Proving the Power of Place: President Lincoln’s Cottage Visitor Impact Study

By Special Contributor posted 05-07-2018 15:09


By Erin Carlson Mast

A version of this piece originally appeared on the American Alliance of Museums website on March 20, 2018.

The “Lincoln shiver” is what many of the staff and advisers called it during the restoration of President Lincoln’s Cottage. The shiver is a feeling one gets just by being in the Cottage—or on the grounds—here at the Soldiers’ Home, on a hilltop in northwest Washington, D.C. The shiver came at different times for different people. For some, it was when they rested their hand on the banister and walked up the same steps as Lincoln. For others, it came when they heard a story of what happened here. Still others felt the shiver after the fact—realizing the enormity of what Lincoln grappled with here during the Civil War.

Exterior view of Lincoln's Cottage | Credit: Chris Ferenzi Photography

Driven by a mandate to provide visitors with a “transformative experience,” the Cottage team wanted to share the shiver with their audience. A number of factors shaped this mandate, including the Kykuit I and II conference recommendations, which asserted that the museum field, if it wished to remain relevant and essential to contemporary society, was urgently in need of new models for interpreting historic sites. Accordingly, we chose to create a “Museum of Ideas” using a conversational, guided-tour approach, rather than a museum of things with a traditional “velvet rope” lecture-style tour.

The mandate also echoed the transformative significance of what Abraham Lincoln accomplished while living at the Cottage: developing the Emancipation Proclamation, charting the course of the Civil War, signing the National Act to Encourage Immigration, and contemplating the words he would deliver at Gettysburg, among other things.

Scholars have analyzed the evolution of Lincoln’s ideas during his presidency, including those he developed during his first summer in residence at the Cottage—a place that potentially shaped his thinking. By virtue of living there, Lincoln was commuting daily, which put him in direct contact with diverse populations, including refugee camps of formerly enslaved men, women, and children. Renowned Columbia University history scholar Eric Foner noted, “The hallmark of Lincoln’s greatness was his combination of bedrock principle with open-mindedness and capacity for growth. That summer [of 1862], with his preferred approach going nowhere, he moved in the direction of immediate emancipation.” Lincoln appeared to be changing and adapting his ideas while living at the Cottage, but rather than attempt to prove his state of mind in the past—compelling though that topic may be—we sought to test whether the immersive Cottage tour successfully creates a transformative experience for visitors today.

Guide staff at President Lincoln’s Cottage use a dialogic approach to orient visitors to the site and the unique tour experience.  | Credit: Chris Ferenzi Photography

The Cottage Experience

The museum field often measures impact in outputs—number of visitors per year, for example. Furthermore, arts and humanities organizations frequently highlight economic impact, versus cultural or social impact, in their advocacy efforts.

At President Lincoln’s Cottage, we do measure such outputs, but we also conduct a long-standing visitor survey designed to capture qualitative metrics. Over time, we have come to recognize that visitors’ experiences impact them in profound ways beyond what we anticipated—and beyond our capacity to capture as data. For example, visitors have reported feeling their minds opened; being “substantively changed”; and reflecting on their experience at President Lincoln’s Cottage weeks, months, and even years later, even if they had no direct contact with the site after their initial visit. Though it is anecdotal, the volume of such feedback suggested that it was well worth our time to explore what factors were shaping visitors’ experiences. The Cottage staff set out to conduct a preliminary study to measure the extent to which experiencing the site opens visitors’ minds to new ideas and opportunities.

In 2014 Callie Hawkins, director of programming at President Lincoln’s Cottage, connected with Dr. Julio Bermudez, professor of architecture and director of the Cultural Studies and Sacred Space graduate program at Catholic University and executive advisor to the International Arts + Mind Lab at the Johns Hopkins University Brain Science Institute. Since that time Dr. Bermudez has been instrumental in helping us study the impact of experiencing President Lincoln’s Cottage. According to Dr. Bermudez, the idea that the built environment has measurable effects on one’s mental state dates back to ancient philosophers and architects. However, the science available to measure these effects has lagged behind—until recently. In August 2016, after months of planning and a seed grant provided by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, Cottage staff embarked on groundbreaking research about how the physical place, the shared stories, and the ritual of the guided experience affect visitors emotionally and intellectually.

Museum Program Associate leads an educational program for local school children. | Credit: Bruce Guthrie

In conducting this research, we posited the Cottage as a place of secular pilgrimage and ritual for visitors. As such, we relied on a framework created for religious sacred spaces by renowned religious studies scholar Dr. Lindsay Jones, professor emeritus at the Ohio State University. The framework examines modes of presentation in sacred spaces, describing three different relationships between the humans participating in a ritual and the spaces where that ritual occurs:

  • Orientation refers to the space in which a ritual occurs—in the case of the Cottage, the building itself;
  • Commemoration articulates the narrative purpose of the ritual—the stories of Lincoln’s life at the Cottage; and
  • Ritual context or the shared experience—the guided tour of the Cottage.

