AASLH Annual Meeting Provokes Historical Thinking

Tim Grove facilitating a lively conversation about historical thinking at the AASLH Annual Meeting in 2015.

Tim Grove facilitating a lively conversation about historical thinking at the AASLH Annual Meeting in 2015.

The annual meeting of the American Association for State and Local History always offers a good mix of educational sessions, social events, and opportunities to visit museums and historic sites around the country.  This year, Sam Wineburg, a Stanford University professor and author of Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts (2001), prompted an ongoing discussion with his plenary address on the first day of the annual meeting.  Through his research on students and scholars, he showed that the analysis of historical documents is a sophisticated skill that isn’t apparent to most people (and I can confidently say this also applies to objects, buildings, and landscapes).  He went on to argue that teaching people to think historically isn’t about teaching history but making them better citizens.  John Dichtl, president of AASLH, discusses this further on the AASLH blog.

These ideas were pursued the next day at a packed session facilitated by Tim Grove of the National Air and Space Museum.  Using excerpts from Wineburg’s book, Tim encouraged a lively dialogue that allowed me to report out 15 Tweets, including:

  • Historical thinking: multiple perspectives; analysis of sources; context; and based on evidence.
  • Are we underestimating visitors if we don’t give them oppty to debate ideas & issues at museums/historic sites?
  • Debates always happen, but history gets flattened over time. Build multiple perspectives, uncertainty, & questions into exhibits.
  • Asking good provocative questions is a skill. Learn more at the Right Question Institute.
  • Challenge for marketing & communications staff about handling provocative topics in social media era.
  • Are museums & sites imposing their ideology on visitors? Have we become arrogant? Do we need to learn about visitor interests?

which resulted in 31 favorites and 20 retweets.  Just to be clear, these ideas didn’t come from me but from the persons gathered in the room.  I could have tweeted out many more but I couldn’t listen and type them out quickly at the same time.

If you weren’t able to attend, there’s next year in Detroit.  In the meantime, enjoy these snaps from the recent meeting in Louisville (and thanks to everyone at the Kentucky Historical Society for being such gracious hosts).

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Designing Donor Recognition at Historic Sites

Plaque recognizing James Baxter, donor of the Portland Public Library, 1888.

Plaque recognizing James Baxter, donor of land and building of the Portland (Maine) Public Library, as well as the architect F. H. Fassett, 1888.

Major donors or supporters of a historic site are often recognized with a panel or plaque. Most traditional is a panel listing names of donors, often distinguished by the size of their gift, but it can often appear to be more like a somber memorial than a sincere and thoughtful appreciation. That’s the major reason for avoiding off-the-shelf recognition systems of wall plaques and engraved bricks, which have become so common they’ve lost their punch. For historic sites, this is especially important because they should be integrated and complementary to its design and significance, not merely plopped into place as an afterthought.

Donor recognition is typically installed near an entrance (either interior or exterior) so it can be readily seen by visitors on a wall, floor, or freestanding panel; made of durable materials that resist vandalism and years of cleaning; and can be easily corrected or updated in the future. Careful planning and consideration of alternatives will reveal methods that are most appropriate for your organization.

The Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for the Treatment of Historic Properties can guide decisions about Continue reading

Video: Avoiding Employee Theft

In this 2:22 video, this video by The Hartford, Gene Marks has two suggestions for reducing embezzlement and employee theft (yup, it happens at museums and historic sites).  When he discusses “inventory,” think “collections.”  And be sure that your staff takes vacations.

You’ll find more details at Five Signs Your Employees Are Tampering with Your Accounts.

Stanford Offers Webinars on Non-profit Management

Stanford Social Innovation Review Fall_2015Everyone knows that Harvard University has the Harvard Business Review, but did you know that on the opposite coast, Stanford University has an equivalent for non-profit organizations called the Stanford Social Innovation Review?  Both have been useful to me because along with the magazine, they offer webinars led by authors of their articles or who are leaders in the field.  Here are a couple coming up from the Stanford Social Innovation Review that you might find useful for your museum or historic site:

Overcoming the Overhead Myth

Presented by Jacob Harold, Ann Goggins Gregory, & Jan Masaoka
September 2, 11 a.m. – 12 noon PDT / 2 – 3 p.m. EDT

A dangerous myth prevails among funders that overhead can be used as a proxy for efficiency. In fact, research shows that under-investing in administrative overhead is often linked with poor performance by nonprofits. Ann Goggins Gregory and Don Howard dubbed this process “the nonprofit starvation cycle” in the eponymous Stanford Social Innovation Review article. In this webinar you will learn:

  • Why the nonprofit starvation cycle exists in the sector
  • How organizations that invested in administration subsequently improved their programmatic work
  • Strategies for explaining to funders the importance of overhead costs for future success
  • Tips for evaluating whether grantees are skimping on crucial investment areas in their budgeting

Price: $49, which includes access to the live webinar; unlimited access to the webinar as many times as you’d like for twelve months; and downloadable slides. Learn more about this webinar and register here.

