Small Museum of the Month: The Cambridge Historical Society

Our featured small museum this month is the Cambridge Historical Society in Cambridge, MA. On the front page of its website, the Society invites guests to “be a part of one of the most revolutionary historical societies in the country.” A closer look at the Society’s offerings justifies this claim.

On the programming front, the half dozen “History Cafes” that the Society holds annually provide an opportunity for participants to explore past, present, and future aspects of a contemporary issue. Inspired by the international Science Cafes, the History Cafes feature a speaker or two on a particular topic in combination with an audience-driven conversation. Typically including twenty to thirty participants, which balances lively discussion with personal interaction, the Cafes typically take place in local restaurants and bars that carry the Society’s mission beyond its walls to reach people in familiar settings. According to Executive Director Marieke J. Van Damme, one aspect of the Cafes’ success that the Society is particularly proud of is its ability to attract a variety of age groups.

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Each year, the overall theme of the Cafes changes. Last year, each discussion focused on an aspect of the question “Are We Home?,” and this year, the central issue is, “What Does Cambridge Make?” Not only does the Society ask its participants these questions as they relate to the past, but it facilitates discussions that carry these questions into the present day.

The Cafes close with a game that invites creativity and humor. Speakers ask a question and then read the responses they receive out loud. They then ask another two questions, with the participants often putting more thought (and sometimes more wit) into their answers with the knowledge that they will be shared with the group. This activity caps the event on a high, more lighthearted note.

The game also serves another purpose. All of the responses are kept in the Historical Society’s archives, thus providing a record of how Cambridge residents were feeling about a specific issue at a specific time. “Before the game,” Van Damme explains, “I let people know that this is one way they can participate in the history of our city.”

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The handful of Cafes that are held annually culminate in a fall symposium that further examines the year’s theme and its significance in the past, present, and future. The programming has received praise from its participants and other professionals alike, with last year’s fall symposium receiving an AASLH Leadership in History award.

The Historical Society’s commitment to engaging residents in critical reflection on the past, present, and future perspectives of current issues makes it a dynamic institution. Programs like the Society’s History Cafes and its annual fall symposium invite audience engagement that goes beyond the stereotypical physical (and chronological) boundaries associated with historical societies.

Photo Credits: Cambridge Historical Society

Small Museum of the Month: President Lincoln’s Cottage

July’s featured Small Museum of the Month is President Lincoln’s Cottage in Washington, D.C. The stated mission of President Lincoln’s Cottage is twofold: to reveal the true Abraham Lincoln, and to continue the fight for freedom that he and others waged. To accomplish this, the Cottage provides a unique combination of exhibits and programming that tie Abraham Lincoln’s legacy to modern advocacy.

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During the Civil War, the Cottage served as a summer retreat for the Lincoln family that was located on the grounds of the Soldiers’ Home outside of downtown Washington, D.C. At the Cottage, Lincoln visited wounded soldiers, spent time with self-emancipated individuals, and reflected on the complex issues of the War. It was also the place where Lincoln developed the Emancipation Proclamation. This establishes the Cottage’s legacy of freedom that it seeks to continue today.

One aspect of this continuation is the exhibits that the Cottage displays. Permanent exhibits study Lincoln and his family, the Soldiers’ Home, and the Civil War in Washington, D.C. An additional award-winning exhibit gallery, “Lincoln’s Toughest Decisions,” features digital primary sources. The Cottage also houses temporary exhibit space, where “American by Belief” is currently on display. The exhibit examines Lincoln’s immigration policies and brings them into dialogue with immigration today.

In addition to exhibits, the Cottage’s programming demonstrates a lasting commitment to linking the site’s legacy of freedom to modern day advocacy. One of the organization’s central programs is Students Opposing Slavery (SOS), a youth education program that brings students together to combat human trafficking in their own communities. The cornerstone of SOS is an annual, week-long international summit that brings dozens of teenagers together to provide training and resources that empower its attendees to continue the fight for freedom. In 2016, Secretary of State John Kerry presented SOS with the Presidential Award for Extraordinary Efforts to Combat Trafficking in Persons at the White House.

