Tag Archives: Original


book12Traditional, adj. A kind of activity which must have been done forever because our grandparents did it.



Check out our other Glossary Terms.


Colonial Williamsburg, Where the Past is Prey

A museum actually had a Superbowl commercial! That’s right, Colonial Williamsburg aired an ad in three major markets hoping to reach their most fertile hunting grounds. While the Game Day spot was 30 seconds long they release this one minute extended-cut version online:

With this commercial Colonial Williamsburg’s attempts at getting attention yet again got attention. Mayhaps not the kind the they were aiming at. And we don’t just mean our past views (here and here) of their advertising campaigns or their new, but questionable public programs. It seems not everyone was happy with how they seemed to undo American history or that they showed the Towers collapsing on 9/11. But those comments miss the mark.

Williamsburg wanted to be provocative. Clearly they were successful, because their three-city ad has become national news. That is not outrageous, that’s marketing. Besides this commercial is far better than some of their earlier attempts. This one is at least grounded in history. Perhaps Mitchell Reiss, President & CEO, described the commercial best when he said, “These ads take you backwards…” And they do, they take you all the way back to 2012 and this

You could call it a reenactment. Everything from the “We the People” intros to the historical footage was similar. In fact the only noticeable differences are the direction the film rolls in and that it’s Tom Brokaw narrating, not a blue-eyed, blonde girl.* Maybe Williamsburg used the premise because the Constitution Center’s ad worked so well. Or perhaps CW is simply uncreative and lazy and hoped no one would notice.

In all honesty let Williamsburg continue to take from others, lest they inflict their old work on us, like the “It stays with you” campaigns of recent memory:

Yep, still creepy.


* There is a third difference: the Constitution Center called it’s own ad “exciting” despite itself.

Bringing History and Visitors Back to Colonial Williamsburg

Curator’s Comment: In the past the American Hysterical Society has been openly critical of the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation’s 2013 and 2014 advertising campaigns (it seems they have deleted the most egregious; we hope it’s because of something we said). The following is our attempt to make amends and offer some helpful suggestions.

As we have noted before, history doesn’t sell. Just ask any site who offers a well-researched horse engine day or tea party, or if that tight stitch count has got ‘em flocking in. If history did sell then our work would be well funded, we would all be rockstars, and Colonial Williamsburg would still be a historic site.

In case you haven’t noticed, Williamsburg has spent the better part of the last year transforming into a low-rent Busch Gardens. Or to quote President & CEO Mitchell Reiss, trying “to do some things we’ve never done before to make this special place even better.”[1] So with tenuous historical connections and what their marketing folks think has mass appeal, the Foundation has added a shooting range, a petting zoo, a doggy mascot, pirates, and an ice skating rink to their “historic” experience.

As Reiss said, “You’ll notice us paying more attention to first-time visitors and families who have chosen to invest their hard earned vacation dollars for a trip to Colonial Williamsburg instead of [Disney’s] Magic Kingdom.” They’re targeting families because they think that’s where the money is. However, most families are too budget conscious to feed Williamsburg’s voracious coffers.

No, the real revenue is in providing extreme lifestyle experiences for underserved audiences looking for the unique, the challenging, and the thrilling.[2] This audience includes masochists, sadists, body modifiers, and mixed martial artists. There’s a lot of money in pain and blood. And Williamsburg is perfectly suited to simultaneously profit from this growing demand while creating historically-grounded interpretation.

This soon-to-be wildly-popular and award-winning program includes: [3]

  • Public Shaming: Did you ever want to let that loved one know you knew about their lies/theft/infidelity/stupidity? Well now you can all while allowing the whole world to share in your pain and righteousness. It’s the eighteenth-century version of Facebook.
  • Standing the Pillory: The stocks are already a popular stop, this would just add the missing ingredient, human drama. Once a prisoner is locked in, his or her ears are nailed to the stock and they are left standing there. Later, just before their allotted time is up, their ears are first sliced off and then they are released. Siblings of all ages, with their mischievous rivalries, will love this one.
  • Flogging: Depending on your tastes, you or a person of your choice can be publicly flogged. It can be for almost any infraction, real or imagined, or just because the experience is so delicious.
  • Branding: You may or may not have committed a felony, but now you can look like you have. Scarification by branding makes tattoos seem as dangerous as body paint.
  • Dueling: You and an opponent of your choice could rent weapons (swords or the more expensive pistols) and, after a five-minute orientation, take your positions on the palace lawn and have at each other. First blood or death, it’s your choice.
  • Public Execution: We’re already heading toward this in modern America, so why not be on the cutting edge? Executions were popular mass entertainment back in the day, and they would draw even larger crowds (and oodles of publicity) today. The best thing about a historically-accurate hanging is that, unlike later nineteenth-century hanging practices where the neck was broken almost immediately, the show could last for several minutes thanks to the short drop drop and slow strangulation. Popular as this will be with spectators, we suggest brushing up your “not it” skills.

