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U.S. history museums struggle to update exhibits

November 6th, 2011 5:43 pm by Associated Press

LAKE GEORGE, N.Y. — Robert Flacke Sr. can remember the days when Fort William Henry’s multimedia exhibit consisted of two Kodak carousel-style color slide projectors that kept breaking down.


The history-heavy tourist attraction on the southern end of Lake George upgraded years ago to a video display, an improvement that looks positively futuristic amid all the aging, dusty exhibits sprinkled throughout the privately owned reconstructed French and Indian War fort and museum. Many of the displays look like they haven’t changed since the place was built more than a half-century ago.


In an effort to boost numbers of visitors, museum and historical sites around the country are searching for new ways to update old exhibits amid a time of economic uncertainty and declining support for museums in general and history museums in particular.


“History is tough to sell,” said Flacke, president of the Fort William Henry Corp.


Updating exhibits often is one way to attract more visitors, but it’s expensive, especially for smaller museums and lesser-known historic sites.


“A lot of smaller institutions are getting off the treadmill of trying to change things every few months,” said Anne Ackerson, director of the Troy-based Museum Association of New York. “This history museum world is kind of scratching its head, trying to find out how to make themselves relevant, bring in audiences and engage those audiences, and do in on resources that they simply don’t have.”


The problem is particularly felt by history-related museums, which make up about 40 percent of the nation’s 17,500 museums of all genres. Some 850 million visits are made to American museums each year, part of the $192 billion spent each year on cultural tourism in the U.S. Even with all those visitors and all that money being spent, many history museums are struggling, and not just in New York:


• In Georgia, the financially struggling Marietta Museum of History has asked the local development authority to waive the museum’s rent for the next two years.


• New Jersey’s Museum of Agriculture, which chronicled the farming history behind the Garden State’s nickname, shut its doors this year amid state budget cuts.


• Detroit’s Charles H. Wright Museum of African-American History lost nearly $500,000 in city funding for fiscal 2012.


“It’s tough for all museums everywhere,” said Ford Bell, president of the Washington, D.C.-based American Association of Museums, which represents nearly 3,000 nationwide. The association’s annual survey of a cross-section of museums found that more than 70 percent were experiencing some type of economic distress, he said.


To keep costs down, many museums are holding off on renting traveling exhibits and instead delving into their own collections to present new displays, Ackerson said. Others are looking at innovative ways to boost funding and give their museums a fresh look.


The Wright Museum ties black history to other cultural events, including recent performances by the Dance Theatre of Harlem, subject of a featured exhibit and the highlight of a September gala that raised more than $400,000 for the museum, spokesman Ted Canaday said.


“You can’t just say, ‘We’re a history museum’ and only push the historic aspect,” he said. “You have to show people how the history impacts people right now, how it impacts the choices they make, and one of the best ways to do that is through the arts.”


At Fort William Henry, control of the museum’s exhibits and collection of Colonial-era military artifacts was handed over this year to the French and Indian War Society, a group of local history buffs, archaeologists and educators dedicated to telling the original fort and Lake George’s pivotal role during the 18th-century conflict. Historical events here in 1757 were retold in James Fenimore Cooper’s “The Last of the Mohicans.”


For the first time since an arson fire destroyed part of the attraction in the late 1960s, the fort’s owners are planning major improvements to exhibits, making them more modern, interactive and kid-friendly.


“Fort William Henry is being dragged into the digital age,” said French and Indian War Society board member Joseph Zarzynski, a retired history teacher and documentary filmmaker specializing in underwater archaeology. “People are bombarded with technology that entertains and informs. By hook or by crook, the fort needs to recognize that and find some money to get into that stream of interpretation.”


John Zukowsky knows the challenges many smaller history museums and historic sites face in these times of shrinking budgets, scarce government funding and diminishing interest in the nation’s past. He formerly worked at The Westcott House, a Frank Lloyd Wright-designed prairie-style home turned museum in Springfield, Ohio.


“Unless you have Elvis’ house or George Washington’s house, it’s really in the end just another house,” said Zukowsky, now the interim senior vice president of exhibitions and special projects at the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum in Manhattan.


But there’s room for the older exhibits, too. Seeing the same artifacts that were on display when she was a kid didn’t seem to bother Alexandra Bennis of Monroe, N.Y., during a visit with her family to Fort William Henry before it closed in late October.


“It’s some of the same experience we had as children. We wanted to share it with them,” said Bennis, 38, as she nodded toward her two young children.

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