Scott Miller is a PhD student at the University of South Florida. His area of concentration is 20th Century American history with a focus on the Cold War.
The Strenuous Life of a Historic Site
April 18, 1906. 5:12 a.m. San Francisco, California. An earthquake rocks the city to its core. When the shaking stops, a massive fire breaks out. When the smoke clears, 28,000 buildings are destroyed, half of the city’s 400,000 residents are homeless and an estimated 3,000 people are dead. 4,500 miles away, President Theodore Roosevelt immediately grasped the gravity of the situation. “At this moment I am much taken up with trying to do whatever can be done to help the poor people of California in the midst of the awful disaster that has befallen San Francisco. It is a terrible calamity,” he writes his son Kermit. Roosevelt establishes the precedent of direct White House involvement to aid major disasters; his approves a Congressional appropriation of $2.5 million and makes a public appeal for donations to the American Red Cross.
More than a century later, the nation is again stricken by a national crisis. Its effects are being felt throughout country. Including the very building where TR was sworn in as President, following the assassination of President McKinley.
Since it opened its doors in September 1971, the Theodore Roosevelt Inaugural Site has been one of Buffalo’s historical treasures. But for years it was lost amongst the city’s other more high-profile landmarks, such as the Albright-Knox Art Gallery and Pierce Arrow Museum. However, the last several years have seen it become one of the area’s premiere historical attractions. A key to the museum’s recent success has been an emphasis on widening its appeal through public programs. Such events as Speaker, Vintage Game and TRivia nights have been successfully attracting a new more diverse audience.
But with the corona virus forcing its closure, site leaders quickly regrouped and devised a new strategy. I spoke with Executive Director Stanton H. Hudson, Jr. to discuss their game plan. He shared that several years ago they created a virtual tour of the museum that can be viewed through their website. But recently, they’ve been working to take things to the next level with the TR VR Tour. The new tour takes items from their collection (artifacts, newspapers articles, interactive exhibits) and incorporates them into a high-definition virtual reality tour geared towards school children. They also have developed corresponding lesson plans for teachers. The original idea was to make it accessible to local school districts later this year. But with recent world events, they’ve decided to make what they have available to more than just to schools, but the general community. They plan to get the TR VR Tour up on their website shortly.
In a move that may surprise some, Hudson hopes to begin airing local television commercials. The spots will direct viewers to their website to experience the virtual tour, with the hook of “watch the virtual tour, than book your actual tour.” Hudson hopes these commercials drive more than just educators and students to the website, but also the general public.
To keep in touch with the more than 4,000 people on their contact list, the site will start sending out a weekly newsletter. Each newsletter will highlight a program the museum is running during its closure. For example, the first newsletter will announce on the premiere of the TR VR Tour. The second newsletter will focus on previous Speaker Nite presentations that will be made available to view online. Besides keeping them informed, at the bottom of each newsletter will be a link that allows members to renew their membership or make a donation.
According to Hudson, the site will also be stepping up its social media presence. Every Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday they will be rolling out new content. For example, this past Tuesday they posted on Facebook— “Quarantine Conversation: If you were stuck at a home with Alice Roosevelt Longworth, what would you talk about?” They hope that by having set social media days it will become appointment reading for their followers.
The site’s Deputy Director/Curator Lenora Henson is also working to save the popular Speaker Nite event. In addition to topics relating to Theodore Roosevelt’s 1901 inauguration and his presidency, speakers in this series discuss topics that were significant during TR’s time and remain relevant today. Henson is exploring the possibility of conducting the presentations remotely through a video conferencing program.
All museum’s efforts to stay relevant take on greater significance because next year it celebrates its 50th anniversary. While Hudson and the staff’s primary focus is on current events, they already have an eye on next year’s celebrations. They realize all their work now is vital to making the golden anniversary truly golden.