Making History Relevant to Younger Audiences at the Edith Bolling Wilson Birthplace

Strategy: Be Creative (More with Less), Collaborate in New Ways, Serve Local Community, Take Advantage of Tech

Type of attraction: Arts Organization, Museum/Historic Site

Summary: The Edith Bolling Wilson Birthplace Museum in Wytheville, Virginia - a museum with a single, “wearing all hats” employee - has embarked upon several successful partnerships.

The Edith Bolling Wilson Birthplace Museum in Wytheville, Virginia — a museum with a single, “wearing all hats” employee — has embarked upon several successful partnerships that give the museum access to manpower, talent and audiences that might otherwise seem elusive.  Says Leslie King, the museum’s executive director, “We have increased visitation, interest and volunteer hours through several different college partnerships which are helping us survive during these challenging times.  We have partnerships with the Wytheville Community College (WCC) and Radford University.  With WCC, we have four very strong student volunteers who have helped us as docents and with data-entry…students receive extra credit for helping us out with events, mailings and silver preservation…”

While successfully enlisting an effective group of young volunteers is indeed a boon to daily life at the museum, perhaps the most innovative is their partnership with Radford University – one that has the potential to put them on the cyber map. “We hope to generate interest in the museum from an audience that otherwise might not have sought us out,” states King. 

What is the project?  Introduction to Graphic Design students at Radford are designing t-shirts for the museum that reveal the history of Edith Bolling Wilson, called “the secret president” by some historians.  But it’s more than that – there are 30 potential t-shirt designs, and the museum held a contest where visitors to the museum and ‘virtual visitors’ on the museum’s website (www.secretpresident.com) could vote for their favorite design. Each voter must make a small donation to the museum, which meant that the museum ended up with a winning design and enough cash to produce the first round of t-shirts.  Invitations to a kickoff event were sent via a social-networking site so that event coordinators and potential attendees could see who was coming. Indeed, some of the t-shirt designs (“Southern girls are dangerous”) were provocative, and even the website URL (www.secretpresident.com) incites interest, making people want to learn more about this fascinating first lady. 

Courtesy of the Virginia Association of Museums, from VAM Voice newsmagazine, Winter 2009. Contact communications director Heather Widener at hwidener@vamuseums.org for more information.”