What is the brand of New York? (Historic House Museums)

What is the brand of your city and how does it affect your institution?

What is the brand of New York City and how does it affect institutions like historic house museums situated here? What is the brand of your city and how does it affect your institution?

We are taking a look at some of the challenges faced by historic houses in the United States and this is the first post on the topic.

We don’t always think of cities as having brands, but they certainly do. While some cultural institutions are actually strong enough to be active builders of the brands of their fair city, most are not, and most historic house museums are certainly not in such a position. But each institution’s history and meaning in relation to the existing brand of its city is a factor in its success.

In our work with New York City-based institutions we have found that almost all of those that are not “on brand” have to struggle substantially in order to be heard. They have to work even harder than ever to satisfy the already difficult “Whoville Requirement.”

There is a great benefit in not being an ‘unexpected treasure.’

An institution may be inclined to say, “If we just make ourselves relevant, an audience will come.” But clearly it’s not as easy as that.

It is easier to be on brand than off. There is a great benefit in not being an “unexpected treasure.” It turns out that it is much easier to be remembered if you are in line with and contributing to what people expect from a place.

What is the brand of New York?

In the case of New York City, where the brand is something like newness, grit and fun, it’s much easier to sell tickets to the latest Broadway show or the Museum of Modern Art than, say, a history museum with deep ties to the Revolutionary War. New York is just not a part of the Revolutionary War brand, or even the “history” brand; at least not back beyond the 19th Century. It matters not that New York was the site of the largest pitched battle of the entire Revolutionary War. It matters not that George Washington, while here in 1776, stealthily saved the Continental Army to fight another day. It matters not that he was even inaugurated as President here. Few Americans associate New York City with these events or with George Washington. No small institution is going to change this. The reason New York City is not even a little bit about the Revolutionary War in most people’s minds is probably because not much winning went on here during that part of the war. Who wants to remember a series of defeats?

So, the reality of this part of New York City’s history simply does not contribute to its brand. What matters is what people do have in their minds about this city. This is true of all brands for all things. So, the brand of New York City has only a little to do with history, and almost nothing to do with the American Revolution. So given this situation, what does an institution situated in New York City whose main claim to fame is its Revolutionary War history do?

Running counter to the thrust of a city’s brand is daunting work.

It must slog constantly uphill if it wants to even begin to place itself onto the mental map of New York City. Running counter to the thrust of a city’s brand is daunting work. It requires even more persistence and focus than the already difficult to erect foundation of any brand.

Even as I write this, tucked away in the far north corner of Manhattan, you will find a house that has stood there since 1765. It is the oldest surviving residence on the isle of Manhattan, and it was once the headquarters for George Washington as he fought the important Battle of Harlem Heights during the Revolutionary War. This house is now Morris-Jumel Mansion, a museum in the category of historic house museums, and this museum is, by nearly every measure, doing absolutely everything right.

What is the brand of New York? (Historic House Museums)

It’s a place of architectural and historical importance. It works hard to stay relevant by offering an array of thematic and creative programming. And yet, just the other month, when an important historical Pre-Revolutionary paper was found by accident in its files, it was obliged to sell it at auction instead of keeping it for its own collection. The institution needs the money. Upkeep on 250-year-old houses is costly (as is everything else in New York City).

Why is such an important historic house museum not thriving despite doing nearly everything right?

Why is such an important historic house museum not absolutely thriving despite doing nearly everything right? There are a few reasons, but one is this brand issue. Morris-Jumel Mansion is an artifact of history in a city that is not about history, or at least not about Revolutionary War history, and so it is thematically off script. Its story is not easy to tell in the standard story of New York City. It’s not possible for it to become an icon like the Statue of Liberty, or the New York Stock Exchange, or the Empire State Building, or even the Guggenheim Museum. It will not make it onto the “must see” itinerary for most visitors to this city. It will even be difficult for it to become part of what those who live here know and remember about their own home. This is not a problem that the Morris-Jumel Mansion Museum—or any other such institution—can easily fix, but it is useful to understand the cause.

Are you on brand for your city? Could you be made so?

Note: A conversation this article sparked on LinkedIn has already spawned a subsequent post that elaborates on the topic of branding and location. In additional posts we hope to look at other factors that bear upon the fate and success of historic house museums.

