January 30, 2017
Would George Washington enjoy surfing the web? How about the idea of people touring his home? Or would he prefer a virtual tour? This week, Nick sits down with Rob Shenk, the Senior Vice President for Visitor Engagement at Mount Vernon. They discuss using new technologies to enhance the visitor experience and bring the story of George Washington to all. You’ll also learn about how Mount Vernon is the root of all historic preservation in the country. This is PreserveCast.
[Nicholas Redding] George Washington. There are few names in American history that can evoke the same reverence and respect. And his former home at Mount Vernon is one of the most visited historic houses in the entire nation. Somehow, apps for your smartphone might not feel like they could easily fit into such a revered place. But we had Rob Shenk from George Washington’s Mount Vernon to talk about the digital experience of visiting an old house. If you’re curious how George himself might feel today about getting a digital tour of his old home, then stick around and check out this weeks PreserveCast.
From Preservation Maryland Studios in the historic podcast district of Baltimore, this is PreserveCast!
[NR] Rob Shenk is the senior vice president for visitor engagement at George Washington’s Mount Vernon where he oversees marketing, guest experience, and new media departments. In fact, Rob is Mount Vernon’s first vice president of new media. In 2014, he oversaw the launch of a new MountVernon.org website, and was awarded a gold W3 for top websites. Rob was also instrumental in the creation of Mount Vernon’s two feature presentations, Now or Never: The Yorktown Campaign of 1781, and The Winter Patriots: The Battles of Trenton and Princeton. Now or Never was awarded a silver Telly Award in 2015. Additionally, Rob has played a central role in the creation of the Mount Vernon virtual tour, Washington’s World interactive map, and Mount Vernon’s two mobile apps including Agent 711: Revolutionary Spy Adventure. Rob, thanks for joining us today.
[Rob Shenk] Thank you, Nick. It’s a joy.
[NR] It seems like you have been exceptionally busy, and I should say for the listener of this podcast, Rob and I know each other from our days back at the Civil War Trust and so the last time I really checked in with you in a in-depth way is when you were doing digital work, telling the story of the Civil War and so you jump back about 100 years or so to the Revolutionary Era and to George Washington. It seems like you’ve been pretty busy since then. You were hired specifically to take on these digital properties at Mount Vernon, is that what you were brought there for?
[RS] Yes, so a few years ago, I was recruited and brought over to Mount Vernon and helped overhaul our digital assets and properties. I think while Mount Vernon had, I think by most measurements, a really excellent guest experience in a physical way, digitally we were pretty underwhelming. I think in this modern era, that was a real opportunity and concern for the estate.
[NR] And so your charge is to not only tell the story of Washington to the people who visit there, but you’re trying to engage an even broader swath of Americans in the story of Washington. And I should say, I think I just read somewhere that you guys at Mount Vernon eclipsed a million physical visitors. Is that right?
[RS] That’s right. We have, actually, over the past, I’d say six, seven years, had a little more than a million guests come to the estate each year. So we’re very blessed by that. That puts us pretty high up there in terms of historical sites. And we’re always so grateful for all those guests who come.
[NR] And so a million physically come; how many are interacting with your digital resources?
[RS] Ah, see, now that’s a great question. So that number now has grown to be more than six million in a year.
[RS] And when I first came to Mount Vernon, there was almost near parity between digital and physical visitors, which to me was a real warning sign. I think a healthier ratio is closer to what we’re at now. And I’ve been trying to study other historical, cultural sites to get a sense of that ratio.
[NR] And so would you say now that the Mount Vernon ratio, after some of that study, is pretty high up there? Or is that about on par with some of the big players out there?
[RS] I would say we’re on par and healthy now so that’s good. I think we’re not satisfied. We’re always trying to grow and reach ever more people, and I think we would love to see continued growth. I think the exciting thing is that we’re still seeing double-digit percentage growth year over year and we’re expecting more of the same for next year.
[NR] So I mean, this podcast is focused on the intersection of technology and preservation. And, obviously, what you’re doing at Mount Vernon is sort of at the forefront, really kind of cutting edge as far as bridging that divide and using technology, in this case, to interpret and tell the story of Washington. And, obviously, you have sort of your basic digital resources like the website, and then also, it seems like you have a growing collection of apps. What has been the strategy there? Is it to focus on app development or is it sort of all across everything? I mean, where do you put a lot of your time and effort?
