Pursuing an Aspirational Vision

1488056History organizations choose the impact they want to make.  Sometimes the choice is intentional and brought in by a visionary leader or strategic plan, but it can also come about through organizational confidence and maturity.  These transitions can occur quickly or over many years, and unlike puberty, there’s no guarantee that an organization won’t return to its previous condition.  In my work with dozens of history organizations over the past thirty years, I’ve witnessed three typical turning points that resulted in extraordinary activities and programs.  Two turning points–doing history with passion and making history meaningful–were discussed previously.

The third turning point for history organizations occurs when they adopt an aspirational vision for improving society.   Imagining a better America, museums, historic sites, and historical societies can follow examples set by such visionaries as Ann Pamela Cunningham.  She believed that George Washington’s exemplary service during the nation’s formation would urge a “bond of Union and political regeneration” during a period of increasing conflict in the 1850s and that the preservation of Mt. Vernon would “commence a new Era in our political life as a Nation.”  Her vision of preserving the Union was sadly delayed by the Civil War, but her creation of one of the nation’s first historic house museums prompted the formation of many others in the century that followed.

Many historic sites, historical societies, and museums have aspirational visions within their founding DNA but these hopeful images may have been forgotten over time.   That passion can be restored, however.  Museums are already considered the most trustworthy places to learn about the past and serve as a common place for learning and discovery.  By using diverse collections and perspectives, history organizations build bridges among various groups and encourage mutual understanding.  By exploring shared histories through exhibits, programs, events, websites, and publications, they engage people in many ways.  By focusing on the local and nearby, they strengthen connections among neighbors.   By saving significant places in their community, they publically demonstrate a commitment to its own heritage.  These are exactly the characteristics that are essential for building strong communities—an aspirational vision I hope all history organizations share.

One piece, however, is often missing:  a gutsy vision.  The typical mission of collecting, preserving, and interpreting is not sufficient.  Those are methods, tasks, jobs, works, or actions that define a purpose and explain “how” it will be accomplished.  Needed is a goal, a destination, a target, the ends, an idealized description of the future that explains “why.”  To borrow from grammar, it needs a transitive verb—a verb that requires one or more objects.  What’s the object or purpose of collecting, preserving, and interpreting?  As you fulfill your mission, what do you want people to know, feel, or do?  What impact do you want to have on your community?  How can you do history in the public’s interest?  Every history organization will answer these questions differently because every community is unique, but ultimately, the struggle to answer them will result in a clear (and hopefully inspiring) vision.   

As management guru Peter Drucker reminds us, the non-profit organization’s “product is a changed human being.  Non-profit institutions are human-change agents.  The ‘product’ is a cured patient, a child that learns, a young man or woman grown into a self-respecting adults, a changed human life altogether.”  It is incredibly difficult for history organizations to have a courageous vision.  To suggest how the future could be better or different suggests we’ve judged the present to be bad or incomplete—it’s so much easier to avoid controversy or debate.  An honest exploration of history won’t allow escape us to escape difficulties and contradictions.  History is the study of people, who are often complex, intricate, irrational, interwoven, and knotty.  Strip out the difficult parts, and history loses its power to inform, educate, and inspire because it becomes less authentic, truthful, and human.

History organizations can be aspirational and seek to improve their communities, as witnessed in these two examples:

The Harriet Beecher Stowe Center preserves and interprets Stowe’s Hartford home and the Center’s historic collections, promotes vibrant discussion of her life and work, and inspires commitment to social justice and positive change.

The Anne Frank House cares for the Secret Annex, the place where Anne Frank went into hiding during World War II and where she wrote her diary.  It brings her life story to the attention of people all over the world to encourage them to reflect on the dangers of anti-Semitism, racism, and discrimination, and the importance of freedom, equal rights, and democracy.

Harriet Beecher Stowe and Anne Frank continue to inspire history organizations and their visitors.  It may seem impossible to be inspirational if your museum or site isn’t focused on an extraordinary person or event, but consider the history you preserve and interpret—why is it significant and important?  In your community’s history, what were the turning points?  Who was involved?  As decisions were made, what alternatives were rejected?  What are the challenging issues today?  How did they come about?  What happened before and after?  Who was involved?  Every community has ordinary people who have made and are making extraordinary changes—we need to find them in our collections and embody their spirit in our organizations.

This is an excerpt from “Becoming Ordinary: Turning Points that Transform History Organizations,” which was first published as, “Turning Points:  Ordinary People, Extraordinary Change” in History News, 68:2 (Spring 2013): 7-13 to explore the theme of the 2013 Annual Meeting of the American Association for State and Local History.