How Planting Tomatoes Can Suggest How Museums and Sites Can Respond to COVID-19

Each year I plant a few tomato plants to keep a ready-supply of heirloom varieties at home.

It struck me as I thought about putting tomatoes into the garden. During the COVID-19 quarantine, where would I buy them? My local nurseries are closed and I can’t order them for pickup or delivery through their websites. I may have to buy them from nurseries in Michigan and Alabama–hundreds of miles away. That seems crazy but in some ways it mimics what’s happening at house museums and historic sites across the country as they navigate through the coronavirus pandemic.

Museums and historic sites are responding to the COVID-19 quarantine in many ways that can seem random, but I’m starting to notice a pattern that suggests there’s an evolution of thought, just as I’m experiencing an evolution of thought about growing tomatoes.

The responses of house museums and historic sites to the coronavirus pandemic can be organized by an evolution of thought.

Most basic is an immediate focused response to the fear of financial catastrophe due to lost admissions, retail sales, and site rentals. They seek to answer, “What can we stop doing?” and “How can we raise money quick?” The typical responses are appeals for financial support, budget cuts across the board, a general stopping of all projects and collections acquisitions, and staff is laid furloughed or laid off. Teleworking is tolerated but not encouraged. Mission, vision, values, and planning put on hold. Decisions focus on shutting things down rapidly. Leadership is fixing the leaks in a seemingly sinking ship.

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Rethinking Your Mission? Be Transformative

Erin Carlson Mast, director of President Lincoln’s Cottage in Washington, DC, will discuss how mission and vision impact their daily operations.

House museums are complex organizations but one of the most effective tools for navigating this complexity is the humble mission statement. In this 30-minute webinar, Erin Carlson Mast, president and CEO of President Lincoln’s Cottage in Washington, DC, discusses how she’s leveraged the values embedded in their mission statement to transform their community programs and daily operations to affect the lives of their visitors. She’ll be interviewed by Max A. van Balgooy (me!), co-editor of the recently published Reimagining Historic House Museums and president of Engaging Places.

The webinar is today (Thursday, April 23, 2020) at 3:00 – 3:30 pm Eastern (that’s 12 noon Pacific) and registration is free to AASLH Members and $30 Nonmembers. This webinar will be recorded and will be available in the AASLH Resource Center after the event has passed. Registrants of this event receive complimentary access to the recording in their Dashboard. 

This webinar is part of the Historic House Call webinar series. Organized by the committee of the AASLH Historic House Affinity Community, Historic House Call webinars provide staff and volunteers working in historic house museums the chance to hear from a leading expert on a topic related to historic sites and ask questions about that topic. Historic House Calls are presented quarterly at no charge for AASLH members. 

Responding to COVID-19: Conversations with & for Consultants

Amidst the tidal wave of museum layoffs and closures, many independent consultants and freelance workers are struggling to stay afloat. As Anne Ackerson writes in The COVID-19 Impact on Museum Consulting, “These are the people who work independently across the field in collections, education, governance, art handling and more. They work from job to job, shouldering the full costs of benefits, building careers while offering services many museums and heritage organizations need, but can’t afford on a full-time basis.” What does the future, both short- and long-term, look like for consultants in the museum field? Join Anne Ackerson, Dina Bailey, and Max van Balgooy to discuss unique challenges facing consultants as they consider envisioning new paths or staying the course. American Association for State and Local History is hosting this conversation on Thursday, April 16 (today!) at 3:00 pm Eastern (sorry, we’re moving rapidly to respond to COVID-19). Registration is $10, $5 for AASLH members; and if you are an organization, consultant, or student that is facing financial strain due to COVID-19, please use promo code FREEWBR20 to waive the registration fee for this conversation.  Register here.

I’ll be on the panel to open the discussion with examples from Engaging Places but we’ll be emphasizing a conversation with the attendees gather perspectives from across the nation to understand where things are now and where they might (or should) be going.

Historic Sites and COVID-19: What a Difference a Week Makes

In the week since I last reported on the impact of COVID-19 on house museums and historic sites, things have changed significantly. A sampling of websites around the country shows that most have closed through the end of March and many have canceled events through April. Last Friday, the home pages of The Alamo, Minnesota Historical Society, and Colonial Williamsburg made no mention of the virus, but within days they did. CW made a special effort to contact me to clarify that they had posted a message on its website on Tuesday, March 10 that it was “temporarily suspending ‘hands-on’ aspects of Historic Area and Art Museums programming to limit frequent contact with common objects and surfaces by employees, volunteers and guests. Colonial Williamsburg is otherwise observing normal operations and hours”, however, this was not present on its home page, where most visitors first search for information. One of the lessons we’re learning from this situation is how, when, and where we communicate vital information to our visitors and that we may need to update our emergency response procedures. Keep notes for your debriefings later on!

