For the past fifteen years, George McDaniel and I have taught a two-day workshop on the management of historic house museums for the American Association for State and Local History. We cover a wide range of topics from fundraising to interpretation to disaster response to collections management–we really need a week, especially if there’s a lot of discussion. That was certainly our experience last week in Charleston, South Carolina (and thanks to our hosts, the Historic Charleston Foundation!), where our discussions were so rich that I wasn’t able to complete most of my presentations. That’s okay because the workshop is for the participants and as long as they find a topic that’s worth exploring, I’ll stay with them. Indeed, George and I often find that we’re not instructors but facilitators, raising ideas and questions to provoke thoughtful discussions to help participants improve the management of their historic sites.
At the core of workshop is each participant’s “burning question.” They share their biggest concern or issue at the start of the class and at the end, they describe how they might address it when they return to their site. It’s not only a way to make the workshop more relevant to the participants, but it also gives us a glimpse into the issues facing historic house museums around the country. This year the questions included: Continue reading →
Thanks to the support of The Fred W. Smith National Library for the Study of George Washington at Mount Vernon, the steering committee of the History Relevance Campaign held a retreat this past week to plan its next steps. Randi Korn facilitated the retreat to clarify our impact and distinctiveness as well as begin to draft outcomes for our work. It was a long day and a half but we made tremendous progress. Although we won’t be ready to share the results for another month or so (our draft ideas are still being discussed), we are making progress in several other areas:
At a recent board meeting of the Montpelier Foundation, the organization that manages James Madison’s Montpelier, I discovered they had developed a nice device to keep table tents neat. I often create table tents or nameplates on my computer, folding a letter-sized sheet in half. Despite using cover stock to give them some heft, they still manage to sag and wilt, not only making them hard to read but creating a sad-looking appearance for a meeting.
Montpelier tapered a small block of wood to fit within the table tent, attaching a short brass screw at the back. Using a small “super-strong” magnet, the table tent sticks to the screw on the block. Everything looks sharp for the meeting and the blocks can be easily reused (and they never break, even if you drop them). Another great idea from the carpenters at Montpelier.
The big gray brooding mass of Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia.
Despite the winter weather, I’ve been traveling extensively this month around the country. In Philadelphia I finally had a chance to visit the Eastern State Penitentiary, an enormous prison close the city’s art museums but otherwise oh so far away. When built in the early 19th century, it was the most famous and expensive prison in the world, but after it closed in 1971, it became a forgotten ruin. Today, a private non-profit organization preserves and manages this National Historic Landmark with an usual mission statement:
Eastern State Penitentiary Historic Site, Inc. works to preserve and restore the architecture of Eastern State Penitentiary; to make the Penitentiary accessible to the public; to explain and interpret its complex history; to place current issues of corrections and justice in an historical framework; and to provide a public forum where these issues are discussed. While the interpretive program advocates no specific position on the state of the American justice system, the program is built on the belief that the problems facing Eastern State Penitentiary’s architects have not yet been solved, and that the issues these early prison reformers addressed remain of central importance to our nation.
In a way, old prisons are historic houses so I’ve been intrigued by the way these popular tourist destinations are interpreted to the public. Eastern State is a significant contrast from Alcatraz Island, which Continue reading →
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 →