Embezzlement: Is It Our Dirty Secret? (a five-year update)

Five years ago I posted an essay about embezzlement at history organizations while I was on AASLH Council and in the midst of recovering from the financial fraud perpetrated by its chief financial officer.  History News recently published my updated version and included a sidebar by John Dichtl to describe the fraud at AASLH.  When it occurred, AASLH wanted to be open and transparent about the situation and use it to help others, and yet, we often found ourselves silent and frustrated because it could have jeopardized the criminal investigation and lawsuits.  Now that the CFO has been sentenced, AASLH can discuss it more openly (although some aspects are covered by confidentiality agreements). Please share this article with your colleagues to help them tighten their financial controls and reduce the chances of embezzlement at their organizations.

By the way, this issue of History News has lots of good articles for historic sites, including:

  • “The Many Voices of a Historic House” by Jane Mitchell Eliasof (about the effort reinterpret the Crane House in Montclair, New Jersey as an African American YWCA from 1920 to 1965)
  • “Like a Phoenix: Opportunities in the Aftermath of Disaster” by Samantha Engel (about the fire that occurred during a construction project at the Whaley Historic House Museum in Flint, Michigan)
  • “A Please Touch Historic House Tour” by Christine Ermenc, Christina Vida, and Scott Wands (a case study of an award-winning program at the Strong-Howard House in Windsor, Connecticut).

History News is one of the best benefits of membership in AASLH.  Along with a quarterly copy in the mail, they recently added online access through JStor and send members a pdf version in advance via email. I’ve been a member for nearly 40 years and if you want to find consistently useful ideas for managing your historic site or house museum, there’s no better place than AASLH.

Can You Create a Mission-Related Petting Zoo?

A clever storage area for odd-shaped tools and equipment at Strawbery Banke.

I just returned from leading a historic house management workshop for AASLH at the Strawbery Banke Museum in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. It’s always an opportunity to pick up some good ideas from the host institution and at Strawbery Banke, there was no shortage. Most intriguing was their Heritage House Program which restores and leases fifteen underutilized properties, creating a virtual endowment fund to support their educational programs. It’s an outstanding combination of mission and financial sustainability, earning it an award from the New Hampshire Preservation Alliance and a feature on NPR’s “All Things Considered.”

In my workshop, we discuss the importance of combining mission and sustainability using one of my favorite tools: the Double-Bottom Line.  I often joke that if historic sites just wanted to increase attendance, they might as well become petting zoos of puppies and kittens. Incredibly, Strawbery Banke has figured out how to make a mission-related puppy zoo in an event called, “Baby Animals.”  For one week, visitors can learn about a dozen heritage breeds such as Jacob sheep, Nigerian goats, and Gloucester Old Spot pigs.  No, they can’t be petted but families can watch lambs, kids, and piglets play, eat, and sleep.  For those who are really interested, there are a couple lectures and a “meet the animals” program for children ages 4 to 8 where they can have a snack, feed the animals, and create a take-home gift for $25.  What a clever idea! I’ve attached the brochure on Baby Animals at Strawberry Banke with more details.

Flex Your Pride, History Nerds!

The History List recently debuted an online store that will warm the hearts of history nerds, both conservative and radical.  You’ll find autographed history books; bright red t-shirts declaring “History Major” or “History Nerd,” as well as a “Declaration of Independence” temporary tattoo that covers your entire back (and you can even add your own signature).  The tattoos sold out immediately but you can sign up to be notified when they’re back in stock.

Your purchases support the operation and expansion of The History List, which helps attract new visitors and members to historic sites and history organizations across the country. This is all provided free by Lee Wright, who started The History List back in 2011 to get more people engaged with history and historic preservation by connecting them to the thousands of local history organizations and historic sites across the country.

