There is such a thing as a business of history, a national expert in the interpretation of historic sites recently said. He hastened to add that he didn’t simply mean a greater focus on revenue than on mission and vision.
“Public historians simply cannot dismiss the imperatives of revenue and the market — even our very particular market, where sentiment is of considerable value — because by ignoring them we stand the risk of wrecking endowments, destroying donor confidence, alienating guests, and therefore, after hiring consultants who frequently do more harm than good,” Taylor Stoermer explained. “The business of public history represents a very fine line to walk between revenue and mission, but it is one that we must follow, which requires public historians, especially leaders of sites and programs, to be historians, marketers, media experts, tech geeks, entrepreneurs, lawyers and politicians, all wrapped into one.”
Dr. Stoermer’s views are of particular significance locally because in January he began working under a ten-month contract as director of strategy, development and historic interpretation at Historic Huguenot Street (HHS) in New Paltz. This past Saturday, May 3, HHS celebrated its opening day under its new management. Stoermer has promised “fresh interpretations of the historic houses, new tours across the settlement and a diverse range of special programs to better connect our guests with the history and heritage of this special place.”
He calls himself a “history doctor.” His patients are places like HHS, which have plenty of historical artifacts, resources and often buildings but insufficient visitation and income. The history doctor gives such organizations advice. In HHS’ case, that advice will be summed up in a strategic plan due before the end of the year.
Based on his resumé, Stoermer appears to be several cuts above the average outside gun hired to spruce up a local heritage tourism site. Since the mid-Hudson region in general and Ulster and Dutchess counties in particular are rich in incompletely recognized historic sites worthy of interpretation, it will be instructive this year to watch this national expert handle the planning and management of what he calls “one of the most unique historic sites in all of America.”
Twelve members of a strategic planning committee, composed mainly of tourism bureaucrats, historically minded local public officials and HHS board members and staff (including Stoermer), had been announced in late February. Late 2014 adoption of a strategic plan was promised in that press release.
Educated at Johns Hopkins and the University of Virginia, Stoermer earned his Ph.D. in American history and has taught university courses on such subjects as 18th-century Virginia, Thomas Jefferson and his world, English history, the British Empire, and gender in early America. He has participated in various scholarly programs at prestigious institutions. He also worked for three and a half years as Colonial Williamsburg’s research historian.
He is an advisor to C-SPAN for history content and a contributor to the Journal of the American Revolution. He appears regularly in print, on the radio, on television, in public lectures, and in social media to comment on the people and ideas of American history and their modern relevance. His scholarly work focuses on the interaction of political economics and political culture in the 18th-century British world.
As a close student of the activities of historic sites, Stoermer displays an encyclopedic knowledge of the economic situation and survival strategies of various sites, particularly in the Northeast. This knowledge makes him a valuable resource as HHS seeks to find a sustainable niche in that marketplace. It seems clear that his background has led him to at least one clear conclusion, and that is that the entire “guest experience” at HHS needs improvement.
At a preview last Friday, Stoermer and other staff gave a taste of what the interpretive staff had devised. This year, a master narrative will connect the interpretations given at five individual Huguenot Street houses. The summary of the master narrative HHS distributed explained what would happen at each.
The Jean Hasbrouck house is expected to include a 1755 French-and-Indian-War-era family vignette around props on a table, explained by a costumed interpreter wearing handmade 18th-century clothing, accurate down to the stitching. Interpreter Thomas Weikel explained the presentation is done in an “in-the-moment” style. At the Deyo-Broadhead house the in-the-moment vignette featured a girl in maid costume explaining features of the Gilded-Age living room to visitors because, she said, the owners were absent.
The interpretations at the Bevier-Elting and Abraham Hasbrouck houses dealt more with conservation choices, architectural quandaries and historical accuracy.
The final tour site was the Crispell Memorial French church. The narrative summary explained that a number of methods, including media, would be used there to discuss the importance of religion to the identity of the community.
Stoermer is enormously enthusiastic about the potential of Huguenot Street. “I have experience at a lot of historic sites, big and small,” he wrote in an e-mail from his office on Sunday morning, “and can honestly say that this is the most exciting place I’ve ever been.”
In addition to improving the sustainability of HHS, Stoermer’s work could have a profound spinoff effect on local heritage tourism. Part of it will be direct: greater demand for accommodations at Mohonk Mountain House, more business for the local restaurants and B&Bs, and perhaps greater visibility for SUNY New Paltz. But the greater part could be its impact on other regional purveyors of heritage tourism, who can benefit from the lessons they learn from what Stoermer is implementing at HHS.
Never underestimate the capacity of thoughtful people at successful transformation. One raw material for heritage tourism, for instance, is the unique supply of about 700 historic stone houses scattered over the Ulster County landscape, which a local historian named Franklin Delano Roosevelt noted were divided into isolated country ones and grouped town ones. I’ve often wondered why no one has assembled a visitor-friendly interpretive guide, including maps, to assist the “guest experience.”
In a blog last year, Stoermer poked fun at the antiquarians who “insisted in keeping old stuff around just because it was, well, old, and therefore had some sort of inherent value just because of that fact.” Interpreting history could be a grander and bolder effort, born out of expressions of community pride and a willingness to share that pride.
“The goal of historians, the vision of most historians I know,” he wrote, “is to remember the people, prominent and obscure, whether through means of digital history or first-person interpretation or exhibitions of collections, who made us who we are and how that might help us guide our future, as individuals and as a community.”