vacation. Recently I took a picture of a recording hygrothermograph at a visit to the Art Institute of Chicago with my fifteen-year-old. She rolled her eyes at that but was really disturbed when I shared it on Facebook. How could I not? I’ve never seen environmental readings so stable!

-Deb Arenz

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Gaining By Giving It Away

Remember when it was an honor to be "nominated" for membership into an organization? Image Source:

Remember when it was an honor to be “nominated” for membership into an organization? Image from: The Seneca Falls Wonderful Life Museum

I recently read this article in the Wall Street Journal about New York City cultural institutions giving free one-year memberships to NYCID card holders. I have no opinion on the NYCID issue, but the idea of giving away free memberships on a large scale has me thinking (it’s too early in the NYC initiative to judge it’s success, though numbers in the article are noteworthy).

Museum membership programs have been used for many reasons: as a revenue stream, to generate lists of contact information, to build groups of “friends” and potential donors, to encourage repeat visitation and increase attendance numbers, etc.

However, memberships for many museums are declining or, at best, holding steady. We struggle with this at the historical society where I work. Our numbers are not increasing yet we still rely on the revenue it creates and seem to constantly be searching for ways to “sell memberships.”

We also talk much about trying to “reach new audiences.” People outside the normal age ranges of our current visitors; new arrivals to our city, our state, out country; folks on all parts of the economic spectrum. When we talk about reaching these audiences our conversations don’t dwell on membership, it’s more about getting them into our buildings, interacting with them, serving them, educating them, and making them feel comfortable.

Which has me thinking . . . if we want to reach these groups AND grow membership, why not give people free memberships? Why not just, for a limited time (say three months), give everyone who is interested free membership for a year? What would we lose? Practically, we would spend more on printing costs for our quarterly journal–still published in hard copy–and might miss out on a bit of admission generation at some of our sites. However, this could be worth the gain. Increased exposure, good will generation, new audiences becoming aware of our offerings and interacting with us, and possibly increased membership numbers at the end. I believe it’s easier to keep a member once they’ve joined than it is to convince someone to join to begin with.

I’ve forwarded this article onto our membership coordinator and look forward to further discussions in-house. What are your thoughts? Have you undertaken similar efforts–if so, to what effect? How has membership changed at your institution over the last decade or so?

–Deb Arenz

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