Jump Start Your Interpretation with a Scholars Workshop

As an interpretive planner, one of the common circumstances I encounter at a site or house museum is that historical research hasn’t been conducted for years, perhaps even decades.  It’s not that research and scholarship isn’t appreciated by the staff.  Typically there was lots of research done when the site first opened, but staff just hasn’t had time since then (the distractions of “toilet paper and light bulbs”, alas!) or there isn’t the incentive now that the place is open (“history hasn’t changed that much in twenty years, has it?”).

The past may not have changed, but our interests continually change.  Right now, the Civil War is hot but in a couple years it could be jazz.  Without new historical research, eventually tours, exhibits, events, and programs, and yes, even staff lose their edge and the place seems dull and boring.  And you have to stay committed to research for the long term because as other sites mimic your innovative interpretation, it eventually settles into a regional monotony when everyone does the same thing (e.g., now it seems that every Colonial house museum is discussing foodways, lives of servants, and the contradictions of liberty and slavery).

Scholars Workshop underway at Drayton Hall. Director George McDaniel is providing an introduction to the site during the first part of the workshop.

If you find that you’ve ignored research far too long or that your research endeavors need some direction and refinement, a scholars workshop may help.  For a day or two, a small team of scholars gathers at your site to review the current interpretation and historical resources (archives, collections, and buildings) and then discusses how they might be refined, updated, or approached in new ways.  They can also confirm existing plans, support new ideas, and suggest new books or archives to explore.  By including staff in the workshop, it rekindles their energy and allows them to think longterm and strategically about interpretation.  For an example of the structure of a scholars workshop, take a look at the agenda for a workshop I recently facilitated for Drayton Hall.

I encourage you to try this at your site, but for it to succeed, you have to treat it as a well-planned event, not just a routine staff meeting with some guests.  Here are a few suggestions to squeeze the most out of a few days:

1.  Invest time and money.  Like most things, you get what you pay for.  Assume you need to devote at least a couple days planning the agenda, assembling materials, and preparing the participants; a couple days in the workshop; and a couple days afterwards preparing a written report and determining next steps.  Although some scholars will donate their time, providing an honorarium shows respect for their knowledge and time.  At a minimum, pay for meals and reimburse travel expenses.  If you want to attract the advice from an established scholar and expect a written report, you need to offer $600-800–that’s about the daily rate of a licensed plumber or electrician.  Your scholars work at that level of expertise and should be paid accordingly.

2.  Choose scholars carefully.  You’ll want a mix of disciplines and specialities to provide a diversity of perspectives but there should be some overlap to provide common ground for discussions.  Historic sites would typically look for scholars with expertise in history, art history, cultural geography, or archaeology in the topics related to the site’s history.  Just because someone holds a Ph.D. doesn’t automatically mean they’ll be an ideal participant.  Many scholars aren’t experienced in interpreting historic sites (they stick to documents) or even worse, don’t believe historic sites offer any educational value (avoid these folks).  The lack of a Ph.D. doesn’t automatically rule someone out, but check to see if they’re qualified by reviewing their list of publications or presentations and asking for references.  Your site’s reputation could be affected by choosing someone who isn’t well regarded by other scholars.  As much as possible, try to work with scholars who are within an hour’s drive so you can easily build a long-term relationship, but don’t rule out someone across the country if they have exactly the expertise you need.  You want good advice, not convenient advice.

3.  Include staff.  Your staff, volunteers, and board can greatly benefit from the discussion.  Sure, they learn a lot and it’s useful to see your place from fresh perspectives, but the psychological benefits are just as important.   It not only shows that you recognize your staff and board’s interest in scholarship, but that you believe they can contribute and advance the organization’s excellence.  It’s important, however, to remind everyone that you want to maximize the limited time you have with the scholars, so discussions that are off-topic or should best addressed internally should be put in the “parking lot” for later (e.g., where to store the old exhibit panels or who updates the tour manual).