We can also anticipate this will have significant financial consequences, especially for those who rely heavily on tourism or revenue from admissions. At this point, I haven’t heard of any major decisions in response to this particular situation (such as layoffs), but historic sites are long experienced with hurricanes, snowstorms, hot and humid days, tree falls, and road closures that can suddenly cause attendance to plunge or prevent access to the site. We’re a resilient bunch. On the top of our minds is the unanswerable question is how long will the restrictions last? And how long will it take to resume normal operations after restrictions have lifted? Colleen Dilenschneider provides some advice to the latter question in “Why Marketing Matters During COVID-19 Closures.”

But perhaps there’s an even bigger question that we should be considering: how can house museums and historic sites contribute to our communities in this type of situation? Are we helpless or helpful? Are we vital or trivial? Certainly we need to place the health and safety of our staff (both paid and volunteer) and visitors above our buildings and collections, but then what’s next? Now that the initial response to the virus is waning, I’m seeing some movement in this regard:

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Navigating to Success at Historic Sites and House Museums

Flipping to the index in Reimagining Historic House Museums tells you much more about the contents that the table of contents.

Do you flip to the back of a book before you buy it? Indexes and bibliographies, more than a table of contents, provide a better glimpse into the ideas of a book. I appreciate them when they’re at my fingertips but assembling them is a tedious task that requires absolute attention to every page. But one of the benefits, as Ken Turino and I discovered while indexing Reimagining Historic House Museums, are the common ideas that cut across the chapters contributed by two dozen leaders in the field. Rising up to the top were three factors that are most essential to navigating to success at historic sites and house museums:

1. Finding a Mission and Purpose That’s Meaningful.

Mission statements have long been used in nonprofit organizations and the version of “collect, preserve, and interpret [insert your museum’s topic here]” has now become a cliché. Better mission statements are an overlap of the site’s historical significance and the visitors’ needs, interests, and motivations. In our book, President Lincoln’s Cottage, the Harriet Beecher Stowe Center, and the Trustees demonstrate how meaningful mission statements permeate decision-making at every level of the organization. Indeed, as my thinking continues to evolve on mission statements, they should not simply describe the work of the organization but address a major problem or issue in the community—that’s what makes them meaningful to a broader segment of the public. Why do museums collect, preserve, and interpret? To what end?

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Museums and Historic Sites Have Mixed Response to COVID-19

With concerns about the COVID-19 virus increasing, schools have moved to online instruction, the United States has closed entry to European citizens, and late-night talk shows are performing to empty rooms. The response by museums and historic sites, however, has been mixed. Some major museums, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Smithsonian Institution, and Historic New England have closed or will close soon. Because of the major outbreak in Seattle, Washington, museums in that city are most affected. The Seattle Art Museum, Museum of History and Industry, and Burke Museum have closed effective today or yesterday through at least the end of the month. Other history organizations, such as The Alamo, Colonial Williamsburg, and Minnesota Historical Society are proceeding as normal, not even mentioning the current epidemic and its effect on their operations.

Others are open but have addressed the epidemic with detailed messages on their websites:

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Reimagining Historic House Museums: Observations From the Field

Cover of the book, Reimagining Historic House Museums, published 2019.
Reimagining Historic House Museums (2019)

This afternoon Ken Turino and I will share the common factors that create a sustainable path forward for our country’s historic places. We’ll be drawing from the dozens of innovative sites described in our newly-published anthology, Reimagining Historic House Museums: New Approaches and Proven Solutions. Topics will include assessing whether an organization’s purpose is meaningful to the public, challenging institutions to think holistically, and ensuring that leadership supports risk and experimentation. We’ll be joined in conversation by Kathy Dwyer Southern, Immediate Past Co-Chair of the International Council of Museums United States. If you’re in the area, we welcome you to join us at 5:30 pm at the George Washington University Museum, 701 21st Street NW (at G Street) in Washington, DC. Several of the contributors to the book will be attending and I suspect we’ll have a rousing discussion over drinks at the nearby Tonic.

Ken and I continue to offer our one-day workshop on reimagining historic house museums around the country through the American Association for State and Local History and we’ve now added this shorter “Observations from the Field” presentation to highlight the big ideas from the book. We first presented it with Lisa Ackerman, Interim CEO of the World Monuments Fund, in New York City in October at the request of the Historic House Trust (video below). It was so well received that we’re bringing it to DC today and to Los Angeles in March (as part of the California Association of Museums meeting). We’ve also presented portions of this talk for the National Society of The Colonial Dames in America and Historic New England. If the workshop or presentation could benefit your organization, contact Ken or me for more details (we can only accommodate a couple of these each year, so we may have to plan far ahead).