[RS] Well, Nick, I think we took one giant step back and we pretty much said to ourselves, “In whatever platform, whatever popular platform, someone might type in the word George Washington or some related question. We wanted to be the answer.” And I know that might sound ambitious, but I think we try to think that, rather than trying to force people to adopt our channels, we would go to where they were and try to create properties and content that would match up with their natural interests and wants. And so I think that, while the website is still a very prominent channel, we all know how social has grown and social is a huge endeavor and focus of ours. Mobile products, mobile content, apps, because we know that’s also a very important and growing shell. But video and video and all the different, popular, and growing channels there has been key for us. And we continue to look for other places where we think people might be curious about George Washington. We might be able to kind of provide ever more authoritative and interesting answers.
[NR] Where are those places? Is there anything that would surprise a listener, where you guys are sort of thinking about next? Because, I mean, you’re obviously on social. You’re in a lot of the places where we would expect you. Where are the unexpected places?
[RS] Well, Nick, I think there’s a number of interesting places on what I’ll call the frontier of technology, at least at it relates to, say, historical or cultural sites. I think, first and foremost – and again, this shouldn’t be a surprise to any of your listeners, but virtual reality is of great interest to us. I think we were following it closely. We continue to test and evaluate other sort of storytelling virtual reality offerings. We built this very popular virtual tour on our website, which is, by many measurements, still our most popular content offering.
And we’ve always thought the next step for it would be more into the VR space so that rather than kind of looking into a 360-degree world, you might be within it, which would be a natural. So I think for us we didn’t feel we needed to be at the bleeding edge there and we were kind of let a lot of the technology sort themselves out and the options sort themselves out but that does seem to be a very interesting vector for us. I would say other things continue to be of interest. We’re interested in kind of a lot of the new audio-based AI sorts of things, the Siris, like the Amazon Alexas, you know, the Google offerings which allow voice-based inquiry and response and so we’re watching that space as well. And I think for all of us we’re just looking to find those places where there’s a lot of interest and demand.
Augmentation VS. Replacement
[NR] Let me ask you this, I mean, as a site that is place-based. I mean, obviously, you’re telling a story in a digital way to an even bigger audience but at the end of the day, the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association was established to save that place. Is there ever a concern or a worry that you’ll get so good at doing it on the digital side that there really won’t be a reason to come to Mount Vernon? I mean, is there an effort to make sure that you’re converting those digital visitors to actual in-person visitors?
[RS] That’s a great question and it actually does hearken back to – I think, when I first pitched the Ladies’ on building a virtual tour, some wondered would we deflect visitation. I think I tried to tell them that still for us and really Mount Vernon, it’s the power of place which I think continues to attract. So I want to stand where Washington stood. I want to be in the building where Washington lived. I want to see the tomb where he resides today. And no virtual offering, I think, can replace that.
I used to joke, in fact, sometimes we use the label – the subtext, if you will, for the virtual tour as The Second Best Way to Visit Mount Vernon. Now, honestly, it could be the first or only way for, say, a moderate income school district in Idaho or a school in Los Angeles to visit Mount Vernon today.
And so the virtual offering does allow people to have a more immersive Mount Vernon experience and I think that’s been interesting for us and expanded our reach. I think for us, we also saw the virtual tour functioning also as a aid to the physical visitor so…
Have you been to Mount Vernon? Particularly during our high season where we’re very busy sometimes, you can’t linger inside the mansion. You can’t ask 20 questions about that painting or that object or that chair. And what we found within the virtual environment was our ability to overlay information particularly from our curators, our architects, our other subject matter experts in a way that really kind of made it a very rich offering, that it would allow a person to kind of – before a visit or after a visit – to do a more in-depth inspection or exploration of those spaces in places.
[NR] So, it really, truly is an augmentation. You’re not trying to replace the real thing. There is no replacement for visiting the place, but it’s an opportunity to augment an already amazing experience in an amazing place.
[RS] Very much so. I think that if you’ve ever stood on the piazza at Mount Vernon and looked across the Potomac, I don’t care how great your virtual experience is, it’s very hard to replicate in terms of the power and majesty of that view.
