National Park Service Installing Face Masks on Monuments

Monuments at US National Parks will be wearing face masks to encourage safe practices during the pandemic.

In response to climbing COVID rates, federal monuments will be wearing “face masks” to follow guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The Biden Administration has urged governors and mayors to implement mask mandates nationwide, however, adoption has been inconsistent and infection rates are climbing.

Mask wearing has become a political, rather than health issue, in the United States. In a recent Washington Post article, Dr. Einav Rabinovitch-Fox, who teaches U.S. and women’s and gender history at Case Western Reserve University, noted that “masks have become the most visible sign of our current political, cultural and social moment. …It’s now the latest chapter in the culture wars over our identity as a nation, our fundamental values and our rights as citizens.”

The Louvre, France’s national museum of art, has promoted face masks in a campaign featuring the iconic Mona Lisa.

As part of the U. S. Department of the Interior’s “Meeting the Moment” campaign, the National Park Service will install “face masks” on monuments at national parks on April 1 to promote healthy behaviors that reduce spread during the pandemic. “Our monuments feature some of America’s greatest heroes and if they’re wearing face masks, it will further encourage participation by our citizens,” said Jenny Anzelmo-Sarles, chief of public affairs. “European museums have been incredibly successful in turning selfie-worthy artworks into public health campaigns. Our National Parks will have a bigger impact because our monuments are bigger. And of course the presidents at Mount Rushmore should wear face masks—look how close they are to each other!”

Mount Rushmore, the Statue of Liberty, and the Lincoln Memorial will be among the most visible monuments to wear face masks, however, the campaign will include lesser known statues such as Baron Von Steuben at Valley Forge National Historical Park and Ansel Adams at the National Garden of American Heroes. The goal is to include at least one monument in every National Park, which will be challenging. The Pony Express National Historic Trail only has a statue of a galloping horse at its visitor center in St. Joseph, Missouri. “I know horses aren’t wearing face masks during COVID, but that’s the only option we have,” said executive director Cindy Daffron. “It may look foolish, but it creates the kind of Instagram moment that the public wants.”

Who Knows How COVID Affected History Organizations? AASLH Will With Your Help.

Photo by Sora Shimazaki from Pexels

Visitation at history organizations was flat from 2018 to 2019, according to AASLH’s 2020 National Visitation Report. More than 1,100 institutions across the country found almost no change in visitation from 2018 to 2019. But what will be the impact of COVID-19 on visitation in 2020?

According to AAM and Wilkening Consulting, their “National Snapshot of COVID-19 Impact on United States Museums” in October 2020 survey of museums revealed that nearly one-third of executive directors believed there was a “significant risk” (12%) of closing permanently by fall 2021 or they “didn’t know” (17%) if they would survive. Secondly, it showed that “museums are operating at, on average, 35% of their capacity–an attendance reduction that is unsustainable long-term.”

It’s now nearly six months later and time for the field to share our annual metrics to understand what actually happened, not rely on predictions. AASLH is now collecting data for the 2021 National Visitation Survey—it closes on Wednesday, March 31. It takes ten minutes to complete and all survey respondents will receive free, advance access to the results later this year. You will need on-hand your visitation data for 2019 and 2020, and your institution’s budget and staffing for 2020. More details and the survey are available at https://www.surveymonkey.com/r/Visitation2021.

March Webinars for House Museums and Historic Sites

It’s a webinar bonanza at Engaging Places this month! We’ll be participating in two different back-to-back webinars in March for house museums and historic sites, one on interpreting women’s history and the other on management and strategy.

On Thursday, March 25, 2021 at 10:00 am Central, the Wisconsin Historical Society is hosting a free panel discussion on Sharing Women’s History: Exploring New Stories and Formats for Engaging Audiences. Panelists include Mary van Balgooy, Vice President of Engaging Places, LLC and Executive Director of the Society of Woman Geographers; Meredith S. Horsford, Executive Director, Dyckman Farmhouse Museum; and Brooke Steinhauser, Program Director, The Emily Dickinson Museum. House museums, historic sites, and other cultural organizations can share women’s history through special programs, tours, and other storytelling formats. From a broad view of new directions for interpretation to strategies for virtual engagement, panelists will share examples of innovative programming and best practices for interpreting complex stories that engage new audiences. For more details, visit https://www.wisconsinhistory.org/Records/Event/EV8032