Valuing Frontline Work

Presented by Lehn Benjamin, Katya Fels Smyth, Maria Peña, & Jesús Gerena
September 23, 11 a.m. – 12 noon PDT / 2 – 3 p.m. EDT

An increasing focus in the social sector on performance-driven frameworks can make it difficult for direct-service organizations to measure their impact. Some nonprofits are using creative strategies to measure and communicate their work’s value to funders. This webinar will:

  • Explain how some of the most popular performance models used in the nonprofit sector fail to measure the true impact of what nonprofit professionals do
  • Examine the reasons why it can be so difficult—yet so important—to recognize the value that on-the-ground work delivers to beneficiaries and their communities
  • Explore examples of nonprofits that have succeeded in capturing and conveying the full value of frontline work

Price: $49, which includes access to the live webinar; unlimited access to the webinar as many times as you’d like for twelve months; and downloadable slides. Learn more about this webinar and register here.

National Archives Should Allow Photography in Exhibits IMHO

No photography allowed in the exhibits at the National Archives?

No photography allowed in the exhibits at the National Archives?

Last weekend I went to see “Spirited Republic,” a temporary exhibit at the National Archives about the history of alcohol in the United States.  I’m interested in the history of food and knew the Archives would dig up some interesting materials. It was a worthwhile visit but ugh, right at the entrance is a sign declaring “no photography.”  This isn’t unusual for temporary exhibits because they may contain materials that are protected by copyright or have objects on loan.  In this exhibit, however, everything was drawn from the collections of the Archives or had fallen out of copyright.  If I went around the building to the Research Room, I could retrieve any of the items on display and make photographs without question.  Secondly, most of the items are historic governmental or administrative documents, which don’t encourage selfies or other distractions.  Photographs would most likely be taken by people who were really interested in the subject and wanted an image for reference.  If they’re worried about light damage, people can be warned not to take flash photos (and studies by conservators show that flash photography has to reach excessive levels to cause significant damage, so this is usually an unfounded concern).  If they’re worried about security, everyone has already been screened in the usual DC way and guards are posted throughout the exhibit.  Finally, photography is one of the only areas of creative activity that’s growing in the US (bucking the declines in sewing, painting, pottery, or music according to studies by the National Endowment for the Arts) and the Archives has a rich trove of content for inspiration (and it helps publicize their exhibits and collections). The “no photography” makes absolutely no sense at the National Archives.  Instead, the National Archives should assume that  photography will be allowed unless there are specific and legitimate reasons not to do so.  Just follow the same rules as in your Research Rooms.

Prohibitions on photography isn’t the only stumbling block to public access and historical interpretation at the National Archives–I’m sensing a growing use of Continue reading

International Museum Management Conference Coming to US

Screen Shot 2015-07-31 at 10.56.44 AM The International Committee of Museum Management (InterCom) of the the International Council of Museums (ICOM) with be holding its annual meeting in Washington, DC from October 28-31, 2015, the first time it has held its meeting in the United States. InterCom works toward the development of sound museum management throughout the world, including the managerial aspects of policy formulation, legislation, and resource management.  Registration is $350 ($150 for students) and early bird registration for $295 ends today (July 31).

This year’s conference focuses on three themes–The Sustainable Leader, The Enduring
Organization, and the Essential Museum–and plenary speakers include Lonnie Bunch, Founding Director, Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and CultureElaine Heumann Gurian, author and museum consultant; and Richard C. Harwood, Harwood Institute for Public Innovation. Sessions involve diverse topics from around the world and several caught my eye. I wonder what someone from Columbia has to say about museums as tourist attractions; how violence or civil unrest are affecting museums in Mexico, Denmark, and Minnesota (Minnesota??); or how the Research Center for Anatolian Civilizations in Turkey tackles the value of history and heritage in the contemporary world (how do you make thousands of years of history relevant?).

I’ll be there to expand my horizons and reporting out when I get a chance. It also looks like we’ll be having special tours of several museums in DC (it’s the behind-the-scenes experience at museums that lured me into this field) so that will be great fun. Hope to see you there!

Wireless Audio Guides and Digital Donor Board at MIM

Last week I visited the huge Musical Instrument Museum (MIM) in Phoenix, Arizona and spent four hours just walking through the exhibits.  Whenever I visit a historic site or museum, the first thing I often do is just walk through the entire place to get an overall sense of its organization, design, and content, rarely stopping to read labels or watch videos.  At MIM it took four hours.  Thank goodness for the cafe.  I haven’t seen so many guitars, violins, drums, or bagpipes in my life, but I guess that’s the point.