Best Practices for Smaller Museums
[NR] So for organization, leaders of organizations, or listeners who are members of places with far fewer resources than a Mount Vernon because, let’s face it, Mount Vernon stands at the very top of the historic house museum pyramid in America, and for good reason, but it is sort of singular and a very different experience, I would imagine, working at a Mount Vernon than the average historical house museum across America. But, for the folks involved there, are there takeaways or lessons learned from what you’re doing at Mount Vernon that could be used at a much smaller place with much fewer resources?
[RS] Absolutely, absolutely. I’m always amazed by the array of powerful tools, low-cost powerful tools, that are at our beck and call. Nick, you may recall our days at the Civil War Trust where there weren’t really that many of us doing things, but if you’re nimble, and capable, and have enough subject matter expertise and a little technical wherewithal, you can do remarkable things these days. I might just point to kind of the Facebook Live effect that we’re seeing what many do. If you have a phone and you can hold it steady in front of a smart person, in an interesting place, you can create magic, and have a distribution pipe that people 20 years ago would have paid significant money for. I think that video cameras today are cable recording video at $4,000. I think that you have platforms like YouTube, or Vimeo, or Facebook, or Twitter, which allow you to get truly global reach. And so I don’t think really that size is a limiter, or even necessarily funds is a limiter towards doing great things digitally. I think what really is the biggest barrier I see in organizations is a lack of will to try, and I think that you really just need people who are willing to give things a shot, to really kind of create stories, to create wonderful offerings and content that will really connect with their audience.
[NR] Yeah, and I know that, speaking from Preservation Maryland’s perspective, obviously you’re talking to someone running an organization that is trying to do a podcast, so we’re putting ourselves out there to see what the reward is for this as a way to kind of broaden our reach and broaden our story a bit. But, we too have found– I would say our experience has been similar in the sense that just putting out content that we already had and repurposing it and repackaging it in sort of a slick, digital way has brought about great rewards. We’ve grown visitation to our own digital resources by something like 400% year over year just by kind of putting out things we’ve already had or already used and people find that really fascinating. We’re bringing a lot of new people to the fold so I think you’re right. It’s a willingness to try.
[RS] I mean, your sites great and I think that when you think about today’s modern world many times the first contact that someone will have with an organization is through a website or through some sort of digital offering so I think not investing there at least some modest amount should be concerning to any organization. It’s really what sets the tone and really sets that relationship.
[NR] Yeah, and I know I’ve read stats that say the younger someone – whichever demographic they fall in – a millennial or younger, they make instantaneous judgment calls about organizations based on what they see about them, either through social media or their website, and if they find a website that is, let’s just say, lacking they’re instantly making judgment calls about that organization. It’s not something that organizations can kind of just overlook. It really is an important aspect of telling your story.
[RS] So true.
Apps at Historic Sites
[NR] Let me ask you about apps. You guys have done a variety of different apps. I know when you were at Civil War Trust, you did a lot of app work and app development. Is the return on investment the same for an app that, perhaps, it is for the return that you can see from social media or web development? Is it the same? Is it worth it for a smaller organization to take a look at doing? What are your thoughts on apps in general?
[RS] Yeah, no. I guess my thoughts have really evolved over the years. You’re right. Back in the Civil War Trust, we built the Battle Apps, which I think we started them back in 2010. And they were really one of the only ways that we could envision delivering location-based content way out in battlefields that had little interpretive opportunities. And really it was by far in a way the best technology to do so. I think today, though, the answer I would give is much more nuanced. I don’t think it’s necessary to have an app. I don’t think it’s necessary for every organization to develop downloadables. I think that might be on a case-by-case basis. I think there was a point in time in which you didn’t seem to exist, or you weren’t really on the map if you didn’t create an app. And there was kind of this, more of this comparative mandate. I think today, with the advances in mobile, and really mobile content and the way that people access mobile content, it’s less important.
