If You Build It…

Billy Rankin, VP of Public Programming and Marketing

This is the fifth part of our behind-the-scenes look at the development of Local Economies, Global Impacts, a new exhibition that will open this summer at Shaker Village.

In previous posts we introduced three main goals that the team at Shaker Village keep in mind when developing any new exhibit:

  1. Tell a Meaningful Story
  2. Connect with Different Audiences
  3. Be Relevant

Today we’re going to get our hands dirty, as we enter the fabrication phase of this exhibit!

Floor plans like this provide a quick touchpoint to cross reference the graphics, artifacts and built environment of an exhibit space.
A Little Help from Our Friends

Over the last several months the Shaker Village team has been researching and reviewing content, examining artifacts and working on the design of Local Economies, Global Impacts. This project was not undertaken alone. We’ve partnered with outside scholars and a nationally-recognized exhibit design firm. We’ve funded the project through private donations and a matching grant from the Institute for Museum and Library Services.

It’s hokey, I know, but it really does take a village.

We’re now entering the all-important fabrication phase, where each component of the exhibition will be constructed and fit together. Strategic partnerships will be as important as ever.

Much like a major home interior renovation, constructing a museum exhibit takes special skillsets that not everyone will have. At Shaker Village however, we are fortunate to have skilled carpenters, like Terry Cowart, who can produce the cases, platforms and frames called for in our exhibit designs.

Team members from Shaker Village on a visit to the exhibit fabrication shop of Solid Light, in Louisville.

There are also many components in this exhibit’s design that our carpentry team would not be able to tackle. Printed graphics, metal work, interactive displays and large models are a few examples of items that we will outsource to professional exhibit fabricators. In Kentucky, we happen to be home to one of the best exhibit fabrication firms in the country, Solid Light. Items that will be too much for our team to bite off will be produced offsite and installed in tandem with the portions of the exhibition built in-house.

All About the Details

Have you ever heard the saying, measure twice, cut once? When you work on an exhibit design produced by one firm that will be built by two different teams working in two different locations, you measure at least half a dozen times before you can sleep at night!

Curator Becky Soules measures artifacts to ensure case designs will provide adequate space for display.

Not only do the different components need to fit together, but the location of heating vents and electrical outlets, and the swing direction of every door must be accounted for in the final product.

For the past two weeks, and for the next two weeks, our teams have been meeting to review details, compare notes, and spend some time together in each of the spaces where exhibits are to be installed. Open communication and clear guidance are keys to making sure the pieces fit together when they are finally placed in the 1845 East Family Brethren’s Shop and 1855 East Family Sisters’ Shop.

Case “schedules” are provided as a reference for fabricators, ensuring each team member has the correct number and dimensions of “typical” design elements.
Making Sawdust
Lumber orders for “typical” elements are arriving and being pre-cut for use in the exhibit.

Some details of “atypical” elements in the exhibit are still being massaged out, but construction can begin in earnest on many of the “typical” elements. These include artifact stands and platforms.

Materials that can be ordered are on the way or already onsite. We all love the process and understand the importance of each step along the way. However, in the words of Terry Cowart: “It feels good to finally start making some sawdust on this project.”

Next Month: We’ll continue our journey through the fabrication of Local Economies, Global Impacts.

Local Economies, Global Impacts is funded in part through a Museums for America matching grant, administered by the Institute for Museum and Library Services.

Holding Up The Mirror

Billy Rankin, VP of Public Programming and Marketing

This is the fourth part of our behind-the-scenes look at the development of Local Economies, Global Impacts, a new exhibition that will open this summer at Shaker Village.

In previous posts we introduced three main goals that the team at Shaker Village keep in mind when developing any new exhibit:

  1. Tell a Meaningful Story
  2. Connect with Different Audiences
  3. Be Relevant

Today we’re going to dive into the third goal: Be Relevant.

A recent rendering for the exhibition Local Economies, Global Impacts.

Universal Concepts

Any interpretation that does not somehow relate what is being displayed or described to something within the personality or experience of the visitor will be sterile.” – Freeman Tildan

There are some things that all of us have in common. We all need water to survive. We all breath air. We interact with other humans. We all have some belief, or a system of values, that inform our lives.

Finding these common threads, or “universal” concepts, can build a bridge between your own experience and the experience of someone else.

Here’s an example relevant to our upcoming exhibit. I’m willing to bet that right now you are probably wearing clothes. (If you aren’t, let’s just keep that to yourself for now!)

Since you are wearing clothes, you are part of the textile industry.

Wool, linen and silk were the most prevalent textiles used for clothing and other needs at Pleasant Hill. The Shakers raised flocks of sheep for wool, fields of flax for linen and silk worms for their silk. They knew exactly where their resources were coming from, and how much was used each year.

