The Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) awarded Connecticut Landmarks a $149,643 grant to support the development of an interpretive plan for the Joshua Hempsted House in New London. The plan and project will explore acceptable new methodologies and treatments for sharing the House’s significant stories with museum goers, community members, children and younger adults.
IMLS received 470 applications requesting $52,297,00; 152 projects totaling $18,113,00 were selected to receive funding. Connecticut Landmarks is one of only six Connecticut organizations who received funding. The others include the Wadsworth Athenaeum, The Connecticut Science Center, The Florence Griswold Museum, Yale University & the Mashantucket Pequot Museum.
Through the development of an interpretive plan, Connecticut Landmarks will turn the historic house museum model on its head, turning the Joshua Hempsted House into a learning lab for historic house museum interpretation and community engagement, becoming a more relevant partner in making its community more livable. Connecticut Landmarks’ 2009 Strategic Plan identified seven critical organizational goals, including developing and implementing interpretive plans focused on audience engagement, community partnerships and community-based programming for its five core sites.
Historic house museums, which number in the thousands, have been struggling to gain currency with contemporary audiences. While multiple factors are likely at play, the guided tour, typically the default and only method by which visitors can experience historic house museums, are certainly playing a role in this struggle, as Reach Advisors found in its 2008 statewide CT Cultural Consumers Study, spearheaded by Connecticut Landmarks, that a majority of museum goers do not enjoy guided tours. Younger respondents were much less likely to enjoy guided tours than respondents over 60. As a result, historic house museums continue attract aging, white audiences and few younger and minority visitors. As our country continues on its path to becoming majority minority, the current model, methods of interpretation and stories of historic homeowners (and their belongings) is no longer sustainable.
This project will constitute a crucial investment in institutional capacity by making the Joshua Hempsted House more relevant and sustainable through the creation of a compelling interpretive experience and improved engagement with a diverse neighborhood and community that yearns to see relevant stories from the past told at this site to inspire and inform current residents. To that end, the project will also make the neighborhood around the house more livable and vibrant.
Working in collaboration with The Writer’s Block, InK, Connecticut Landmarks will hire New London area teens to continue the collaboration CTL began with the Block during the summer of 2011 and to work with Susie Wilkening of Reach Advisors, and exhibition consultant Robert Kiihne, to reinterpret the Joshua Hempsted House as they would like to see it shared and in a format they think will be engaging to their peers, families and the public. They will design exhibitions which they will present and have reviewed by local community members and the project consultants.
One-on-one interviews will be conducted with community leaders and neighborhood residents to gauge current perceptions of the property, determine what community members would like to see happen at the property and better understand barriers to participation. An online panel of museum-goers of different ages, life stages and preferences will be convened to respond to moderated questions about historic house museums, new interpretation methods and how these methods will build the potential to create change. Findings will be analyzed for patterns, language, thoughts, feelings, perceptions and preferences and applied to the property. Similar to the panel of museum-goers, an online panel of area teachers will be created with questions focusing on field trip experiences, constraints on visitation, how a visit to the property can be incorporated into school curriculum and how it can best serve student and teacher needs.
The interpretive plan will encourage new thinking and connections among museum visitors and local residents through the story of enslaved African Adam Jackson, who lived in the Joshua Hempsted House for 30 years, and the generations of Hempsted family members and will connect visitors to social justice issues, engender empathy for different viewpoints, and hopefully change how people think about race, equality, poverty and other social issues facing our country today.
The project will continue Connecticut Landmarks’ collaboration with the Writer’s Block, InK. This summer’s collaboration focused on a Youth Employment Program, through which Writer’s Block students studied prominent African American historical figures in the New London area and the broader history of slavery in Connecticut during the 17th and 18th centuries. The culmination of the research done by “The Boys on the Block” has resulted in the original production Wealth in Skin: Creative Historical Freedom Stories directed by Broadway veteran, Ron Bastine. Performances of the production will be between 1 and 5 pm on Saturday and Sunday, August 11th and 12th at Freedom Fair at Connecticut Landmarks’ Hempsted Houses.
For more information on the project, or to learn how you can contribute, please contact the Director of Donor Development, Holly Howley, at 860.247.8996 ext 16.
About Connecticut Landmarks
Founded in 1936 as the Antiquarian & Landmarks Society, Connecticut Landmarks is the largest statewide heritage museum organization in Connecticut. The historic landmark properties span four centuries of Connecticut history and include: the Amos Bull House, Hartford; the Bellamy-Ferriday House & Garden, Bethlehem; the Butler-McCook House & Garden and Main Street History Center, Hartford; the Buttolph-Williams House, Wethersfield; the Hempsted Houses, New London; the Isham-Terry House, Hartford; the Nathan Hale Homestead, Coventry; the Phelps-Hatheway House & Garden, Suffield.
Connecticut Landmarks’ mission is to inspire interest and encourage learning about the American past by preserving selected historic properties, collections and stories and presenting programs that meaningfully engage the public and our communities. For more information, please visit www.ctlandmarks.org.
About The Writer’s Block, InK
The mission of The Writer’s Block, InK is to arm young voices with the power of pen, poetry and prose, reinforcing teamwork, accountability, and responsibility – igniting social change on the page and the stage. The Writer’s Block InK was started in 2003 as a 501c3 non-profit organization to encourage youth to use writing and performance as tools to address personal and social challenges on the community stage. Students from The Block create original plays with a strong emphasis on spoken word poetry and have performed on stages across Southeastern Connecticut. Courses are structured to guide students to improve skills in the performing arts including writing, acting, singing and dance, as well as to build self-confidence, leadership, and teamwork. The students conceive of an idea, develop a plot, create characters and evaluate character conflict, then write a final script, cast themselves, market, and ultimately perform their work for the community. The Writer’s Block, InK’s overall purpose is to empower youth to advance key skills through all aspects of the performing arts in order to enhance their lives, communities and the world. For more information go to www.writersblockink.org.