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.

Local Economies, Global Impacts

Billy Rankin, VP of Public Programming and Marketing

Have you visited Shaker Village in the last few years? If so, the fact that we’ve made BIG changes in how we interpret the history of the Pleasant Hill Shakers is no surprise. For those who need a recap, this article is a good primer!

Shaker Village staff and consultants planning new exhibitions.

The history of the Pleasant Hill Shakers is layered, diverse, and oftentimes surprising. We want our interpretation to share those qualities!

To achieve that goal we use exhibits, workshops, multimedia content, demonstrations, tours…well, LOTS of methods. Every visitor comes with their own perspectives and learning styles. We build experiences to connect to each of them.

Something New is in the Works

This summer a new experience is coming to Shaker Village. We thought it would be neat to give you a monthly glimpse behind the scenes as we develop this exhibition on…economics!

Okay. I know. Economics isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, right?

But that’s where our incredible interpretive team comes in. You see, it is actually really interesting to consider how a communal society that didn’t believe in personal possessions got so darn good at making and selling things to the public.

And there are many more layers to this story that need peeling back.

For example: How did gender equality in Shaker society play into their business operations? Did the Pleasant Hill Shakers have any connection to enslaved labor? What happened when their population dwindled and more non-Shakers were making some “Shaker” products than Shakers themselves?

The 1845 East Family Brethren’s Shop as the village office.
c. early 1900s

And perhaps the most important question of all: What can we, who live in an ultra-modern order everything online “I don’t care where it comes from as long as it’s convenient” global marketplace, possibly learn from the economy of a small, agrarian village?

These questions and more will be addressed when Local Economies, Global Impacts opens this summer!

Developing a New Exhibit

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 1845 East Family Brethren’s Shop and the 1855 East Family Sisters’ Shop will host the new exhibition. Each were important workshops, and offered other unique contributions to the economy of the village.

Pleasant Hill’s textile industry will be highlighted
in the new exhibit.

With the support of this grant Shaker Village has been able to conduct valuable new research about the economics of the Pleasant Hill Shakers that will come alive as part of the exhibit.

Guests will learn about the village trustees, trading deacons and office sisters. The exhibit will open a new window into the operation of mills, the management of natural resources, the work that happened in Shaker workshops, the routes travelled by trading deacons along roads and waterways, and the stories of the men and women who put their hands to work to sustain their community’s economy.

Local Economies, Global Impacts is currently in an early design phase, where we draft narrative flow within each building, and plan methods for sharing each portion of the content. Artifact displays, tactile interactives, murals, multimedia content and other methods are being fit together in the plan like an integrated puzzle.

Floor plans like this, from an early phase of design, are used to discuss the flow of content in each exhibit space.

Over the next two months we will finalize our designs, write the final content and produce graphics. Then we begin fabrication, followed by installation.

We hope you’ll come along for the ride with us each month as we update our progress. This summer, when you visit the exhibit, you’ll feel like you were there to help create it!

Swept Away

Jacob Glover, PhD., Program Manager

“These people are rich and getting richer. Contrast a Shaker broom with a penitentiary contract-labor broom. One sweeps and the other raises dust…” – “Shaker Socialism Good,” Salt Lake (UT) Herald, June 21, 1896

A flat broom press holds the bound broomcorn in a flattened position so the broom may be tied into its permanent shape.

Over the years, the Shakers and brooms have become somewhat synonymous. In many ways this makes sense: broom making was widespread in Shakerdom, and nearly all Shaker communities made brooms for use within their villages and to sell to the outside world. Just how many were made? At Pleasant Hill, for instance, Brother Francis Monfort reportedly made 25,000 broom handles in 1859 alone!

Beyond the common association of brooms with the Shakers, however, what’s the real story about the importance of brooms to the Shakers and their lifestyle? It might surprise you…

Before we go any further, we should get something out of the way. Despite the enduring legacy of this particular myth, the Shakers did not invent the flat broom. They did, however, create a flat broom press that greatly facilitated the process of making these brooms.

Begun at Watervliet, New York, in 1798, the Shaker broom industry quickly became one of the most important economic lifelines for Shaker communities across America. By the 1840s, Pleasant Hill had planted nearly 60 acres of broomcorn on their property, and they were turning out thousands of brooms each year for sale to towns and cities near and far. For most of the rest of the 19th century, Pleasant Hill found a ready market for their brooms that continued to sell for between $2 and $3 per dozen.

The interior of a broom shop at Pleasant Hill in the late 19th century. This could possibly be inside the 1815 Carpenter’s Shop – today’s Welcome Center! c. 1880-1900

Like many other Shaker-made products, there also developed a fascination with the superior quality of Shaker brooms. The quote that opens this blog post is only one of many testimonials to Shaker quality. Consider this clipping from a New York newspaper in 1842: “The Shakers for a long time almost monopolized the raising of the [broom] corn and the manufacture of brooms which…were always of a superior quality.”

An association with the Shakers, even a lapsed one, could also carry weight with consumers. One Pleasant Hill Shaker who left the community opened a broom store in Richmond, Kentucky, and resorted to a unique marketing approach: “The Shakers do certainly know how to make brooms. Mr. Spencer, being an ex-Shaker, will make you an ‘ex-Shaker broom.’ When you buy a broom, be certain it is an ‘ex-Shaker’ and then you’ll know you have got the best.”

Lars Ericson ran the broom operation at Pleasant Hill in the latter part of the 19th century. The large cylinder to the right of Ericson was used to clean broom corn prior to its use in brooms. c. 1880-1900

Although indelibly linked to Shaker economics, brooms can also be seen as a symbolic of several important Shaker ideals. After all, cleanliness was far from the demands of rogue, overzealous Shaker leaders—it was a spiritual and moral imperative that came from none other than Mother Ann Lee. “Good spirits will not live where there is dirt,” she is supposed to have famously quipped!

As it often turns out with history, what you think you know is only the beginning!

Want to learn even more about the Shaker broom industry? Come out and explore our Swept Away exhibit!

Want to go a bit more in-depth? Every fall, Shaker Village offers broom making workshops where you make your own hand-tied brooms and take part in this traditional craft! Check our event calendar to learn about these exciting opportunities!