Try Question-Storming Rather Than Brainstorming

Question-storming women’s history at George Washington University.

Over the years I’ve done a lot of brainstorming, either by myself or with groups, to find creative solutions to various challenges. The technique has been around for decades and consists of listing as many ideas as possible without discussion or judgment. It can be fun and lead to some new ideas, but I’ve also found that its success is significantly shaped by who’s in the room. It’s also so focused on finding an answer that you often overlook if you’ve defined the problem correctly.

As an alternative I’ve been experimenting with question-storming, an idea pioneered by the Right Question Institute (yup, there is such a thing). They’ve designed it for K-12 teachers as a way for students to develop their analytical skills, but I’ve had success with graduate students as well. Rather than provide a list of solutions, the goal is to produce as many questions as possible about the topic or issue.  I’ve set twenty-five as the minimum, aiming for fifty questions. As in brainstorming, you don’t discuss, judge, or answer any questions—that’s done later.  For more details, Continue reading

Webinar: Detecting & Preventing Embezzlement with Kelly Paxton

I’ve written previously about embezzlement and financial fraud in museums and historic sites, but even better is an AASLH webinar on Thursday, February 22 at 3:00 pm Eastern with Kelly Paxton, a national expert on embezzlement.  Kelly is a certified fraud examiner who has worked in both the public and private sectors, including the US Customs Office of Investigations, Office of Personnel Management, and the Department of Homeland Security. I’ve gotten to know her through her website pinkcollarcrime.com about women embezzlers in the workplace, who unfortunately count many museums and nonprofits among their victims.

In less than two hours, you’ll learn policies and procedures that not only will help you prevent a devastating financial loss, but protect your staff and board members as well. The cost is $65 ($40 for AASLH members) and can help you avoid the loss of thousands of dollars and the long-term damage to your reputation. Indeed, it might be happening to you right now (these criminals are sneaky—has your bookkeeper avoided vacation in the last couple of years?).  Learn more at Fraud at the Museum: Protecting Your Organization from a Devasting Event (part of AASLH’s Nightmare at the Museum webinar series).

In case you missed it, some recent news stories about embezzlement in museums: Continue reading

Video: Berlin’s Memorial to Homosexual Victims of Nazism

Berlin has an incredible number of memorials, museums, and “documentation centers” that address the history and consequences of the Nazis but one that can be easily overlooked is the “Memorial to Homosexuals Persecuted Under Nazism” (Denkmal für die im Nationalsozialismus verfolgten Homosexuellen) installed in the Tiergarten (Berlin’s Central Park) in 2008. From a distance, it looks like a grey concrete slab. It’s not until you walk around it that you notice a small window in which a short video plays in a loop. Even after watching it, you wouldn’t be sure what you’ve experienced until you found the low interpretive panel placed off to the side. It reads:

In German: Im nationalsozialistischen Deutschland fand eine Homosexuellen-Verfolgung onhe gleichen in der Geschichte statt. . . . Continue reading

Learn from Leading Scholars in Your Home or Office

TED Talks has spawned the renewal of lectures as an engaging form of education (who would have guessed?) and many universities and organizations are regularly sharing lectures from their public programs, staff workshops, and student courses online with the public.  They’re also a great resource for house museums and historic sites, who can use them for professional development and staff training, or to check out a potential speaker for a special event.  They might even inspire museums to record their own events and share them online.  Here are a couple programs that caught my eye: Continue reading

Video: Finding a Museum’s IRS Form 990

This blog shares lots of the intriguing ideas that I encounter at house museums and historic sites in my travels, and often they’re best explained through video. How else can you really understand how a hands-on activity works or how visitors behave during a tour? I’ve shared plenty of videos created by others but this past year I’ve been learning how to create my own videos for the museum field, using my ever-present iPhone to shoot video snippets, mastering ScreenFlow, and studying how others create videos on YouTube (e.g., Peter McKinnon, Curtis Judd, DottoTech, and Video Creators).  Now my efforts have been nudged along by the classes I’ve started to teach this year at George Washington University where I’m incorporating “flipped learning” approaches to move some of my lectures online to devote as much time in the classroom to group discussions and activities.

I shared one of my initial forays into video creation several months ago on a cool interactive technique from a traveling exhibition at the Indiana State Museum and this week I’m posting two more videos which are a bit more complex.  I’m hoping my videos will improve over time but I do want to maintain their “hand-crafted” nature so they stays personal (in other words, the quality should get better but don’t expect “high production values”).

I created today’s video for my museum studies classes to help students find the Form 990, Continue reading

Met Museum Segmenting Visitors to Improve Its Online Collections

The Metropolitan Museum of Art recently shared the results of its research on the users of its online collections, which approach about 600,000 visitors per month.  Digital analyst Elena Villaespesa collected information on motivations and knowledge through Google Analytics, heat maps, and an online survey to develop six core user segments: professional researchers, student researchers, personal-interest information seekers, inspiration seekers, casual browsers, and visit planners.  This typology will help the museum “plan new content and prioritize production of new features for the online collection” and is a finer version of the “stroller/streaker/scholar” categories that are often used by museum educators.

Using visitor research to plan and design the online collection is good application, but the article also points out several other ideas that will be useful to history museums and historic sites: Continue reading

Video: Interactive “Book”

While I’m in Indianapolis for the Seminar for Historical Administration, I had a chance to view the “The Power of Poison“, a traveling exhibition at the Indiana State Museum. Organized by the American Museum of Natural History, it includes a wide variety of exhibition techniques but one I’ve never seen before is a “Harry Potter”-style interactive book that features moving images activated by touch as well as pages that can be turned.  It’s best explained in a short video, so watch as these two girls look at the book to see what happens (and whose father told me it was their fourth visit to the exhibition).

