Old Sturbridge Village Changes with the SeasonsKids don’t want to hear how butter is churned. They want to do it.
And at Old Sturbridge Village, they can do just that — and plenty more. In fact, a renewed focus on hands-on learning and interactivity at this 66-year-old ‘living museum’ has contributed to a turnaround in attendance and finances since both bottomed out five years ago, said Ann Lindblad, OSB’s director of marketing and communications.
The change began, she said, in 2007, when Jim Donahue came on board as the new CEO, replacing Beverly Sheppard, who had resigned the year before. He’d had no previous museum experience — his background was in finance and education, most recently as CEO of the Bradford Dunn Institute in Rhode Island — but since Donahue’s appointment, the museum has reversed the declines and, starting in 2009, balanced the operating budget every year.
“It’s a stunning turnaround, and it’s happened as we’ve focused more on hands-on activities,” Lindblad said. “Today’s visitor doesn’t want to just watch; they want to see and touch and take part. We offer crafts and hands-on activities every day, and we have a whole host of special things visitors can try. For example, they can come in the fall and try plowing behind the oxen and see what that feels like.”
The past decade at OSB has felt more like a roller coaster. In the heyday of Old Sturbridge Village — the late 1970s through the 1980s — it wasn’t uncommon for annual attendance to approach 600,000 visitors. In 2004, that number had declined to 288,000, and in 2007 it plummeted to just over 220,000. It’s a phenomenon that other museums across America, of all types, have had to deal with.
“A lot of this is true of the whole living-history-museum category,” Lindblad said. “The high-water mark for attendance was during the Bicentennial back in the ’70s, and think about how much society has changed since then. Now you can shop 24/7, organized youth sports are popular, you have cell phones, the Internet, computer games … and both parents are working more than was the case in the 1970s, when it was common to pack the kids into the station wagon and head out on a day trip.
“There’s just less leisure time,” she continued, “and that is, I think, a strong incentive for us to make sure people don’t view visiting here as a waste of time, but want to come back and repeat the experience.”
Increasingly, they are doing just that. Despite a weather year in 2011 that threw many businesses for a loop — the June tornado tore a line of tree damage dangerously close to the 40 historic buildings, while the October snowstorm cut power and shut down the facility for a week — the museum finished the year with 263,000 visitors, just off the 273,000 pace of 2010. With weather acting a bit more cooperatively in 2012, the year’s attendance to date is 4% ahead of last year’s pace.
“Since our CEO took over the reins in 2007, we’ve had a 24% increase in attendance, and three consecutive years of balancing the operating budget,” Lindblad said, noting that a stronger focus on seasonal variety and interactive programs have been matched by a stronger marketing plan.
“And I think there’s a lot of grassroots marketing,” she added. “Visitors are coming, having a good experience, and helping us to spread the word. It still comes down to programming. If they come here and don’t have a good time, or they don’t learn anything, or they don’t find it compelling, then there’s no reason to come back.”
Interpreting the Past
For decades, Lindblad said, Old Sturbridge Village — which focuses on New England life from the 1790s to the 1830s — leaned on its ‘interpreters’ as its main draw. These employees — who dress in period garb and demonstrate trades ranging from printing to shoemaking, from pottery to tincraft — remain one of the most significant aspects of the museum.
“We’re famous for our historians in costume; that’s what sets us apart. They’re so knowledgable about that time period, and they’re our teachers,” she said — and the lessons aren’t always rooted in the past. Take agriculture, for example. “Some kids come and don’t know where a carrot comes from; they wonder why there’s dirt on carrots. They have no clue about which plants and vegetables are native. So there’s an amazing amount of teaching going on.”
She was quick to add, however, that these village inhabitants do a “third-person interpretation,” meaning they’re not acting out a character from the early 19th century, but simply performing the tasks of that era while speaking in their own, modern voice. “Visitors would get frustrated if they asked a question and someone couldn’t answer it because they couldn’t break character. It’s all about having fun, but making sure our guests are learning something while they’re having fun.”
