On Monday, March 11, I’ll be a plenary speaker at the Virginia Association of Museums conference to discuss the trends, challenges, and opportunities facing historic house museums. It will be followed by a forum with historic site managers, tourism experts, preservationists, and community leaders on the needs and opportunities for historic sites in Virginia, such as a statewide association for historic house museums. It’s great timing for this topic: Governor McDonnell declared 2013 as the Year of the Virginia Historic Home in recognition of the bicentennial of the Executive Mansion and Virginia’s more than 100 historic homes, most of which are open to the public as museums and historic sites.
Whenever I’m asked to give a presentation or write an article, it’s an opportunity to do some research and reading to gains some new or deeper perspectives on the issue. For the VAM presentation, I’ve been looking closely at the Survey of Public Participation in the Arts by the National Endowment of the Arts. For decades, NEA has interviewed thousands of people across the United States to learn about their involvement in music, art, theater, festivals, reading, and dance. NEA conducted the last survey in 2008 and published a series of analytical reports in 2009-2011.
Looking back over 30 years, the survey confirms that attendance closely correlates with Continue reading →
In its December 6, 2012 issue, the Chronicle of Philanthropy reported that, “the nonprofit world continues to grow both in number of organizations and in its share of the U. S. work force” but “fundraising isn’t keeping pace”–and the gap is especially wide for those working in arts, culture, and humanities (that includes historic sites and house museums). If you felt that you’ve been spinning your wheels in the last few years, you can now confirm it with some national statistics.
In the last decade (2000-2010), the number of charities that focused on arts, culture, and humanities grew at 45% but the rise in revenue was only 26%–the bottom of the eight fields studied. Compare that to health-related charities, whose number grew at 22.4% but their revenues rose by 96.6%. At the top of the revenue growth for the decade were Continue reading →
In this uncertain environment, many organizations are unsure about the direction to pursue for their historic site or house museum. Through a self-study process and a personal assessment by an external professional colleague, the Museum Assessment Program (MAP) offers a thoughtful and proven approach to refine your operations, programs, and collections. I’ve participated in several MAPs and clever organizations have used it to confirm a strategy, refine a project, resolve a vexing issue, support a funding proposal, or move to the next level of operations. I can’t think of a better program available, except if you’re accredited by AAM, you have a large professional staff, or if you’re able to afford a large team of experts. Really. To stay sharp, every historic site and house museum in America needs to go through this program every decade and in between, they should be tackling a section of AASLH’s Standards and Excellence Program. Really. If you’re not sure, call the director of the historic sites that participated this year: Montpelier Mansion (Maryland), Old Barracks Museum (New Jersey), Louis Armstrong House (New York), Seward House (New York), Stewart House (Ohio), French Legation Museum (Texas), Poplar Forest (Virginia), and Pabst Mansion (Wisconsin).
To participate, your organization needs to meet some basic requirements (such as be open to the public at least 90 days a year), Continue reading →
The April 2012 (15:1) issue of Visitor Studies, the semi-annual journal of the Visitor Studies Association, just arrived and it includes, “Motivating Participation in National Park Service Curriculum-Based Education Programs” by Marc Stern, Elizabeth Wright, and Robert Powell. It’s a rare examination of the reasons why teachers visit (or don’t visit) historic sites. For anyone that provides school programs, its findings provide some useful guidelines.
The study attempts to “understand why teachers at schools within the immediate vicinity of Great Smoky Mountains National Park attend, or don’t attend, the park’s curriculum-based programs.” To discover the perceived benefits and disadvantages of participation, they conducted a preliminary focus group with teachers and then surveyed 400 teachers in fourteen schools and interviewed school administrators. Although this study’s focus was on a national park’s programs for a middle and high school audience, there are some surprising findings that may cause you to question your assumptions even if you’re an historic site focusing on the elementary grade levels. Here’s a quick summary:
I’ve long been a fan of developing clear measures of success or metrics in planning. Too often, though, boards and staff at historic sites only use total attendance or the financial bottom line to judge their success. Certainly, having no visitors is not a good sign, but is a large number of visitors a mark of success? Not necessarily, because high attendance may be due many factors, including some that may have nothing to do with advancing your mission in a significant manner, such as weddings rentals or dog walkers or corporate retreats. I’m not knocking those activities and they may be an essential part of your programming, however, what I’ve most often heard at board meetings are conversations like this:
Board chair: I heard we did well last month. What was our attendance?
Director: We had 2,500 visitors in March, double what we had in February.
Boardmembers (in unison): Wow, that’s great!
Director: And looking at the guestbook, we had people from 14 different states and 3 foreign countries, including Latvia.
Board chair: This must be a record for us. Okay, let’s have the financial report–looks like the bottom line is positive. Is there a motion to accept?