Today, we are part of a global textile market. You probably don’t know where your shirt was made without checking the tag. It was also likely made in a place that you have never visited. And yet, we are still part of the same overall system, though on a larger scale, that the Shakers were part of. This will be true for every visitor to this exhibit.

Detailed specifications are used to design the cases, platforms and interactives for Local Economies, Global Impacts.

The Unexamined Life

Okay, so big deal. I wear clothes. The Shakers wore clothes. Is this supposed to be some sort of revelation?

Not exactly. It’s really just a foot in the door. The next steps are what really matter.

By interpreting universal concepts we are attempting to lead our visitors to two important considerations. The first is simply to take interest in how someone other than yourself has lived. This can require some level of empathy, and if the story is compelling and relatable you are more likely to care. Learning how to care about others, or at least take some interest in their lives, is a noble endeavor.

The second consideration we are guiding our guests toward is the examination of their own life. As I said in our last exhibit blog post – It’s not actually about the Shakers. It’s about you.

Many who proclaim a love of history enjoy the study of things that have already happened simply because they have already happened. There’s some security in that thought.

The more challenging, but infinitely more fulfilling approach to studying history is to actually learn from it. Not just names and dates. By learning the successes, struggles, beliefs and compromises of those who have come before us we build the mirror with which we can examine ourselves.

The graphics for Local Economies, Global Impacts will include reader rail panels, such as this example, that is still in progress, for the East Family Sisters’ Shop.

Local Economies, Global Impacts

Global markets are immensely detailed and complicated to understand. However, the basics of managing resources, production and trade have really not changed so much since the time of the Shakers at Pleasant Hill. In addition to the textile industry, our upcoming exhibit will tell the stories of the broom industry, Shaker mills and shops, trading routes, market places and Pleasant Hill’s business leaders.

When visiting the exhibit after it opens this summer, put yourself in the place of the Shakers. How would you handle situations they faced? What role might you play? When looking at your life today through this lens, do you discover anything about yourself?

Next Month: We’ll go behind-the-scenes for the fabrication of exhibit features for Local Economies, Global Impacts.

Local Economies, Global Impacts is funded in part through a Museums for America matching grant, administered by the Institute for Museum and Library Services.

Making Connections

Billy Rankin, VP of Public Programming and Marketing

This is the third part of our behind-the-scenes look at the development of Local Economies, Global Impacts, a new exhibition that will open this summer at Shaker Village.

Last month we introduced three main goals that the team at Shaker Village keeps in mind when developing any new exhibit:

  1. Tell a Meaningful Story
  2. Connect with Different Audiences
  3. Be Relevant

If you need to revisit how we craft our exhibit’s “story” and integrate it into the site’s larger interpretive plan, you can catch up here!

Today I’d like to spend some time on “connecting with different audiences.” Talk about a BROAD topic, right?!

A Diverse Audience

Each year Shaker Village has nearly 100,000 visitors to its historic property. These guests come from every imaginable background. Some are elementary students on field trips. Some are international travelers. Many come for their love of history, while some are dragged here because of a family member’s love of history!

Some of our guests will have trouble navigating the steps and historic sidewalks on our property, and some of them are unable to read the signage we hang up, or hear the voices of our staff.

With the universal impact of COVID-19 still being very real, many of our guests will be hesitant to join a group of strangers on a tour, or approach an Historic Interpreter with a question.

Shaker Village’s guests represent a broad cross-section of ethnicities, religions and backgrounds. And, every single one of our guests will come to our exhibit with a different perspective. To quote Obi-Wan Kenobi, “You’re going to find that many of the truths we cling to depend greatly on our own point of view.

Just the Facts

So, how do we account for all of these different perspectives when trying to fulfill our mission to inspire generations through discovery by sharing the legacies of the Kentucky Shakers?

We start by sticking to the story we know. It’s important for museums like Shaker Village to share facts. This isn’t always easy. Often history is muddy and mysterious. Our team of scholars work hard to check and double-check their sources. We guard against jumping to conclusions, and select the words we use very carefully so they are not easily misinterpreted. It is tempting in this “editorial age” to lead a narrative in the direction you’d like it to go. Aside from this being unethical, it also defeats the purpose of studying our history. How do we learn from it, if we don’t look at it for what it is?

By sticking to the facts we allow ALL of our guests to trust the content they are being introduced to, and this trust provides the foundation for the connections we want to make.

People Learn in Different Ways

We’ve all seen it before. Someone may be a great student in class, but struggle with experiential projects. Another person may be able to grasp complex concepts quickly, but find difficulty staying engaged for a long period of time. Many people love watching historic documentaries, but were bored to sleep in their history classes.

