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.

Visiting New England Shaker Sites

Jacob Glover, PhD, Director of Public Programs and Education

Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill staff prepare to give a presentation on Pleasant Hill in the Watervliet Meeting House in February 2020.

Although it seems like a lifetime ago, the above photo was taken exactly one year ago today inside the Meeting House at the Watervliet Shaker community in Albany, NY. This gathering was the kick-off of a whirlwind tour through more than a half-dozen Shaker sites in New York and New England that our program team at Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill had planned to coincide with Mother Ann Lee’s birthday on February 29. While the trip was educational in nature, we had hoped to share images and video from our trip upon our return. Little did we know the significance of the public health crisis that was building then.

So, here we are, exactly one year later and we are finally returning to this material. Looking at all of these photos and watching the videos brought us a great deal of joy, and we hope these short snippets and glances into other historic Shaker sites will do the same for you. Our first stop was Watervliet the first Shaker communal establishment in America.

First off, if you’ve ever flown into or departed from Albany International Airport you’ve probably driven past either the gravesite of Mother Ann Lee or the current location of the Shaker Heritage Society, the group who oversees the remaining historic property. A quick glance at Google Maps for a reminder and the proximity is striking even now. Shakers Creek runs through the short term parking lot, and Albany Shaker Road and Meeting House Road will both take you to Jetway Drive. Trust us, it’s close. The Shaker cemetery itself was small but well-kept, and identified by a historic marker familiar to most. Although cars zipped by on a modern road beside the cemetery, it was an impactful and moving place nonetheless.

Having arrived in Albany on the afternoon of February 28, we journeyed into the Adirondacks to spend the evening before returning to Watervliet the following morning. Located in present-day Colonie, NY, the Shakers established Watervliet in 1776. Although the nearby community of Mount Lebanon would become the Central Ministry, Watervliet itself overcame trying beginnings and prospered during the mid-nineteenth century. Like many other Shaker communities, Watervliet’s fortunes had declined by the early 1900s, and, in fact, the County had taken ownership of the property and razed many Shaker buildings by 1927.

Today, the Watervliet Shaker National Historic District oversees the site of Watervliet’s Church Family, which includes nine Shaker buildings, gardens and orchards, the Shaker cemetery and the Ann Lee Pond nature preserve. Despite the brutally cold conditions of that February morning, the beauty and simplicity of Shaker design were evident in the snow-dotted landscape.

A view across the expansive grounds of the Church Family at Watervliet. The red roof and white siding of the 1848 Meeting House stand out. Today, this building hosts a museum shop, educational exhibits and public programs.
An interior view of the museum shop inside the 1848 Meeting House.

While the Shaker Heritage Society oversees roughly 770 acres, many Shaker buildings were transferred to private hands over the years and are still being used for other purposes today. In some ways, this process of private ownership of the Watervliet Shaker’s buildings is similar to what happened here at Pleasant Hill between the closing of the community in the early 1900s and the restoration of the historic village in the 1960s and 1970s. In fact, the office that I sit in while typing this blog served as a private residence during the interim years after it had been the workspace of the Village ministry for nearly a century!

The Shaker architectural style is evident, even as this building has received modern additions and been adapted into residential apartments.

After a wonderful tour with our hosts through the Church Family buildings and a driving tour of the remaining Shaker buildings that are now in private hands, we returned to the 1848 Meeting House for the presentation that is documented in the photo at the top of this blog. The audience was both interested and gracious, and our only regret was that we had only a few hours to spend with them before we left for out next Shaker tour destination. We said our good-byes and hit the highway for Massachusetts. Check back in a few weeks to find out where our adventure took us next!

Our wonderful hosts at Watervliet!

For more information on the Shaker Heritage Society and the Watervliet Shaker National Historic District, please their website at: https://home.shakerheritage.org/.

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.

The Saving of Seeds

Brandi Duff, Farm Assistant

For more than two centuries, seeds have been saved from the vegetable gardens at Pleasant Hill for use in subsequent years. For the Shakers, there were many reasons to save seeds from the bountiful gardens they grew. By saving the seeds they knew produced well, the Shakers ensured they had what they wanted for the following year. This was a sustainable and cost-effective use of resources.

A Market Industry

Though seed saving was a common practice in early agrarian America, the Shakers quickly turned it into a market industry. Credited with being the first to sell seeds in small pre-packaged envelopes, the Shakers at New Lebanon, NY perfected this process as early as the 1790s.

They kept detailed records and divided the process into four areas: the field, the barn, the shop, and the world.

Seed saving became profitable for most Shaker communities, and we see evidence of this industry at Pleasant Hill in the early 1800s. According to Pleasant Hill records, seeds were saved throughout the growing season and were sent to consignment shops in September and October, remaining there through February or March.

Okra seeds are commonly saved at Pleasant Hill to be planted in the next growing season.

Seed packets evolved throughout the years, beginning as small envelopes in tan or orange colors. Print shops at each location printed the intricately designed border adding planting instructions on the packaging later in the process. The Shaker name on seeds soon became synonymous with “quality.” This allowed them to thrive in the industry.

After the civil war, the Shakers began to see stronger competition in the seed market. The combination of superior printing technology using brighter colors, better growing locations, and the fact that many Shaker communities were in decline, led to the Shaker seed market eventually closing.

Seed Saving Today

Today at Pleasant Hill, we still proudly grow and save heirloom varieties of plants. Our seeds are open-pollinated, which means that they either self-pollinate or are pollinated by the same plants. This ensures the reliability to produce the same plants as the parent plant.

We proudly offer many of the same varieties in our shops that the Shakers grew. Learn more about seed saving by attending one of our educational tours or a farm workshop.

To purchase heirloom seeds from the Shops at Shaker Village, come on out for a visit, or visit our online store!

Today in Pleasant Hill History

Jacob Glover, PhD, Director of Public Programs and Education

On January 24, 1871, Pleasant Hill took the step of expelling a family of seven from their ranks. Interestingly enough, this newsworthy note is intermingled amongst more practical concerns in a Shaker journal:

Trip – El. H. L. Eades started for South Union via Lebanon. See 13th inst

Expelled – The Morrison family from the Society. Minerva the mother & Henry from the West Lot, & Hiram, Jacob, Leah, Belle & Ginny from the Center Family. See March 7, l870.

Trip – H. Daily went to Lexington with two wagons, & returned the following day.

LTR: James Shelton, John Pilkington, Henry Daily, Francis P., Napoleaon Brown. Girls unknown.

As the entry reveals, this expulsion had evidently been in the works for a rather long time! Going back to review that entry from March 1870:

“Mon. 7 Sent Away – The Widow Morrison family – who came some time since from the Mouth of Salt River viz. the Mother Manerva Ann & children William J. Morrison, Jacob T. Leah Ann, Sarah Isabel, Mary Jane & Henry William Morrison.  the Mother & youngest from the West Lot.  The rest from Centre all went on board the Boat for Louisville thence to their home.”

That’s all the Shakers wrote. It makes one wonder exactly what they had done to be “sent away” and “expelled” during a time of general population decline at Pleasant Hill.