Of all the organizations in the United States devoted to arts, culture, and humanities, Historical Societies & Historic Preservation (NTEE A82) organizations have an outsized presence. More than a third of all organizations “sponsor activities which celebrate, memorialize and sometimes recreate important events in history such as battles, treaties, speeches, centennials, independence days, catastrophes that had an important impact or other similar occasions.” “Historical society,” “historical association,” “heritage society,” “preservation,” and “restoration” are in the name of nearly 80 percent of institutions in this category. They are also focused on local history—only one in twenty institutions appear to have a geographic scope larger than the county level.
While preserving and interpreting local history is their primary interest, these organizations are the smallest by revenue. More than 90 percent operate with less than $1 million in revenue annually and have a median revenue near $64,000 (yes, the median is $64,000 annually for all A82 organizations for 2011-2017—half of these organizations operate with less than this amount). Only Historical Organizations (A80) produce similar financials, albeit with slightly higher figures.
Seven is the number associated with completeness and perfection, but I’m not perfect and rarely satisfied, so before I complete seven years as director of the History Leadership Institute (HLI), I’m turning the chair over to someone else.
When I was appointed director in 2017, applications had fallen for several years and we held the Seminar with just thirteen people, accepting everyone that applied. If this continued, it would no longer be financially feasible to offer the Seminar. I was puzzled because the program had a terrific reputation in the field and saw its impact on my friends and colleagues.
While we gathered for three weeks in November 2017 for the Seminar at the Indiana Historical Society, I worked on a side project to rethink the program to make it more sustainable and attractive. In the usual HLI fashion, I sketched out ideas on flipcharts spread out on the classroom wall, asking everyone who came into the room for their reactions and ideas. By the end of the Seminar, I had diagrammed a long-range plan with immediate and short-term recommendations that included:
Affirming its focus on organizational leadership and personal leadership.
Changing the name from the Seminar for Historical Administration to shift the emphasis to leadership.
Moving the organizational structure from a partnership among several history organizations to AASLH to better facilitate administration and ensure longterm support.
Considering alternatives to the three-week residential format to better serve mid-career history professionals.
The History Leadership Institute, AASLH’s professional development program for mid-career history professionals, introduced its long-running Seminar in a new format in June.
In 1959, the Seminar began as an effort to train newly graduated history students and directors of history museums in the unique skills of managing museums, historic sites, and archives in a six-week program held at Colonial Williamsburg, During the decades that followed, the Seminar has continually changed to meet the needs of the field and explore new and emerging practices.
When your history organization is modeling itself on other museums or historical societies, are you choosing the right ones? Are they doing things that are well within your capacity or are you following an impossible dream? There’s nothing wrong with observing the extraordinary leaders in the field, but if you’re modeling your life on a superhero, you may be destined for an avoidable series of crashes and burns. You would have been much more successful had you devoted your time and energy on more achievable efforts.
For example, Historical Organizations (NTEE Code A80) are “organizations that promote awareness of and appreciation for history and historical artifacts,” which is mostly composed of local historic sites, house museums, and memorials that are not solely history museums or historical societies. A sample of Historical Organizations shows that many focus on local history, support museums, or memorialize people, places, or events (see Table 1). Of the 2,500 Historical Organizations providing IRS Forms 990 in 2017, nearly 40 percent include the words “memorial,” “foundation,” “friends,” or “association” in their names.
The History List, creators of the annual History Camp, continues to launch a series of fun and engaging products to inspire Americans to explore and share their history. Today they’re releasing a limited supply of Presidential Gummies that are sure to turn children into history nerds. They also align with the “Doing History” theme for the 250th Commemoration by encouraging open conversations about what history is, the many ways it is done, and why it matters.
Made by Haribo, the German manufacturer of Goldbears® since 1922, these colorful gummies in flavors from pineapple to strawberry representing all the presidents are sure to delight (and become a collector’s item among history buffs). These Presidential Gummies and other cool history stuff are available online in The History List store.
A financial review of more than 1,300 History Museums in 2017 reveals that nearly 90 percent operate on less than $1 million annually, and nearly half on less than $100,000 (see Figures 1 and 2). History museums are financially fragile, but an annual increase in revenue of $5,000 to $10,000 could have a tremendous impact on their capacity and impact. How might this be achieved? Hints of potential solutions are revealed in the changing revenue patterns of larger museums.
A closer look shows that most History Museums derive about 60-70 percent of their revenue from “unearned” sources (i.e., contributions, grants, investments, fundraising events, membership dues), but the mix changes according to size. Museums with less than $10 million in revenue received 4 to 6 percent of their income from investments, which doubled or tripled in the largest museums to 11 percent. While asking for support from people and foundations (i.e., contributions and grants) remained steady, there seems to be increased attention on making money from money (e.g., interest, dividends, sale of securities, drawing funds from endowments).