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President Lincoln’s Cottage is an organization that brings the past together with the present in a dynamic and meaningful way. Through exhibits that engage with contemporary issues and projects like SOS, President Lincoln’s Cottage strives to continue the legacy of freedom that finds it roots in the site’s historical significance.

Small Museum of the Month: Chemical Heritage Foundation

CHF_blue_logoThis month, Sustaining Places is featuring the Chemical Heritage Foundation in Old City, Philadelphia as its Small Museum of the Month.

From their website, “CHF is a library, a center for scholars, and a museum and an archive. We preserve, study, and interpret the history of chemistry, chemical engineering, and the life sciences. Our staff and fellows study the past in order to understand the present and inform the future.” CHF is an institution that uses social media effectively: it engages and interacts with its audience to foster real dialogue about the history of chemistry and how science may shape society in years to come. Their posts on platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram include promotions of special events as well as images of items from their collection and intriguing facts about chemistry.

We interviewed their social media specialist, Hillary Mohaupt, to share what she knows about maintaining a successful digital presence through social media. Follow along below to learn useful strategies for effective use of social media.

Sustaining Places: What prompted CHF to use social media?
Hillary Mohaupt: When CHF started using social media, “content strategy” and “engagement” weren’t yet the pervasive buzzwords they are today. Like many other non-profits and cultural organizations at the time, we recognized that new communications tools were becoming available and we wanted to take the opportunity to use these new outlets to connect with our audience. For the first few years our approach was purely promotional, but over time we’ve started to understand the value of listening and conversation, and our strategy has shifted accordingly.

SP: How do you define social media in relation to CHF’s mission? Was that a challenge?
HM: CHF’s mission can be boiled down to a simple idea: “science has a past and our future depends on it.” We use social media to respond to relevant conversations in real time, to make connections between the rest of the world and our collections, to share behind-the-scenes glimpses of life at a museum (and a library and a research institute, because we are those things, too), to share our expertise, and to foster dialogue with our constituents. When it comes to social media at CHF, engagement is our primary goal: we want our social media followers to understand that the history of science is relevant to their everyday lives. In some ways, this is an ongoing challenge, but that’s not necessarily negative. This current political moment has made our work seem even more urgent and important, at least to me. And that’s exciting, and makes any the frustration worth it.

SP: How has CHF shaped its social media content? Whose responsibility is it to generate content?
HM: CHF has accounts on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn, Pinterest, and Tumblr, as well as YouTube and Vimeo. I oversee the content strategy on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and LinkedIn, and manage one of the Pinterest accounts, while the library staff manage the other Pinterest account as well as a very popular Tumblr account; the multimedia producer on staff generally manages YouTube and Vimeo, though I review the analytics for YouTube. This is all to say that CHF is a complicated organization, with lots of irons in the fire, and as the social media specialist I manage the fire. I’m fortunate that our curators, librarians, researchers, and administrative staff are, in general, eager to collaborate on social media projects. I manage an editorial calendar that covers most of those platforms and run brainstorming meetings for special projects for occasions like Harry Potter’s birthday and National Photo Month. There’s some content we put out weekly: on Twitter, for example, we participate in #MuseumMonday, focus on the library on Tuesdays, highlight oral histories on Wednesday, and promote the magazine on Thursdays. I like to think that I give other people the tools to collect fuel, and I provide the oxygen that keeps the fire alive.

SP: How do you organize material to post regularly, and how far in advance do you plan posts?
HM: It’s important to get organized, to keep an editorial calendar, and to use a system that works best for you. Pay attention to what works for you, and stop doing it when it stops working. For nearly two years I tried all kinds of fancy content management tools and I sent a weekly email to my colleagues with a run-down of what was in store for the week. Recently, I switched tactics: I maintain a separate social media calendar in Outlook, which makes it easy to plan out and repeat campaign; it also makes it easy to keep track of historical anniversaries, which are social media gold for us, and to see at a glance when posts need to be scheduled. I try to have a good sense of the month ahead, but every Friday afternoon I sit down with my calendar for the following week to make sure I know exactly what content I’ll need to schedule and at what time. Ideally, I have everything scheduled at least 24 hours before its publication time, but sometimes that’s not possible. It’s also important to leave time in your editorial calendar for last-minute things that come up, because they will, inevitably, come up. For longer campaigns, to promote a particular event or a specific podcast episode, I try to schedule all the posts in one go, and then review on a weekly basis. If you do scheduled posts far in advance, it’s important to review them close to publication date, just to be sure nothing’s changed.

