New Ideas, Same Old House: Public Feedback, Change and the Alexander Ramsey House
Brooking Paper on Creativity Honorable Mention (2012)
By Rachel Abbott
House museum professionals are struggling to find answers—ways to make house museums meaningful and relevant to diverse, 21st-century audiences. The fallacy of this exercise is that perhaps house museum professionals shouldn’t be trying to solve this problem alone. Perhaps their creative thinking, no matter how creative, and their discussions with peer institutions, no matter how inspiring, can’t compete with just asking these potential audiences for help.
Doing this is an exercise in humility and patience, and requires a willingness to make real changes, but it is worth the effort. Just ask the staff of the Alexander Ramsey House historic site in St. Paul, Minnesota. The Ramsey House opened itself to scrutiny by asking the community for help in redeveloping its declining program and brand. The project resulted in both a new program and a new operating model for the historic site.
Like the Ramsey House, other museums and historic houses have undertaken audience evaluation projects, and many have probably heard similar feedback. But what the Minnesota Historical Society (MHS) did with the Ramsey House was novel in three ways: 1) the design of the evaluation process, including the project steering committee, involved people outside of the organization and gave them real authority; 2) the evaluation that the public participated in was not focused on one program or one question, but rather was a process of institutional planning for the site as a whole; and 3) the implementation of the project’s recommendations was not an all-or-nothing endeavor. It is tempting to see the need for change as the need to throw out old ideas entirely or build a brand new facility. The Ramsey House has been navigating the road toward relevance and sustainability by finding a balance between old and new ways, implementing significant changes within the context of the site as it is—limitations and all.
The history of the Ramsey House is familiar to many other house museums around the country. The house was built in 1872 for Alexander Ramsey, one of the state’s early politicians who served as territorial governor, state governor, U.S. senator, secretary of war for President Rutherford B. Hayes and mayor of the City of St. Paul. The mansion was home to Governor Ramsey and his family, including his wife, daughter and grandchildren. Upon the death of Ramsey’s last granddaughter, the mansion and its contents were willed to MHS—a remarkably complete collection of more than 14,000 family artifacts, letters and photographs, and Governor Ramsey’s journals. Not only is the site extremely well documented, but it has a great location in downtown St. Paul with a parking lot, close to venues that attract approximately 1 million visitors per year.
Despite these resources, however, by 2009 the site was struggling to survive. For 35 years, the site existed on the same “open for guided tours” operating model, with heavy funding support from the state. But from 1997 to 2009, the site experienced a 22 percent decrease in overall visitation with school groups dropping by 26 percent and adult groups dropping by 54 percent. This trend, combined with reductions in state funding during the recession, pushed MHS to close the Ramsey House for all but seven weeks of the year—open only for a Christmas program that had brought in 46 percent of its income the year before.
MHS staff had their own opinions about why the site was failing: The extensive collection of artifacts meant a lack of changeable, usable space inside the mansion—a limitation for new programming. The house was too hands-off and therefore not family-friendly. Ramsey’s controversial legacy of dealings with Minnesota’s American Indian tribes made him unlikable in today’s world; people didn’t want to hear about his politics. Ramsey is the prototypical Rich White Man that 21st-century historic sites are trying to leave behind. House museums are dying. There was a real fear that these apparent limitations would prevent the Ramsey House from ever being relevant or sustainable.
To test these assumptions, MHS decided to take advantage of a special state funding source and invest in an exploratory process of audience evaluation and site reimagining to see if the Ramsey House could become culturally relevant and sustainable. This process would hinge on audience evaluation—particularly people who had never visited the site. Ramsey House staff had long conceived and executed programs and initiatives with little or no evaluation, operating under an assumption that they were the experts on what the public wanted or needed, and programs would either rise or fall through trial and error. Feedback had never been solicited from “non-visitors.” Public opinion was a major missing piece in this house museum puzzle. So rather than attempt to solve the Ramsey House problem in a museum field vacuum, MHS ventured to redevelop the site based on the public’s input about fundamental themes and operational issues, hearing from both its biggest critics and its biggest fans.
