A Process for Rethinking the Historic House Museum

Mission-Sustainability Matrix Next week I’ll be at the Margaret Mitchell House in Atlanta, Georgia leading a workshop with Ken Turino of Historic New England on the rethinking the historic house museum.  We’re not the only ones who are working on this topic, indeed, Michelle Zupan at Hickory Hill  assembled a five-page bibliography of books, articles, and dissertations for the workshop, so long that I’m hesitant to distribute it because it could be discouraging (“what? I have to know all this to rethink my historic house?”).

And if we want to go beyond historic house museums, the list would be even longer. Businesses have been “rethinking” for decades in order to grow in size or increase their profits.  They have the resources to study this topic rigorously and there is a lot we can borrow for our field (and much that doesn’t apply and can lead non-profits astray–but that’s for another blog post).  I’ve been delving deep into the literature and testing ideas with organizations to identify those frameworks and models that are most useful.  I’m aiming for a process that historic sites and house museums can use to become more financially sustainable and better achieve their mission.  The pieces are slowly falling into place, enough that I’d like to share them with you for your thoughts and suggestions:

  • Five Forces by Michael Porter
  • Unique Value Proposition by Michael Porter
  • Double-Bottom Line Matrix, an adaptation from the Growth Share Matrix by the Boston Consulting Group
  • Planning Canvas by Alexander Osterwalder and Yves Pigneur, modified by Ash Maurya

They’re explained a bit more in the attached one-page handout, “Reinventing Process for House Museums” but if you want to discuss them and see how they work, attend the AASLH workshop on June 12.  We’ll explain the models and then apply them to the Margaret Mitchell House as a hands-on experience.  We’ll work through them individually and in small groups so that everyone leaves with enough knowledge so that they can apply them to their site.  The Portsmouth workshop was sold out but we still have space available in Atlanta.

2 thoughts on “A Process for Rethinking the Historic House Museum

  1. Randi Korn

    Thank you Max and Ken for taking this on! I’d like to suggest that achieving impact on audiences is as important than advancing the mission and vision. Mission is what the historic house does, and vision is what it aspires to become. Impact is the result of that work on the public they serve. I think part of the problem historic house museums face is that they are solely focused on what they do, and while they create and deliver programs to audiences (that is what they do), many historic houses do not spend time understanding the result of what they do– what are visitors’ experiences? Is there a misalignment between what we do and what we hope visitors experience? Are staff learning from visitors and then changing what they do and how they do their work? The difference between what an organization does (advance mission and vision) and the result of that work is subtle, but important.


    1. Max van Balgooy Post author

      Thanks, Randi! Perhaps our field needs a triple-bottom line? The UK National Trust has developed this model, although their third metric is environmental sustainability.


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