The Big Challenges Facing Leaders at SHA

The Seminar for Historical Administration completed the first of a three-week program in Indianapolis and we’re learning a lot—so much that it’s sometimes overwhelming. We’re getting great ideas from the presenters, classmates, and field trips.  While we’re a bit quiet during our discussions, it’s probably more due to the processing of all the new information we’re receiving than from an unwillingness to share our opinions. At the end of the week, John Marks, Morgan L’Argent, and Jeff Matsuoka facilitated discussions around three major issues we encountered, including some of the major challenges they’ll be facing when they return to their institutions in a couple weeks. Do any of these sound familiar to you?

1. Managing change: How to best integrate new ideas in our institutions. Will management accept new ideas or recognize a need for change? Will we be allowed to discuss or instigate change? How can change occur within a hierarchical organization? Will our ideas be viewed as an inauthentic or insincere public relations effort? Will the staff and board take action? Are our expectations set too low, making new ideas too much to handle? Will our new ideas result in a loss of our job or alienate donors and supporters?

2. Broadening participation: Are we including other perspectives and voices? Are alternative opinions being heard? Are we working in an echo-chamber, just having a conversation of people who agree with us? How do we ensure volunteers are included?

3. The tyranny of the urgent: Too distracted by daily operations to tackle big issues. How do I pace myself when there’s a long list of things to do? How do I manage my existing workload while processing new ideas from SHA? How do I avoid being discouraged or feeling defeated?

4. Achieving alignment: Articulating a strategic plan that is progressive, cohesive, and relevant in an environment where status quo, non-reflection, and bureaucracy is the norm. How to overcome inertia? How to find alignment between a new vision for the organization and its mission, values, and priorities? How do I find the right team? How do I achieve ambitious goals within the limitations of my job description?

As the director of SHA, I’m absorbing all of these experiences, but I’m not thinking how I can apply them to my museum or historical society back home. Instead, my brain is rattling around with ways to make the program even better next year so that the participants are even more effective as leaders at their organizations and in the history field.

If you have suggestions or comments on these issues, I’d love to hear from you and I’ll be sure to share them with the class. You’ll also want to return to this blog in a few weeks to see how thinking has evolved.  It’s great to have the time to step back and reflect on these issues!

Review: Historic House Museums in the US and UK by Linda Young (2017)

Young House MuseumsHistoric House Museums in the United States and the United Kingdom: A History by Linda Young. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2017. v + 299 pp.; bibliography, index; clothbound, $85.00; eBook, $80.00.

Historic house museums are one of the most popular ways that the public experiences history in the United States, although we only have a fragmentary understanding of their history. Linda Young tackles this topic not only for the United States but also the United Kingdom, with occasional examples from her homeland in Australia.

Linda Young is a senior lecturer in cultural heritage and museum studies at Deakin University in Melbourne, trained as a historian focused on nineteenth-century Britain. She has also worked as a curator at several house museums. After completing a survey of house museums in Australia, she expanded her scope to include the United Kingdom and United States in order to develop transnational comparisons that would reveal patterns in the motivations for transforming private houses into public museums (a process she calls ‘‘museumization’’). Furthermore, she wanted to distinguish house museums from other types of museums, giving them a distinctiveness and prominence that the museum field rarely considers. In a sense, she is giving house museums their own history and identity.

Her research into guidebooks, directories, Wikipedia entries, articles, and books, as well as field trips, convinced her that there are Continue reading

Seminar for Historical Administration underway in Indianapolis

Seminar for Historical Administration 2017 in Indianapolis

This year’s Seminar for Historical Administration (SHA) is meeting in Indianapolis and all of our hard work in selecting participants and presenters over the past months is coming to fruition.  For three weeks in Indianapolis, a dozen people in the history field will be discussing the leading issues facing leaders and debating their solutions.  I’ve assembled the schedule and directing the program, so I’m particularly excited to see how it unfolds each day. A big thanks to the dozens of people who are helping to make this extraordinary experience happen.

SHA opened on Sunday with Erin Carlson Mast, the President and CEO of President Lincoln’s Cottage, laying out the trends in the field.  She noted how much has changed in the last ten years and that our work is more important than ever. I was particularly intrigued by her insistence that the mission and vision of the organization need to be manifested not only in the public programs and activities but also in the budget and operations.  For example, their interpretation of slavery during Lincoln’s era motivated them to examine modern-day slavery (human trafficking) through their award-winning SOS program for teens AND make choices about the restoration materials used in the Cottage. Afterwards, we visited the library and archives at the Indiana Historical Society and had dinner together at a local restaurant.

Yesterday, David Young, Executive Director at Cliveden and Tim Grove of the National Air and Space Museum discussed the opportunities and challenges for making history relevant. It seems that everyone is struggling to make this happen, either through their programming or evaluation, and perhaps the most important discovery is that we need to learn more about our audience’s interests, motivations, and needs.

Today, Pamela Napier and Terri Wada at Collabo Creative will lead us through a short workshop on “design thinking” and then we’ll visit the Indiana State Museum to meet their new CEO Cathy Ferree and visit collections, and return to the Indiana Historical Society to learn about conservation.