Don’t assume this only happens at the local historic house museum–it happens at the big ones as well. As I’ve often said, Continue reading →
Online communications–electronic newsletters, Facebook, e-fundraising, Twitter–have become a standard for non-profit organizations but often we’re unsure if they’re effective. We can track the number of Facebook Fans or times an email has been opened, but those numbers mean little by themselves. Benchmarking is one way to measure effectiveness and progress, and one of the easiest ways to do this is by comparing your results consistently over time (for example, number of Facebook Fans on December 31, 2012 compared to December 31, 2011).
But to really see how you’re doing, you need to compare yourself to similar organizations. The American Association of Museums has developed an online benchmarking tool for comparisons across the museum field, however, it doesn’t include e-communications at this time (they’re collecting lots of data in other areas, though, so please participate). M+R Strategic Services and the Nonprofit Technology Network just released its 2012 eNonprofit Benchmarks Study as an infographic to show the highlights. These results are based on a study of 44 leading nonprofits in 2011 and among the many benchmarks are:
12-15% of email messages are opened, with a response rate for advocacy around 4% and for fundraising at less than 1%.
The average one-time online gift is $62.
For every 1,000 email subscribers, nonprofits have an average of 103 Facebook Fans and 29 Twitter Followers.
Greg Smith’s public departure from Goldman Sachs after a dozen years is one of the hottest pages of the New York Times today and while I tend to ignore the personnel matters of Wall Street (oh, another tycoon getting/losing/complaining about a bonus that’s more than the value of my house), reading his statement startled me. So many of his concerns about the organization’s culture are shared by me and many of my colleagues in the museum and historic preservation fields:
1. The overriding pursuit of money that’s out of balance with mission or ethics. Smith describes a staff meeting at Goldman Sachs:
Today, many of these leaders display a Goldman Sachs culture quotient of exactly zero percent. I attend derivatives sales meetings where not one single minute is spent asking questions about how we can help clients. It’s purely about how we can make the most possible money off of them. If you were an alien from Mars and sat in on one of these meetings, you would believe that a client’s success or progress was not part of the thought process at all.
Gosh, if this bothers someone at a financial investment firm, shouldn’t the lack of discussion about fulfilling mission and vision really bother the board and staff at a non-profit organization? And yet most meetings Continue reading →
In 2008, Stanford University introduced “Reading Like a Historian,” a non-traditional history curriculum to five schools in the San Francisco Unified School District. According to Sam Wineburg, who directs the Stanford History Education Group and has been a longtime proponent of revising the teaching of history, “We need to break the stranglehold of the textbook by introducing students to the variety of voices they encounter in the past through primary sources.” It seems this new curriculum is doing that and more, as recently reported in Futurity:
There are no orderly rows of desks in Valerie Ziegler’s 11th-grade history class—students sit in groups of three or four at small tables around the room. There also is no lectern because there are no lectures. And perhaps most striking, there are no textbooks.
These students at Abraham Lincoln High School in San Francisco learn about the Vietnam War, women’s suffrage, civil rights, the Great Depression, and other major events in U.S. history by analyzing journal writings, memoirs, speeches, songs, photographs, illustrations, and other documents of the era.
“I always tell my students they’re historians-in-training, so the work we do in here is that of a historian,” Ziegler says.
Engaging people is one of the primary responsibilities of an historic site, although we might call it membership, attendance, advocacy, support, fundraising, or “resources development” (yup, that’s what it was called at one place I worked). Expanding and growing engagement is usually focused on direct and simple efforts, such as working on individuals to give increasingly greater sums or putting out more announcements to increase attendance. Results are usually sporadic, rough, and unpredictable.
Engagement Pyramid by Gideon Rosenblatt.
I recently learned of a thoughtful strategy from Gideon Rosenblatt, the former executive director of Groundwire, a company that helps environmental organizations connect, inspire, and mobilize their communities. He lays out engagement in a spectrum of six stages from Observers to Leaders and each has a decreasing number of people involved. This is best illustrated as a pyramid, with the large group of Observers at the bottom and the small group of Leaders at the top. He’s found that each group has a specific mindset and communication preference, and therefore, organizations can effectively engage Continue reading →
The Organization of American Historians and the National Council on Public History are combining their annual meetings this year and this double-header is creating a really interesting conference for people who are working to preserve and interpret historic places. Here are just a few sessions that caught my eye (and just a few–there are more than 200 sessions offered over five days):
Museum and Makers: Intersections of Public History and Technology Buffs from Steam Trains to Steampunk
Museums, Historic Sites, and the University: Public History Projects and Partnerships in the American Indian Great Lakes
The Witness Tree Project: Using Historic Landscapes to Explore History and Memory
Toward a Reinterpretation of the Indian Wars at National Historic Sites and Parks
Closing Up Shop: Strategies for Partners and Communities When Historic Sites Close Continue reading →