Advice for CEOs from the NCMC Annual Meeting

Earlier this week I had a chance to attend the annual meeting of the North Carolina Museums Council in Wilmington.  It was incredibly beautiful weather in this historic port town and I had a great time meeting colleagues (some who were fellow graduates from the University of Delaware and others who had mutual friends in my hometown—small world!).  The conference attracted just over a hundred people, which is very small compared to the national meetings I usually attend, and when I arrived, I wondered about their value to the field.  By the time I left, I saw that they fill a special niche:

  • provides connections that are vital for aligning advocacy efforts, strengthening tourism, and sharing resources at a local level
  • provides training for people that are unable to afford to attend a national meeting (such as graduate students) or cannot travel out of state (which is becoming increasingly common in government agencies)
  • sessions are often more practical and focus on a single topic (e.g., how to create an interactive museum exhibit using Raspberry Pi, how to use journey mapping)
  • sessions are smaller (one to two dozen people) and shorter (45 minutes) which give speakers a chance to try out new ideas in a more informal setting.

I also found that participants share many of the same challenges and offer the same wisdom found in larger conferences, On Sunday, I was invited to speak at the Leadership Forum and started by asking a few questions so Continue reading

SHA Appoints New Director: Me!

I’m thrilled to announce that Developing History Leaders @SHA (formerly known as Seminar for Historic Administration) has appointed me as their Director.  Since 1959, this prestigious program has brought together some of the leading practitioners in the field of history to discuss best and future practices with a small group of mid-career professionals who want to hone their skills.  Over the decades, SHA graduates have become executives doing outstanding work at numerous museums, archives, historical societies, heritage areas, historic sites, and preservation organizations across the country.  I’ve always admired the faculty and graduates, and even though I was never able to participate in the program, I made sure that I attended the SHA Reception at the AASLH annual meeting.  It guaranteed that I would meet the people in my field who are among the most ambitious, passionate, and thoughtful.

This year will have a steep learning curve because the program has such a long history but I’m anxious to get started.  Thankfully, I’m working with a great team that includes Continue reading

Don’t Let Money Stop You: Scholarships available for Program in New England Studies

Thanks for several generous donors, Historic New England is providing scholarships for its outstanding Program in New England Studies (PINES). The scholarships are available to mid-career museum professionals and graduate students in the fields of architecture, decorative arts, material culture, preservation or public history. Candidates from diverse cultural backgrounds are encouraged to apply.

The Program in New England Studies is an intensive week-long exploration of New England decorative arts and architecture that runs from Monday, June 19 to Saturday, June 24, 2017. Participants travel throughout New England to hear lectures and presentations by some of the country’s leading experts in regional history, architecture, preservation, and decorative arts. There are workshops, visits to Historic New England properties, other museums, and private homes and collections.

If you’ve always wanted to study the architecture or decorative arts of New England, don’t let money stop you.  This year, PINES offers two generous scholarships: Continue reading

Small Museum Association Conference Was Really Big

For the first time, College Park, Maryland hosted the annual Small Museum Association conference, which was previously held for decades in Ocean City, Maryland (a seaside resort town where the rooms are cheap in winter).  The relocation was controversial but it attracted a record attendance of 315 persons, plus the facilities at the Marriott Hotel and Conference Center were much better suited for a national conference.  Not only were there a nice assortment of rooms and places to meet (not just for sessions but informal chats) but it features an outstanding art collection from the University of Maryland in its hallways, not the usual hotel pablum. Paintings and sculptures mostly by Maryland artists lined the hallways and in their own galleries, curated by Jon West-Bey (formerly at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum).  Were we in a hotel? a conference center? a museum?

