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Opening the Historic Shenandoah County Courthouse Museum

Posted By Zachary Hottel, Wednesday, April 1, 2015

When an organization opens a new museum, they seek out experienced professionals to lead the way. Rarely are graduate students selected to perform this task. Yet, in the summer of 2014, I was asked to intern with the Shenandoah County Historical Society (SCHS) and build the Historic Shenandoah County Courthouse Museum from the ground up. With little experience to draw upon, I turned to my academic endeavors to guide our operations.

Opening a historic site in Shenandoah County had many challenges. The decision to move court functions from the historic courthouse, and ultimately turn it into a museum, had created a firestorm of political controversy. Funding was almost nonexistent since the historical society relied completely on membership fees and donations to support operations. SCHS had no professional staff or experience operating a museum. The organization’s board had no definitive plan for the site, or ideas on how it should be operated. Surrounding museums struggled with many of the same issues, and none offered extensive, professional interpretation. Social conditions in the area were also an issue. Residents viewed the courthouse as a symbol of their values, but in many cases they supported opposing principals. In addition, a selective memory of issues relating to race, sexuality, the Civil War, and other topics, threatened to derail any quality programming before it began. 


The theories presented in three of my classes, museum interpretation, material cultures, and digital history, provided the tools needed to address these issues. The theories I drew on included:


From interpretation in museums came the idea of creating participatory museums, exhibits that connect with visitors, the need to evaluate visitor experience, and accessibility.


From material cultures, I brought an understanding of how to use items to tell the story of the people who used them, not simply about their decorative qualities.


From digital history came practical experience on how to use social media, create online collections, and to build a museum that provided services beyond its physical envelope.


Ultimately, these classes allowed me to create a museum that is prepared to meet the need of its visitors in a variety of ways. The historic nature of the structure, and interpretative tools combined to tell a history of the site and the county that surrounds it. Exhibits are accessible, interactive, and challenging. The collection on display is limited, and free space, designed to promote thoughtfulness, it prevalent. Docents are trained to provide instant feedback and visitor support while allowing for free choice learning.


Evaluation measures are in place, including a sticky-note feedback wall. Online tools have created virtual discussion boards, the crowdsourcing of historical information, and online exhibits, that provide visitors the chance to interact with the historical society even when they are not present at the site.


All of this has made the Historic Shenandoah County Courthouse Museum a tremendous success. Visitation is increasing and, when compared to other local sites, is quite high. There have been almost no complaints, even when visitors encountered challenging materials. Instead, residents and visitors have offered overwhelming praise for our actions. These efforts show how theories developed in the classroom can be applied at a site and how an intern learned to build a museum to meet the needs of a community.

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Tags:  historical society  museum  museum studies  Shenandoah  vam  Virginia  Virginia Association of Museums 

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