Still, in recent years, the museum’s leadership felt interactivity was lacking, so they began to institute a more hands-on approach across the 220-acre grounds, as well as in classes visitors can sign up for on period cooking, blacksmithing, woodworking, textile crafts, and more.
“As an educator, our CEO would say that kids — or anyone, really — remember something longer if they’ve actually taken part in it; it sticks with them,” Lindblad said.
She noted that hearth cooking demonstrations are conducted every day. “There’s a fire in the fireplace, and the women who are cooking will teach things like how they judge the heat by putting their arm inside the hearth and counting. If they can count to 12 or 15 before it gets uncomfortable, then it’s about 350 degrees.”
Another focus at Old Sturbridge Village has been on seasonal and yearly events that provide more variety for those who choose to return, or purchase yearly memberships.
“The program staff has really bumped up the seasonal activities, so visitors can have another reason to visit — see something they hadn’t seen before,” Lindblad said. “And these can appeal to different age groups.”
Those seasonal activities extend even to the winter months — not normally a time when families are thinking about tourism and day trips.
“We’re committed to being open year-round, and we want people to see what the winter was like,” Lindblad said. “So, for example, we added Fire and Ice Days in January, where we demonstrate ice cutting and harvesting. In the days before refrigeration, ice was a huge cash crop in New England, and they had special tools to score and cut the ice and store and haul it, and merchants in Boston would ship it all over the world. People are fascinated by the process, and the enormous saws, and kids and adults can try sawing.”
The following month, visitors flock to an antique sleigh rally, where horse-drawn sleighs compete for prizes. “The winter was the social season,” Lindblad said. “The harvest was over, and people had more free time.”
Other seasonal events — dozens of them — follow throughout the year, from fireworks in July to harvest parties and Apple Days in the fall. And the museum isn’t afraid to occasionally step out of its time period. For example, it hosts an antique car show (all cars must predate 1946, the year the museum was established).
While focusing on 20th-century lifestyles, Lindblad said, the exhibition remains true to OSB’s historic bent. “We see grandparents bringing their grandchildren to that, so they can say, ‘this is what cars looked like.’”
Speaking of children, the museum still relies heavily on visits from school groups — around 65,000 students visit each year — while parents with children under 12 comprise another steady constituency. Older adults and empty-nesters also enjoy visiting, particularly during the leaf-peeping season in the fall. Meanwhile, families with young children often prefer the spring, when most baby animals are born.
At the heart of Old Sturbridge Village, however, are its period homes and shops. The most recent addition, the Small House, a 420-square-foot clapboard structure erected several years ago, is the first building added to the village since the mid-1980s, and the first ever to be built from the ground up; all the other buildings are actual historic properties relocated to Sturbridge. Unlike the middle-class houses in the village, the Small House tells the story of how the lower classes of the time lived.
Other stories are being constantly told as well. The recent Redcoats and Rebels event drew some 800 Revolutionary War reenactors to the village — the largest such war simulation in New England. And the facility recently added an authentic Concord stagecoach, “just like the ones plying roads all over New England in the 1830s,” Lindblad said. “You can get in the stagecoach and get a feel for the rigors of transportation. It’s a replica of the one that ran between Hartford and Worcester — it was bumpy and dusty, but that was the Cadillac of its time.” It was also, she added, a 12-hour trip.
Today, that’s like arriving from Detroit or Charlotte by car, and that’s not unheard of. “We attract a lot of out-of-state visitors, and they’re bringing a lot of money into the Massachusetts economy,” Lindblad said, noting that, while most of those hail from Connecticut, the museum attracts healthy numbers from the rest of New England, New York, and the mid-Atlantic states. In fact, all 50 states are represented each year, while international guests comprise 6% of visitors.
“I think, because we are within driving distance of so many millions of people, this is a good option for a day trip,” Lindblad said, noting that each $24 admission ($8 for kids) is good for a second visit within 10 days, so that families can make a multi-day stay of it. “They might not have the budget, during a recession, to fly to Disneyland or Disney World, but they’re still looking for a family experience. They can drive a couple of hours and have a rich experience, and still feel like they had a mini-vacation.”
After all, it’s only natural to crave some time away from it all. That’s as true now as it was 200 years ago.
Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]