While some people might assume that a conference for small museums means that it’s for beginners, you’ll find that like most professional conferences it has a variety of sessions for different levels of experience, except that it’s aimed at institutions that have a small staff and budget. Flexibility and speed are among the characteristic advantages of small museums, who sometimes forget they can innovate much faster than their bigger brethern. Some quick highlights from the education sessions I attended are: Continue reading

Upcoming Workshops Just for Historic House Museums (plus Big Discount Today)

Wheelwright House was built in 1780 at Strawbery Banke Museum inIf you’re looking to sharpen your house museum or historic site, AASLH is offering two workshops in the next couple months that are just for you.  I’m co-teaching in both of them, but discussing very different topics:

Reinventing the Historic House Museum” on March 22, 2017 at Cliveden in Philadelphia, PA.  Ken Turino and I will explore techniques, processes, and examples for reimaging historic house museums, using Cliveden as a case study and exercises that are based on your historic site.  Unfortunately, this workshop has already sold out with fifty participants, however, additional workshops are under consideration in other regions.

Historic House Museum Issues and Operations” on April 6-7, 2017 at the Strawbery Banke Museum in Portsmouth, NH. George McDaniel and I provide a broad overview of the management of house museums, which I consider one of the most complex responsibilities in the museum field (who else puts their most important object outside 24/7?).  We cover a lot of territory in two days, from boards to fundraising, from collections to interpretation, from sustainability to disaster preparedness.  It’s ideal for those who are opening a house museum or a new director of a house museum, but I’ve found that even those who are working in established house museums benefit because it allows you to step back and get the big picture. With more than three dozen historic houses from the 17th to the 20th century, the Strawbery Banke Museum is a great place to study house museums of every variety, plus Portsmouth is a charming New England town.  Registration is $270 members/$385 nonmembers, but you get $40 off registration if you book by March 2.  If you can act fast, you can save an additional $50 off of the early-bird rate (that’s $90) if you book today (midnight, Thursday, February 23) by using the code “HHMFlash.”

These two workshops are offered annually and travel around the country, often at the request from a historic site or house museum.  If you’d like to bring one of these workshops to your region, contact Amber Mitchell at AASLH at 615-320-3203 x 814.

 

Third Edition of the Encyclopedia of Local History Arrives with a Thud

Encyclopedia of Local HistoryThe latest edition of the Encyclopedia of Local History just arrived with a thud on my doorstep. Weighing nearly three pounds and two inches think, it’s a small beast. I served on the advisory board, suggested writers, and contributed entries and photographs, but didn’t realize what a hefty book it would become until a copy arrived at my door.  At 800 pages, the third edition added another 150 pages to the second edition of 2013, so if this keeps up, the fourth edition will need a handle.

Edited by Amy Wilson, the Encyclopedia is a wide-ranging assortment of definitions, topics, organizations, primary sources, historical approaches, and individual state histories, along with appendices on studying various ethnic groups and religion, and contact information for state historical societies and National Archives facilities.  Certainly it’s a reference tool for “local history” jargon that you might be able to find online (what is “historical thinking” or “repatriation” or “Soundex”?)  but it also contains mini-articles on provocative subjects (such as “Building Bridges through Local History” by George McDaniel, “Local Historical Societies and Core Purpose” by Anne Ackerson, or “Museums and Families” by Linda Norris).  The contributors are among the best people in our field, so the information is solid.  You’ll not only want to use it to look up a term occasionally but to let it open to a random page to explore the many aspects of local history (Cyndi’s list? fakelore? social purity? Tweedsmuir History Prize?).

At $145, it’s not a book everyone can afford, but it would be great addition to a reference library of a historical society or local public library.

Delaware Historical Society Cleverly Interprets One Object Two Way

Wall between two exhibitions at the Delaware Historical Society.

Wall between two exhibitions at the Delaware Historical Society.

The Delaware Historical Society reopened their museum last fall with two new complementary exhibitions designed by the Gecko Group, one a comprehensive history of the state and the other on the history of African Americans in Delaware.  I recently visited the museum with Scott Loehr, the CEO, who pointed out a clever interpretive technique.  The two exhibitions share a common wall, which has a doorway that allows visitors to walk from one to the other and exhibit cases on either side. It’s not immediately obvious, but the objects on display are interpreted differently depending on which side of the wall you’re standing.

For example, a Crown Stone from the Pennsylvania-Maryland Border has a two-sided label. The side facing Continue reading