This Friday, April 1 from 4-6 pm, the Museum Studies Program hosts the 24th Malaro Symposium in Hammer Auditorium at the Corcoran School of the Arts and Design, 500 17th Street, NW (enter from the side entrance on New York Avenue). Admission is free. The annual symposium is held in honor of Marie Malaro, the longtime chair of the Museum Studies Program and author of the landmark book, A Legal Primer on Managing Museum Collections. Kaywin Feldman, director of the National Gallery of Art, will discuss museums in uncompromising times, and we’ll have three students share highlights from their award-winning research papers:
Avery Barth, “New Archives, New Practices: Exploring the Digitial Transgender Archive”
Norman Storer Corrada, “Austerity and Access: The Ongoing Challenges of the Institute of Puerto Rican Culture National Collection”
Haley Higinbotham, “The Utilization of Technology to Show the Polychromy of Ancient Art”
Like art, efforts to define “museum” are challenging and controversial. The American Alliance of Museums takes the “big tent” approach to defining museums—“if an organization considers itself to be a museum, it’s in the tent” (AAM 2008, 3). The Internal Revenue Service, however, takes a different approach, which can be puzzling to the field. It assigns the type of charitable organization (e.g. history museums, elementary schools, forest conservation) with no guidance or approval from the organization. Among the categories is “Museums” (NTEE code A50), which is described as, “Organizations that acquire, preserve, research, exhibit and provide for the educational use of works of art, objects or artifacts that are related to the study of zoology, biology, botany, mineralogy, geology and other natural sciences; history; archeology; or science and technology.”
An analysis of IRS Forms 990 of museums identified as NTEE code A50 reveals the incredible diversity of the field as well as challenges our notions of “museum” (see list of examples in Table 1; a complete list is available as a pdf). Consisting of roughly 18 percent of the entire museum field, Museums (A50) are the third-largest type behind Historical Organizations (A80) and Historical Societies & Historic Preservation (A82) (see Figure 1). While large in number, Museums (A50) have fewer resources than the average player in the field, but are growing faster. They hold average net assets of $3,501,000, which is 28 percent lower than the museum field as a whole, but their average net assets increased 11 percent year over year compared to the 4 percent average of the entire museum field. They are also united by their smaller scale and resources rather than subject matter with more than 85 percent of institutions receiving less than $1 million in revenue each year (see Figure 2), confirming the value of providing targeted services to small museums, such as the Small Museum Association, or funds, such as NEH’s Preservation Assistance Grants.
Imagine taking a road trip to visit Independence Hall. It would be impossible to get there if you don’t know where you are (are you starting in Boston? Chicago? Los Angeles?). Yet most museums and historic sites find themselves in this same predicament—but they don’t know it.
Knowing your museum’s financial position within its larger context can more clearly improve performance. We’ve witnessed how demographic shifts, a global pandemic, and social issues have affected all museums in the last year. Identifying which museums are responding well or poorly is largely based on rumor and anecdote, resulting in an incomplete picture of the field—and potentially misleading if a museum bases its decisions on them. Instead, we are following the advice of Karen Berman and Joe Knight, authors of Financial Intelligence (2013): “The art of accounting and finance is the art of using limited data to come as close as possible to an accurate description of how well a company is performing.”
Readers of History News will have caught a preview of her new book in a Technical Leaflet that accompanied the Winter 2021 issue. In this Leaflet, Kristin lays out a compelling need to change our approach:
Presenting the history of slavery inclusive and conscientious school programs is difficult and necessitates challenging the prevailing, and incomplete, narrative. It requires diligence and compassion—for the history itself, for those telling the story, and for those hearing the stories. It is a necessary part of the collective narrative about our past, present, and future.
We must talk with young people about slavery and race, as it is not enough to just talk to them or about the subject. By engaging students in dialogue about slavery and race, they bring their prior knowledge, scaffold new knowledge, and create their own relevance—all while adults hear them and show respect for what they have to say. We cannot fail future generations of learners the way many of us were failed by the sites we visited as children.
Her new book will provide more advice, examples, and replicable practices for the comprehensive development and implementation of slavery-related school and family programs at museums and historic sites.
If you haven’t met Kristin, she’s worked in museums for nearly 30 years. She holds a master’s degree in museum education from George Washington University (where I now teach in the museum studies program) and has led the education departments at the Montana Historical Society and the USS Constitution Museum and is currently the project manager for education development at the Tsongas Industrial History Center. She facilitates workshops for museums and historic sites on developing comprehensive and conscientious interpretation of slavery and speaks regularly at public history and museum conferences.