The first article in our Process Blog Series.
By sharing our successes and failures in conserving the Brown Homestead,
we hope to inspire others to make similar journeys of their own.
While not an academic treatise, it is a serious attempt to create
a framework and to provide an array of tools for the establishment of
successful and sustainable heritage sites.
When developing any business, but perhaps especially a non profit heritage site, it is easy to become so passionate about our ideas that we lose objectivity. We forge ahead with our meticulously researched restoration and programming, without realizing that we may be spending valuable time and money on unfocused or untargeted activities.
The key to any successful business venture, non-profit or otherwise, must begin by meeting unmet needs in the community and/or the marketplace. In order to ensure that our heritage sites are preserved, we must make sure that our goals and objectives in sharing and teaching history remain connected to contemporary society and address topical issues. The legacy, charm and beauty of these sites may be apparent to us, but is not always to the broader community. We must look for new ways to reach our audience.
Determine Initial Strategic Targets Within
Broad Conservation Categories
JBHF’s goal for the Brown Homestead is sustainability through community engagement. We began by examining both the historical and contemporary context of the buildings, site and surrounding community, and let them speak to us about the future.
The age of John Brown House and the Loyalist history of the Brown family pointed us toward Heritage Advocates, Educators and Loyalist Groups as our first strategic targets. In a traditional house museum setting, these would likely become the primary focuses for the site. While they remain important, JBHF’s broader goal requires that we explore additional opportunities.
Family farming is the backbone of Niagara’s history, and the John Brown House was an active farmhouse for much of its 200+ years. It was also used as a tavern for nearly a quarter of a century. To this day, the house remains surrounded by farms, vineyards and wineries. Its past and present connection to local agriculture, spirits, food, and hospitality inspired our next targets for conservation and outreach: Farmers and the Agri-Food Community.
The Brown Homestead sits at the juncture where three municipalities meet, the city of St. Catharines and the towns of Thorold and Pelham. It is also located at the divide where urban and suburban St. Catharines meets the rural landscape. The position provides us with a unique opportunity to connect, and to connect with, two groups of constituents that bracket us: the city dweller and the farmer. This put us in mind of the Farm-to-Table Movement.
The Norton Cabin was moved to the Brown Homestead from its original location in Caledonia in a valiant effort to preserve cultural heritage. As well as being the Mohawk chief who succeeded Joseph Brant, John Norton was also an Indian Department interpreter and a great educator. Even his Mohawk name, Teyoninhokarawen, which translates to Open Door, is in concert with JBHF’s Founding Principles, exemplifying our desire to connect to the community, and to remain open to fresh ideas and perspectives. This pointed us to two other strategic targets: First Nations People, Students and Educators.
The Brown Homestead is also situated across the street from the main entrance to Short Hills Park on Pelham Road. The little parking lot for the park is often full nearly three seasons each year, and even occasionally throughout the winter.
Much of this magnificent ecological attraction just adjacent to us once comprised part of the 900 acres that made up the original Brown family’s land grants. Thus it seems only natural for us to reach out to the people who so regularly visit the park to walk, hike or ride the trails and enjoy its beauty and solitude.
Through these initial explorations, we determined that our primary strategic targets within our conservation categories were as follows:
- Heritage Advocates, Educators and Experts
- Farmers and the Agri-Food Community / Farm-to-Table Movement
- Loyalist Groups
- First Nations Groups
- Arts and Culture Groups and Organizations
- Short Hills Park Visitors
Each target in the list was drawn from the history and life of the John Brown House and the Brown Homestead. Different heritage sites undertaking their own investigations, will arrive at their own, very individual lists.
It is through these discovered conservation categories and targets that we will connect the eras and create a bridge from the past to the present and into the future.