“Observations from the Field”, Historic House Trust, October 2019

Retooling Professional Development for the History Field’s Leaders

The History Leadership Institute is among AASLH’s professional development programs being retooled to better meet the needs and interests of the history museums, historical societies, historic sites, archives, and other history organizations.

This year I’ve been involved in evaluating and designing a new framework for the most valuable membership benefit of the American Association for State and Local History: professional development. Surprised it ranks so high? When you step back and look at what AASLH offers—annual meeting, History News, books, technical leaflets, webinars, workshops, Standards and Excellence Program for History Organizations (StEPs), History Leadership Institute—you realize that they all sharpen the skills and help advance the mission of history organizations. Over the past two years, Conny Graft and I have designed a new framework for creating and aligning these professional development programs, and once it’s been approved and adopted, I’ll share more about this project in a future post.

I’ve also been involved in rethinking the History Leadership Institute (HLI) to better meet the needs of today’s mid-career professionals. The content has been continually tweaked, but more visible is the shift from November to June and a hybrid format. HLI now consists of two weeks online and two weeks in residence in Indianapolis, responding to the needs of professionals who want a better work-life balance and the availability of technologies to effectively deliver online learning experiences. What hasn’t changed is that HLI grapples with the tough and critical issues facing the field in a collegial environment. Although the schedule is still under development, you can get a sense of this by some of the facilitators who will be joining us in June 2020:

  • Cinnamon Catlin-Legutko, Illinois State Museum
  • Anne W. Ackerson, Leading by Design
  • Randi Korn and Stephanie Downey, RK&A
  • George McDaniel, McDaniel Consulting
  • Norman Burns and Richard Cooper, Conner Prairie
  • Erin Carlson Mast, President Lincoln’s Cottage
  • Trevor Jones, Nebraska Historical Society
  • David Young, Delaware Historical Society
  • Sarah Pharaon, International Coalition of Sites of Conscience
  • Richard M. Josey Jr, Collective Journeys

We’re also including a session by the Frameworks Institute on their research on American’s attitudes towards history, part of the larger “Framing History” project of AASLH. Whether it’s a historical society communicating with new audiences, an academic department talking with potential majors, or a museum making their case to funders or legislators, this project will provide history practitioners with tools to frame their messages as effectively as possible.

If you are interested in participating, please submit an application by December 15. Participation is limited and scholarships are available. For more details, visit HistoryLeadership.org.

How to Encourage Good Behavior at Memorials and Historic Sites

“Visitors are invited to touch the memorial names panels.”

I recently visited the National September 11 Memorial and Museum in New York City and although I didn’t know anyone who died that day, I was incredibly moved by the experience, even feeling uncomfortable taking photos. But I did because I’m always trying to understand how to interpret various events and topics, especially those that are difficult or sensitive.

I was also surprised that there was a need to explain to visitors how to behave at the memorial, the huge open fountains that mark the location of the Twin Towers and record the names of those who were murdered. Some explain what you can do, others what you shouldn’t, and some explain what’s happening. These might inspire you to think about language that might be appropriate around memorials and historic sites in your community.

Revealing the Big Ideas in Reimagining Historic Sites

At long last, Ken Turino and I have gotten Reimagining Historic House Museums off of our desks and it was released at the American Association for State and Local History annual meeting in Philadelphia in August (all copies sold out!). But there’s no rest. We’ve been encouraging contributors to discuss their chapters at state, regional, and national conferences (Ken, Monta Lee Dakin, and Steve Friesen are presenting this week at the Mountain-Plains Museum Association conference in New Mexico) and we’re debuting a new presentation about the big ideas that cut across the chapters in the book in New York City next week.

Our “Places that Innovate: Reimagining Historic Sites” presentation is part of a HHT-NYC series on Places that Make a Difference.

The Historic House Trust of New York City and NYU’s Archives and Public History MA Program have invited us to talk about these big ideas, which include the need to have a mission that’s meaningful, to cultivate holistic thinking, and to support risk and experimentation. Lisa Ackerman, the chair of the HHT, will join us for a local perspective on these topics. We’ll be in the auditorium (Room 113) at the King Juan Carlos I of Spain Center (sounds really grand!) at 53 Washington Square South from 6:00 to 7:30 p.m. on Thursday, October 3. Admission is free, but registration is required.