Should Tour Guides be Tested and Certified?

tour-guide-antwerpAt the end of last month, the California Tour Guide Act (AB 836) died in committee in the California State Capitol. If it had passed, it would have established a “tour guide certification program” through the California Travel and Tourism Commission to test and certify persons who “practice tour guiding for compensation” (it would exempt guides who work at museums and amusement parks). The bill’s authors wanted to ensure that tourists “get the most of their visit and return to the Golden State.” It’s also a big business. According to the California Travel Association, the travel industry generated $106.4 billion in revenue from visitors and contributed $6.6 billion in state and local taxes in 2012. In 2013, California hosted nearly 16 million international visitors and is expected to grow at over 5 percent annually through 2016. To support this volume of visitors, nearly one million people work in the travel and tourism industry, including 3,000 tour guides.

We can debate various aspects of the proposed law, such as the $700,000 annual cost to manage the program or the need for a criminal background check, but I was more intrigued by the requirement that tour guides must have completed a “curriculum in California tour guiding and related subjects,” including “tour guide safety and California geography, history, and culture.”  How is that defined?  How is that evaluated?  The proposed law left the standards to Continue reading

Researching the Interpretation of Slavery in Louisiana

Research Trip 2015 MapJames Madison’s Montpelier is in the midst of expanding its interpretation of slavery thanks to a generous gift from David Rubenstein.  To explore potential interpretive techniques and content that could be adopted, we conducted a three-day research trip to visit a wide range of sites in Louisiana. Staff had visited most of the sites in Virginia, and so we sought a location that most of us had not visited but had a large concentration of historic sites that interpreted African American history before emancipation. Because the experience helped us question assumptions, think more deeply about outcomes, and expand our catalog of ideas, I’m sharing our itinerary with you to encourage you to visit. Our research trip started with two days to make a big loop through Baton Rouge and New Iberia to visit several historic sites and finished with a day in New Orleans. In future blog posts, I hope to discuss some of the sites in more detail.

Day 1: Whitney Plantation, Laura Plantation, and Oak Alley.  Our initial plans also included Evergreen Plantation but the timing didn’t work out, even though these sites are within ten miles of each other.

Day 2: West Baton Rouge Museum in Port Allen (near Baton Rouge) and Continue reading

How a Kitchen Timer Makes Me More Productive

My work has always involved a lot of writing, whether it’s historical research, a grant application, a project proposal, a newsletter article, or a report to the board. But writing is hard work, especially if it has to be a good product, which means several revisions.  I’m rereading On Writing Well (the 30th Anniversary Edition–yikes! have that many years passed) and William Zinnser reminds us that, “the professional writer [that’s nearly anyone in our business] must establish a daily schedule and stick to it.”  Over the years, I’ve kept track of the habits of prolific writers and they seem to write in the mornings, which is the schedule I’ve adopted.  Nevertheless, I’m still challenged by “sticking to it.”

The kitchen timer that's on my office desk.

The kitchen timer that’s on my office desk.

To my rescue came the Pomodoro Technique developed by Francesco Cirillo, a time-management method that relies on an ordinary kitchen timer (which are sometimes designed to look like a tomato or pomodoro in Italian).  Set the timer for 25 minutes and while the clock is ticking, stay focused on your work. When the time is up, take a five-minute break and then return for another 25-minute session. It’s designed so that the sessions are short enough to encourage you to stay at the task at hand (“I can write for 25 minutes!”) while including routine breaks to be sure you don’t burn out (and really get discouraged).  It’s been the primary way that I stay productive and thought it might be useful for others who are also trying to stay disciplined.

Focus Time app for OS and iOS.

Focus Time app for OS and iOS.

And while the kitchen timer is still on my office desk, I now use Focus Time, an app on my iPad, because it allows me to categorize my work as well as provide a timer that’s visual, not just auditory (plus I can choose the sounds for the ticking and ending). This year I’m also expanding my writing toolbox by using Evernote and a Fujitsu ScanSnap iX500 along with Scrivener, all unusual tools that take time to learn but once mastered, can be immensely helpful.  I’ll share my experiences in future posts.

Video: Non-Profit? Most Museum Visitors Don’t Know

In this 1:51 video, Colleen Dilenschneider of Know Your Own Bone explains that nearly 60 percent of Americans don’t know that history museums operate as non-profit organizations.  It doesn’t get much better for those who visit history museums—53 percent are unaware.  That may be alarming because we often distinguish ourselves by our non-profit status.  Dilenschneider, on the other hand, suggests reframing the issue:

Our key differentiator is not our tax status, but that our dedication to making a difference is embedded in the very structure of how we operate. There’s a thought that we need to run “more like for-profit companies” (and in some ways we do, but the blanket directive is an ignorant miss). But look around. For-profit companies are actually trying to be more like us in the sense that they want audiences to know that they stand for something that makes the world a better place.