SP: What managing platform do you utilize to post on Facebook, Twitter, etc? Can you elaborate on the pros/cons of using one to post material?
HM: I use Hootsuite to schedule posts on Twitter, Instagram and LinkedIn; I schedule Facebook posts directly through Facebook. I manage nearly all of my statistics with Sprout Social, but only because it lets you look at several accounts. Facebook Analytics and Twitter Analytics are very robust; LinkedIn and Instagram analytics are improving.

SP: What has surprised you about regularly using social media for CHF?
HM: Humor works wonders on social media.

SP: What is your one piece of advice to small sites interested in utilizing social media?
HM: My mantra: Goals before tools. Always keep in mind WHY you want to use social media and review your goals regularly to make sure you’re doing what you set out to do. Modest goals are better than no goals, because they’ll help you understand what works. And keep a calendar, in whatever way works best for you: timeliness on social media is key.

Many thanks to Hillary for sharing her social media tips and tricks. Be sure to check out CHF’s Facebook, TwitterInstagram, and other accounts to get a glimpse of how these ideas work in action!

Small Museum of the Month: Bone Creek Museum of Agrarian Art

The Small Museum of the Month for May is the Bone Creek Museum of Agrarian Art in David City, NE. The institution is the only museum dedicated exclusively to agrarian art in the United States, and its mission is to use art to connect people to the land. Founded by volunteers in 2007, the museum continues to rely heavily on its dedicated volunteer staff and its enthusiastic membership, which includes 292 members from 30 states. Since its founding, Bone Creek has featured 42 exhibitions of agrarian art celebrating the heritage and current themes of rural life. The museum also holds additional events including artist talks, art workshops, poetry readings, and a summer art camp for kids.

In May of this year, the museum launched a commemorative exhibition called, “150 for Nebraska’s 150th.” The exhibition features works honoring the state of Nebraska from 150 different artists with ties to the museum, including several local artists. The works are also available for sale on site or online, with part of the proceeds benefiting Bone Creek. The museum has leveraged its Facebook page to promote the exhibition and the works available for sale, and to publicize sold paintings.

The exhibition is bookended by opening and closing receptions. The closing reception will feature live music and allow guests to meet many of the artists whose work was on display. There will also be People’s Choice awards presented to winning artists.

“150 for Nebraska’s 150th” was selected as a Signature Event for the official Nebraska Statehood 150 Celebration by the Nebraska Sesquicentennial Commission.

Small Museum of the Month: The Alice Paul Institute

Paulsdale, the birthplace and childhood home of militant suffragist leader Alice Paul, isn’t your typical museum and arguably isn’t a museum at all. Paulsdale is the headquarters of the Alice Paul Institute, a non-profit organization whose mission is to honor the legacy of Alice Paul’s work for gender equality through education and leadership development. Paulsdale’s architecture has been preserved to look as it did around 1900 and houses a small exhibit about Alice Paul as well as the Alice Paul Archives and Women’s History Library. However, Paulsdale is not a historic house museum, it is an example of adaptive reuse which is a process of retaining the historic features of old buildings while adapting them for new uses.

One of the most interesting programs the Alice Paul Institute runs is the Girls Advisory Council (GAC), a leadership program for high school girls that brings together women’s history and contemporary issues that affect women and girls. The program is based on the Girls Learn International curriculum which educates students about the global movement for girls’ access to education. GAC meets at Paulsdale every month, but GAC members visit local businesses and historic sites and even get the chance to speak about the importance of women’s and girls’ issues with public figures, at conferences, and even at the United Nations. GAC preserves the legacy of Alice Paul by inspiring young women to be leaders and to care about the issues that she cared about.

