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: https://www.wonderfullifemuseum.com/gowers-drugstore-memorabilia/

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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Pokémon GO! Boon or Bust?

Google “Pokémon GO + Museums” and you’ll see numerous articles/blog postings touting the game as a boon to museums. You’ll also see stories of museums and historic sites discouraging its use due to the nature of their subject matter. Many museums are actively promoting use of the game at their sites (the image above is from the Living History Farms Facebook page).

Now that it’s been a few weeks since this latest phenomenon launched–what’s been your experience? Are you seeing an increase in visitors? Are the visitors actually engaging? Have you gone to the effort to become a PokéStop or gym? Were you successful (apparently Niantic–the game creator–has been overwhelmed with requests)? Are things beginning to quite down on the Poké-front?

It’s hard to say how long the fickle public will stay interested in all things Poké, but if it increases people’s knowledge of the cultural entities around them, that’s a good thing, right?

Disclaimer: The author has never been interested in Pokémon but has been convinced by her 15-year-old daughter to start playing the game in preparation for a trip to Chicago this weekend. Museums will be visited and Pokémon will be captured.

They're everywhere--even my office. I'm trying to not take offense that the creatures name is Krabby. I'm sure it has nothing to do with me.

They’re everywhere! I’m trying not to take offense that the one living  in my office is named Krabby. I’m sure it has nothing to do with me.

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How to Live History

A wonderful and wise blog post from longtime ALHFAM member Mary Seelhorst. Let’s all honor our colleague and friend Blake Hayes by following Mary’s advice . . .–Deb Arenz


I returned home last night from the party held in memory of Blake Hayes in Cherry Valley, New York. This post is a bit unusual in that it’s written for colleagues in the museum field, the line of work to which Blake dedicated his life—especially members of the Association for Living History, Farm, and Agricultural Museums (ALHFAM).

I met Blake at ALHFAM’s annual conference in 1986. We got married and were together 15 years before we moved on personally, but we remained engaged professionally and as friends. (Don’t worry, Blake and his wife Lorraine and me and my husband Tony all get along!)

His memorial party was an amazing event, with his friends from childhood, high school and college, his immediate family, adopted family, extended family (I think there were even in-laws of in-laws there!), “ex-family” (still regarded as family), professional colleagues, neighbors, local and regional friends, kids who grew up around him and brought their own kids, ALHFAM colleagues, Jell-O shots (which no one understood except the ALHFAMers), pets, meats, and music.

I heard Katie Boardman, one of Blake’s partners at the Cherry Valley Group, say that the comments and tributes to Blake “broke the ALHFAM-L,” a professional listserv normally used for questions and comments about museum matters. I think they also broke Facebook. After not checking my inbox for three days, I discovered literally hundreds of unread emails, nearly all Facebook notifications, ALHFAM-L summaries or personal messages about Blake.

This electronic outpouring, however, made me realize that as much of a tech enthusiast as he was, Blake didn’t need social media. He was social in the old-fashioned way—in person. He met, called, welcomed, taught, partied, shared time and stories, food and drink. Even when he was arguing his point of view passionately, it wasn’t personal. Even when he couldn’t type or walk any more, he talked. As his family reported, it was when he stopped talking that they knew the end was near.

Almost the only thing he didn’t share widely was news of his illness.

While we miss and remember and treasure all of our departed ALHFAM colleagues, I think it was Blake’s extremely social nature and long-term, deep commitment to ALHFAM that has made him so profoundly missed by all of us. Wherever Blake was, the party was. But when the party was over, valuable teaching and learning and doing occurred, informed and enhanced by personal relationships. Blake’s life is a reminder that opinionated doesn’t have to mean obnoxious.

As Dr. Takuji Doi, a long-departed ALHFAM colleague from Japan, once said after observing the flow of the annual meeting: “The difference between Japan and America: In Japan, make big decision, get drunk. In America, get drunk, make big decision!”

We need to continue to tell all of ALHFAM’s stories, the jokes, and the memories. And as much as possible we need to do it in person. There is no real substitute that can perpetuate our history. Maintaining the folklore of this organization and of your sites depends on you.

So go to your regional meetings, or those of other regions. Attend the annual conference whenever you can. Show up for your local history-related events. Gather with colleagues after hours for meals. Do it in memory of all our dearly departed, do it for yourself, and do it for the next generation.

Telling stories is, after all, the essence of history.

I recently came across something that, to me at least, seems to embody Blake’s professional and personal philosophy. It’s the last paragraph of Will and Ariel Durant’s book, The Lessons of History, published in 1968 (the year Blake graduated from high school).

To those of us who study history not merely as a warning reminder of man’s follies and crimes, but also as an encouraging remembrance of generative souls, the past ceases to be a depressing chamber of horrors; it becomes a celestial city, a spacious county of the mind, wherein a thousand saints, statesmen, inventors, scientists, poets, artists, musicians, lovers, and philosophers still live and speak, teach and carve and sing. The historian will not mourn because he can see no meaning in human existence except that which man puts into it; let it be our pride that we ourselves may put meaning into our lives, and sometimes a significance that transcends death. If a man is fortunate he will, before he dies, gather up as much as he can of his civilized heritage and transmit it to his children. And to his final breath he will be grateful for this inexhaustible legacy, knowing that it is our nourishing mother and our lasting life.