The video is a quick overview but you’ll find more details in “Nonprofit Recognition: What Matters More to Visitors Than Your Tax Status“.

Data source: National Awareness, Attitudes and Usage Study, a partnership project of IMPACTS Research and the Monterey Bay Aquarium.

Video: Keep the Smartphone, Ditch Bad Management

In this 3:42 video, Jennifer Deal, a senior research scientist at the Center for Creative Leadership in San Diego, California, discusses recent studies that suggest that staying connected to work after hours isn’t the problem, but how organizations respect their people’s time. According to her research,

We found that although a majority of our participants were connected to work for 13.5 or more hours a day, five days a week, and for about five hours total on weekends, they didn’t resent their smartphones. Instead, 60 percent said they appreciated the increased flexibility: Many explained they didn’t mind the additional hours connected with work, if that meant their work time was flexible and they could better fulfill their personal obligations. What did they resent? Having to stay connected because of bad management practices that tied their hands, forcing them to spend business hours waiting instead of working.

She provides some suggestions for improving meetings and office practices, but you’ll find more in “Stop Wasting Your Employees’ Time” at Strategy + Business.

Historic House Workshops for the New Year

Historic House Museum Workshop, Charleston, South Carolina, 2015

Historic House Museum Workshop, Charleston, South Carolina, 2015

If want some time to plan and evaluate what’s happening at your historic site or house museum, one of the best ways is through a workshop. Of course, a long weekend of reflection in the Rockies or Virgin Islands might be more relaxing, but a workshop with colleagues discussing the potential solutions to the challenges facing historic sites will be more effective.

AASLH is offering two workshops this year just for house museums and historic sites, and I’ll be part of both of them:

April 4: Reinventing the Historic House Museum at the Campbell House in St. Louis, Missouri

This one-day symposium is designed to offer current thinking, practical information, and solutions to the challenges facing historic sites. The historic house museum in America is not dead nor are most of them dying. The field, however, needs to take time to reflect and renew as the world around our historic sites continues to change. The symposium will include presentations, discussion, a boxed lunch, historic site visit, and a brainstorming workshop at the historic house museum to try out the new ideas proposed during the symposium. Workshop led by Ken Turino (Historic New England) and Max van Balgooy (Engaging Places). (There may be a second Reinventing workshop offered this year.)

April 28: Historic House Museum Issues and Operations at Brucemore in Cedar Rapids, Iowa

Why are historic houses necessary to their communities? How are historic house museums unique? This workshop focuses on the special needs, management, and interpretation of historic houses. With a focus on historic house museums, topics covered include collections care, types of research appropriate for historic house museums, exhibition development, interpretive tours, volunteers, and building and landscape maintenance. Workshop led by George McDaniel (Drayton Hall) and Max van Balgooy (Engaging Places).

Can’t attend these workshops but are still looking for a shot in the arm? Join one of the quarterly Historic House Calls. Every call explores a different topic with an expert, and they’ve previously discussed deaccessioning, tours, interpreting race, and environmental sustainability.

AASLH has nearly two dozens way to sharpen your skills with some of your smartest colleagues in the history field and you’ll find a continually updated list on their calendar of events.

Free DIY Assessment for Your Collections

Rembrant's personal museum at Rembrant Huis, Amsterdam.

Rembrant’s personal study collection at Rembrant Huis, Amsterdam.

Historic sites have incredibly complex collections that range from furniture and photos to buildings and landscapes. Figuring out priorities for collections care can be daunting but thankfully, the University of Illinois Libraries with the help of IMLS funding, recently created a Preservation Self-Assessment Program (PSAP). It’s a free online tool that helps collection managers evaluate the condition of materials, storage and exhibit environments, and institutional policies for books, paper documents, photographs, recordings, films, and architectural prints in historic sites, museums, archives, and libraries. In addition, there’s a Format ID Guide, which includes identification cheatsheets in case you can’t tell a blue print from a Diazo print.

Staff and volunteers at any level of experience can use the PSAP. The program asks questions about your the materials in your collection, storage and exhibition environments, and collections policies to develop a unique profile for your organization and potential priorities for collections care. It includes additional help to explain concepts and principles, showing examples along the way. The application runs in your web browser; no software installation is necessary. No limit is placed on the amount of items or collections you assess; all data is securely stored on University of Illinois servers. The Illinois Heritage Association has a lengthy overview with more details.

