Max A. van Balgooy is president of Engaging Places, LLC, a design and strategy firm that connects people with historic places. Much of his work focuses on the value of objects, buildings, and landscapes in interpretation at such museums as Drayton Hall, Taliesin West, Cliveden, Gamble House, Lincoln’s Cottage, and James Madison’s Montpelier. Along with an active consulting practice, he serves on the steering committee of the History Relevance Campaign and teaches the George Washington University. He blogs at engagingplaces.net
1) If you had to choose one or two favorite historic sites, which ones are they and what about them interested you?
Oh, I’m terrible at this question because it’s like asking a parent about a favorite child or an artist about a favorite painting—they’re all my favorites but in different ways. So I’ll talk about two very different places that have continued to have an impact on my thinking about the interpretation of historic sites: Glass House and Drayton Hall.
Drayton Hall in Charleston sticks with me because it showed that a historic house can be successfully interpreted without any furniture—the house is the primary object and the architecture, spaces, and finishes are expertly used to interpret the life of the family and history of the region over three centuries. I’ve now banished the assumption that the best interpretation for an historic house consists of rooms furnished to a specific period.
Glass House is not one but a dozen buildings built over fifty years on several acres near New York City. The site not only shows the evolution of Philip Johnson’s architectural thinking but also demonstrates the connection between architecture, landscape, and objects. As a result, I always look for connections between house, landscape, and furnishings and consider the changes that happened to a site over time (and as corollary, that the earliest period is not necessarily the most significant). But there’s one more thing that caught my eye (or should I say, my heart?): emotion A springy bridge over a creek or a pavilion that requires a small leap over a threshold to enter were his examples of “safe danger.” Philip Johnson provoked emotional responses through architecture and I keep looking for ways to do this to create memorable experiences at historic sites.
Both of these sites are successfully interpreted through guided tours, a technique that many people find boring and many places are abandoning. It’s too bad because these two sites easily demonstrate that a guided tour can be a transformative experience—but it requires a system that includes training in both content and technique.
2) Which, if any, historic sites have you worked at? What was your job?
I started working at historic sites in seventh grade as a volunteer, but my first paid job was after college at the Homestead Museum in southern California. I was so proud of my first business cards featuring my name and title, “Historical Interpreter: Weekend Supervisor.” Although one of my friends jokingly said it was a euphemism for “Tour Guide: Bad Hours,” I loved the job and it convinced me to go on to graduate school to learn more and return for a series of different positions from historian to assistant director. After a dozen years, I left to become the director of interpretation and education at the National Trust for Historic Preservation, where I served as an in-house consultant for 28 historic sites across the country (including Drayton Hall and Glass House) for a decade. That experience gave me a national perspective on the challenges and opportunities facing historic sites and house museums and helped launch my current career as a consultant to historic sites across the country, including the Haas-Lilienthal House, Gamble House, Taliesin West, Cliveden, Touro Synagogue, and James Madison’s Montpelier. The variety of sites and projects keeps me sharp, lively, and hopeful.
3) If you’ve worked at a historic site, what is one challenge of running a historic site that most people would be surprised to learn?
While there are museum-like aspects to historic sites, it’s much more complex. First of all, the biggest and most significant object in your collection is the building—and you leave it outside in the weather and not only allow people to touch it, but let them walk on it. What museum does that? Secondly, historic sites often include activities that function like parks, libraries, botanic gardens, community centers, and historical societies but have fewer resources in comparison. I guess that’s two challenges. Sorry for the miscount.
4) What is a history site you hope to visit some day? Why?
I have a list so long that I’ll never accomplish it in my lifetime, so I’m grateful for any progress I make, big or small. But at the top of the list are the capitals of ancient empires, such as the Moors in Spain, Assyrians in Iran, Ming dynasty in China, Ottomans in Turkey, Khmers in Cambodia, and Incas in Peru. I’ve continually read about the influence of these empires on world history but seeing them in person will help me better understand them (but isn’t that true for all historic sites?).
Our Favorite Sites is a feature on Historyplaces where I ask my public historian friends to talk about their favorite history sites and share some of the challenges they face presenting history to visitors. If you’re a public historian and you’d like to participate, please contact me.