Sometimes you just need to read two books together

In class this week we discussed The Museum Educator’s Manual: Educators Share Successful Techniques by Anna Johnson, Kimberly A. Huber, Nancy Cutler, Melissa Bingmann, and Tim Grove (as well as a few other readings, but for simplicity’s sake, I’m ignoring them here). The Manual is divided into three parts, covering “Training and Management,” “Programs and Outreach,” and “Working with Others.” Within these umbrella topics are essays by the authors covering such challenges as “Working with Volunteers,” “Reaching out into the Community,” and “Collaboration.” In evidence that these authors have learned the lesson of that last essay, collaboration occurs throughout the book. While each essay is written by one or two authors, there are short inserts detailing examples or additional techniques from the other authors.

Aiming to cover the whole of the museum educator’s (MEs) work, the Manual is pretty exhaustive. Great pains are made to cover all the many professional hats MEs must wear, from marketer to scheduler to volunteer wrangler. I found the chapter on docent training fascinating, in part because I went through a similar process recently. While my training was defined by the needs of the specific historic site at which I work—and it is paid work rather than volunteering—I found that there were lots of similar techniques and strategies to what was recommended in the book. The use of transitions as the structure to build a tour around is excellent. The intermixing of formal and informal docent interpretation (the Manual authors suggest floating docents wear “Ask Me!” pins) is important because it provides several different kinds of learning that visitors can self-select. It empowers the visitor to determine what percentage of their visit will involve a docent and to drive the direction of the interpretive experience; they can wander around reading signage and then ask a docent about a particular topic that extends beyond the signage, for instance.

When we talked about the book in class, the shortcomings that several folks identified were the rather scant chapters on community outreach and digital education, at 8 and 7 pages long, respectively (the digital education chapter is the shortest in the book). Perhaps the intent was to provide how-to guides to the part of the job that a prospective ME might not anticipate (e.g. planning fundraisers) but within our public history cohort, both of these topics seemed of great importance.

So it was refreshing to read Anarchist’s Guide to Historic House Museums by Franklin D. Vagnone and Deborah E. Ryan and see some of the blanks filled in. Anarchist’s Guide is a “manifesto” (it says so right on the cover!) about the problems its authors see with Historic House Museums (HHMs) and offers some possible solutions (or at least some experiments to get closer to solutions). Community outreach is Vagnone and Ryan’s first chapter (24 pages) and crops up in a few other chapters as well. Digital education is not really included, per se, but usage of social media as a tool for driving interest, receiving feedback, and collaborating appears in various parts of the book. In fact, many of the “Rants” included in the book come from Vagnone’s LinkedIn forum and several illustrations are Tweets.

It’s not that The Museum Educator’s Manual and Anarchist’s Guide are remotely comparable texts, but more that I think they are complementary. While one book is focused with the role of the ME and the other explicitly decides to “personify” HHMs rather than criticize HHM managers, there is quite a bit of overlap in the concerns of the two. While the Manuel explores the headache-inducing minutia of paperwork, training, and working with people, Guide tackles the big questions behind that quotidian reality. If Manual provides the “How?” of a slice of public history then Guide wants to know what you think the answer to “Why?” is.

In this course (Managing History), we’ve read a range of texts, from data-driven explorations of America’s engagement with the past to travelogues of Pennsylvania’s public history gems (or at least those connected to “industry”), and learned how to both work well with others and write good labels. Some of these readings have been about the theory of the discipline, some of them have been detailed how-tos about best practices, and most have been a combination of the two. We’ve been on a string of a lot of manuals (Andrew Hurley’s Beyond Preservation perhaps being the exception to the trend), and it was refreshing to dig into Anarchist’s Guide as a change of pace.

A director friend recently told me that she likes involving actual dirt and grime in her plays. “But then that’s what every young director says,” she said, acknowledging the cliché of youthful iconoclasm. Well, I’m sure every young public history student likes the idea of deconstructing and remixing historic homes and I do too. Vagnone and Ryan’s book was just what I needed to get some ideas racing in my head. And when I am in a position to wrangle some volunteer docents to enact my vision, I’ll unearth my copy of The Museum Educator’s Manual.

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