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Comments

  1. says

    I’m so fascinated by what makes a city Revolutionary War-oriented. Philly and Boston, I think, have the opposite problem: not feeling contemporary and cutting edge. But on the Revolutionary front, they are set. Washington’s successful and stormy escape from Brooklyn marks the first of many such daring and nearly unsuccessful tricks. It’s almost shocking that Fulton Landing doesn’t address Washington, Walt Whitman or even Roebling, engineer of the Brooklyn Bridge. Then there’s negative historical disappearances, like New York’s difficulty letting go of slavery, or, in the case of Paris, the presence of Nazis. Who thinks of the Luftwaffe when they visit the Luxembourg Gardens? And yet it was their headquarters. I’m really interested in how the Mansion can turn things around.

    When I brought my Parsons students to work at our local elementary school, I had a hard time interesting the teachers in the incredible battle—The Battle of Brooklyn—that took place right at the steps of their school. Instead, they defaulted to the Boston Tea Party.

    And how about Duffield Street in Brooklyn, where eminent domain, approved by NYC, has destroyed any trace of the Underground Railroad (mentioned in the NY Times)? Just some ramblings.

    • James Heaton says

      Madeline:

      Thanks for rambling here. Why do our minds fall so easily into these established, overly simple patterns of thought? It is because they are just that, patterns. Changing the pattern once it has been laid down takes far more effort than just using what is there. So, once a brand, however simplistic or even misleading or at minimum incomplete, is set in place, extricating our minds from it can seem an almost herculean effort. This is the power of brands. They are natural to the woking efficiency of our minds.

  2. says

    Thank you for the post and I understand that you are speaking broadly about how cities can collectively brand themselves—however I feel unusually obligated to express to you my experiences involved with historic house museums in several major US Cities (The Philadelphia Society for the Preservation of Landmarks in Philadelphia and The Historic House Trust of New York in NYC) as well as extensive public lectures, and University level teaching in-museum studies/architecture/curatorial/history and non-profit management. I appreciate your thesis that HISTORY needs to be better branded, however the real issues with historic house museums (and sites) are much more complex, and have more to do with un-responsive organizational & interpretive experiences, lack of community engagement, an over abundance of sites such as these, as well as a drastically decreased funding stream for Preservation-related non-profits. To simply “re-brand” something without deep re-configuration of the existing interpretation and organizational philosophy is what I call a “bait-and-switch”. There has to be an holistic re-thinking of what it means to be an historic house museum.

    I am intimately aware of Morris-Jumel Mansion (as well as all of the historic house sites in NYC) – as you correctly suggest, The MJM House organization (headed by Carol Ward) as well as their Board of Directors (headed by James Kerr) have been quite open to new ideas of programming and interpretation and are trying to do everything they can to embrace a new era of historic site visitor experiences. They are not the only sites that are in the front of innovation, but others can learn a great deal from their efforts.

    Many of these ideas are a part of our pilot program: The Anarchist Guide to Historic House Museums (Through The Historic House Trust of NYC & Funded by the NYCT). We are working on a two year project with the Lewis H. Latimer House in Flushing to re-think what it means to be an house museum.

    The project is called LatimerNOW.org We sure could use some pro-bono help with branding the project!?

    Enjoy reading your thoughts, and many thanks for the opportunity to respond.

    Franklin Vagnone
    Executive Director
    Historic House Trust of New York City

    • James Heaton says

      Franklin, thank you for your thoughtful and instructive comments.

      I do recognize the complexity of this issue. We realized this as soon as we started thinking about this post. That is why it’s only the first of three we plan to share on the subject. We are not purporting to present a comprehensive thesis on the subject, but rather perspective from our particular vantage point as “brand strategy people.”

      The brand aspect of the issue is clearly not all of it, and I do not want to suggest that historic house museums should attempt to rebrand in order to confirm more closely with the brand of their city, but only to call attention to the role that brands play in people’s minds.

      The main takeaway I would like to suggest is that it is important to understand the situation you face when you are a small brand located within a bigger, stronger brand.

      I might also take this opportunity to point out that, to my view, it is not possible to properly rebrand without what you have so aptly described as a “deep re-configuration of the existing interpretation and organizational philosophy,” because I would argue that brands are not born of superficiality, but rather the deep, profound and guiding truths within an organization. To brand otherwise is a recipe for failure.

      I do believe that “an holistic re-thinking of what it means to be an historic house museum,” is in my language, rebranding, and one would hopefully come out the other side of such a process with new and improved brand strategy along with everything else.

      As for pro-bono brand consulting conversation, do call!

      Thanks

      James

  3. says

    Thanks for the thought provoking post. I run a National/Provincial Historic Site in Calgary, Alberta, Canada, “Lougheed House” and we rethinking our connectedness to the communities we serve; positioning/brand is certainly a part of that equation. I come from the Museum world and have only been with the organization a few months and see some real advantages in the Historic House context in terms of potential relevance to our audiences that were not obvious when in a museum.

    Lougheed House is situated on 3 acres of green space/heritage gardens (the original estate) in the heart of an active, young, changing neighbourhood, the “Beltline”. This green space and the House and programs we offer, act as an immediate connector to our ‘hip’ and urban neighbourhood. The advantage of being a site is that we are, in our city context, actually well situated to grow audiences in the young professional, cultural aware demographic.

    When the House was originally built in 1891 it became a cultural and public hub for the growing city of Calgary; Senator and Lady Lougheed, original owners of the House, were well known cultural philanthropists. Today we are reinvigorating the site with that very concept, creating a cultural hub in the community as a connect to the past but by no means one that only physically replicates what once was. I am excited to be learning all that other Sites and Historic Houses are doing to be sustainable as well as to be places and spaces that contribute to generating contemporary culture experiences while fostering an awareness of the historic significance of the site. I look forward to continuing to dialogue!

    • James Heaton says

      Kirstin, thank you for the thoughtful comment.

      Creating a cultural hub in the community that connects to the past but is relevant to the lives of those who live in the area sounds like an ideal approach. How do you communicate your message to the outside? Do you feel a bit like the best kept secret in town, or do you feel your message being heard?

      • says

        Thanks James, I do believe the Lougheed House suffers somewhat from the ‘best secret in town’ issue, having said that, realizing its potential as an active contributor to community life is very much a work in progress. The organization doesn’t really suffer from the issue of not connecting with the city’s brand because the Lougheeds were important founding citizens of the city/province and have come to represent, through their descendents and the political dynasty their grandson, Peter Lougheed, created, a kind of Alberta identity that is recognized nationally. Another commenter, Richard White, asked me what I thought of Calgary’s brand, and I’d say its very much a work in progress also. I think the city is much younger than some of the other examples, such as NYC and Boston, and I’d agree that the debate changes somewhat depending on which audiences you are engaging with. The ‘community hub’ notion is very much about connecting with our immediate community, but we also need to figure in the broader national/provincial narratives about nationhood and province building that the original owners represent.

        Having said that, how to leverage that, acknowledge it, and then elaborate that narrative, and, as other commenters have said, ‘complicate’ it, is really our task. We are just at the beginning of this journey and so I’d posit that our own identity is in the process of evolving. To initiate these evolutions, we’ve been talking to the communities/audiences we serve or don’t serve, listening to their concerns, and developing new programming that expands the conversations of the narrative and appeals to a number of different audiences. From there we are developing new communications strategies to continue to engage and grow this reach. Anyway, that’s for starters!

  4. James Heaton says

    Kristin, I just came across this TV promo for Calgary from the 80s promoting Calgary:

    That turns out to be a variation of this one for Milwaukee:

  5. says

    Interesting article. I wonder, if you can’t be “on” brand, if it’s better to be “way off,” as in 180 degrees off?

    The county (Montgomery County, VA) where my historic house is located is just starting a branding effort. Without a lot of thought on the subject, I feel confident they will settle on technological innovation: the largest town, Blacksburg, was as far back as the mid-nineties recognized as the “most wired town in America,” and it is still a hotbed of technology innovation. In that town is Virginia Tech, the really big dog on the block, and whose campus my historic house is adjacent to. VT’s tag line, BTW, is “Invent the Future.”

    So if the branding does go as I predict, I have a hard time seeing my pre-Revolutionary War historic house (1774) being on brand. Therefore, my thesis – if I can’t join them, maybe it’s best for me to stick out like the proverbial sore thumb. Be so different that the contrast is what catches the eye. Not sure what else I can do but that, really. In my favor are a great house, a great story to tell, and that there are not a lot of other attractions to compete with. But all historic houses have great stories; I think the challenge is to make your’s stick out enough to pique their interest, and maybe playing the contrarian is the way to do that.

    • James Heaton says

      Doug, I think your intuition is probably right. If you can’t join ’em…go your own way, and stand out by contrast. I would never advocate that an institution pretend to be something they are not. Your 1774 plantation will likely never be congruent in people’s minds with some kind of technologically oriented brand experience (good luck to them with that). You will likely be off brand for their tourism promotions if they really go that way, but hopefully you can present an interesting alternative for area visitors for whom that offer fails, or when some sort of reprieve is in order.

      Without knowing any of the details, I think it could be interesting to develop a kind of counter-narrative grounded in “real-world” experience, so, if they really swing hard on the future technology thing, you can try and use that momentum to swing all the way back around to where you live—in a place where technology was all of the kind that you could smell, see and touch with your hands.

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