The Curator’s Role in Crowd-Pleasing Events, Part 3: Planning and Logistics

As Christmas approaches quickly (yes, it’s only 4 days away!), the third installment of our holiday decorating blog series offers advice on coordinating the logistics of a seasonal event at your historic house museum.  The Theodore Roosevelt Inaugural National Historic Site has been hosting a Victorian Christmas event for forty years. Many thanks to the site’s curator, Lenora Henson, for the extraordinarily helpful tips presented here!  

[The following blog post written by Lenora M. Henson.]

Site-specific preparations for the installation of holiday displays and related events depend on any number of factors. For example:  how many spaces are involved?  How big are those spaces?  What is being installed?  Are you adding holiday-specific objects from your collection, or installing (non-collection) decorations?  What sort of “prep work” needs to be done prior to installation?  What (if any) collections objects should be moved?  Where will those objects be moved?  Also consider: who is doing the installation (e.g., staff, volunteers, outside groups)?  What sort of assistance or supervision is necessary?  When will the displays and/or decorations be installed?  Will the site be open to visitors during the installation process?  Will any clean-up be necessary in the immediate aftermath of installation?  And, don’t forget the post-holiday piece of the puzzle: when will the displays be removed?  Who will remove them?  Will all or part of the decorations need to be stored for next year?  If so, where?

Your answers to these and other related questions will naturally guide your planning process – from the amount of time you spend, to the partners you involve, to the specific concerns that wake you from a sound sleep at 2 o’clock on the morning of D[ecorating]-Day. The following case study will illustrate how one historic site has addressed some of these issues and point out a number of successful planning strategies.

The Theodore Roosevelt Inaugural National Historic Site preserves the home where Theodore Roosevelt was sworn-in as President in September of 1901. Known by locals in Buffalo, NY, as the “TR Site,” it has hosted an event called “Victorian Christmas” for forty years. In fact, “Victorian Christmas” is the TR Site’s biggest annual fundraiser and is deemed crucial to its financial stability. Integral to the event, and much-loved by the community, are the decorations installed by members of local garden clubs. Each year, more than a dozen areas in and around what was once the home of Ansley and Mary Grace Wilcox are festooned with holiday trimmings.

Theodore Roosevelt Inaugural National Historic Site's front hall decorated by the Lancaster Garden Club, 2014.  (Image courtesy of Theodore Roosevelt Inaugural National Historic Site.)

Theodore Roosevelt Inaugural National Historic Site’s front hall decorated with the help of the Lancaster Garden Club, 2014. (Image courtesy of Theodore Roosevelt Inaugural National Historic Site.)

Coordinating the decorating efforts of a dozen or more garden clubs, while at the same time protecting the historic resource, requires considerable planning and cooperation. For the TR Site, the foundation of this process is the long-standing and solid partnership it has developed with the 8th District Federated Garden Clubs of New York State. Two volunteers from the 8th District sit on the TR Site’s Victorian Christmas Committee and are indispensable liaisons between the two groups. These volunteer chairs also provide a first point of contact for individual garden clubs interested in decorating the TR Site.

Planning for Victorian Christmas and decorating generally gets underway in February (yes, ten months in advance of the event!) of any given year. The TR Site’s Assistant Director, who manages the overall event, meets with the 8th District chairs to review successes and challenges from the previous year. As the staff person who works directly with the garden clubs, I am also at this meeting. Together, we finalize the information that will accompany the TR Site’s annual invitation to decorate for Victorian Christmas. This includes a list of rooms and areas to be decorated, a link to an electronic form that records each garden club’s choice, and a set of specific decorating guidelines. The packet of information is distributed to all of the area garden clubs at the 8th District’s annual spring meeting and luncheon. This event is a perfect opportunity to distribute this information, because the Assistant Director and I are on hand to present awards stemming from the previous year’s Victorian Christmas decorations.

Over the course of the next several months, the 8th District chairs work with individual garden clubs to decide which club will decorate each room or area at the TR Site. From my perspective, this works out extremely well since the chairs are familiar with not only the garden clubs, but also the possibilities and limitations of the TR Site. For instance, if two garden clubs have their hearts set on decorating a particular area, the 8th District chairs are much better positioned than I am to negotiate an agreement. Or, if a small garden club, with only a few members and even fewer resources, would like to get involved but is daunted by the pre-defined decorating areas, the 8th District chairs can work with me to divide an area appropriately or find an alternate solution. Generally, by the end of the summer, all of the rooms and areas have been claimed (or assigned, as the case may be) and the 8th District chairs provide me with a list of garden clubs and the areas they are responsible for decorating.