On Friday, March 26 at 3:30 pm Eastern, Stenton, The National Society of The Colonial Dames of American, and Historic Germantown are hosting, “Historic House Museum in the 21st Century: Reimaginings and New Solutions“. Stenton Curator Laura Keim will moderate a discussion with Donna Ann Harris (author of the recently updated New Solutions for House Museums) and Kenneth C. Turino and Max A. van Balgooy of Engaging Places (editors of Reimagining Historic House Museums), who will provide overviews of their recently released publications, share lessons they’ve learned from the field and their researches, and explore the nature and future of historic house museums. Cost is “Pay What You Can” and register in advance at www.stenton.org/programs. Visit http://www.rowman.com to purchase both books and use code 4S21MUS30 for a 30% discount.

Managing Projects using Gantt Charts

Henry Gantt’s chart juxtaposing tasks versus time changed project management practices a century ago.

A century ago, Henry Gantt developed a way to better manage projects by tracking tasks against time in a chart. Yes, the Gantt chart. While we’ve moved from paper to computers to manage projects, small museums and historic sites usually don’t use project management software, such as Microsoft Project, even though they have lots of projects. The software is either expensive or incredibly difficult to learn, so most rely on crafting Gantt charts in a spreadsheet.

Spreadsheets are an easy method for creating a Gantt chart but they have limited value. They’re usually satisfactory for simple planning but you can’t easily shift from a monthly to a daily view, nor show how tasks affect one another. Could I suggest TeamGantt? By using their free account, you can manage one project with three people—which is probably adequate for most small museums. If you’re clever, you can set-up several projects on one sheet, expanding or collapsing them as needed to maintain focus.

For my course on project management in museums at George Washington University, my graduate students learn how to breakdown a project using TeamGantt. They’re using IMLS-funded projects for exhibitions, school programs, and collections digitization, so it can be easily learned and applied to complex museum projects. I use it to plan my semester-long courses, tracking classes and assignments to ensure they align with each other as well as providing a handy page-at-a-glance overview.

While I usually hate registering for a free service, TeamGantt hasn’t annoyed me with advertising and spam. Instead, it sends out helpful videos and emails that focus on improving my project management skills. Unfortunately, pricing for TeamGantt jumps up sharply from free to $25 per month per person, which is probably out of bounds for most non-profit organizations. Nevertheless, I suspect that most staff in organizations large or small will find free account adequate for their own projects.

My process for planning graduate courses, with each class of the syllabus posted on the left (three of fourteen pages shown) and the TeamGantt-produced Gantt chart on the right.

Disclosure: This review is a service to the field and I receive no compensation or benefits from the developer/provider of TeamGantt.

San Diego Adopts Virtual Deed of Gift

Photo by Matthias Zomer via Pexels.

The pandemic is prompting changes throughout museums and history organizations, including the processing of deeds of gift for collection acquisitions. It is the muddy stretch of the road. I’d prepare two deeds of gift, use sticky notes to show where to sign, attach a cover sheet asking the donor to sign both copies and return one to the museum, and enclose a self-addressed stamped envelope to encourage a quick response. Finally, you drop the packet in the mail and hope to hear from the donor soon. Otherwise, it entailed more follow-up that could take weeks, sometimes months, to complete. Meanwhile, the new acquisition stared at you from the shelves in limbo every time you walked into storage.

To streamline the process, the San Diego History Center recently adopted DocuSign, an online service that allows documents to be signed and returned quickly. No need for scanning signatures or using a mouse to write out an illegible name. DocuSign uses your name to craft a “signature” in a script typeface. I recently completed a house sale using DocuSign and sailed through piles of paperwork with ease.

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Case Study: Creating an Online Course for the History Leadership Institute

Figure 1. The HLI Class of 2018 with George McDaniel (center), one of forty experts that facilitate sessions in the History Leadership Institute.

The History Leadership Institute (formerly known as the Seminar for Historical Administration) is undergoing a significant change to better serve mid-career professionals, thanks in part to the COVID-19 pandemic. Because I’ve been devoting a good portion of my time to this effort over the last year, I wanted to share a behind-the-scenes look at how HLI launched a new program to navigate this unusual situation.

