Rapid Prototyping In Historic Sites: How Museum Hack Helped The National Park Service Hack Martin Van Buren’s Home In One Day

Jesse Sussman


Marketing Associate

Can you bring a fresh perspective to a historic site that’s over a hundred years old?

We believe it’s entirely possible to create an entirely new and exciting experience that both engages and attracts new audiences and successfully communicates a site’s historical value and significance.

That doesn’t mean it’s always easy. 

On our tours, we’ve found that people sometimes have a hard time relating to historical subjects — while they’re able to intellectually appreciate their significance, the emotional connection can sometimes be missing.

Lindenwald, Home of Martin Van Buren in Kinderhook, New York

For us, storytelling is the bridge to connection in museum spaces, and this is doubly true for historic sites. Effective storytelling can make historic sites more accessible and bring guests immediately into the museum’s world.

There are many aspects to successful storytelling, but for historic sites specifically, the creation of personal connections between your guests and your collection is essential.

Personal connections allow the guest to empathize with the common humanity of everyone associated with the site from its inception until present day.

Ultimately, effective storytelling and strong personal connections in historic sites can make guests forget about the word historic and interact with the institution on common ground.

The Martin Van Buren Home: A Historic National Park Service Site

The Martin Van Buren Home was recently looking for unique ways to freshen up their space, shake up their interpretive style, and improve collaboration and communication among their staff. So who did they call? Museum Hack!

Based just outside Kindenhook, New York, The Martin Van Buren Home (MVBH) is known to be an innovative site of the National Park Service. The site consists of the preserved estate and mansion of Martin Van Buren, the eighth president of the United States.

During their one-day visit, Museum Hack facilitators Ethan Angelica and Emily Hoff worked extensively with MVBH staff to rapidly prototype new tour stops and activities on site.

The day started with a Museum Hack mini-tour where we showcase our best practices and explained the blueprint of our tours: how we structure an experience, what kind of language we use, and how we choose to communicate with guests.

Hackers Ethan Angelica and Emily Hoff at Martin Van Buren National Historic Site

Quickly Creating Brand New Experiences At Culturally Renowned Institutions

After the morning demonstration, it was time to start hacking!

We led with the Instant Hack, our system for quickly prototyping new experiences, tour stops, and activities on site.

We worked extensively with MVBH staff to gain an in-depth understanding of the site’s historical significance. Afterwards, Ethan and Emily took twenty minutes on the spot to quickly synthesize everything they had learned about the Martin Van Buren Home and turn around a brand-new, Museum Hack-style tour stop for the historical site.  

Ethan and Emily then broke down the system they used to create the Instant Hack with MVBH staff, which was based on the 5 Elements Of A Hack — our methodology for high-level storytelling designed to create effective and engaging presentations.

We explained the 5 Elements Of A Hack in full, paying particular attention to the importance of personal connections.

One of the best ways to facilitate these connections is through the guides — as the leaders of the visitor experience, guides have a ton of influence and power in shaping how the guests relate to and interpret the site.

It’s very important for guides to bring themselves as individuals to the space, instead of simply trying to fulfill the traditional guide experience.

When guides share their opinions, experiences, and feelings, it invites guests to step into their shoes for a moment and empathize with the experience in the space on a human-to-human level. Even if the guest hasn’t shared the guide’s experience, or doesn’t agree with their opinions, the guide acts as a vessel through which the guest can actively filter and shape their own experience.

Some of the biggest takeaways we heard from MVBH staff were that people felt very empowered to bring themselves to the experience, say “I” in their interpretive practice, and be the same person on tour as they are outside the museum.

After eight-and-a-half hours of hacking, Museum Hack and MVBH staff had prototyped 12 new pieces and 6 activities to use on tour! By the end of the day, the Martin Van Buren House had a new foundation to present the legacy of their institution in a brand-new light, all tailored to attracting and engaging new audiences.

What the Martin Van Buren House Said About Working With Museum Hack

“It was fantastic. We learned so much and we had a great time, and we learned things we can implement immediately, and then things that I think are going to change us for the long term.”

Want help maximizing audience engagement at your institution? Find out more about our audience development offerings here.

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