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Are We Sell-Outs? House Museums, Alcohol and Educational Mission

by Rachel Abbott on

Last month, I wrote a post about a program I work on called History Happy Hour, specifically describing the audience it attracts. History Happy Hour is a monthly public program that resembles a fairly traditional lecture series, but also includes two drinks with the price of admission, and unstructured time before and after the lecture to explore a house museum without the barriers of velvet ropes between guests and artifacts.

History Happy Hour has given the Alexander Ramsey House new exposure and a new energy. It’s a program that has expanded our audience, encouraged repeat visitation, been an entry point to other programs at the site, and fostered partnerships with neighborhood businesses.

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What is the rationale for including drinks in this event? It can be argued that a glass of wine can be a valid entry point for people. Museums have been using cocktail parties as fundraisers and donor events for a long time. And a lot of people regularly socialize with their friends over drinks anyway, so in effect we’re just trying to meet them where they already are. I also think that drinks convey a spirit of informality, thus (hopefully) sending a message that the overall experience is meant to be fun and open; less stuffy than what people may fear from a house museum. More and more museums are learning from the success of these kinds of events and adopting the principles of this model (historic venue + drinks) for public programs. As we consider making this kind of boozy programming a more regular part of what we do, I hear a lot of troubling questions that all boil down to this: Is it appropriate?

The question of appropriateness is usually related to concerns over whether adding alcohol to a program can alter its mission-driven nature. Are we selling our souls in the name of audience expansion?

I argue that History Happy Hour is not only appropriate, but that it remains a mission-based program. The mission of the Minnesota Historical Society is to use the power of history to transform lives. History Happy Hours always revolves around educational presentations of historical topics meant to attract younger and more diverse audiences. We’ve had programs about 19th century baseball, transportation maps and the Underground Railroad in Minnesota. We’ve had a couple of programs about the history of beer or Victorian era cocktails, but the program overall isn’t about the alcohol.

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I also believe that a central part of the mission-based activity of any historic site is giving people more ways to access the site. People need to experience a place in order to connect with it and advocate for its preservation. So by allowing people to experience the Alexander Ramsey House through History Happy Hour we are making the site more relevant to them and hopefully in the long run transforming them into people who care enough about the site and its history to want to keep it around.

The amount of angst about inclusion of alcohol in programs is certainly dependent on your particular mission. For example: What about a boozy program at a house museum that was once home to people who fought for the prohibition of alcohol? How appropriate would that be? The example I can best speak to is, of course, History Happy Hour. And it’s more complicated than it might seem at first glance. The Alexander Ramsey House was home not to a teetotaler, but to a man who was governor during the implementation of some of the worst American Indian treaties and policies in the history of Minnesota. To a lot of native people Alexander Ramsey is a true villain, someone responsible for the deaths of many of their ancestors. Is it appropriate to host fun, social boozy programs at a house museum with such a serious and controversial story to tell?

On the other hand, Alexander Ramsey, his wife Anna and their daughter Marion also loved to entertain. They threw parties. One of our History Happy Hour guests said that he appreciated that we were retuning the house’s parlor to its original use: socializing. I believe that, much like history, a house museum isn’t either black or white, and doesn’t just have one story to tell. I think that we would all take issue with only hosting History Happy Hours at the site at the expense of other programming. It’s important to strike a balance, and we’re trying to figure out what’s right for the Alexander Ramsey House.

– Rachel Abbott is Program Associate for Historic Sites and Museums at the Minnesota Historical Society in St. Paul. You can visit the Alexander Ramsey House during the AASLH Annual Meeting September 17-20.

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