Identify Individual Components of Each
Conservation Category/Target Group
For each of our targets we then broke down the following:
- Potential Partners - groups and organizations with shared interests and goals with whom we might form mutually beneficial alliances
- Potential Social Outreach Partners - groups and organizations that will benefit from offerred charitable programming
- Intended Audience - from the general public to groups and organizations
- Potential Programming - an evolving list of ideas
- Potential Products and Services Providing Revenue
Prioritize Opportunities for Immediate Impact
Although JBHF will explore and advocate for each of the above conservation categories, we also knew that as a small organization we needed to determine which of them would swiftly connect us to the most people. We also looked to our organization’s mandate, our outreach experience thus far, and our intuition. We came up with the following shortlist:
- Heritage Advocates, Experts and Educators
- Farmers and the Agri-Food Community
- Arts and Culture Groups and Organizations
Twin Goals: Early Programming and Outreach
Although heritage and other cultural organizations have often taken a “top-down approach” to programming development there has been a societal shift towards co-creation that we believe is now a crucial ingredient in achieving sustainability. For that reason, JBHF is combining our early programming efforts with an equal focus on outreach to the communities that will make up our partners and audience.
Guideposts for Early Programming
Both our charitable status and our educational mandate demanded that JBHF’s programming efforts begin immediately. At the time of the Foundation’s purchase of the Brown Homestead site, critical maintenance had been deferred for several years on both the John Brown House and the Norton Cabin, and both were in need of stabilization. That necessity resulted in our first educational guidepost:
Each stage of conservation work at the John Brown House will have an educational component.
This rule allows JBHF to achieve its educational mandate with one of its primary conservation categories, Heritage Advocates and Educators, while still performing outreach and developing programming for its other areas of focus.
When contractors are engaged, for masonry, for window restoration, etc. we include as part of their contract, an educational commitment. This could be a seminar, a workshop or volunteer training. We have held our own workshops, and have also partnered with Willowbank School of Restoration Arts and Brock University. JBHF has provided or been a venue for: a masonry seminar, a research class, a heritage photography class, a digital humanities class, and a feasibility study. Our current Attic Floor Project is providing interested volunteers with a heritage woodworking workshop.
JBHF will continue to develop our educational programming, and to reach out to other universities and educational institutions for partnerships, especially as our programming begins to tackle our other early priority conservation categories: agri-food community and farmers, and arts and culture.
Guideposts for Outreach
The support of individuals and communities determines the success of any organization. Thus, JBHF is moving forward with outreach designed to ensure the transformation of the Brown Homestead into a thriving community space. It is critical at this stage that we approach potential partners and audience members with worthwhile proposals. There is a need for considerable initial research and planning.
We also believe that two-way communication builds the strongest relationships and establishes mutual understanding. This means that despite our pre-planning and research, when we begin our outreach we remain open to the possibility that in some cases we are wrong.
1. Work Preceding Outreach
- We will understand the history and contemporary issues facing our conservation groups and intended audience.
- We will develop ideas for programming which address those issues.
2. Guideposts for Outreach
- We will ask for feedback regarding the actual impact of the researched issues on the community.
- We will invite people to share crucial issues that we may have missed.
- We will offer our ideas for programming and services and request feedback.
- We will invite people to share their own ideas for programs or services that would interest them.
- We will ask if there are others in the community that we may have overlooked and to whom we should reach out.
Forward Into Outreach
One of the things that keeps us honest at JBHF is our open acknowledgement of all that we do not know, and a willingness to learn it, even if it makes our process slower than we would otherwise wish.
In this case, although we are always fans of the DIY approach, we are investigating our options for consultation with a market research professional. Having broken down our ideas and our questions to the best of our ability, our goal is to obtain statistically valid, actionable metrics. We will let you know how it goes!
We are also participating in Doors Open St. Catharines on June 24, 2017 and we hope you will join us for our first official introduction to the public. We have only begun the conservation of the house and site, but there is already much to share. Among other things going on that day, we will have both a traditional heritage trade demonstration and examples of contemporary digital solutions to heritage problems. We will have people available to discuss the site and its history, and to share our thoughts about the future. We plan to offer a bite to eat and something to drink as well!
Most of all, we would love to use that day to hear from you. What would make the Brown Homestead a site you would return to again and again? What would you most like to see there? We want to evolve, to grow and to improve, and we want each of you to be a part of that. Thank you in advance for your feedback. We are listening!