May Blake live long in that spacious country of our minds, building and organizing, cooking and joking, helping and sharing. With much love always, ms

(See the original post on Mary’s blog here)




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Beginner’s Mind, Drinking It In

[This is a guest post by ALHFAM member and co-chair of the Programming, Interpretation and Education Professional interest Group (PIE PIG), Lauren Muney]

For anyone who has frequently attended, or even never attended an ALHFAM conference, it’s easy to forget the many reasons these conference events are held: to learn more about our work bringing history to life, to learn new skills in workshops, to meet old friends and make new friends, to share in laughter or to connect with compassion. We have regional meetings and we have “national” meetings, which are often held in Canada as well as the USA, and often have international participants.


Kathleen Wall, culinarian from Plimoth Plantation, meets Executive chef/owner John Folse of White Oak Plantation. 

ALHFAM 2016 just closed its doors. Louisiana State University’s Rural Life Museum, was host site —and mother, father, aunt, uncle, friend, teacher, and tour-guide rolled into one. There were generous tours, exciting workshops, amazing session locations, and dedicated volunteers.

The staff and docents acted tirelessly (although we know they were very tired!), offering us more food than we could eat, more drink than would could accept, and all the while giving us warm smiles and cheer. We even were treated by most museums for free entrance, and the Presidential Banquet, cajun-inspired delicious dishes, and location was donated: famous White Oak Plantation  and its more famous owner/chef, John Folse.

This brings me to the subject:

ALHFAM meetings are not just about old buildings, battle sites, “who did what to whom”, townball, plowing contests, and stuffing information into our heads and notebooks.

ALHFAM is about understanding one another. Not just a little bit; but understanding in a deeper way, a way that comes from connecting together all that we are experiencing from our hosts, the views out our window, the ground (or, in the case of Louisiana, the swamp) under our feet, and the past, the personalities and regionalisms that create this mixed-up North American culture.


Sugar Cane crop at West Baton Rouge [living history] museum. Sugar cane is a labor intensive crop with deep ties to enslaved and low-paid workers.

In Baton Rouge as well as in New Orleans, and all the small visits around the region, we caught just a little whiff of what makes the heartbeat of the Louisiana people and this Creole, Cajun, Deep-South place. We experienced the sultry  (that means ‘hot and sticky’) nights and even hotter and stickier days.

We started to understand why the pace of life might be slower down there, with different ways of moving through the heat and the sun, and the ubiquitous water everywhere. In this place where the history includes so many languages, based on the movements of the French, Spanish, and mixed-race peoples moving through, settling down, and moving again. We learned — in unflinching detail— about slavery’s swath through the culture and the pain it caused. We learned about the iconic politics which rose and fell, affecting generations during and after.


RLM docents and volunteers cooked and served the ALHFAMily delicious, regional and well-filled plates of foods.

But mostly we felt the care and attention of the Louisiana people, embodied by the generosity and the kindness of the volunteers at the Rural Life Museum (RLM) and the other sites and activities we visited. The unceasingly big hearts and passion that brings over 100 people to hand-make meals and serve to us, one attendee at a time, heaping plates of food that symbolized their love, care, and attention to both ALHFAM and to the RLM.

Here was the biggest lesson we could learn: that the Deep South may struggle with harsh weather conditions, culture clashes, and even the wildness that comes with yearly Mardi Gras (a wild party which started in 1699 and has now grown to an elaborate set of parades, costumes and rituals — but varies between urban New Orleans to the rural Creole country parishes) – but we all come back to the deep heart of love and hospitality.

We so deeply need ALHFAM.


Mosquito cloth on a slave bed, which begs the visitor to think about slavery as well as living conditions in this wet and adventurous region.

We need to see not only our own history which we probably repeat daily, weekly, monthly – day in and day out, but we need to see how every half lives. We need to visit all these regions and areas hosted by our ALHFAMily.

We need to be shaken. We need to be heart-warmed. We need to be surprised. We need to be made uncomfortable [as much as we love comfort].

We deserve to be humbled by examples like the great strength of character and will which push Louisianans through the terrible hurricanes that regularly devastate the region, especially the worst ones that took away life, property, and hope.

We need to be loved by our new mothers and aunties and uncles. We need to taste new foods, we need to see new (old) buildings and lands.

We need to connect with our distant “cousins” of the ALHFAMily.


A view from the [wet] ground, Rural Life Museum, Baton Rouge, LA. What conditions did our foreparents encounter? How did they succeed?

We need to connect to those places different from us. People in the North need to interact with the slow South, while leisurely Southern people might be curious by what makes the North so quick. We need to sweat or freeze. We need to cross sandy soil, rocky earth, or swampy mess.