When we develop a new experience at Shaker Village, we are committed to meeting people where they are, not where we want them to be.

To accomplish this, we layer in several different approaches when developing a new exhibit.

  • Visuals, including: images, graphics, maps, videos and other multimedia
  • Audio components that are both ambient and interpretive
  • Text written without jargon, and kept as succinct as possible
  • Tactile elements that allow guests to get hands-on
  • Personal Stories that can make the content more relatable
  • Programs, tours and workshops connected to the exhibit to add the personal touch and expertise of an Historic Interpreter

Not every visitor will engage with every method we use. That’s not even our intent. Our intent is to have at least one method that is engaging for every visitor.

A Spark of Inspiration

Hands-on workshops and daily programs are a valuable way to connect visitors to exhibit content.

Interpretation is revelation based upon information.”
Freeman Tildan

So, what exactly is the point of learning about the industries and economy of the Shakers at Pleasant Hill? Well, here’s the secret. It’s not actually about the Shakers. It’s about you.

Throughout Local Economies, Global Impacts we will place questions, prompts and activities that allow visitors to question how the topic at-hand is relatable in their own life. For instance – we have relatively few examples of Shaker clothing, due to the fact that older clothes were often cut up and used to make rugs or other items. What do you do with your old clothes when you are done wearing them?

This is an “inquiry-based” method. Causing the visitor to consider a question and discover their own response. There is no correct answer. Only your answer. Pair with an interactive that allows you to see how others have responded to the same question (this is called user-generated content) and now we’re on to something!

Every exhibit and program we produce at Shaker Village contains a TON of information. Our goal is to move from information to inspiration. Guests might not remember everything they learned, but they will certainly remember how they felt.

Next Month: Learn how Local Economies, Global Impacts will use “universal” concepts to create a story that is relevant to a modern audience.

Local Economies, Global Impacts is funded in part through a Museums for America matching grant, administered by the Institute for Museum and Library Services.

A Story to Tell

Billy Rankin, VP of Public Programming and Marketing

Last month we told you about a new exhibit being developed at Shaker Village. When it opens this summer, Local Economies, Global Impacts will highlight the industries and economy of the Pleasant Hill Shakers. More importantly, visitors to this exhibit will leave inspired to think about their own local economy, the industries that fuel it and their role in a global market. Well…those are our goals at least!

Lofty Goals

So, when designing an exhibit at Shaker Village, what are some of the typical goals we have in mind? In the simplest terms, our main goals are to:

  1. Tell a Meaningful Story
  2. Connect with Different Audiences
  3. Be Relevant

This month I’d like to explore the first goal on this list: Tell a Meaningful Story.

What’s the BIG IDEA

What is the story we are trying to tell, and how does it fit into the big picture?

Fortunately, at Shaker Village, we have a solid starting point to our Village-Wide Interpretive Plan. THE BIG IDEA!

The Big Idea and related sub-themes give us guidance for all the different topics we consider for inclusion in our exhibit plans. In the case of Local Economies, Global Impacts an argument could be made that this topic fits all four sub-themes!

Finding a Focus

Once we’ve established that a topic fits our themes, we’re ready to take the next step: content development.

We begin with a brainstorming session. For this project the Shaker Village Exhibit Team was joined by additional Shaker scholars Dr. Carol Medlicott and Christian Goodwillie and our design partners, The Design Minds.

This is the stage where we narrow our focus. We consider all the angles, perspectives and stories that should be told related to the topic. For Local Economies, Global Impacts the challenge was to boil down a very broad topic into content that would fit on the first floors of two small Shaker workshops. Which industries should we include? What individual Shakers are the best to highlight? How do we most succinctly describe and share the business practices of the Shakers at Pleasant Hill?

Coming out of this meeting we are ready to assign topics for research.

Developing a Base

A scanned page from the 1850 agricultural census at Pleasant Hill.

Only a small percentage of the information gathered during the research stage actually makes its way into an exhibit at Shaker Village. It is, however, incredibly important to have a large base of research. This research gives context and depth to the information you do choose to present. It also provides accessible support material for interpretive staff to increase their knowledge of a subject that visitors will surely be asking them about!

For Local Economies, Global Impacts, short research papers were prepared on seven topics, ranging from sorghum production at Pleasant Hill to Shaker trading routes and markets. Profiles were written on a dozen selected Shakers. Agricultural and manufacturing records from the 19th century were compiled and transcribed. From this mass of content, we cull the components that are to become part of the exhibition.

