On February 6, I visited Concord Museum in Concord, Massachusetts. Over the past week, I also examined its digital presence. After examining the museum’s physical and digital presences, this comparative review will discuss their similarities and differences
At the beginning of my visit, I received a Museum Gallery Guide and headed to the Why Concord? exhibition area. The guide’s first page includes a photograph of the museum and notes: “Welcome to Concord Museum, a gateway to Concord’s history! Please use this as a guide through the galleries and ask the Museum staff for more information. We are happy to help.” The bottom of the page includes the address, the web site, the twitter account, the hashtag “#Be Thoreau” and logos for Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Next, the guide lists and describes nineteen galleries. There are maps for each floor which indicate the direction to follow, and the gallery numbers are also displayed in the rooms themselves. Even without the guide, the museum is easy to navigate.
After reading the guide, I was not surprised when a staff member approached and asked if I had any questions. When I asked about the museum’s attendance and audiences, she replied that the busiest times are Summer and around Patriot’s Day. A lot of families visit the Museum then, and school groups come to the museum throughout the year.
While I did not experience it, the first gallery listed is Brooke Hall, which hosts family activities such as “scavenger hunts, Family Trails, and clipboards for drawing.”
As the Introductory Panel and Gallery Guide explain, The Why Concord? exhibition is divided into four major parts: Establishing Concord, Defending Concord, Reforming Concord, and Memorializing Concord. Emerson’s Study and the Thoreau Gallery are included in the Reforming Concord section of the exhibition.
What struck me as I entered the exhibition, and throughout it, was appeals to historical thinking. Several areas of Why Concord? ask questions and utilize panels, objects, labels, biographical sketches, maps, and interactive components to answer the questions.
The curators provide the historical and cultural contexts for the objects, and the narrative flows well between general and specific. Why Concord? includes objects such as broadsides about Lyceum lectures, Revolutionary War guns, and maps of Industrial Concord, accompanied by exemplary panels and labels.
Why Concord? introduces many town residents, such as Native Americans, Early Settlers, Immigrants, and children. Concord is a town with many stories to tell, and the curators aim to share as many as possible.
The interactive components are well done. For example, users are invited to turn several doors on a board map of Colonial Concord to reveal the activities which were happening in places such as a tavern and a church. Next, they are able to listen to recounts of the fight between the colonists and the British at Concord,
Outside of Emerson’s study is a definition of Transcendentalism, a panel which gives context to Emerson and his work. In the hallway by the study are panels with portraits of famous Concord writers. On the other side of the study is a gallery dedicated to Emerson, Thoreau, and the connections between them. This side of the Emerson study includes plastic encased descriptions of different objects in the room. The curators aim to appeal to a variety of audiences, including children. Young people visiting the Museum must enjoy learning about the children in Emerson’s world from a card about them.
The Memorializing Concord portion of the Why Concord? exhibition discuss early preservationists, presents many objects, and explains how both hometown pride and economic interests contributed to the historic preservation in the town.
In addition to Why Concord? I was able to experience other galleries and exhibitions, including four period rooms, galleries focusing on sculptor Daniel Chester French, cabinetmaker William Munroe and the Milldam shop area ,and the new exhibitions Anatomy of a Desk: Writing with Thoreau and Emerson, and Walden: Four Views.
The period rooms continue the intellectual questioning, asking several questions which encourage visitors to look carefully and think critically.
In Anatomy of a Desk: Writing with Thoreau and Emerson, visitors have the opportunity to sit in reproduction desks of Emerson and Thoreau and get a sense of what it was like to write at the desks. Walden: Four Views is a treat for the eyes.
Upon leaving, I selected free booklets on “Concord’s Daniel Chester French Trail,” “Concord’s Thoreau Trail,” “Concord’s April 19, 1775 Trail,” and “A Sleepy Hollow Trail Guide – Women of Concord.” Each includes descriptions of places or people to visit and/or learn about, images of objects, and a map. I also obtained a colorful and informative general museum flyer about joining the museum and a broadside about Vacation Programs Week. By the entrance, there is a large Concord Museum bookstore with books and objects of interest for people of all ages.
The “Concord Museum” section of the “Concord’s April 1775 Trail notes, in part:
“Through a process of historical inquiry, the Museum’s Why Concord? History Galleries examine the people, events, and ideas which shaped this influential community’s development. In the galleries, visitors of all ages learn about the principles of freedom, self-government, environmentalism, and our shared cultural heritage.”
The Concord Museum certainly achieves its goals. This is a very thorough and impressive museum which fosters historical thinking, covers centuries of historical materials, and utilizes many different ways to reach a variety of audiences. No specific producers of the exhibitions are listed, but it is evident that the exhibitions are the result of the work of many people. There is not much that I would change to make the museum more effective. I would like to have seen information about Ephraim Bull, the famous grape grower of Concord, but that is a minor omission in a first-rate museum.
Concord Museum’s site is visually appealing and easy to navigate. On the site’s home page, we see “About Us,” “Hours,” “Directions,” “Donate,” and “Email List” tabs, and a search box. We also find headings for “Visit,” “Exhibitions,” “Calendar,” “Collections,” “Education,” “Support,” “Shop,” and “Explore Concord,” with drop-down menus for each. It is impossible to miss the images and changing headers “A Gateway to Concord’s History,” “Explore Renowned Collections,” “Learn Through Objects.” and “This Ever New Self: Thoreau and His Journal,” which introduce and invite users to “learn more” about these topics. The News and Event section has pictures from, introduces, and adds links to information about exhibitions and events for children, adults, and teachers. On the right hand side of the page is a Certificate of Excellence from Trip Advisor.
The About Us page presents the museum’s Mission Statement, which reads, in part,: “The Concord Museum educates visitors of all ages about the history of Concord and its continuing influence on American political, literary and cultural life,” and links to information about the staff. The site does not list its producers by name.
In The Galleries shares information about the museum, but the Exhibitions section also offers seven online exhibitions. These exhibitions encourage viewers to learn, explore, discover, and read utilizing objects, images, music, narratives, and blog posts.
Another interactive component of the site is the Collections Highlights, which allows users to click through these nineteen items. Through the Search the Concord Museum Collections page, users are able to do Global searches and search the Thoreau Collection, Collection Highlights, and Revolutionary War objects. All but the Global searches have several options, including Search and Browse, with links to those sections of the specific collection on the left hand side of the page. The metadata listed is: Catalog Number, Object, Name, Title, Artist/Maker, Date/Made, and Material. Users are able to check boxes for “My List.”
By viewing and interacting with the site, people of all ages, including Families and Kids and Teachers and Students, two frequent audiences, have a sense of Concord’s history and what the Concord Museum has to offer. The site also provides people far away with access to a slice of Concord’s history.
Both the museum and the site are very effective in telling the stories of the many groups of people who have contributed to Concord’s history.
The Why Concord? exhibition is a major part of the visitor experience at Concord Museum, using space on both museum floors. While the site presents the four themes of Why Concord? it does not give equal focus to that exhibition. However, the site offers Collection Highlights and online exhibitions, and, through its search capabilities, allows visitors to hone in on specific objects more quickly than they can at the museum itself.
The intellectual inquiry component, the attention to a variety of audiences, and the presentation of objects of different kinds are present in both the Museum and its site. A visit to the Concord Museum site is incentive to encourage locals and tourists to come to the museum.
Concord Museum’s curators and staff have created an exemplary museum experience and a high quality web site. No visitor to either is left with the unanswered question “Why Concord?”