Along with being immersive experiences, they are also a fully interactive ones. And boy will they draw a crowd! This has every potential to be the first truly exciting museum program ever.

Each of these ideas brings to bear all of CW’s resources, historic trades to make the nails, weapons, gallows, and rope, educators to help explain the background of each option to participants and guests alike, living history skills to ensure authenticity, and food service to help keep tummies full and wallets empty.

horse tred - Copy

The choice is simple: Does Williamsburg want public programs that look like this…

William_Hogarth_-_Industry_and_Idleness,_Plate_11;_The_Idle_'Prentice_Executed_at_Tyburn - Copy

…or like this?

We know what you’re thinking: that doing any, much less all, of this would take real audacity. We say it’s less audacious than opening a skating rink on Duke of Gloucester Street and, with a straight face, calling it a “magical experience.”[4]


1. We truly thought he was going to say “specialer.”

2. And need we mention they are likely first-time visitors?

3. All  medical or coroner’s bills are included in your fees!

4. The Disneyfication isn’t even subtle.

Embracing Hug a Museum Worker Day?


Perhaps next year we can hold “Free Pie For Museum Workers Day” instead.

This past Monday, June 29th, museum workers the world over were suddenly snuggled by their usually-tranquil visitors in celebration of the first annual International Hug a Museum Worker Day (IHMWD). A special day that all museum workers got together and agreed to hold.

Except they didn’t. Because such a day, well-intentioned to be sure, is contrary to the needs of most museum people.

Many museum workers are introverts who went into museums specifically because they did not want to be near, much less touch, regular people. In fact, they often don’t want to be around their own colleagues either. Still, if they are fortunate enough to be at a museum where they appreciate their coworkers, according to most HR guidelines that appreciation must end at physical contact. So an intraoffice celebration of IHMWD is out.

As preservation experience and various training sessions have shown, direct touching is generally fraught with problems. Museum workers don’t know where most visitors have been. Such contact would send the staff into a protective tizzy – the collections folks would be occupied ensuring the collection remains unsullied, while their colleagues would be busy implementing the integrated disease prevention protocol and making sure nothing inappropriate happens.

Besides, organizing such a day presents numerous opportunities for interdepartmental antagonism. If it were left up to the collections people everyone would be sorted and arranged according to hugging style (half hug, full hug, the lingerer, the bear hugger, etc.). Educators would prefer something more random and free-choice. The PR staff would want to hug as many as possible while reminding them to tell their friends how much they enjoyed themselves. The director would want the largest donors (by check, not body size) to be hugged first.*

Perhaps most importantly, museum workers can’t cuddle up to IHMWD because they already have more work than they can reasonably handle and they simply don’t have time for hugging. However, there is always time for pie.


*Alas, the day is wasted on museum security guards who want a minimum distance of 24 inches between themselves and all potential huggers.


Genealogy, n. A partial list of your ancestors’ sexual partners.



Check out our other Glossary Terms.

The Most Participatory Museum Audience

Have you ever wondered who the ultimate participatory audience is?

Only one demographic seems to seek out and engage with history and historical museums in a consistent, passionate, and often public way: Fundamentalist Christians.

It’s a little known fact that the “H” in His initials stands for history.

This should come as no surprise since their views are derived from a book about history. Unlike most other visitors, not only have they read their history, Fundamentalist Christians actively bring that understanding with them when they visit museums.