Material Culture

Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill cares for over 4,000 objects related to the Shaker experience. Each of these objects can add immense value and meaning to the story behind an exhibit, if placed wisely. During the research stage for a new exhibit our Curator of Collections, Becky Soules, partners with the other members of the Exhibit Team to compile a first draft of all the artifacts, archival materials and photographs that may be relevant to the exhibition.

As this list is compiled, Becky adds notes to reflect size, condition, related artifacts and other considerations for public display. When we enter the design stage, a final list of recommended material objects and images is created for the exhibit. This list is then presented to a sub-committee of Shaker Village’s Board of Trustees for final approval before public use.

Feeling the Flow

Now that we have the content selected to tell our meaningful story, we need to determine in what sequence to present it. The order that a visitor approaches each image, artifact and piece of information greatly impacts their ability to both understand and connect to the exhibit.


Using floor plans for each exhibit space, we lay out “bubble designs.” These simple designs give us an idea of how visitors will enter each room, and in what sequence they will encounter each aspect of the exhibit. The team REALLY digs in to this phase of the process, because it has an incredible bearing on what the final exhibit will come out to be. We discuss, we debate, we pull out our measuring tapes, we cry, we cajole, we measure some more, and finally…we are satisfied that we will be presenting a meaningful story!

An early “bubble design” for the East Family Brethren’s Shop.

Next Month: Learn how Local Economies, Global Impacts will use a variety of engaging methods to connect with different audiences at Shaker Village!

Local Economies, Global Impacts is funded in part through a Museums for America matching grant, administered by the Institute for Museum and Library Services.

Curses and Serendipity: Artifact Homecomings

Laura Webb, Program Specialist

Warning The following post shares the stories of historic artifacts that have, in the past, “disappeared” from Shaker Village and returned in unusual ways. The management of Shaker Village would like our readers to know that we have excellent security and oversight of our artifacts!

Howdy, everyone! Welcome back to another installment of my dispatches from the SVPH archival digitization project.

As many of you know, there is a lot of information we can glean from closely observing an object or artifact; but in most cases, this can’t tell us everything we want to know about it. That’s where our object files come in! When our digital catalog goes live, you will of course see photographs, descriptions, and measurements of the objects. You will also often see:

  • Cross-references to related items (such as library holdings, archival documents, photographs, and even other objects),
  • Examination notes by experts in a relevant field,
  • Publications or exhibits that mentioned or featured the object, and/or
  • Information that accompanied the object on its journey to our institution.
Black and white photograph of white oak basket, taken soon after being accessioned.

While checking over these entries, I have found many interesting and informative notes. I have also found several that are entertaining as all get-out. Guess what? Sometimes an object’s story doesn’t end at our threshold! So far, I’ve found at least two artifacts that have “wandered” a little further from home than they should have.

First is this basket (accession # 67.4.4), which first came to the village as a donation in 1967. Sometime in the 1970s-80s, it, ahem, “walked off.” This note explains how it found its way home in 2003:

“The sender had visited Pleasant Hill 12/18/2003 and told how she had ‘met a 92-year-old lady at a garage sale, who said a man who lived in her house for years; was in possession of this basket which apparently belongs to you—and she asked me if I’d return it to you.”

A roundabout journey, but effective! Of course, it begs the question of how the 92-year-old woman’s tenant acquired the basket in the first place, doesn’t it?

This bench has a 1 ½-inch-thick seat, constructed of a single piece of wood. Impressive!

Second is this bench (accession # 61.4.386), which was part of the initial Pleasant Hill property purchase in 1961—meaning it’s been a fixture of our organization from the beginning. Pre-restoration photos show it living in the Trustee’s Office; post-restoration, it resided in the Carpenter’s Shop (currently our Welcome Center). However, in the mid-1970s, it…you guessed it, “walked off.”

Photograph depicting the bench in the 1839 Trustees’ Office, pre-restoration.

On May 22nd, 2005, between 11:00 and 11:45 AM, it appeared in front of our administrative building with the following note:

“I am returning this to its rightful owner…It was taken by a former employee about 30 years ago. (NOT ME.) It eventually ended up in my possession. Now I give it back and pray that the “Curse” will cease on me and everyone associated with its removal from Shakertown. Thank you.”

For reference, please keep in mind that this bench is 8 ½ feet long. I have no idea how someone left the village with it unnoticed, but as they say, it was a different time. I also wonder what happened to make this person believe the bench was cursed.

Don’t try it at home, kids! I’m not saying a mysterious Shaker-themed curse will befall you if you steal from us, but I’m also not not saying that. Best not to risk it, right?

Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill was awarded a CARES grant through The National Endowment for the Humanities in June 2020. Funding from this grant award supported two activities to enhance digital humanities initiatives at SVPH, including Laura Webb’s work to review our collection records and prepare them for publishing in a public digital database.