The Curator’s Role in Crowd-Pleasing Events, Part 4: Reversing “Bad Habits” in a Positive Way

Have you been busy these last couple of weeks decorating your historic house museum and planning your seasonal event?  We hope that our holiday series has been informative and helpful.  This fourth and final post of the series deals with recognizing and reversing bad habits that may have become ingrained in your holiday preparations. In this post, Patricia West McKay, Curator at Martin Van Buren National Historic Site, relates the positive changes she has made to the site’s long-beloved holiday event.  As illustrated in this post, a few changes can make a world of difference for the sake of preservation, and need not lessen visitors’ enjoyment of the festivities.

[The following post written by Patricia West McKay.]

When I arrived in 1998 as the new curator at Martin Van Buren National Historic Site I inherited a rich ahistorical tradition focused in the former president’s nineteenth-century home, Lindenwald, including food, flowers, an illumination of seventy burning candles, and scores of visitors brushing up against the 1840s scenic Zuber wallpaper. This holiday event was long standing and loved by staff and visitors alike so bringing it in line with curatorial best practices presented significant challenges.

We first approached the accuracy of the event by emphasizing its relationship with Van Buren’s December 5 birthday rather than its definition as a “Christmas” event.  This has not altogether eliminated the perception of the event as being related to the holiday period and the Kinderhook Garden Club still tends in this direction, but fortunately the abundant presence of poinsettias at the event has a basis in the history of the site.  Joel Poinsett, Van Buren’s Secretary of War and visitor to Lindenwald is credited with having introduced poinsettias to the United States.  We have added a special theme focus for the event (in 2014 this was the Van Buren grandchildren) to which the garden Club orients their decorations which adds interpretive content and distracts somewhat from the proclivity to a Christmas theme.

Parlor at Martin Van Buren National Historic Site decorated for the holidays.   (Photo by Bill Urbin, courtesy of Martin Van Buren National Historical Park.)

Parlor at Martin Van Buren National Historic Site decorated for the holidays. (Photo by Bill Urbin, courtesy of Martin Van Buren National Historical Park.)

Approaching the more egregious curatorial issues gradually, we first replaced the live flame candles with low-voltage electric candles, which look remarkably real, so the change satisfied those concerned with an authentic appearance. This  had the added benefit of reducing the number of staff and volunteers needed for the event, because with live flame we had to assign a “candle watcher” in every space in addition to the interpreter stationed there. Of course, we flat-out eliminated the use of actual food (from fruit to nuts, literally) as decorative elements. We purchased a stock of good quality reproduction food that we use instead. I designated a line-item in the curatorial budget for purchasing decorations for this event to ensure they are good quality and can be replaced when they look worn. Martin Van Buren NHS is located near Saratoga National Historical Park which holds a “candlelight” open house in October so we are able to share accoutrements between the two parks to stretch our budgets.

Our next step was to move away from the crowded open-house format to a reservations-based event featuring interpreters and volunteers in period costume in order to keep the number of visitors reasonable and well paced. We had worried about complaints but have not received any despite the event being fully booked.  people seem to understand a sold out show.

Costumed interpreter speaking to visitors in the office at Martin Van Buren National Historic Site.  Note the resin inside of the decanter on the desk, which mimics libation inside. (Photo by Bill Urbin, courtesy of Martin Van Buren National Historic Site.)

Costumed interpreter speaking to visitors in the office at Martin Van Buren National Historic Site. Note the electric candles near the back of the room, as well as the solid resin inside of the decanter on the desk, to suggest libation. (Photo by Bill Urbin, courtesy of Martin Van Buren National Historic Site.)

Perhaps the most difficult transition involved improving at least to some extent the historical accuracy of the floral arrangements produced by the Kinderhook Garden Club. At first, our dedicated volunteers mistook staff suggestions related to the historic period for criticism, which was counter-productive, so we took a different tack. We hired a horticultural historian, Ellen McClelland Lesser, to make a presentation on floral arrangements of the period and to serve as an adviser for the garden club. The volunteers  enjoyed the presentation and the subsequent floral arrangements are more in keeping with Martin Van Buren’s era, although this continues to be a struggle.

I admit that even over fifteen years later we have not been fully successful in aligning the December event at Martin Van Buren NHS with historical accuracy and every curatorial best practice, in part due to its immense popularity and the inexorable pull for the event to be construed as a Christmas party. However, we have made great progress and will continue to strive to do so.

To experience a current seasonal event at Martin Van Buren National Historic Site, we invite you to enjoy a brief video entitled Lindenwald Winter Celebration!

Series Conclusion

Despite the inherent bustle and fun of the holiday season, museum staff should stay focused on their institution’s mission through careful planning to safeguard the safety of visitors and cultural resources, maintain accuracy and historical integrity in all public programming, and, above all, maintain good communication and humor among staff members and volunteers. We welcome any additional comments, suggestions, or resources you would like to share.  Happy Holidays to you and yours from the Northeast Museum Services Center!

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