Along the way I spotted a couple unusual interpretive and fundraising techniques that caught my eye that might interest you:

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1.  MIM has the usual big donor walls in the lobby but next to the exit door, they have a colorful digital version for current donors along with an eye-catching donation box.  The big touch screen is divided into two sections: the top half has announcements for upcoming events and volunteer opportunities and the bottom half has a scrolling list of donors for the last twelve months.  Because it’s digital, it can be easily updated (but of course, requires someone with IT skills for maintenance).  A navigation bar lets you choose the donor category by size of gift from $250 to $5 million+.  Next to the digital display is a donation box featuring the shiny silver bell of a sousaphone with the message, “Blown Away? Join Our Band of Donors” and a window so you can see your money fall inside.  I bet this encourages kids to drop their change (or encourages kids to tell their parents to drop a dollar).  Clever eh?  And notice there’s nothing else around it–no clutter of chairs, signs, or plants to keep visitors focused on support as they leave the museum.

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2.  Interpretation at MIM relies heavily on wireless headsets that are automatically activated as you approach an exhibit.  The headsets consist of a pair of light headphones connected to a Sennheiser GuidePORT device, which is slightly larger and heavier than the old classic iPods.  The device controls volume, holds a rechargeable battery, and contains the antennae that receives the audio in the exhibit.  Most of the exhibits have a monitor showing a series of short videos of musical performances or a demonstration of their manufacture.  The videos cycle continuously and when the visitor comes within about ten feet, the headset connects to the audio. When you finish watching a video, you can take a couple steps, and watch a different video on another monitor without touching the device or punching in a number.  The exhibits can be packed tightly with video screens without worries about sound bleed and turning the exhibit galleries into a cacophony of sounds.  However, it wasn’t perfect.  About five percent of the time it wouldn’t connect to the video and I had to watch it in silence (and when it’s a musical performance, a silent video isn’t very helpful).  Secondly, visitors (especially kids) occasionally dropped their devices. Every time I heard the smack on floor, I cringed.  The admission desk provides lanyards to hang the audio system around your neck, but not all visitors use them. Sigh.




What Historic Sites Have Learned After 25 Years with ADA

ADA logoThis month marks the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which ensured equal access to persons with limited mobility, limited vision, limited hearing, and other disabilities. Shortly after this law was enacted in 1990, museums and historic sites were scrambling to figure out the consequences, especially the cost of installing ramps or hiring sign-language interpreters.

Much of it also revolved thinking bigger and realizing that improving access for the disabled would improve the experience for everyone.  For example, lever handles replaced doorknobs, which makes it easier to open a door when you’re carrying a package; enlarging type and increasing contrast on exhibit labels makes them easier to read (which I really appreciated as I grew older); and integrating ramps and removing thresholds is nice for visitors in wheelchairs and for staff who are always hauling tables and chairs for events.  For several years, professional associations hosted sessions and printed books to explain ADA to help museums figure out how to respond in an effective and thoughtful manner.

Little discussed, however, is that the US Department of Justice (DOJ) also investigated several museums and historic sites for Continue reading

Interpretive Planning Workshop coming to Tennessee

AASLH Historic House Museum workshop at the Oaklands Museum, 2013.

AASLH Historic House Museum workshop at the Oaklands Museum, 2013.

On Monday, August 17, I’ll be leading a one-day workshop on interpretive planning for history museums and historic sites in Murfreesboro, Tennessee.  Sponsored by the American Association for State and Local History, Humanities Tennessee, and the Tennessee Association of Museums, the workshop will layout effective strategies for interpreting history and the humanities at museums and historic sites, explain how to use StEPs as a model for standards and best practices, and show how to conduct a self-evaluation of interpretation in order to prioritize activities.  It’ll be hot in Middle Tennessee but the workshop will be held in the comfortable and cool visitor center at the Oaklands Museum.  Registration is $75 and $15 for members (you read that correctly–$15!) and includes lunch.  To register or for more details, visit AASLH.org.

“State of the First Amendment” Survey Results Released by Newseum

First Amendment 2015The State of the First Amendment survey, conducted each year since 1997 by the Newseum Institute’s First Amendment Center, tests Americans’ knowledge of their core freedoms and samples their opinions on First Amendment issues of the day.  The survey again found that most Americans are unable to name more than one or two of the five freedoms in the First Amendment —religion, speech, press, assembly and petition— and that one-third cannot name any of the five.  Looks like a great opportunity for history organizations!

The 2015 survey questions also covered topics including the use of Confederate flags Continue reading