What’s more important today is that your content, which you may be looking at and developing on your desktop, perform well in a phone. And I think too many of us focus too much on the really big desktop displays and how does our content look there, versus how we know many people today, particularly younger people, access content which is with their thumb placed on an iPhone or Android device scrolling that way. And so that’s an area that we’ve made strides in. Honestly, here even at Mount Vernon, we’ve got a ways to go to to really kind of maximize the mobile experience, which is so vital. And think of your visitors, particularly in a preservation mode, who may be from out of town. They’re away from their desktop, and really their connectivity at your place, at your location is via devices.
Yes, Photography Allowed
[NR] Right, and I’m curious – at Mt. Vernon, what do you see as far as how people are reaching you? Is it majority mobile, I mean? Or does it depend on the type of platform or way in which they’re interacting with you? But I mean, how does it break down there, as an example?
[RS] It really has grown a tremendous amount. We will see – and it does also change a little bit seasonally. But we will sometimes see months in which almost half of our digital content is accessed via devices. And that’s really caught our attention, and so I think all of us need to really pay much more attention towards mobile-friendly presentation as a result. We see many people on the Estate using phones. They’re taking thousands upon thousands of photos and sharing them. They’re doing tweets. They’re doing Instagram posts. They’re doing all sorts of things on the estate. One of the decisions we made early on – and I always credit the Mt. Vernon Ladies’ for approving this project – was installing Estate-wide free wi-fi service. Where we are isn’t always blessed with really super strong cell coverage, so it had the added benefit of just giving general connectivity across our historic landscape. But it also allowed us to kind of enable mobile services and mobile content and enable our guests and visitors to make real-time posts showing them having a great time here at Mount Vernon, which has a natural viral marketing benefit.
[NR] Right, and a lot of preservation groups and a lot of historic sites have been very hesitant, not even just on wi-fi – but hesitant to sort of open up their offerings to that kind of experience. You’re not allowed to take pictures, you can’t take pictures. That seems like it’s not the case there. In fact, it sounds like it’s the exact opposite.
[RS] I will be honest, there are a few restricted areas from a photography point of view. That’s not necessarily our restriction. But sometimes we are displaying artwork or furniture which is on loan, and those that are lending us may have restrictions which carry over. I think outside of, say, some of those very finite, restricted areas we’re a very photogenic site. We have this beautiful historic mansion perched above the Potomac River. There’s these beautiful, majestic landscapes. It’s a place that when you’re out there and you’re watching our guests, they’ve all got their phones and cameras out, and they’re all taking pictures. And they’re all interested in sharing it. And it’s so great to see, because that’s very much how the modern person operates today. I only truly visit a place when I can take a photograph of it and share it with my friends.
[NR] Right, it didn’t really happen unless you took a picture.
[RS] Exactly. Right, so I think that we want to enable that, and I think we want to celebrate that. We really reached out, too, to a lot of the better photographers in our area these are maybe non-professional, but very advanced amateurs, if you will. And we’ve really embraced them and encouraged them to come out to Mount Vernon to take a lot of photographs that they can share with their friends, but also we can share via our channels. And that’s been a very important development in the relationship for us. So, again, maybe another thing to think about for smaller sites is invite other great photographers from your area to come take great photos of your site.
[NR] Yeah, that’s a no cost idea. It just takes some time to introduce yourself and get them out there.
[RS] Yeah, and usually a photographer, a really advanced amateur, they don’t need to be paid. What they really want are two things: access, maybe preferential access or positioning, early morning, golden hour, or high up in a tree, or in some places; and they want promotion and recognition. So, we can provide both of those quite easily.
What Would Washington Think?
[NR] Right. So, let me ask you this. It’s sort of a – I guess, maybe an oddball or a little bit of a funny question. But you do your work sort of under, at least – he’s no longer there, but in a sense, the gaze of Washington and a pretty fantastic and incredible figure in American history. And, obviously, you’re trying to do him justice in any way you can through your work. What do you think, I mean, we don’t know, but what do you think Washington would think about this kind of experience that visitors are having or that his story’s being told in this way? I mean, do you ever have any sense of that or think about, “Hm, I wonder what Washington would think about all these technological advances? And the fact that there’s someone who works day in and day out just on technology to tell his story.”