Cottage staff and Dr. Bermudez conducted a visitor impact survey of nearly 1,000 individuals between September 2016 and November 2017. The survey contained a total of 32 questions, including multiple choice, ranking scale, and open-ended, and was estimated to take 10 minutes. The paper survey was administered immediately following tours on a rotating schedule—thus, every tour slot on every day of the week, every month, and every season was captured, though not all at once. Visitors were invited to opt in to take the survey. Staff then took the results and entered them into a database, which was then analyzed by Dr. Bermudez and architect Brandon Ro.

It is important to note that we entered into this project knowing full well that the survey results might refute prior anecdotal evidence that suggested the Cottage provided a transformative experience. A negative finding would have been disappointing, but as important and useful as a positive finding. However, according to Dr. Bermudez’ findings, President Lincoln’s Cottage is, in fact, successful in creating all three of the relationships that Dr. Jones described.

The overwhelming majority of survey respondents considered their experience at the Cottage “exciting/interesting” (96 percent), “beautiful/pleasing” (93 percent), and “calming/relaxing” (86 percent). Many respondents—approximately 72 percent—found it “emotional/intense.” Dr. Bermudez hypothesizes that visitors’ emotional arousal might be subdued by the nature of the tour, which is focused on talking, sharing, and reflecting. He also noted that respondents, “unambiguously affirmed how much they got from the experience”: 99 percent attested to having gained “knowledge/insights”; 96 percent “enjoyment/satisfaction/entertainment”; 93 percent “appreciation of America, government, politics, leaders”; and 81 percent “awakened to sense of responsibility/empathy/love for humanity.”

Survey question 10 spoke directly to the impact of the built environment, asking visitors to agree or disagree with the statement, “The fact that I could freely move around, touch, and sit on the furniture added to my experience of President Lincoln’s Cottage.” Ninety-three percent agreed.

Individual survey respondents commented on various aspects of their experiences; their responses echoed those that we had been receiving without prompts for years. This feedback included, for example:

  • “I didn’t expect the dialogue, but it enhanced the tour to have group conversation. These are unusual times in our country. People need to talk!”
  • “The tour was informative, thought-provoking, emotional, and caused me to think more about what I am contributing to the common good.”
  • “[The tour] made me think more than any other site about not only the history but the values we as individuals should strive for.”
  • “It made me think more about … the overall state of our country right now and my need to find a way to contribute to change rather than continue my feelings of helplessness.”
Guests are encouraged to sit and to touch the interior of the Cottage during the tour. | Credit: Chris Ferenzi Photography

Results indicate that both the Cottage structure itself and the tour are critical in creating what survey respondents describe as “an emotional experience” that shaped their understanding of their visit—that is to say, the ritual performance of the live, conversational guided tour came up repeatedly as a positive factor. Survey participants said:

  • “Perhaps seeing Lincoln and horse sculpture set my mind to expectation of connection with [the president]. The time in his (master) bedroom was one of high emotion, coming from an awareness of who had lived there, why and for what action and ideas. The relative bareness gave room for my imagination.”
  • “The quiet, simplicity and spaciousness of the [Cottage] and surrounding area evokes the same within me. It makes me realize how much I crave those characteristics to bring more of my essence into the world.”

The next phase of the study will explore this and other factors in greater depth, controlling for a number of variables.   

Measuring Visitor Responses

Given the results of the first phase, President Lincoln’s Cottage plans to pursue a series of perceptual studies—ideally expanding to include multiple sites. We hope to use environmental psychology testing and brain-scanning with portable electroencephalograms (EEG), a technology that is still in development. Mobile EEG technology would allow us to evaluate neurological responses to the Cottage tour scientifically, using control groups to understand the impact of distinct variables on visitors’ experiences.

This research has the potential to inform practice across disciplines at organizations that rely on the interaction of physical space and ritual performance—churches or schools, for example. We hope to use the data we collect to create a tool that evaluates which components of the visitor experience have the strongest impact on emotional and intellectual responses.

Collecting, leveraging, and sharing data gathered as part of the proposed second phase of this project will enable President Lincoln’s Cottage—as well as potentially other organizations—to improve the use of space, story, and interaction when crafting visitor experiences, setting the stage for smart growth of programs that work. This highly interdisciplinary study may well be the first time mobile EEG technology is used in the United States to measure evidence-based neuroscientific responses to place, story, and ritual—a groundbreaking approach.

Erin Carlson Mast is the CEO of President Lincoln's Cottage in Washington, D.C., and was a member of the original team that restored and opened the Cottage to the public in 2008.