Also unlike other audiences, Fundamentalist Christians have their own historians who, despite having no academic training in history, have inspired more historical interest than most museums. The best-known is David Barton, who is reclaiming American history and making it accurate again. Although his work is rife with historical inaccuracies (so much so that his publisher pulled his Jefferson book), he remains a valid historian and truth-teller to many. There is also Glenn Beck. Mr. Beck, through his interest in American history and material culture (which centers around Bibles and guns), has become an exhibition curator whose self-styled purpose is to revitalize misunderstood or forgotten history, as you can see here and here and here and in this clip:

These historians have inspired Fundamentalist Christians to spend time reviewing current history scholarship for what they feel are potential (and intentional) oversights. Former teen heartthrob Kirk Cameron’s current career is built entirely on this. Not long ago, Mr. Cameron delved into the forgotten Christian history of the earliest American settlements. Today, he is back to help us understand the true origins and meaning of Christmas, in his new movie Saving Christmas:

Despite overwhelming evidence that Saturnalia predates the life of Christ and that Christmas was not important to Christians until long after Christ’s death, Mr. Cameron knows through his study of at least one history book that Christmas was stolen by the pagans and has been held hostage by them to this very day. Which is why, as the Christian Post noted in an interview about the film, Mr. Cameron:

…dismisses theories that Christmas is derived in the pagan celebration of Winter Solstice in “Saving Christmas,” offering viewers a Biblical reference to items such as the Christmas tree instead. Furthermore, the film reveals Cameron’s take on Santa Claus, the three wisemen, and why Christmas is celebrated on Dec. 25 each year.

“We don’t know this stuff, we kinda drink the Kool-Aid and believe pagans when they tell us they have ownership of these things,” Cameron explained to CP.

Perhaps where Fundamentalists exceed all other visitor interactions is in their eagerness to read everything we write. For example, here’s one visitor reflecting upon every thought, fact, and word exhibited, whether she understands what they mean or not:

As you can see Ms. Fox’s visit was so personally moving she even shared her experience on social media. Which is precisely what museums want every visitor to do!

Lastly, Fundamentalist Christians are so deeply engaged in history that they are founding their own museums. The Creation Museum has been open since 2007 (whose overly-honest tag line is “Be prepared to experience history in a completely unprecedented way“). Now the owners of Hobby Lobby are developing the Museum of the Bible, which is scheduled to open in 2017 in Washington D.C. You can’t love museums more than wanting to have one of your very own, can you?

As you can see, Fundamentalist Christians are crazy over history and museums, making them the very model of a modern participatory museum visitor. Right?

Serious Thoughts For a New Year

Lest we museum professionals begin the new year with old thinking…

Not long ago we met with a veteran museum professional who has spent a decades-long career as an interpreter. He was described as having a deep love of history, which is why we were meeting. We had content questions and we were told he could answer some of them.

Our excitment at meeting him, however, quickly turned to regret. The last thing he wanted to talk about was history. Instead he lamented that his museum’s management did not value history, which was to say he felt they didn’t value him or his interests. He was angry and his anger warmed his soliloquies and fired his eagerness for his approaching retirement. It was a long, loud day.

Now we could easily turn this experience into a comical essay, having a little fun at the expense of both the management and the interpeter. This could include a vignette about the interpreter, who we observed in action doing his level best not to excite visitors about his beloved history by being boring.

We could do all of that, but we won’t. Not because it wouldn’t be easy to (it would), but because anger and burnout are real and present dangers in the field. It is so easy to think your contributions go unheeded, especially for those of us in the interpretive and content side of museum work. If for no other reason, it happens because we tend to sound more like spenders than earners, which always endears us to management.

Listen to me.

To help our remaining colleagues navigate these dark and stormy waters, we at the Hysterical Society thought we would share a bit of wisdom from Alan Alda, himself a dedicated and thoughtful artist and whose movie Sweet Liberty was one of the insipirations for the Hysterical Society’s creation. Clearly we think he’s worth listening to. While on Inside the Actors Studio he said:

It’s very tough, you gotta know that, because the people you deal with are going to be in business for themselves. They’re not going to be in your business… you’re spending a lot of time here learning how to be artists. You’re going to go into a world where art is valued as something bought and sold. You can lend them your talent, don’t give them your soul. You can rent out your ability, but keep looking for ways to do what you started out wanting to do. It’s very hard to find those ways. Don’t stop.

We think there are some wonderful ideas in there to help prevent, or at least retard, burnout – that you should not let the business side overwhelm everything else, that you should only lend your abilities, and that you should vigilantly pursue what you love.

So please start 2015 out right, heed Mr. Alda and stop wasting your colleagues’ time with your bitching.

Happy New Year!

%d bloggers like this: