I can see why the Whaley House wouldn’t interest some. We’ve all heard plenty of stories about rich, old, white guys, right? Well, I know I have. Their story isn’t my story. My story is in the history of the working class. It’s in the history of Native Americans. It’s in the history of nineteenth-century immigrants. It’s in the history of the oppressed woman told she couldn’t vote, couldn’t have a job, couldn’t…couldn’t…couldn’t. And it’s also in the story of the persecuted (true story: I have an ancestor who was jailed as a witch in Boston!). It’s not the Whaley’s story.
As an historian I, of course, have an interest in all stories, but that’s not true of everybody. And that’s where historic house museums often fail their public. Sometimes the idea is that just because these people had a sweet house or did some great thing everyone should want to come, but it’s not the case.
In order to expand their reach, historic house museums need to expand their programming. They need to offer programs that give diverse perspectives. And they need to make an impact in the community in which they exist. Whether you’re holding a literacy program for middle school students, or allowing a local charity to hold a fundraiser at your house free of charge, there are a myriad of ways to make that kind of impact in the local community. Understanding the kinds of things that will appeal to people will require demographic information about your city, township, county, etc. In the long run, however, it will pay off. Individuals will be more apt to visit you for other programs if they know you offer an after school program. Philanthropic individuals may be more likely to donate money to your institution if they know you are trying to make a difference. And grantors want to know what kind of impact you have on your local community before they fund your project, even if the two aren’t related. They want to know that by helping your museum put on a new roof, they will, in the big picture, be helping the area homeless because you allow the local shelter to hold a benefit at your institution. Do you see where I’m going with that?
At the Whaley House we take part in local free family events like the Holiday Walk and Firefly Walk hosted by the Flint Cultural Center. Also, our vintage base ball games are free to watch. Then we participate in the Be a Tourist in Your Town event, which allows folks to purchase a $1 ticket and, for one day, visit any of the organizations that have agreed to be a part of the event for free. It’s a great way to showcase what the city of Flint has to offer the public. This year we are also partnering with another local nonprofit. Together we hope to pull of a wonderful program and in the end, we have an opportunity to make a bit of money for ourselves and this other, younger, nonprofit. It’s a really neat opportunity and, again, a great way to be part of something bigger than just the Whaley House.
This is a nice list to start, but we really need to increase our community impact and that is something I am working hard to do in 2015. I see a need for us to branch out and prove that we serve a purpose in the larger Flint community. Sure, we can preserve the house and its artifacts, but if we aren’t using them and they aren’t being seen, in the end, what’s the point. And I’m an historian saying that 🙂