A team of three consultants was hired to lead the Ramsey Redevelopment Project, led by Joel Lefever, a decorative arts and house museum specialist. He brought in Daryl Fischer of Musynergy Consulting to design evaluation tools: online surveys and visitor panel focus groups. Mary Kay Ingethron of MKCommunications was brought in as an expert in marketing and business planning.
The consultants made it clear from the outset that this would be a collaborative process. They designed a plan to work through evaluation and decision-making not only with Ramsey House and MHS staff from various departments, but with community stakeholders and potential visitors who might have strong feelings about the future of the site. An advisory steering committee was formed and included a St. Paul Public Schools curriculum specialist, representatives of St. Paul’s African American and American Indian communities, a neighbor, a tourism industry professional, a historic preservation expert and representatives from the site’s board of governors friends group. The steering committee was critical to the success of the project, as the mix of internal and external voices produced new and valuable perspectives.
The Ramsey Redevelopment Project included three main kinds of audience evaluation: online surveys, stakeholder interviews and visitor panels. The online surveys provided quantitative data, while the interviews and visitor panels provided qualitative data.
The visitor panel was a good representation of the overarching vision of the process: This was a group of people who reflected the demographics of the site’s potential audience in the Twin Cities metro area. Only one panelist had ever been to the Ramsey House before. The panelists reacted to the Ramsey House at a very basic level in their first meeting and were given the freedom to offer reactions and ideas without much direction. Their feedback shaped the next meeting, where they discussed potential programs, partnerships and revenue-generating initiatives. Steering committee members were encouraged to be present but silent, which positioned the panelists as experts on the visitor experience, and they were able to see that staff and stakeholders were watching and listening. The process resulted in great feedback and a group of strangers who left feeling invested in the site’s future. For staff, it was humbling to listen to honest feedback about the site, without the ability to chime in or be defensive.
The steering committee met regularly to discuss the evaluation results and brainstorm ideas. The process was iterative, with next steps and testable prototype programs developed based on front-end evaluation results. Once prototype programs were developed, a formative online survey was sent to the same e-mail list, and the same group met a second time for a formative visitor panel. This allowed the process to move past vague feedback to specific and usable ideas. These were ultimately condensed into a report that listed recommendations in three categories: interpretation and programs, new revenue streams and community engagement.
The programming recommendations focused on giving the public greater access to the house and collections, opening up about the good, bad and ugly (the interesting parts) of Governor Ramsey’s political career and putting the site’s history in the context of national history. The recommendations for new revenue included using online ticketing for programs and broadening the site’s rental offerings. The recommendations for community engagement were to work closely with the MHS marketing department to promote new site programs and initiatives, to host meetings and events for local groups, and to continue to build relationships with Minnesota’s American Indian communities.
The implementation of these recommendations began right away. The Ramsey House had a brief window to secure one-time program development funds, and changes had to be made quickly and strategically. The Ramsey House did not need to be entirely re-made; small tweaks are making a big difference. Stanchions have been removed, more programs are hands-on, and more national and sometimes controversial historical themes and events are incorporated into programs—but this does not mean there are no longer artifacts in the mansion, or that interpreters are no longer needed or that the changes can’t be added within the context of a Christmas program. More programs are social and self- guided, but we still offer guided tours. Some programs and events include food and cocktails—but this does not mean red wine, nor does it mean a free-for-all. The Ramsey House has been finding the middle ground and finding relevance there.
The removal of the velvet ropes is a good example of how small changes are making a big difference. In a house filled with original artifacts, removing the barriers was initially unsettling for some staff. But visitors had not felt welcome in the Ramsey House, and we needed visitors to come back again, so we had to make the space more welcoming and accepting, with fewer warnings about what not to do or touch. Instead of such warnings, we move sensitive items out of reach or off exhibit depending on the program and remove some furniture to facilitate traffic patterns. The experience inside the house is now closer to what it might have been like for the family, which fosters a more emotional connection for visitors today. Now, instead of offering only a peek in the door, visitors are able to enter the parlor and experience the space.