Adaptive reuse is a useful tool for historic sites that are struggling to manage costs because it allows the site to be preserved and opens up new revenue streams to fund that preservation. Paulsdale is a particularly interesting example of adaptive reuse because the current use for the house is an innovative and appropriate way to highlight its historic importance. While Paulsdale may not be a museum in the strictest sense, the Alice Paul Institute has turned it into a monument to Paul’s work and a place to educate the public about her and her legacy. In fact, because of Paul’s political activity, it is perhaps a much more pertinent and educational use for her childhood home than a historic house museum would be.

Small Museum of the Month: Philadelphia Public History Truck

This month’s museum: Philadelphia Public History Truck in Philadelphia, PA.

Community engagement is a necessity for any museum or historic home. Long-term sustainability requires connecting with new audiences regularly and building lasting relationships. For organizations focusing on history, connecting the public with the past in a relatable way can be a challenge, particularly as communities, their needs, and their interests change over time. So we can we do?

The Philadelphia Public History Truck (PPHT) has one answer to this question – go into these communities and assist the residents as they construct exhibits about their own local history. Share authority and do it on the terms of the people you want to reach. The PPHT partners with a local neighborhood association and volunteers in the community to build ties with its residents. After establishing relationship, it holds meetings to collect oral histories, objects, and art to be arranged by the community in an exhibition. PPHT drivers also conduct archival research to support the neighborhood’s narrative. By bringing the tools used to construct history to underserved areas, the PPHT empowers Philadelphians to share their story in their own words and connect it with other neighborhoods.

The PPHT is a mobile museum with a dedicated staff. It has a truck specially equipped to display exhibits. While other small museum or historic homes may be interested in community engagement, developing a project like this may seem beyond their scope. It is possible to put together an outreach project inspired by the successes of the Philadelphia Public History Truck while staying true to the mission of your organization. Sharing authority with the desired audience and building relationships through outreach are places to start.

As mentioned above, the PPHT initially partners with a neighborhood association. When connecting with new groups, begin by reaching out that community’s advocates. These individuals or organizations can familiarize your institution with the needs, interest, and history of their community, building a base understanding for your institution before you plan any projects. This approach also allows your institution time to introduce the advocate to your mission statement and work. The community advocates become intermediaries, a supporter for a future relationship between your institution and the community.

To build lasting relationships, both parties need a stake in each other’s interests. So have members of your staff volunteer in the community to deepen your organization’s understanding of that community. Talking to community members in this context allows you and your staff to hear about their needs through their own words. This could serve as a foundation for a future joint initiative. Together, you can discuss areas in which the mission of your organization can support the educational, programmatic, or outreach needs of that community.

The PPHT is a wonderful example of a nonprofit that builds relationships through shared authority. By developing an interest in the community first, the organization can accomplish its mission to empower Philadelphia’s communities through history. While your program may not ultimately be a mobile history truck, institutions across the country can learn and take inspiration from this model.

To learn more, please visit the Philadelphia Public History Truck’s website at, visit the PPHT Facebook page, or follow PPHT on Twitter @HistoryTruck.

Small Museum of the Month: History Hunters Youth Reporter Program

History Hunters

This month, Sustaining Places is highlighting the work of the History Hunters Youth Reporter Program in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

Imagine walking the grounds of estates with noble-sounding names like Stenton and Cliveden. Consider what it was like to interact with Native American tribes in the eighteenth century. Think of what it meant to be involved with the Underground Railroad. Students enrolled in the History Hunters Youth Reporter Program do just that when they visit five historic sites in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.


Students in the History Hunters Program


History Hunters is designed to give underserved children in the Philadelphia Public School District an opportunity to engage in hands-on learning outside of the classroom. Students develop higher-order thinking skills in history, art, math, writing, and science through trips to Stenton, Cliveden, La Salle University Art Museum, The Johnson House, and Wyck. The lessons are designed to utilize district, state, and national standards for 4th and 5th grade education. What helps to tie the exercises together is a 100-page workbook that encourages critical thinking on the trips and in the classroom. Throughout the workbook, students are introduced to historical figures like William Penn and Native American groups like the Lenape. Educators find maps, portraits of important historic figures, and key vocabulary words in the workbooks.

