Old Sturbridge Village is a living history museum that has been in operation since 1946. The museum uses costumed interpretation and over 40 historic buildings to tell the story of New England in the 1830s. Throughout its history, the museum has received NEH funding to assist with preservation and exhibition design; currently, an NEH grant is helping the museum overhaul its interpretation plan to improve visitor experience.
The grant project, entitled Foundations for Interpretation, is allowing museum staff to address gaps in the site’s existing interpretation and incorporate recent scholarship on the period. The new interpretive plan centers on four themes—food and agriculture, identity, the economy, and civics—and is being developed in consultation with scholars, including ones from outside the region, as well as other partners. Staff are also thinking holistically about the educational experience with regards to the buildings themselves: for example, furnishing historic buildings with baskets that can be used to discuss Native influence on rural New Englanders. Staff have also moved from discussing generic characters and scenarios that may or may not have existed to centering their interpretations on real life people whose lives were documented.
Grant funding has proven indispensable to the project, primarily as it has given staff “the breathing room to pilot and try things out,” said Rhys Simmons, the project’s director. This freedom has allowed staff to develop new signage for the site, as well as a new orientation video for first-time visitors. “Ultimately, projects like this help us keep us educated and engaged with how the past affects us today,” said Simmons.