[RS] I think about that a great deal, Nick. Obviously this is some dangerous extrapolation so put that caveat out there. But I think Washington would have fully-embraced and been fully-fascinated with all the technology of this day. You only have to look back to Washington himself and see his interest in technology. He’s a person who seeks the technology of the 18th century. I’d fully expect Washington of this day would be very proficient at operating his iPhone or Android device and using today’s services and employing them to kind of facilitate his larger goals. I can only imagine what his farm managers must have suffered if he could IM’ed them if you will or sent them a text message or what not. That could have been a tough relationship.
[NR] Yeah, absolutely. It seems to me that Washington was also – I mean he was one of America’s first true celebrities. He probably would have been able to take advantage of that as well. He could have rivaled the Kardashians, I suppose, on Instagram in his day.
[RS] Well that’s a great insight because I think from an information point of view, Washington was an avid reader of newspapers and an avid reader of pamphlets. You got to think of pamphlets in the 18th century way as really the blogs of their day. He was very adept and if you’re a student of the Revolutionary War, you’ll see him very attune to public opinion and how to shape public opinion using newspapers, pamphlets, other sorts of communication technology of his day. So websites, blogs, podcasts, Instagram feeds. I’m sure he would have been smart about how to use those. Again, that’s my own personal speculation.
Washington’s Relevance Today
[NR] Yeah, we’ll never really know. At the risk of – I don’t want to get partisan whatsoever as a non-partisan organization – but in a time of heightened political tension, it seems like the Washington story has perhaps more value than it’s ever had before. Is there an attempt made at least on the communication side? I know that sort of goes beyond the work that you do just on being able to tell the story and the platforms for it but is there attempts made now, or are you thinking about how to use Washington’s story to answer some of those questions or concerns about where this country moves and how we ease those political tensions? Because certainly Washington oversaw a country that had just as many, if not more tensions in his own day.
[RS] We think about it all the time and we try to act upon it carefully. I think that we’re in an era in which many people are looking back to the Founding Fathers as role models or as comparative sources to today’s politics, for better and for worse. And so we do feel that Washington and the Founding Era is a highly relevant subject and ever more relevant today. We’ve been trying to carefully place content and stories from Washington and Washington’s day which we think might amuse and be interesting to the modern viewer in that relationship. We have sensed and we can see it via variety of tools and metrics in reports, really strong growth in a lot of our content that would match up towards today’s issues.
And I think for us and being kind of the home of George Washington, we are held to this high standard that I think Washington would expect of us. We do seek to sustain Washington’s non-partisanship. Again, you can’t find another president who was more opposed to partisanship and party than George Washington. And I think that we always seek to ride above it and so that we can reflect those important tenets of his life and political thought.
[NR] Yeah, and I think you’ve made an important point for a lot of organizations who deal with these weighty historical topics, which is, rise above it. Don’t let yourself fall victim to partisanship, but at the same time, remain relevant. And I think when you mention that some of the stories that you have that are particularly connected to headlines in the news today are kind of moving up to the ranks as far as who is visiting those stories. And I think, to me, that’s a big takeaway is it’s important to remain relevant and to find how your story is relevant. And I think a lot of historic sites have difficulty with that or they’re hesitant to do that. But I think it is important to remind folks that there are lessons to be learned from the past, right? I mean, that’s why we’re here.
[RS] That’s why a lot of people come to Mount Vernon. It’s in many ways a pilgrimage site to visit and pay your respects to George Washington and the many things that he stood for, which we still see today as a gold standard. And so we’re grateful for that. And I think we always need to find new ways to tell those old great stories and share that wisdom from his era. And I think that’s one of our core missions here. I’d also say, Nick, that we had a success around even the Election Day, in which we promoted a short video on Facebook, which set all sorts of records for us. It was just a short video showing Washington learning that he had been elected president. It was a silent video with just an audio accompaniment, and it just spoke to a population that was feeling very much on edge about who would be president that day. And it exploded, and we were able to reach a gigantic audience just with that short video.