We in ALHFAM can be an odd bunch: academics, historians, material culture specialists, culinary experts, farmers, livestock carers, volunteers, retired hobbyists, reenactors, vendors, artists, front-line interpreters, exhibit specialists, administrators, managers, and more. We are experts  – or need to seem like experts. We spend more time in one location more often than another.


With all of our research and focus, we can often think we know everything – or we think we have done it all already.


From the “Great Keelboat Adventure” pre-conference workshop – ‘experiential archeology ‘ through the waterways of Baton Rouge. Created by the Early Arkansaw Reenactors Association.

And yet,
then we can come to Baton Rouge, Louisiana, USA, and we find out that we know nothing. We can taste the humidity and sip the julep (metaphorically speaking).

We can, in essence, see the world anew again – with beginner’s eyes. We can remember that with each place we visit — whether a regional meeting or annual meeting — we can be like a beginner again, taking-in the culture and learning to love. 

Unsettling as it may be to be a beginner at anything, being a beginner is the deepest way to understand a subject.

Drink your subject in, like you’ve never done so before.

See you in 2017 at ALHFAM Annual Meeting June 9-12, with host site Genesee Country Village and Museum in Mumford NY.


Rural Life Museum, Baton Rouge, LA


Lauren Muney is a demonstrating interpreting artisan, creating freehand-scissored portraits for visitors and guests at museums, events, corporate and social events across North America, in all time periods. Her work can be seen at her website, www.silhouettesbyhand.com. She lives in Baltimore, Maryland, USA. All photos by Lauren Muney, 2016.

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ALHFAM 2016: School of the Mule

Enjoy the guest post below by School of the Mule participant Cody Joliff. Also look for videos of the workshop on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter using #ALHFAM16. The videos will also be up on http://www.alhfam.org soon.


School of the Mule at ALHFAM 2016 was a fun learning experience. We had attended other equine classes and workshops in the past that mostly focused on harness and driving of draft horses but not the entire care of the animal. School of the Mule was very extensive with great instructors. Melvin Wheat is a volunteer at Rural Life Museum and an avid hostler or mule driver. His assistant was Claud Brock who has lots of experience with equine as well.


The day started off with preparing the mules for work. Gus and Fred got their mane and tails trimmed. The mane serves no purpose and get caught in the collar and the headstall and can irritate the animal when working. Then we floated the teeth. As mules eat, they grind down the inside of their teeth and the outside edge becomes razor sharp from the calcium deposits. We checked their teeth then ground them down to where they were flat and could grind up their food. Next the hooves were cleaned and trimmed. Next we harnessed and drove the mules both ground driving and driving a farm wagon around the grounds.

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School of the Mule gave participants a real understanding of how mules operate and how to care for them. Personally I really enjoy the classes even when I worked at a site that will never have mules. Almost all of us interpret a time period when horses or mules are the basic power for transportation so everyone should be familiar. I found I could better interpret how harness, plows and wagons worked after attending the classes. When touring people through the museum and historic site I could explain vividly what the experience is like. You can’t understand from just reading a book or diary. I hope if you’re not familiar with historic use mules you’ll take a workshop in the future.

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ALHFAM 2016 Day 2: Sessions, Meetings, and The Auction

Karen Clancy was the happy winner of the birch bark basket made by Del Taylor

Karen Clancy was the happy winner of the birch bark basket made by Del Taylor


POOP (President of our Past) Pete Watson models an ASK tshirt. ASK is the ALHFAM Skills and Knowledge database and allows members to search thousands of ALHFAM resources easily by keyword.

Marie-Sophie Desaulniers does her best Vanna White holding up a beautiful framed original of the new logo that was hand it by silhouette artist Lauren Muney

Marie-Sophie Desaulniers does her best Vanna White holding up a beautiful framed original of the new logo that was hand cut by silhouette artist Lauren Muney

Day two of the conference was spent at the Rural Life Museum on the campus of Louisiana State University. Educational sessions were held, as were Professional Interest Group (PIG) meetings, and regional meetings. The day was capped off by the annual auction where funds were raised to support the organization and an overall good time was had by all. There was a certain smoking jacket wearing, earstand performing auctioneer who we kept with us in spirit. Enjoy the photos!

I won this beautiful posset pot made by Mike Fox of Old Salem. I'd provide a link to information about posset pots but I'm on a bus on the way to our day in New Orleans so you'll have to do your own research.

I won this beautiful posset pot made by Mike Fox of Old Salem. I’d provide a link to information about posset pots but I’m on a bus on the way to our day in New Orleans so you’ll have to do your own research.

Heidi Glatfelter Schlag tells a group about the great features of our new website

Heidi Glatfelter Schlag tells a group about the great features of our new website

Julian and Kelly hold up signs for the regional meetings. High praise for Julian's multitasking.

Julian and Kelly hold up signs for the regional meetings. High praise for Julian’s multitasking.

Mick Woodcock leading the Western region meeting.

Mick Woodcock leading the Western region meeting.

coming next…a guest post about the School of the Mule.

–Deb Arenz

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