Even though PSAP doesn’t cover everything you’ll encounter in your collections, it’ll help you with a significant part. Now someone needs to get to work on a Museum Self-Preservation Program in Illinois.

Reinventing Historic Houses in National Parks

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Earlier this week I led a workshop on reinventing historic house museums at two great National Parks—Marsh-Billings-Rockefeller in Vermont and Saint-Gaudens in New Hampshire—with Ken Turino of Historic New England. The National Park Service and the American Association for State and Local History co-sponsored this workshop to help their staff rethink the tours of the historic houses at these two sites, especially for visitors under 35 years of age. Using such tools as the Five Forces and a Double-Bottom Line Matrix along with a smorgasbord of ideas from other sites, we explored possible processes and projects that could improve and enhance their tours.  Our goal wasn’t to provide solutions but to raise many useful questions, including: Continue reading

New York Tops the National Register of Historic Places

National Register by State 2015Whether it’s New York State or New York City, they’re at the top of the list in the National Register of Historic Places, the official list of the Nation’s historic places worthy of preservation.  The State of New York has 5,774 properties and the City of New York has 766 listed on the National Register as of July 2015, the latest information available from the National Park Service. More than 90,000 properties have been added to the Register since it was established by Congress in 1966 (yes, next year is its fiftieth anniversary).

We might have some fun with the National Register and misuse it to identify the most historic cities in the United States.  New York City is at the top, but what other cities are in the top three?  Sorry, not Boston, Chicago, or Baltimore.  How about Philadelphia (home of Independence Hall) and Portland, Oregon (what? a town on the west coast!). If that surprised you, you’ll enjoying scanning the rest of the list (and perhaps rethink your summer travel plans).   Here are the cities with more than 200 properties listed on the National Register:

  1. New York City, NY: 766
  2. Portland, OR: 571
  3. Philadelphia, PA: 555
  4. Washington, DC: 555
  5. Louisville, KY: 363
  6. Chicago, IL: 363
  7. St. Louis, MO: 357
  8. Price, UT: 342
  9. Denver, CO: 296
  10. Kansas City, MO: 295
  11. Boston, MA: 279
  12. Worchester, MA: 277
  13. Baltimore, MD: 276
  14. Cincinnati, OH: 274
  15. Detroit, MI: 260
  16. Houston, TX: 257
  17. Davenport, IA: 248
  18. Salt Lake City, UT: 245
  19. Cleveland, OH: 243
  20. Little Rock, AR: 233
  21. Indianapolis, IN: 228
  22. Atlanta, GA: 211
  23. Cambridge, MA: 209

If you were wondering about #8 Price, Utah, they’re mostly archaeological sites (such as Nine Mile Canyon, which has the largest concentration of rock art in the United States) added to the Register in the last five years.

Creating a 21st Century House Museum in San Francisco

Haas-Lilienthal House, San Francisco.

Haas-Lilienthal House, San Francisco. Courtesy of San Francisco Heritage.

Over the past two years, I’ve been working with San Francisco Heritage to explore how the Haas-Lilienthal House, the 1887 Queen Anne house it owns and operates in the Pacific Heights neighborhood, can engage the public and advance its citywide mission in ways that are both environmentally and financially sustainable.

Just as the Haas-Lilienthal House was rocked by a tremendous earthquake in 1906, so are historic sites today, although in a different manner. The economic downturn that began in 2008 threatens many preservation organizations, house museums, and historic sites, even those that have large endowments and attendance. But the change is bigger than the latest economic recession. Surveys over the past thirty years by the National Endowment for the Arts show that visitation rates at historic sites have fallen from 37 percent in 1982 to 25 percent in 2008, and that rate of decline has only accelerated in the last decade. The Haas-Lilienthal House is experiencing a long and steady decline in attendance—it’s fallen by more than 50 percent over the past thirty years. Historic sites not alone, however: concerts, dance performances, craft fairs, and sporting events have all seen similar declines in attendance.

As a result, many historic preservation organizations around the country are questioning the value of owning historic property. Guided tours and public programs do not generate sufficient revenue to properly maintain historic sites, so unloading them seems to be the only solution. But there are also significant disadvantages.

When a preservation organization owns an historic building, it instantly conveys credibility. (Would you trust a surgeon who has never held a scalpel?) Secondly, by owning and caring for an historic property, Continue reading