Another immediate implementation was a shift from an expectation of “regular open hours” to an “events only” operating model. The site’s regular hours are now monthly program series on regular schedules, the same day every month, developing a predictable schedule for the public that also creates a sense of urgency to visit. One new series is “History Happy Hour,” offered the last Thursday of the month. Each focuses on a different historical topic, like “Victorian Photography” or “Typhoid Mary and the Germ Theory,” and features a different guest speaker. A bar is set up in the mansion kitchen, staffed by an outside bartending service; two drinks are included with the price of admission. This program was designed to allow people to engage with history inside the mansion in a social and informal way. This series helps to build partnerships and attract new audiences, because the guest speakers are usually people with an interest in history, but are not historians themselves. After only six months, “History Happy Hour” was named “Best Nerdy Nosh” in Minnesota Monthly magazine’s Best of the Twin Cities 2012 issue.
Besides generating buzz, the series is generating revenue and serving as an entry point for new audiences who may not otherwise have thought of a house museum as being “for them” but now may come back for other things. Other new programs are being implemented as series, running on predictable schedules and changing each month. Because of this model of variety within a consistent schedule, the site is already seeing return visitors.
Institutional buy-in has been extremely important as the Ramsey House moves forward, from the director and senior management who need to sell the concepts to the board, and in particular to site interpreters who might be uncomfortable with changes in traffic patterns, room access and story narratives. The key to this buy-in was transparency and creating a sense of urgency. In the end, nothing has helped more than seeing new visitors, return visitors and satisfied customers.
Programs are selling out, making money, and bringing new audiences and old fans to the site. New partnerships, relationships and sponsorships have developed and are growing. The Christmas program, so representative of the “old Ramsey House” model but now adapted with these new concepts in mind, saw a 78 percent increase in admission revenue in one year. New visitors came for the program and old visitors came back—either because the changes were not stark enough to scare them away, or because they knew there would be changes and a fresh perspective.
The Minnesota Historical Society took away important lessons from the Ramsey Redevelopment Project—lessons that are being transferred to its other sites and museums. First, it is critical to know the potential audience as well as the existing audience. It is critical to ask them what they want and what they need, never assuming that we always know best. We need to be willing to meet people where they are, getting outside of our comfort zone, and not assume that they will come to us with ideas. We need to be willing to approach our biggest critics, ask them for feedback, listen and be willing to consider the changes they recommend. We need to form new relationships, but we should also nurture existing 7 relationships. We need to ask people outside of our organizations for help through partnerships, sponsorships and continuing evaluation. While we must continue to give people access to history, we should also think about what else we can offer: space, community, socializing or even quiet, almost spiritual experiences. We need to be willing to open our doors and let people in—physically and metaphorically—because people do want to be asked their opinion and invited to participate. We should be confident that every historic site has something to offer new, diverse, 21st-century audiences—we just need to take the time and have the humility to listen and find out what it is. All of these things help us find new solutions to old problems.
The Ramsey House has developed a new operating model with a new sense of best practices. The recommendations that came out of the Ramsey Redevelopment Project were not necessarily new or different from what other historic sites or museums may have learned though audience evaluation, but they were a particular set of recommendations, particular to the Ramsey House and its unique situation, resources and community. The things that had been considered limitations have been accepted, not overcome. Recommendations were implemented within the confines of the Ramsey House reality. It might seem easiest for a historic site to either remain the same or be replaced by something else entirely. The gray area in between can be more challenging, but with the help of public feedback and a collaborative, iterative process, the Ramsey House is proving that it can work. By finding a happy medium between the status quo and the entirely different, this house museum is transforming its former “limitations” into its new strengths.
Rachel Abbott is program associate, historic sites & museums, Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul