THH Episode 30: Giving Voice: Erin Carlson Mast

Transcript of Giving Voice: Erin Carlson Mast

Beckley: I’m Lindsey Beckley and this is Giving Voice.  

For this installment of Giving Voice, I had the pleasure of talking with Erin Carlson Mast, the CEO and Executive Director of President Lincoln’s Cottage in Washington, DC. The Lincoln Cottage is leading the way for institutions working to infuse history relevancy into their practice.  If you haven’t listened to the most recent episode of Talking Hoosier History, History Relevance 101, I would suggest going back and listening now, as Erin and I dive right into the thick of things with the history relevance campaign. That episode will give you a good basis for understanding our conversation.  

And now, Giving Voice. 

(Talking Hoosier History Theme) 

Beckley: Alright, I’m here with Erin Carlson Mast, CEO and Executive Director of President Lincoln’s Cottage in Washington, D.C. Welcome, Erin! 

Mast:  Thank you for having me, I’m delighted to be on. 

Beckley: I’m so excited to get to talk a little bit about history relevance today. Our last episode – full episode – was about history relevance, so I know that our listeners are pretty excited to hear a little bit more, especially since we used President Lincoln’s Cottage as an example in our episode.  

Mast: Yea, excellent. I’m happy to be here to share.  

Beckley:  So, I thought we’d start out with just talking a little bit about how your institution has infused history relevance into your programming and into other parts of your institution.  

Mast: That’s a great question. So, I think , part of what makes this interesting for us is that we began doing this work before the field had a name that they put to it, that they were using more broadly. So, this goes all the way back to the capitol project when we were trying to figure out what the Cottage could be and what the Cottage should be, and we had a fair amount of flexibility in determining that, even though you could say that there is kind of well worn path of what historic house museums are, in their interpretive approach, you know, their period of significance. We were doing this planning in the ’00s when there were – the conversations had come around, yet again, as to whether the traditional historic house museum was failing. So there was a big appetite to do something differently. And what we seized on – because the Cottage itself had been in continual use, the property its on, which is now called the Retired Forces Retirement Home Campus, is still serving the same fundamental purpose it served in President Lincoln’s time, it’s still a home to retired veterans. What really made this place important was what Lincoln did while he was here; the conversations he was having; the people who were influencing him; the ideas that he created and turned into policy and action.  

So, that – when we landed on that – we started to say, “Well, if those are the stories we’re gonna tell, what is the methodology?” And, as I mentioned, the Cottage had been in continual use. It was the first woman’s dormitory at one point. Presidents Hayes and Arthur had also lived there – So, it wasn’t like the owners had locked the doors and turned the key over. 

Beckley: Boarded it up, yeah. 

Mast: Yea, right. It’s not like all the furniture from the Lincoln Era was in there. There were very poor records on what had been there. Like, maybe we knew there was a marbletop table but that could mean almost anything. So rather than seeing that as a handicap, we thought that that was a real opportunity to keep the focus on ideas, which, by definition, have relevance to today. It’s about freedom, democracy. We see ourselves not only as a site of war history and presidential history and political history, but of labor history. So we realized we could use these stories that were kind of based in these fundamental ideas about human rights and civil rights and democracy and justice, and carry that forward to the present.  

And we decided that the most effective way to do that was through a conversational guided tour so that we could really gauge where visitors were coming from, the ideas that they were bringing with them to the site and have a conversation so that we could really understand one another. And so that was the genesis of it, really. Sort of figuring out what to do with this place in what is already sort of a crowded sea of other historic sites and museums here in D.C.  

Beckley:  Yeah, I definitely think you’ve accomplished standing out from the crowd, in that sense, from other house museums or other historic sites there in D.C.  

I was wondering – so, obviously, you’re the CEO and executive director – I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about how to get leadership invested in history relevance and how that can kind of change how your institution views it.  

Mast: Yeah. That hasn’t been a linear process for us. So, when we first opened, we were part of a larger national organization – the National Trust for Historic Preservation – and we had a lot of autonomy in sort of creating what the experience would be. And after we opened, there was a time period where the National Trust was really looking towards the period of significance being now, and so what we were already doing fit within it.  

Beckley: Yeah, absolutely. 

Mast: So, that was a situation where the leadership then, when I was the executive director – it was sort of going back and forth, it wasn’t one directional, it wasn’t like the hierarchy said “you need to do this” and then we implemented it. We were trying something out and they recognized the value of it, not only at our site but at some of our sister sites like the Lower East Side Tenement Museum, Acoma Pueblo, you know, a lot of our sister sites that were starting to do this in different ways.

So then fast forward to when we started being our own 501c3 – and that became official in 2016 – the Board of Directors we have now really kind of started out as our advisory council. And as much as we had been building credibility with our audience, that we were committed to telling these more complex stories, that it was just a function of how we do our work – the board was seeing the value in that. It was influencing who we were attracting to the board, and for that reason, it’s sort of grown together. It’s not that I had to convince the board, they became convinced of it on their own, and it has influenced their very makeup, so that it’s something they fully support. 

On a staffing level, we really embody it – I talk about it as living our vision and mission. That it’s not just – you could be doing the best work interpretively, but if you’re not living those same messages internally as an organization, you’re going to loose your credibility pretty quickly.  

So, I’ll give a concrete example. For the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, and that was before we separated from the National Trust, we thought, you know, we could do another historical exhibit on the Emancipation Proclamation. Or we could talk about slavery in the United States 150 years later. What we did was an exhibit called “Can You Walk Away?” on human trafficking in the U.S. in the present day. And we were fully confident that that fully fit within our mission and that it was the right thing to do – we did have a few board members who said, “are you sure you don’t want to do just a nice exhibit on Civil War Generals?” or something like that, and I’m not mocking that, but I think for them – well, for some of them, they weren’t really seeing what the connection was, because they weren’t there everyday having the conversations with visitors that we were.   

Beckley: Yeah, and visitors often make those connections themselves, so if you’re just using feedback from visitors and then incorporating that into your programming, that’s obviously going to be a winning strategy.  

Mast: One-hundred percent. And that’s actually a point that I think is worth highlighting, that we really do have an inquiry-based conversational tour. There are stories that it’s based on, but there is – it is conversational. So it’s what we are hearing from visitors. So when we have something that’s like – okay, we have to be clear with people that the Emancipation Proclamation didn’t end slavery. That’s pretty elementary, we need to make that clear. And so, we need to point out that it’s the 13th Amendment that actually legally ended slavery, constitutionally ended slavery, right?  

Well, just because something is illegal doesn’t mean it stops, right? That’s logical, and yet it became very clear to us that visitors were walking away with this false message of, “oh, that solved the problems.” And it didn’t. There are so many problems that sprang up, you know, in the void of that, or in the wake of that, rather. So, those ideas for special exhibits and programs come from the conversations we’re having with visitors, understanding where we could or need to go deeper on a subject, because they’re having a hard time making a connection between what happened historically and what’s happening in their lives today. So that’s why we did that exhibit. And all of the ones we’ve done since.  

Beckley: Absolutely. And it seems to me that having more of a conversational, feedback kind of tour would give visitors a richer experience as well. Because if I go to a museum once and I know that the next time I go to that museum I could get a totally different experience based on what questions I ask, what I’m bringing to the table, that’s definitely going to drive me to go there – that site – more often than, say, somewhere that’s going to give a docented, standard tour every time I go there.  

Mast: Right, like a script. So that you know it’s the same content. Yeah, and we’ve actually had that feedback from our visitors too. You know, we’ve talked to folks who have come eight different times for a tour. We opened in 2008 so they’re averaging taking the tour itself, not just coming to our other programs, at least, a little less than once a year, and they said it was different every time. And it’s not that they were not walking away with the same main points or stories, but the way it was presented was different, the transitions were different, the personal, you know, additions by each person giving the tour was a little bit different. And of course, if you’re really, truly inviting thoughtful questions from the visitors, by definition the experience is going to be different because it is partly led by the visitor.  

Beckley: I was hoping we could shift gears a little bit and talk about a few questions that were actually posed during our History Relevance Workshop that we held last fall. And the first one from that workshop that kind of got me thinking and that I’d like to get your thoughts on is: are historical institutions and museum neutral? And should they be? 

Mast: Yeah, that’s a great question and I think one of the first things to think about is what is meant by “neutral,” because sometimes that comes up in, you know, if we’re talking about present day issues, does that risk harming neutrality, if an organization thinks they are and should be neutral. Another way to think about it is, is the information being presented, is it factual?  

Of course, there is a fair bit of interpretation that goes it our work. You know, we do the research. We interpret the results. Even if an organization is trying to present things as close to the original source as possible, they’re still choosing which primary sources they’re sharing and which they aren’t.  

But I think this also gets to a question about the origin story of our organizations. You might want to think your organization is neutral but looking at the history of the organization itself, you might find that its founding was anything but neutral. It might have been created with a very specific point of view that it was trying to espouse. It might have been created to suppress another point of view, or created in a way that in effect did that. [Here’s an example of a museum coming to terms with it’s origin story and attempting to break with that origin]  

So, I think that President Lincoln’s Cottage itself came about recently enough that we know our origin story and the people that were a part of that very well and we also have a very strong point of view and we own that point of view.  

So, I mentioned the “Can You Walk Away?” exhibit. Another thing that was coming up a lot on our tours that had always been a part of our interpretation but was an example of another topic that we thought we could go deeper on was immigration. It coincided with a scholar who – there’s something like 16,000 books written on Lincoln but no one had touched Lincoln and immigration. And there’s a really rich history there. I mean, he signed an act to encourage immigration on July 4, 1864 and yet no one had written about his immigration views and policy. 

Beckley: Wow! 

Mast: Yeah, and so we knew that this new work of scholarship was coming out and of course getting the latest news and scholarship out is a big part of our work, and making that accessible to the general public. So, everything was just coming together to say that we should be doing this kind of exhibit. 

Well, that exhibit was set to open right during the primary season for the last presidential campaign, when immigration became a huge issue. So as a team we were pretty unified that we shouldn’t be backing off on this exhibit that not only talked about the issue historically, but also shared stories and data on immigration today, including the stories and pictures of families who had been here for their naturalization ceremonies at the Cottage. So it was pictures of them here at the Cottage. And we thought, you know, do we need to review this for our messaging? We did that just because sometimes a turn of phrase can become a partisan slogan. The title of the exhibit was “American by Belief.” And it wasn’t suggesting that we should remove birthright citizenship, but that was something that at that time was being discussed more. So, I actually spoke with the executive committee of my board and I said, “You know, we aren’t a partisan organization, but if partisan actors take an issue that we already have a strong interpretation on an make it partisan or political, I don’t think that we should back off on that.” And they agreed.

So, it was sort of a line in the sand, that, you know, we believe that the narratives that we have and the stories that we’re sharing are absolutely espousing a certain viewpoint. Maybe it’s Lincoln’s viewpoint, but more often it’s multiple points of view that are a unifying voice around an issue. But, you know, the point being, there is no neutrality, because if you’re going to try to be safe and neutral, everything around you is shifting anyway and it strikes me as a much more courageous, you know, just that – a more courageous point of view to say, “This is our point of view. This is why we believe this is important to tell or exhibit,” or what have you, and to move forward with that than to hold onto this idea of being neutral only to have everything around you shifting.  

Beckley: I like your point that something can become “politicized,” even if it – you know, we could do the same exhibit today and then the same exhibit ten years from now and it’s going to be interpreted in a whole different way depending on the world we’re living in and the politics that are going around at the time. That’s no reason to step back from it. Maybe review, make sure that everything is still accurate and that the interpretations are still good, but don’t step back, just maybe take a little closer look, and then keep going forward in doing good work.  

Mast: Yeah, and I would say there’s both, “don’t step back” but also, “don’t fear stepping forward.” You mention that towards the end of that comment, too, and I would underscore that. There shouldn’t be a fear of “oh, we’re going to loose supporters” or “we’re going to loose visitors” as long as it’s reflective of the organization, and you’ve been messaging who you are and what you do as an entity, it shouldn’t be a surprise to people, and so that fear shouldn’t be there. You know, through this work we have-and this wasn’t intentional-we have gained supporters and board members who, maybe they have an appreciation for Lincoln or the Civil War, but what really gets them going about the Cottage is the impact we’re having today.  

Beckley: One last question. Since we’re talking about history relevance and how we’re using it in our institutions, I was wondering if you think that we can be relevant to everyone. If one institution can or should try to be relevant to every single visitor.  

Mast: Well, I think it depends on what we mean by being relevant. The way we try to be, at least – and I don’t think we set out with a goal of being relevant – but when you asked that question I thought about what we do for every visitor and what our expectations are for how we treat and serve every visitor, and how they in turn treat us. We are committed to being good listeners and to hearing people and facilitating conductive conversations, so, you know, if we were trying to, sort of in a patriarchal way, try to say what’s best for everyone, I think that we would fail, but by listening to what our visitors are bringing with them every day to the site, we’re facilitating those connections, and it’s a one-on-one, or not one-on-one necessarily but one-on-however many people are on the tour, connection and conversation to be made.  

So, there are some people who maybe don’t like the experience because it’s not their cup of tea, because not every visitor is going to want the same thing. But I don’t think we’ve ever had a visitor walk away saying, “it’s not relevant.”  

Beckley: Well, what we started out our History Relevance episode with is the question: “What do you expect from your history institutions or from your museums?” and I think that by shifting what we expect from those museums and us as public historians shifting our perceptions of historical institutions, like you have- rather than words on a wall, or exhibits in a hall-it’s a conversation. I really like that point.  

Mast: Well, and also taking those – it really is, I have to say that we get so many great ideas – there are wonderful ideas that come from the team itself. But a lot of it comes from listening to the visitors and realizing what’s happening in the communities that we serve, and that tells us what people don’t know, and what they’re confused about, and what they’re worried about, and what they want more information on. And that’s how we’re able to respond in a way that’s, I think, much more productive than sort of reacting and doing things in a sporadic way that doesn’t make sense externally. You know, I mean, our mission statement – it’s right there. We say the mission is to reveal the true Lincoln and continue the fight for freedom.

So, in just a few words, we’re signaling that we are committed to telling the truth about the past, and that we recognize there’s a lot more work to be done today, which is not a neutral statement, and that we are committed to being part of that. So, anyone who comes here and is surprised that it’s not a traditional experience that sort of glorifies one person and is only focused on one person, really didn’t do even the bare minimum homework of looking at the main page of our website, because we’re very transparent about what we are and what we promise to do and be.  

Beckley: Absolutely. And I was on your website earlier today and it really comes through in all the work you do and I just want to thank you for all of the work you do. I know that a lot of us here at the Historical Bureau kind of look up to you guys and take note of what your doing and model ourselves after you, so thank you for that. 

Mast: I appreciate that. That’s a huge honor that – I’m really humbled by that.  

Beckley: So I wanted to give you a few minutes here at the end of the episode to plug any websites or any programs that you guys have, remembering that most of our listenership is going to be in Indiana, so we can’t all necessarily come out to Lincoln’s Cottage, no matter how much we want to, so I’ll give you a few minutes to do that now.  

Mast: Great! Thanks for that. So, of course, folks can check out our website, LincolnCottage.org and connect with us on social media, but especially because this is mostly listeners in Indiana and they’re listening to your great podcast, I would plug our own podcast, which is called Q and Abe, which is kind of a cutesy name, but it is available on all major streaming services and through our website. And the whole premise of this is around those great questions we get on the tour. So, when we were thinking, “you know, how do we continue that conversation?” we landed on the idea of starting our own podcast.

It’s my colleagues Callie Hawkins and Joan Cummins, who lead it. And to give you an example of the kind of issues we delve into, the very first episode of the very first season, we took a question that we got from a second grader on a tour who asked, “How could Lincoln sleep if slavery was happening?” So we explored that question with sleep experts. There’s a Civil War dream expert, and others to really sort of go down the rabbit hole of these great questions and give the listeners all around the country and all around the world a really intimate  learning and conversational experience. We already have listeners in eighteen countries, and we’re getting started on season 3 now.  

Beckley: That’s amazing. And I just want to note that the fact that there’s a Civil War Dream Expert proves that there is an expert on everything. 

Mast: One hundred percent, yes. We were so excited to find someone whose expertise was actually that because it was perfect for that episode. So, thank you so much for allowing me to share that information.  

Beckley: Of course, and thank you for coming on and taking a little bit of time during this kind of crazy, crazy time in our lives to talk with us a little bit about history relevance.  

Mast: It really is. Thank you so much, Lindsey.  

Beckley: Alright, so everyone, make sure you go and download Q and Abe and listen to the existing two seasons and watch out for those coming episodes and thank you guys for listening. 

Mast: Thank you! 

(THH Theme) 

Beckley: Once again, I want to thank Erin for taking the time to talk with me for this episode. Check out the Lincoln Cottage website at lincolncottage.org to learn more about the awesome work they’re doing. Specifically, I recommend taking some time to read their blog, which is an absolute master class in History Relevance.  

Like everyone out there, our work situation is a little bit up in the air as we are transition to remote working. But we’ll be back soon with the second and last installment of our Tenskwatawa series! In the meantime, follow the Indiana Historical Bureau on Facebook and twitter for daily doses of Indiana History tidbits. Subscribe, rate and review Talking Hoosier History wherever you get your podcasts.  

Thanks for listening!