Shortly after Labor Day, I e-mail each participating garden club. There are several components to this mailing and a good deal of the information is repeated from the packet distributed at the 8th District’s spring meeting. While I was initially concerned about giving garden clubs the same information twice, I have come to realize that the first round of information tends to get lost over the summer. With that in mind, the early fall mailing includes a cover letter about scheduling for previews and “Decorating Days”; decorating tips focused on protecting collection objects and floors; the Curator’s Choice Award announcement for the decorations that “best capture the spirit of turn-of-the-century Christmas decorations in Buffalo”; and information on Buffalo Christmas decorations circa 1901.  This last item is excerpted from original research and highlights the wide variety of plant materials (including poinsettias, narcissus, begonias, mistletoe, orchids, lilies, palms, and pine) used to decorate the homes of prominent Buffalonians.

Dining room at Theodore Roosevelt Inaugural National Monument, decorated with the help of the Smallwood Garden Club, 2014.  Chandelier decorations installed by site curator.  (Image courtesy of Theodore Roosevelt Inaugural National Historic Site.)

Dining room at Theodore Roosevelt Inaugural National Monument, decorated with the help of the Smallwood Garden Club, 2014. Chandelier decorations installed by site curator. (Image courtesy of Theodore Roosevelt Inaugural National Historic Site.)

The flurry of phone calls resulting from this mailing leads to in-person, on-site meetings with representatives of the various garden clubs. These “preview” meetings are invaluable. They not only provide the garden club with a chance to see and measure their space, but also allow me to work with them to find solutions to the dilemmas created by the restrictions (no tape, etc.) imposed by the TR Site. I take copious notes to remind myself which (if any) artifacts need to be moved before garden clubs arrive and have found that these meetings make the chaos of Decorating Days more manageable. While some may consider it micro-managing, I have also found it useful to establish myself as the single source of answers when it comes to decorating questions. If I am the only person who can (or will) provide answers, there isn’t much room on Decorating Day for a conversation beginning with the assertion that, “Another staff member told me it would be fine to . . . ”

While it is impossible to anticipate every challenge that will crop up during Decorating Days, experience suggests that it is best to face the process with as much information as possible. Individual clubs are expected to let me know which day and what time they plan to come in. Before Decorating Days even arrive, I can get a sense of how many garden clubs plan to be in a particular area of the house on a given day to alleviate bottle necks in tight spaces.

Armed with my notes from preview meetings and the schedule, I can face Decorating Days with a fair degree of confidence. I can move artifacts, and we can stage work tables as well as ladders, garbage bags, and shoe covers in the appropriate areas before individual garden clubs arrive. In recent years, the TR Site has also chosen to suspend its regular public tour schedule while decorating takes place. This has alleviated pressure on several fronts and also helps by making additional staff resources available to focus on Decorating Days.

Morning room at Theodore Roosevelt Inaugural National Historic Site, decorated with the help of the Orchard Park Garden Club, 2014. (Image courtesy of Theodore Roosevelt Inaugural National Historic Site.)

Morning room at Theodore Roosevelt Inaugural National Historic Site, decorated with the help of the Orchard Park Garden Club, 2014. (Image courtesy of Theodore Roosevelt Inaugural National Historic Site.)

Holiday decorations remain in place at the TR Site throughout the month of December and garden clubs are also responsible for their removal. So, while there is a huge sigh of relief when Decorating Days are over, it is important that I stay in touch with the garden clubs. A few days before “actual” Christmas, I send each club a quick e-mail. My note serves to express effusive thanks for all of their hard work, and also remind them about the “De-Decorating” schedule (usually January 2nd, 3rd, or 4th). As with decorating, the clubs are asked to let me know when they will arrive to remove decorations. While the de-decorating process tends to be much quicker and involves far fewer members of each garden club, there is considerable clean-up that needs to be done afterwards and it takes several days to get everything back to “normal” at the TR Site. At that point, Victorian Christmas is officially over and staff can take a short break, before the process begins all over again in February!

My tenure at the Theodore Roosevelt Inaugural Site has spanned all or part of fifteen Victorian Christmases. The process of decorating can vary greatly from year to year, but it seems to work best when communication is open, on-going, and consistent. Further, I cannot overstate the advantages of organization and pre-planning. When present, these factors go a long way in mitigating many of the stressors associated with holiday displays and events at historic sites.

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