Stratford Hall leads the way for new historic house museum tour models
Strategy: Enhance Your Product, Focus on Customer Potential, Take Advantage of Tech
Type of attraction: Museum/Historic Site
Summary: When the first group of ladies campaigned to save Virginia’s Stratford Hall, the birthplace of Confederate General Robert E. Lee, they succeeded in acquiring the property in 1929 – just as America sank into the Great Depression.
When the first group of ladies campaigned to save Virginia’s Stratford Hall, the birthplace of Confederate General Robert E. Lee, they succeeded in acquiring the property in 1929 – just as America sank into the Great Depression. The determined ladies began fundraising and paid off the $240,000 price tag by 1935.
That perseverance is a legacy that Paul Reber, Stratford Hall’s executive director, can appreciate today as the country again faces economic uncertainty. Just as the ladies who formed the Robert E. Lee Memorial Association had a clear goal, Reber has a wide-ranging vision to make Stratford Hall and other historic house museums viable heritage destinations for visitors and their community’s residents.
“It is no secret that visitation at historic sites like Stratford Hall has been declining,” Reber says. “This is not a new development, but part of a long-term trend that began over 30 years ago. It is clear these trends reflect a significant cultural shift in the way Americans understand the past.”
He cites Stratford Hall’s management history as an example: “There was a lot of work done in middle to later part of 20th century in restoration and development of site. We had a typical governance situation: an all-woman board which ran the show with staff as their functionaries. That worked because there wasn’t anything such thing as professional museum people until 1960s. All prior directors were retired military officers who had no larger understanding of museum issues such as interpretive, educational and programmatic changes.”
That led to what Reber describes as “benign stagnation” and questions of mission and relevance.
When Reber arrived in 2006, he was ready to tackle the issue for Stratford Hall. But, knowing that other sites were struggling as well, he quickly aimed for a broader approach. “My belief is that historic house museums have a role to play. Our problem isn’t that our stories aren’t interesting, we just don’t do a good job of telling them,” Reber says.
In October 2009, Stratford Hall hosted a conference titled "Re-Discovering the Historic House” which brought together people from a variety of disciplines, such as game designers, storytellers and cultural critics, to help historic site managers think differently about how to re-fashion historic sites for a new audience.
Conference participants indicated a strong desire to see follow up from the ideas that were discussed, which led to Reber’s next strategy. In addition to Stratford Hall, several historic houses museums will be selected in Boston and Philadelphia. These sites will work with storytellers, interpretive planners and curators to develop and experiment with new tour models. Proposals have been submitted to two foundations to underwrite the project. Once the new models are developed, the next step will be to obtain funds for implementation. Stratford Hall will lead the way by implementing the model and tracking its success with visitors.
Exactly what the new experience will be remains to be seen as the project unfolds over several years. But Reber is certain: “It will be much more visitor directed and will allow the exploration of history from multiple perspectives. If we don’t take risks and try something new we will never find a solution.
The hope is that this will lead to a replicable model that can be adopted by other sites across the country.”