[NR] Wow! And that’s a perfect example and kind of encapsulates all of that. No partisanship there, you weren’t making any comments on anything like that, but you are capturing that moment and remaining relevant. And I think that that is the big story for historic house museums and preservation groups of all stripes, is how to remain relevant. And I think that technology is a big component of that. So you guys are obviously doing amazing work. That’s why we wanted to have you on here. As we draw to the conclusion here, we normally ask everyone – and so far on the podcast, I think we’ve largely had just Marylanders on here. So you are our first Virginian, first folks across the Potomac. Normally we ask what’s their favorite building in Maryland. But, seeing as you’re a Virginian, we will allow you to pick a Virginian structure. I have a funny feeling I know what it’s going to be, but I will turn it over to you to hear what is Rob Shenk’s favorite Virginian piece of architecture.
[RS] Oh wow. Boy, there’s so many, but I will go with the obvious, which is George Washington’s home, the Mount Vernon home. It’s still amazing. I’ve been in it now hundreds of times and sometimes you pause and you look into, say, Washington’s bedroom and you look at the bed in which he actually died in. And you think about the history and you think about the important moments that happened there. And it feels me with such a sense of solemness. It’s a beautiful building and a beautiful setting. And I’ve had the privilege of standing there looking across the river at Maryland, believe it or not, and just always so grateful for the acts of the Mount Vernon Ladies’ who, 160 years ago, stepped into the breach to save that very home before it fell apart. And that’s a great story unto itself of one that we also seek to tell, both at the estate and via our digital channels.
[NR] Yeah, I mean the Mount Vernon story is from whence all preservation begins, at least in the United States. And so it’s a story we tell often and we’re a proud part of that lineage. Somewhere we fall on your family tree. Back in 1931 is sort of when we [Preservation Maryland] took our start and I guess we can trace it back to to those ladies who said that that place mattered, and it was a place worth saving. So I guess we all owe them a debt of gratitude in a sense.
[RS] We do. I should mention, too, when asked what my favorite building was, I chose the Maryland State House, but largely because of a Washingtonian experience, which is the Old Senate chamber which has just recently been restored. And the idea of standing in this place where Washington stood and really made world history, in where he said he wasn’t going to continue on as some type of monarch or a general-in-command, and he was going to hand over his military command and resign and go back to being a private citizen. And what a powerful space that was, and I was drawn to the same thing. My experience is seeing that spot where Washington stood. So there is something truly powerful associated with the experience of Washington, no matter where it is.
I always have seen the Trumball painting which shows that room and shows Washington handing his commission back to Congress, which is such a symbolic and important moment and really the center of civilian control of the military and the giving up of power, which is such an important feat and achievement. And it was so wonderful to go into that very room and see it restored and see the statue of Washington there– just really did fill me with awe, and just so grateful for all of the organizations, including Preservation Maryland, who save and preserve those places because that power of place remains. And we can connect with it in those places.
[NR] Yeah, a lot of places to interact with Washington’s story, of course, and particularly in Annapolis, so. Well, Rob, it’s been a pleasure as always to catch up with you and to hear about all of the great work that you’re doing at Mount Vernon. If somebody wants to get in touch with you or wants to learn more about the story of George Washington and Mount Vernon, how would they do that?
[RS] Yeah, well, again, MountVernon.org is our website and, again, it’s chocked full of all sorts of great content and things that I talked about here. And, again, if you’re interested in reaching me directly, I’m RShenk@MountVernon.org.
[NR] All right, Rob. Well, thank you so much. Thank you for all that you do and for telling the story, the very important and relevant story, of George Washington in a very new and innovative way. Thanks again.
[RS] Thank you, Nick, and thank you, Preservation Maryland.
This podcast was developed under a grant from the National Center for Preservation Technology and Training, a unit of the National Park Service. Its contents are the sole responsibility of Preservation Maryland and the Maryland Milestones Heritage Area and do not necessarily represent the official position or policies of the National Park Service or the National Center for Preservation Technology and Training.
This week’s episode was produced and engineered by Ben and Stephen Israel. Our executive producer is Aaron Marcavitch. Our theme music is performed by the band Pretty Gritty. You can learn more about them at their website: PrettyGrittyMusic.com, on Facebook, or on Twitter @PG_PrettyGritty.
To learn about Preservation Maryland or this week’s guests, visit: PreservationMaryland.org. While there, you can check out our blog and learn about what’s current in historic preservation. We’re also on Facebook, Instagram, Flickr, and Twitter @PreservationMD. And of course, a very special thank you to our listeners. Keep preserving!