Historic House Museums Gather for AASLH Workshop in Charleston

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For the past fifteen years, George McDaniel and I have taught a two-day workshop on the management of historic house museums for the American Association for State and Local History.  We cover a wide range of topics from fundraising to interpretation to disaster response to collections management–we really need a week, especially if there’s a lot of discussion.  That was certainly our experience last week in Charleston, South Carolina (and thanks to our hosts, the Historic Charleston Foundation!), where our discussions were so rich that I wasn’t able to complete most of my presentations.  That’s okay because the workshop is for the participants and as long as they find a topic that’s worth exploring, I’ll stay with them.  Indeed, George and I often find that we’re not instructors but facilitators, raising ideas and questions to provoke thoughtful discussions to help participants improve the management of their historic sites.

At the core of workshop is each participant’s “burning question.” They share their biggest concern or issue at the start of the class and at the end, they describe how they might address it when they return to their site.  It’s not only a way to make the workshop more relevant to the participants, but it also gives us a glimpse into the issues facing historic house museums around the country.  This year the questions included:

  1. As we are starting out, how do we shift from public to private support?
  2. How do we effectively communicate changes and improvements of the historic site?
  3. How do we change the public perception of the historic site?
  4. How do we improve visitor experience and handle major changes?
  5. What are the alternatives to the traditional historic house museum?
  6. What do visitors actually want for technology at historic sites?
  7. How do we engage with local community?
  8. How do we change things to attract and engage local repeat visitors? How to attract volunteers?
  9. How can we best train and retrain volunteers?
  10. What is our museum going to be? How to guide citizens, city employees, museum volunteers, and elected officials in strategic planning process?
  11. How do we create a realistic and sustainable funding plan? (Site owned by city and managed by non-profit friends organization.)
  12. What do visitors want? How to better engage with visitors?
  13. How do we better interpret the landscape to improve the visitor experience?
  14. How do we get buy-in from internal stakeholders, such as the board?
  15. What works and what doesn’t in marketing (site has many audiences)? How to approach school systems?
  16. How can we increase earned income through our six-acre site?
  17. How do we get city council to be more interested in things other than cutting the budget?
  18. How do we diversify our board to diversify our support?
  19. How do we  engage a young, transient, local community that are too hip for house museums?
  20. How do we help a modern urban environment connect to the rural history in their community?
  21. How to maximize impact with small budgets?

There are no easy or universal answers to any of these questions because each site and community is different–that’s the unique challenge and opportunity of historic sites.  While our workshop doesn’t provide answers, we do provide frameworks and processes for finding them (such as Jim Collin’s Hedgehog Concept or BCG’s Double Bottom Line).

If you want a taste of what we discussed in the workshop, here are my presentations as PowerPoint handouts:

They probably don’t make any sense by themselves, so I encourage to attend the workshop next year!

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