Whose Job Is It? Board or Staff?

tug-of-war-300x200A 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

Want to Sharpen Your Historic Site Management Skills?

If you manage an historic site or house museum, there are several ways to sharpen your skills in the next few months.

Historic House Museum workshop at the Haas-Lilienthal House in San Francisco, 2014.

Historic House Museum workshop at the Haas-Lilienthal House in San Francisco, 2014.

For nearly fifteen years, the American Association for State and Local History has offered a two-day workshop on historic house museum issues and operations and next month it will be in Charleston, South Carolina on February 26-27, 2015.  Held in partnership with the Historic Charleston Foundation (one of the oldest historic preservation organizations in the US) and co-taught by me and Dr. George McDaniel of Drayton Hall, we’ll examine a wide range of topics from the unique perspective of house museums and historic sites, including leadership, interpretation, disaster preparedness, membership, and audience, through interactive presentations, group discussions, and site-specific exercises.  You’ll leave with a better sense of how your organization can better fulfill its mission and be more financially sustainable.  Registration is $345, $270 for AASLH members, plus there’s a $40 discount if you register by January 22.  Be sure to add a day to explore the historic sites in Charleston–it’s one of the best places to see a wide variety of visitor experiences in one place.

New this year is “Re-inventing the Historic House Museum,” a one-day workshop offering 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 reflect and renew as the world around our historic sites continues to change.  This workshop was inspired by a sold-out symposium presented by the Historic House Museum Consortium of Washington, DC at Gunston Hall in March 2014, and now has been taken nationally to various regions by the American Association for State and Local History.  Ken Turino of Historic New England and I will be giving the core presentations and the others will vary to take advantage of the workshop location.  We’ll be at Strawbery Banke in New Hampshire on April 21, 2015 and the Margaret Mitchell House in Georgia on June 12, 2015.  Registration is $170; $95 for members of AASLH and NEMA (for April 21).

Thump! Interpreting African American History and Culture Arrives

Interpreting African American History and CultureThis 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!

If African American history isn’t a topic at your historic site, do check out the others in this major new series produced by the American Association for State and Local History.

HBR: Where Boards Fall Short

HBR 2014 JanBoards 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

What was Hot in 2014 According to EngagingPlaces.net

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):

  1. HBR: The Truth About the Customer Experience (a discussion about “customer journey mapping” that was cross-posted on the AASLH blog)
  2. HBO CEO named Mt. Vernon CEO; A Step Backwards IMHO (still popular even though it was posted in 2012)
  3. Let’s Give SWOT a REST (and another popular post from 2012)
  4. IMLS’ Count of Museums in the US May Be Exaggerated (and prompted lots of comments, particularly about the data sources and methodology)
  5. Are Historic House Museums Adapting for the Future? (an announcement about the March 2014 Historic House Museum Symposium at Gunston Hall; btw, others are planned for New Hampshire and Georgia in 2015)
  6. Pushing the Period Room Beyond the Period at Hunter House (they look like period rooms, but they aren’t)
  7. Is Historic Preservation Ready to Preserve Culture as well as Architecture? (this post received a huge bump on December 3 thanks to Facebook)

Most readers came from the United States, although Canada, United Kingdom, and Australia were close behind.  It seems that readers are most interested in

Continue reading

On Ferguson and Related Events: How Should Historic Sites Respond?

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

Video: The Future of History

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.

Looking for Interpretive Inspiration? Head to Charleston

What historic sites are doing great interpretation?  

Behind the Velvet Ropes tour at the Gamble House.

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.

If you’d also like to be inspired, here’s my suggested itinerary: Continue reading

Plenty for Historic Sites at 2015 NCPH Meeting

National Council on Public History annual meeting 2015The 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.