The makings of this new program actually started a couple years ago. In 2018, HLI began implementing a plan to address years of declining applications. The solution wasn’t “more marketing” but clarifying its purpose and becoming more aware of the needs and interests of the professionals that participate AND the organizations that sponsor them. Secondly, it needed organizational stability. Most of the original sponsors had dropped out over the decades except for the American Association for State and Local History, which willingly accepted HLI into its existing suite of professional development offerings.

In 2019, we reformatted the Seminar from a three-week residential program to a four-week hybrid (two weeks online and two weeks in-person) to better accommodate the needs of most working professionals. We also shifted the program from November 2019 to June 2020 to gain access to better housing at a nearby university and serve professionals who were unable to participate in the fall (FYI, given the size and breadth of the US, there seems to be no ideal time to offer a residential program but a survey showed that summer was more popular than fall).

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Resources for Transitioning Museum Programs to Online

Attending George Washington University’s online workshop to prepare for teaching online this fall.

George Washington University (GW), where I teach in the Museum Studies Program, recently decided to move all of its courses online this fall. To prepare, I completed an intensive three-day course to create effective online courses, which introduced the latest research on the factors that make online courses effective and wide (and overwhelming) range of teaching tools that are available.

I’m incredibly fortunate that GW is supporting the faculty with lots of resources and training this summer, which required the Libraries and Academic Innovation staff to move quickly to prepare videos, workshops, and materials faster than I ever would for a student course. Many of the ideas that I gathered could easily be adapted by museums and historic sites as they shift their programming, so I wanted to share them with you. Some don’t require any costly software applications or learning management systems, but just some new planning approaches:

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Black Lives Matter (Sort Of)

The “Silence is Not an Option” banner on the website of the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute links to their statement.

Across the country, history museums and historical societies have issued statements in response to the recent police killing of George Floyd and protests against racism—but it’s a mixed bag. I’ve examined more than fifty history organizations and found that while there are some common values in the field, there’s a wide disparity of thought.

Who is Concerned?

About twenty percent of the history organizations in this study made no statement but it is likely lower because statements were posted on websites, as news releases, sent as emails to members, or shared on Twitter or Facebook (and rarely on more than one channel), which makes it difficult to easily collect statements. Where you make a statement is just as important as what you say. Listing a “Statement from the CEO” in the “Press” section of a website is different from a banner on the home page is different from an email sent to a few hundred members is different from a single tweet.

“A Message from the Arizona Historical Society” on the News page of the Arizona Historical Society website.

Typically, the CEO or executive director issued the statement and very few included the board chair. Did the CEO take a personal risk to issue a statement? Are boards unwilling to get involved or unable to achieve consensus? Will current events force organizations to rethink their mission, vision, or values?

Without conducting interviews, it’s unclear why this pattern exists. It could be uncertainty about what to say, fear of offending donors or their community, a lack of consensus among staff and board, a policy on statements, or an effort to avoid conflict or current events. Nevertheless, the patterns are revealing and suggest that history organizations have a long way to go in their efforts to be a relevant and meaningful part of their entire community. I strongly encourage all history organizations who are making statements to include them on their websites—unless there’s an important reason to avoid it.

History organizations issued their statements as early as May 30 and most during the first week of June, about a week after George Floyd’s murder on May 25 and when the protests had spread nationally. These statements are more challenging to write and I know some went through extensive review processes to gain consensus and approval, which can take days to accomplish. I also sense that Floyd’s death was a tipping point for many organizations because African Americans had been senselessly killed for decades but rarely had historical societies responded. About half of the statements mentioned George Floyd by name and about a quarter also included Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor, so recent events seem to have been the greatest influence on these statements. About ten percent named other victims as far back as the beating of Rodney King in Los Angeles in 1991, but some looked back centuries to put recent events in historical context, such as the American Historical Association, Historic Germantown, Maine Preservation, and Minnesota Historical Society. I recommend that history organizations clearly connect their statements to their mission or vision to ensure this is not merely a token effort; connect your concerns to the history of the region or period you interpret because, well, you’re a history organization; and include individual names whenever possible to move from the abstract to the personal.

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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.