not in the bag

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If one bothers to investigate, not that it’s worth your time, Nora Hillary is a background character in her own family, let alone that of the town of Aurora.

As one of 9 children Nora is likely the least interesting of them all. Never married she worked in a bank, as an assistant accountant as well as a treasurer for a church. She enjoyed watching M.A.S.H. and Front Page Challenge on TV……oh my god I can’t go on. This record of a life lived to the fullest is just way too riveting.

The fact that the Aurora Historical Society considered it a worthwhile endeavor to expend resources on an exhibit from what some bint hoarded away in her attic illustrates their disconnect in addressing piss-poor visitor engagement.

Not having any major financial worries allowed Nora to travel.

Big Whoop.

Just picture the hoards of door crashers lining up to fork over $3 for the privilege of perusing the contents of Nora’s suitcase.

The picture above is the cover of Lisl Weil’s 1974 book.

Lisl Weil a children’s author and illustrator, is the exact opposite of Snore-a Hillary.  Born in Vienna, Austria in 1901, and it was during her Austrian childhood that Weil gained her first interest in the arts, particularly in music and the visual arts.

Lisl Weil illustrated over 100 books, many of which she wrote. She involved herself in performance art and created life-size drawings that were choreographed to move rhythmically to a musical score. Weil was also involved in the television and film industries; one of her children’s stories was made into a movie and she had a weekly television show for children during 1963-1964.

Let’s just say you had kids that are on summer break and are looking for something interesting to do and you want to expose them to some local history.  Not a foreign scenario for myself.  What are the chances you’re going to convince said kids to blow $3 each on a stodgy, fresh out of mothballs exhibit of trinkets from some Golden Girls watching spinster?

Reading through Weil’s books are a far more attractive alternative, and guaranteed to provide a far more memorable experience.

Another book, this one from the non-fiction shelf : the Anarchist’s Guide to Historic House Museums also delves into what is required in providing memorable experiences.

Here’s the description:

In these days of an aging traditional audience, shrinking attendance, tightened budgets, increased competition, and exponential growth in new types of communication methods, America’s house museums need to take bold steps and expand their overall purpose beyond those of the traditional museum. They need not only to engage the communities surrounding them, but also to collaborate with visitors on the type and quality of experience they provide. This book is a groundbreaking manifesto that calls for the establishment of a more inclusive, visitor-centered paradigm based on the shared experience of human habitation. It draws inspiration from film, theater, public art, and urban design to transform historic house museums while providing a how-to guide for making historic house museums sustainable, through five primary themes: communicating with the surrounding community, engaging the community, re-imagining the visitor experience, celebrating the detritus of human habitation, and acknowledging the illusion of the shelter’s authenticity. 

There is no other book that is immediately applicable to the operation of Hillary House.

This is even made more clear when we read through the reviews:

GForce on November 29, 2015

Most historic house museums are managed in ways that are socially and financially unsustainable. The best way to address this deepening crisis, Vagnone and Ryan contend, is by creatively engaging one’s neighbours on their own terms.

Another from Carl E. Johnson Jr. on November 19, 2015

If I had to pick one phrase to describe what the authors think of most historic house operations today, it would be “too anal” (as borrowed from Freud).

This review also provides a helpful summary of the book:

Although the “anarchist” tag is catchy, I’d say Ryan and Vagnone are radical rather than “anarchic.” I hate to use this phrase because it’s become a cliche, but what they are really asking house museum people to do is “think outside the box” (house). Ideas are divided into five categories: (1) reach out to, which means become involved with, the surrounding community; (2) focus on communications, understanding that communication with visitors is a two-way street (what your visitors tell you is just as important, if not more so, than what you tell them); (3) somewhat related to the number (2) as I see it, make the historic house a shared experience in which visitors are invited to participate in the house experience through their experiences; (4) take a holistic approach to the house and its objects/artifacts (and its history, implicitly); and (5) loosen up and take a practical, realistic approach to preservation and hard assets.

Gretchen Sullivan Sorin, The Cooperstown Graduate Program writes this in the Foreward:

If you are a traditionalist, you might think that Vagnone and Ryan are heretics, blasphemers or, at the very least, bomb throwers. You may be right. Many of the ideas in this book go against the standard rules of museum practice. But this is, for many historic house museums, a time of crisis, and crises require bold action and creative thinking. The Anarchist s Guide encourages us to think differently, to challenge conventional procedures, to put visitors first, to take risks.

Ulysses Dietz, Chief Curator and Curator of Decorative Arts, The Newark Museum says:

The tone of the book is blunt, but I think that is necessary. The whole historic-preservation industry is so deeply rooted in either a ‘Jackie Kennedy’ faux-gentility or a dead-white-men’s ‘this is how history is done, boys!’ approach to everything.

Taylor Stoermer, The History Doctor writes:

A book that is precisely what the doctor ordered for a patient on life support .It is not overstating the situation to opine that Vagnone and Ryan, in the “Anarchist s Guide,” have launched an important campaign for change that might well determine the future of the past by starting a discussion that is long overdue.

Lisa Ackerman, Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer, World Monuments Fund chimes in on the book’s relevance:

I enjoyed reading this book very much. It is written in accessible language, making complex matters very approachable. The authors have also provided a lot of concrete examples, so there is little guessing at what they are trying to say. Virtually anyone in the cultural world could take this book and find elements that are relevant to his or her work.

Katy Barrett, Royal Museums Greenwich, Apollo Magazine drives the point home:

The Anarchist’s Guide is a timely reminder to think long and hard about what and who museums are for, and about what expertise this requires. Connoisseurship alone does not a great museum make. It is the careful balance of objects, buildings, and people that brings it to life.

Here in Aurora the Aurora Historical Society has squandered a decade-long opportunity to think long and hard what and who Hillary House is for.

The National Historic site is a shell of what it could and should be, but for it to reach its potential will requires vasts amount expertise that are nowhere to be seen.

It’s time for those that can’t make history come to life to pack their suitcases and go off into the sunset to enjoy something more their speed, perhaps a nice re-run of M.A.S.H. and Front Page Challenge is in order.

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