Engaging Places is Expanding its Vision

GWU-or-SHA.jpgThis year has been incredibly busy for me, so much so that I’ve been unable to share many of the ideas that I’ve discovered in my travels to historic sites across America through this blog. Along with my active consulting practice, I’ve recently agreed to become the director of Developing History Leaders @SHA and an assistant professor in the Museum Studies Program at George Washington University (GWU).  Both positions were announced at the same time at the beginning of the year and because they were both attractive opportunities, I applied for both, thinking it was like submitting an application to IMLS and NEH and assuming only one or none would be funded.  I hit the jackpot when both came my way and I’m thrilled about the opportunities.  I’m already at work with SHA in November and teaching at GWU starting in January 2018.

As my friends and colleagues learn about this big change in my career, they’ve asked what will happen to Engaging Places? I love the work that I do through my company, but obviously, I’ll have to reduce the number of projects that I can accept. Fortunately, my summers are wide open and GWU encourages its faculty to stay active in their respective fields by allowing a limited amount of work outside the university during the academic year. Engaging Places will still be here but it will change through the new connections at SHA and GWU to everyone’s benefit.

Secondly, I’m asked how will I manage the competition among these responsibilities. Rather than competing goals, I see them as incredibly aligned towards building capacity at history organizations, which is one of the major interests of my career.  For the past forty years, I’ve continually witnessed the fragile state of our historic sites because of the limited capacity of the organizations that own and manage them.  And yet, I’ve seen outstanding award-winning work accomplished by museums and historic sites that can barely pay for postage stamps, while some with multi-million dollar endowments are churning out the same tasteless pablum.  The difference is the people who manage and operate these sites, from the board members to the CEOs to the docents to the gardeners.

When I was the director of interpretation and education at the National Trust for Historic Preservation, I saw what a difference a smart thoughtful person (which could be the director, a manager, or a trustee) could make at a historic site (but again, these sites are also so fragile that one person could easily make a mess).  As a shared “in-house consultant,” I could help an organization move a goal forward by providing my specialized expertise—which was especially important because they might not have an educator or historian on staff.  Dedicated funding also supported in-house workshops for their staff and paid for registration and travel to professional conferences, helping them to invest in the people that were already on site.  As a result, I’ve become increasingly aware that building capacity at historic sites can best be achieved by developing the people who have an interest and desire to make their organizations succeed. Despite the continual pleas in our field for more money and staff, the response has been lackluster (but I’m not going to stop trying!). Instead, I’m focusing my efforts on professional development, whether it’s a blog post or a book, a one-day workshop or a semester-long class, a three-week residential program or a YouTube video (soon!).

GWU-and-SHA.jpgWhen I launched Engaging Places six years ago, it allowed me to expand this work of building capacity in our field through this blog, my clients, and various partnerships and initiatives, such as the History Relevance Campaign and the American Association for State and Local History.  With my new roles at SHA and GWU,  I see this work moving up a new level through their incredible networks and resources.  It’s an opportunity to follow Henry Mintzberg‘s admonition that, “instead of distinguishing leaders from managers, we should be seeing managers as leaders, and leadership as management practiced well.” My ideas are just dim unfocused spots right now but will be clearer in the years ahead.  My biggest challenge is that I need to pull myself back from working on these things 24/7, not because of the overwhelming tasks but because I’m so excited to make them happen (and I want to spend time with my family, friends, and right now, the lawn needs to be mowed). I’ll keep you posted on my discoveries through this blog.

8 thoughts on “Engaging Places is Expanding its Vision

  1. Richard L Layman

    Congratulations. Very interesting is your perspective on organizational capacity as well as the organization having a realistic view of its place/status/success. I sit on the board of a public market that has all these issues. I’ve said the same stuff, consistently, for ten years, mostly to no avail. It will continue to decline (at least the vendors complain about declining sales) while appearing to be successful, because of the intransigence of the vendors, who continually assert that the market is unique. Yes, every place/historic site is unique, but they are not exceptional in that they can’t be compared to others and conceived of as a network of places that is capable of learning, growing and improving.

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  2. Lee Wright

    Congratulations, Max. Will be happy to participate or contribute to your new efforts in any way I can, whether it’s through The History List, History Camp, or both.

    Both organizations are very lucky to have you, and I’m sure your students and other participants will soon learn this, too.

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