4.  Prepare an agenda.  The most common cause of a bad meeting is the lack of preparation.  A written agenda is not just a formality, it’s a tool for working out how to get from A to B, a mini-strategic plan for being efficient and productive in a short time.  For Drayton Hall, we met weekly for six weeks to prepare the agenda, not only thinking about how each item would transition and build to the next, but how much time was appropriate and who was responsible, who was participating and their roles, and most importantly, what did we want to achieve in this meeting.  It sounds so basic, but I can’t tell you how many times I’ve walked into a meeting and someone asks, “so, why are we meeting?”  I now avoid meetings that don’t have a decent agenda–it’s just a waste of time.

5.  Use a facilitator.  Facilitators are neutral third parties that manage the meeting.  It may sound frivolous or luxurious, but the most productive meetings are led by someone who doesn’t have a “dog in the fight” and is focused on the process to ensure you achieve your goals.  A good facilitator will help build the agenda, help identify who should participate, and acts both as a referee and coach during the meeting to allow everyone a chance to be heard, to resolve differing opinions and views, and to help build consensus and clarify thinking.   Often, they provide a short report to either summarize the results of the meeting or suggest how the group can work together more effectively.  You can hire facilitators like me (it’s what my clients request the most frequently) or you can learn how to do it yourself by watching good facilitators and reading a few books like the Facilitator’s Guide to Participatory Decision-Making by Sam Kaner, Hot Leaders, Cool Facilitators by Bart Wendell, and Gamestorming: A Playbook for Innovators, Rulebreakers, and Changemakers by Dave Gray et al.

6.  Write it down–unless you want to do it all over again.  The most common result of a bad meeting is that nothing happens.  After a couple days, no one remembers what was decided and who was supposed to do it by when.  It’s normal because of the busy days packed with urgent and important tasks.  One of the best ways to overcome this is to write down the results of the workshop and distribute it to everyone who attended.  Meeting notes are fine for documentation, but they don’t synthesize and summarize on one page the major findings and recommendations from the workshop.  Without that, you’ll not only risk forgetting but also create confusion over what’s supposed to happen next.  As a result, you wind up having another meeting to review the previous meeting–really, do you have time for that? So assign someone to review his or her notes, identify the major findings and recommendations, write it up on 1-2 pages, and send it out in writing to the participants for review and comment (I aim for 48 hours while the experience is fresh in my head).

I hope that inspires you to try a scholars workshop at your site, and remember, the same format can work for interpretive assessments, visitor research, collections scope, and fundraising plans.

5 thoughts on “Jump Start Your Interpretation with a Scholars Workshop

  1. Susan Hellman

    Hear, hear! Sadly, too many site owners/operators aren’t willing to put the money and/or staff into research.


      1. Susan Hellman

        Yet Woodlawn has had to shelve the Civil War exhibit/publication based on that research, due to insufficient staffing.


  2. Richard Layman

    FWIW, the Trust and the NMSC need to do this on themselves. I’ve suggested I think for years. Without rigorous consideration of preservation, commercial district revitalization and success and failure and opportunity for improvement, things will continue to limp along.


    1. Max van Balgooy Post author

      Thanks for your comment. You’re right–the National Trust for Historic Preservation and National Main Street Center are both long overdue for a critical scholarly assessment of its work (both successes and failures) and how it might be done better or differently. The National Trust Historic Sites have conducted self-studies and workshops with scholars on a limited basis since the 1980s and the national organization has completed informal peer reviews of programs, focus groups for marketing and public perception, and employee surveys on workplace morale, but I’m not aware that these pieces were ever pulled together to understand the big picture or focused in the manner that the National Park Service did with the Organization of American Historians (most recently the “Imperiled Promise” report available at http://www.oah.org/programs/nps/Imperiled_Promise.pdf). The Trust recently received a major grant from the American Association of Museums to “reimagine historic sites” so perhaps that’s an opportunity (see http://aam-us.org/upload/CFM-Innovation-Lab-Round-2-Announcement-of-Grantees-v5.pdf). The other opportunity is that history of the National Trust needs to be brought up to date (it currently stops at 1976!). “History” may be its middle name, but ironically, it never seemed to value “history” as a method of analyzing its own work.


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