Teacher testimonials are an indication of how effective the History Hunters Youth Reporter Program is for students. Educators appreciate the alternative learning settings that History Hunter provides on its trips. The program assists teachers in engaging with literacy standards in the Philadelphia School District in ways that would not be available in a traditional classroom setting. Some teachers report that students and their families return to the historic sites after the school trips!

In the museum world, scalability is a concern for professionals. Best practices can sometimes involve designs that are out of reach because of prohibitive costs or staff limitations. Nevertheless, smaller historic sites can still incorporate features of programs like History Hunters in their activities for school aged children. Simple exercises like sketching and role playing can be effective tools for learning outside of the classroom. Creating small packets with mini lessons that instruct students in using maps or doing math based on information from account books are ways to immerse children in the past. Museum employees can communicate with teachers to ensure that field trips supplement educational goals while giving students the opportunity to engage with material away from their desks at school. Resources and programming can be greatly expanded when museums and historic sites become partners.These partnerships can benefit not only the community, but also the institutions themselves.


Students Learning with Hands-On Experience

The History Hunters program is coordinated by Kaelyn Barr, Site Administrator and Director of Education at Stenton and Miranda Clark-Binder, Curator of Education and Public Programs at The La Salle University Art Museum. It was initially funded by the NEH and PEW Charitable Trusts. Now, History Hunters has an endowment through The National Society of The Colonial Dames of America in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania which allows students and educators to participate for free. Since its inception over a decade ago, it has served over 20,000 students.

To learn more about this program, visit, call 215.329.7312, or email

Small Museum of the Month: Virginia Living Museum

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Welcome to our brand new page, which will highlight a new small museum each month! Each museum that is highlighted has been selected due to its creation of an innovative program or exhibit, its exemplification of best museum practices in a given area, or its use of a successful strategy to improve the visitor experience or  get people through the door. The goal of this page is to share interesting or insightful ideas and strategies from other museums that could be utilized and adapted by your museum, as well as to simply offer food for thought. Make sure to check the page each month for updates!

This month’s museum: The Virginia Living Museum in Newport News, Virginia

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Next summer, the Virginia Living Museum will host the “Nature Connects” exhibit which features larger-than-life sculptures of wildlife made solely from LEGO bricks. According to the creator of the exhibit, Sean Kenney, the purpose of the exhibit is to demonstrate the interconnectedness of nature through interconnected LEGO bricks. The exhibit boasts some incredible feats of LEGO engineering, including a 6-foot-tall hummingbird flying directly over a trumpet flower, as well as a dragonfly that spans over 7 feet. The exhibit will be hosted at the Living Museum from July 22 until November 26, 2017.nature

Incorporation of this type of exhibit into the Living Museum offers other museums a couple key ideas and lessons. Firstly, it shows how powerful positive relationships with regional artists, entrepreneurs, and community as a whole can be. Develop partnerships and positive relationships with creative minds. The ability of the community itself to create exciting, compelling exhibits can benefit both the museum and the community at the same time. Members of a community likely have an idea about what other community members want to see and experience in their local museum. Do not be afraid to ask for their opinions and to enlist the aid of local creative minds to develop attractive programming and exhibits.deer

Secondly, it shows the power of nostalgia and novel objects to attract visitors. An exhibit made entirely of tens of thousands of LEGO bricks is not just interesting or novel for children, it is also an interesting and engaging for the adult audience as well due to the use of a toy that transcends the age gap and has stood the test of time. What do you have in your collection that connects people of all ages due to its nostalgic qualities or agelessness? If your museum is still acquiring new objects for its collection, what could be added in the future that both connects individuals from all age groups and fits your collection and mission? The Victoria and Albert Museum is currently collecting objects from present-day that may induce nostalgia or relate to people of all ages in the future. This idea is one that may be worth thinking about.