A common and contentious management issue for museums and historic sites is the the role and responsibilities of board members and the staff. Frequent complaints I’ve heard are that board members are interfering in staff projects or lack interest in their role as leaders, or that staff is withholding crucial information from the board or is unable to make progress on major goals. Navigating these concerns requires a good hand on the tiller by both the executive director and board chair, but I’ve also found that a facilitated group discussion about roles and responsibilities is often just as effective.
In my years of service on several different boards, each was at a different place in their organizational development, which means the roles and responsibilities was different as well. An all-volunteer start-up organization operates differently from one with a large staff and a long-established set of activities. Boards are not all the same.
Board members also require orientation and training, which rarely happens. There doesn’t seem to be Continue reading →
This morning brought the first snow of the season. While schools closed and cars were slipping on the road in front my house, the mail arrived with a thump on my doorstep. Inside was Interpreting African American History and Culture at Museums and Historic Sites, the book I worked on for the last few years with two dozen contributors. I try not to judge a book by its cover, but Rowman and Littlefield has increased its attention to graphic design and it really paid off. It’s a handsome book. But it’s even better inside!
Boards aren’t working. A mere 34 percent of the 772 board members of historic sites surveyed by Engaging Places in 2013 agreed that the boards on which they serve fully comprehended their museum’s strategies. Only 22 percent said their boards were completely aware of how their museums fulfilled their mission and just 16 percent claimed that the board had a strong understanding of the dynamics of the museum field. When it comes to strategy and planning, organizations emphasize the short-term at the expense of the long-term.
You’re probably not surprised by these results–but you may be surprised that this actually describes major corporations based on studies conducted by McKinsey and Company, a national consulting firm. Governance is not just a challenge for nonprofits but the business world as well.
So how can the situation improve? In “Where Boards Fall Short” in the January-February 2015 issue of the Harvard Business Review, Dominic Martin and Mark Wiseman claim that a fundamental issue is that boards don’t understand their “fiduciary duty,” which consists of two core components:
loyalty (placing the company’s interest ahead of one’s own)
prudence (applying proper care, skill, and diligence to business decisions).
“Loyalty and prudence” encourages boards to focus on the long-term to help the organization thrive for years into the future. Keeping in mind the big distant goal (otherwise called a vision) clarifies choices and directs board actions. From my observations of nonprofit boards, there’s often confusion about fiduciary responsibilities and rarely a vision (but usually a mission–but so vaguely worded to be nearly useless for making decisions). To help clarify fiduciary duty, it’s a good idea to explain it during recruitment and orientation (don’t assume they’ll support it) and consider an annual commitment agreement and planning retreat for both board and executive staff.
In addition to addressing fiduciary duty, Martin and Wiseman suggest four ways to improve board performance. Here are their key ideas from their article along with my translation for the non-profit environment):
1. Select the right people. “Having a diversity of perspectives and proven experience building relevant businesses as well as the functional knowledge is critical. But if our surveys are any indication, too many directors are Continue reading →
As the Engaging Places blog enters its fourth year, it’s a chance to take a look back to see what’s attracted and intrigued our readers. It’s now grown to about 350 posts and is viewed about 3,000 times each month. This year, the most popular posts were (starting with the highest):
Storefronts that were covered with plywood during the protests in Ferguson were painted by local artists and collected by the Missouri History Museum.
Ferguson and related events are sparking broad protests over the treatment of African Americans by the police and the courts. Should museums and historic sites be involved? Should they be collecting, preserving, or interpreting these present-day events? Should they provide a place for protest or response? Or are these beyond their roles and responsibilities? There are no easy answers because every site and every community is different, but ultimately, people engage with historic places because there’s a personal connection–historic sites are collecting, preserving, or interpreting topics that are relevant and meaningful to the visitor.
Identifying what is relevant and meaningful isn’t always easy but contemporary events offer a glimpse. People discuss, explore, study, question, react to, and protest about issues that matter to them, and the more people that are involved around the same issue, the more significant it is.
Museums and historic sites inhabit a special “third space” in society that allows us to do things that can’t happen at home or work. They allow diverse people to discuss, explore, study, question, react to, and protest about issues in a safe place. As Presence of the Past has shown, we are Continue reading →
In this 16:01 video, Kristen Gwinn-Becker asserts that there is a necessary—indeed, urgent—need to build easily accessible digital archives of our primary sources. She says that,
As an historian, I understand there is a vast amount of historically valuable information to be processed, but I believe it is worth the effort to make that heritage digital and discoverable to the public. As a technologist, I know that it is possible to make this happen.
Her presentation was given at TEDxDirigo and you may have met her at the AASLH annual meeting where she was discussing her company, HistoryIT.
What historic sites are doing great interpretation?
Behind the Velvet Ropes tour at the Gamble House.
That’s a question I’m often asked by my clients and while I can usually rattle off a half dozen examples, it’s usually not very satisfying. If I suggest a ranger-led tour of Mesa Verde National Park in Colorado, the behind-the-velvet-ropes tour at the Gamble House in California, and the Dennis Severs’ House in London, you can quickly see the problems—you need to experience them to understand them, plus they’re thousands of miles apart.
Although I’ve been working in Charleston, South Carolina for more than a decade, it was just this past month that I realized that it’s an ideal place for experiencing a wide range of interpretive approaches for historic house museums. In November, I joined Mike Buhler, the executive director of San Francisco Heritage, in Charleston to study a wide range of interpretive methods, from guided to self-guided, from furnished to unfurnished, from exhibits to period rooms, from grand mansions to humble cabins. Heritage is in the midst of re-interpreting the Haas-Lilienthal House, so Mike found the research trip to be incredibly helpful because it showed him various possibilities and clarified what methods would be most effective for his historic house museum.
Marcus Armitage and Ignatz Johnson Higham produced this 4:52 video for The School of Life, “explaining why on earth we read books and what they could do for us.” Fun animation with a meaningful message–can this inspire our interpretation of history?
The National Council on Public History will be holding its 2015 conference in Nashville from April 15-18 and there are lots of sessions that will interest house museums and historic sites, including:
Best Practices for Interpreting Slavery at Historic Sites and Museums
Re-imagining Historic House Museums for the 21st Century with President Lincoln’s Cottage, Roger Brown Study Collection, and others
On the Cutting Edge of American Historic Preservation: The Role of the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association
Religion, Historic Sites, and Museums with Gettysburg Seminary Ridge Museum, Ephrata Cloister, and others
Historic Sites, Racialized Geographies, and the Responsibilities of Public Historians with the Lower East Side Tenement Museum and Weeksville Heritage Center
The Woodrow Wilson Family Home: Our Story of a Radical Makeover
Pulling Back the Curtain: Displaying the History-Making Process in Museums and Sites
Hidden Histories: Cultural Amnesia, Interpretive Challenges, and Educational Opportunities
Haunted Histories: Ghost Lore Interpretation at Historical Sites
Nashville also has many historic sites and NCPH will be offering walking tours and field trips on musical heritage, the state capitol, crime, Civil War, civil rights, and Fisk University. Nearby are several notable historic house museums, including the Hermitage, Belle Meade Plantation, and Belmont Mansion.
Registration is $240 and for members it’s $192. Sign up before March 4 as a member, and it’s only $167. For a copy of the preliminary program, visit http://bit.ly/NCPH2015prog.