By Lauren Northup
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It became apparent quite early in the development process of the Historic Charleston Foundation app that it would include not only new audio guides to our two museums, the Aiken-Rhett House and the Nathaniel Russell House, but also a comprehensive guide to Charleston, South Carolina, to tell the city’s preservation story from its founding in 1670 to the present day. The city guide should provide us an opportunity to engage digitally with visitors who might not otherwise have interacted with our brand at all, much less visited our house museums. (We hope that, having enjoyed the guide, they will then be drawn to our museums for a similar experience, thus boosting our visitation numbers.)
New York–based consulting firm Museum Hack assigned an individual consultant to each of the app’s three components: Zak Martellucci to the city guide, Lia Tamborra to Aiken-Rhett, and Jen Browne to Nathaniel Russell. Having been with Museum Hack more or less since its founding and during its period of explosive growth and success, they are some of the company’s most experienced interpreters. Throwing these three New Yorkers into the mix of a traditional, decorative-arts based house museum tour in Charleston was not unlike dousing a campfire with lighter fluid, which was precisely the energy we were looking for—in a historically accurate, meticulously footnoted sort of way, of course. Over the course of the project, they took three trips to Charleston. The process of orienting the team to the sweep of the city’s history included archival research, multiple interviews with a number of Charleston locals, individual tours of a variety of heritage sites, and many hours of internal discussion.
In addition to the consultants, we worked with a Museum Hack project manager and two representatives from the app platform developer, Cuseum. Together with Historic Charleston Foundation staff, this made for a team of 14 people devoted to this project—not a small number!
Setting out to tell the lengthy and complex histories of not only two 19th-century museum houses but also the entire city of Charleston seemed daunting when the project launched in May 2017. The challenge was not in choosing what to say, but rather in deciding what was acceptable to omit from the narrative, which is typically a painful task for devoted—and often highly opinionated—historians. Under the watchful eye of the Museum Hack team, we were able to boil down our target narratives to two essential points for each of the three guides. These points were the touchstones for our storytelling and the guiding principles behind script development.
Essential Guiding Principles
The goal of the city guide arose directly from the success of our Instagram (@historiccharlestonfoundation) and was clear from the beginning: reveal the untold stories of Charleston’s evolution into one of America’s best-preserved historic cities. Though it is not explicitly articulated, devoted followers of our Instagram may have noticed our emphasis on telling stories that are often underrepresented: women’s history, African American history, social justice narratives, and current preservation issues are all highlighted in our characteristically reverent/irreverent style. The city guide takes a deeper dive into these topics by physically bringing visitors to the places where some of Charleston’s most hard-fought battles have been won and lost. It also illuminates the modern history and preservation issues that are unfolding as we speak. We see the city guide as an opportunity to explore some of the most difficult social issues we face as a city and as a country, including the legacies of slavery and segregation, gentrification and development, and the ongoing debate over Confederate monuments.
At the Aiken-Rhett House, we chose to focus on the overall preservation philosophy of the house— “preserved as found”—and ensure that our visitors understood this unique approach to stabilization and interpretation. We also wanted our visitors to leave knowing about the surviving kitchen house, laundry, and stable block and understanding their connection to the story of enslavement in urban Charleston. The miraculous survival of the original paint finishes, furnishings, and fittings in the enslaved quarters—unique in Charleston—provide the most tangible link to this painful era in the city’s history.
The Nathaniel Russell House is where we set the gold standard for innovative house museum research and interpretation. The 1980s and ’90s era of discovery and the stories that arise from the meticulous restoration of this important neoclassical house, are some of the most compelling to our visitors. Interpreting the Russell family and their impact on Charleston’s early 19th-century history alongside the modern restoration efforts makes for a fascinating narrative.
At the same time, Historic Charleston Foundation has owned and operated the house museum since 1955 without changing the operation of the museum very much, which made adapting it to the app a unique challenge. Developing an audio guide for this exclusively docent-led house was, and remains, a controversial decision. But years of standing at the desk and watching visitors turn around and leave after learning that they would have to wait for a guided tour has made it apparent that we needed to provide a more flexible, self-guided option. The app is not replacing docent-led tours—we will still offer them on the hour, and our expert interpreters will be onsite to assist those who choose the self-guided audio.
Historic Charleston Foundation recently extended the techniques and approaches employed during the 20th-century restoration to the enslaved people’s quarters in the surviving Russell House dependencies. The findings were electrifying, including original plaster walls, floorboards, and a cache of hidden artifacts relating to the people who were once enslaved there. The audio guide will include these spaces and objects on a newly expanded tour, providing our visitors with a more complete picture of the 18 enslaved people who lived onsite with the Russell family.
The scripts for the three audio guides, which we developed over a nine-month period, are currently in the final stages of editing. We have high hopes for the reach and impact of this project, both locally and further afield, and appreciate the support of our fellow preservation organizations across the country. Ultimately the app is an enormous (digital) leap of faith for Historic Charleston Foundation, but it is not out of character for an organization that has always pushed the envelope in preservation and interpretation.
Lauren Northup is director of museums at Historic Charleston Foundation.