Are We Confusing Problems with Solutions?

AASLH workshop on historic house museums at the Homestead Museum in June 2018.

On June 11-12, George McDaniel and I led the AASLH workshop, “Historic House Museum Issues and Operations” at the Homestead Museum in California.  This was our 18th workshop and we open every one by asking the participants to share the biggest challenge facing their museum, which we revisit at the end to ensure we adequately addressed their issue.

In the latest workshop, a dozen participants provided this list:

  1. Irresponsible stewardship by the city despite local community support.
  2. Lost connection to the local community and parent organization.
  3. Relationship with the parent organization. Aging volunteer base.
  4. Shifting priorities, finding overarching vision with changing leadership and multiple stakeholders.
  5. Managing growth and change; coordinating mission and vision of the site. Relevance to people 20-35 years.
  6. Prioritizing a lot of maintenance and repair issues. Should the site become a house museum?
  7. Prioritizing issues and engaging volunteers to help (one person trying to do it all).
  8. Connecting to interests and needs of the local communities; being a service to the community.
  9. Increase recognition of the site’s significance and value to the community and open site to the public as a museum; ensure the preservation of site if sold to a developer (e.g., easements).
  10. How to grow volunteer program (older volunteers moving out; younger volunteers have different interests and needs; engaging new or different cultures in the local community)
  11. How to drive traffic into the museum.
  12. Outreach to new audiences (currently “oldtimers”; want to add underprivileged communities who don’t know the history of the area; make relevant to all residents, have ownership).
  13. Overcoming preconceptions of historic house museum and negative perceptions of history.
  14. Connecting to the needs and interests to the community through the collection (e.g., hot issues); get people excited about history and empowering them to care for their own collections (tangible pieces of history).

I’ve anonymized and reorganized the list so the participants aren’t identified and on further reflection, I’ve come to a few conclusions:

  1.  No matter how the issues are described, they seem to fall into three major categories:  a weak relationship with a parent organization; lack of relevance and meaning to the community, and a lack of a compelling shared vision.  Indeed, if you step back further, you might notice they all relate to the lack of a compelling shared vision about the value of history in the community (which may include the parent organization). The Values of History may be a good place to start a conversation.
  2. The major issues facing local house museums are national ones, too.  Unless you knew this list was prepared by museums in the Southwest, you probably wouldn’t recognize where they’re from. One of the big a-ha moments in the workshop is discovering your situation is not unique, although it can often feel like that. I’ve collected nearly two decades of these lists and they’re remarkably similar, no matter where we hold the workshop. It’s a reminder that to adequately address our issues, we need to work together rather than struggle through them on our own. In other words, stay involved in associations of museums and history organizations.
  3. Often we confuse solutions with challenges.  Look closely at the statements again. Notice how many have solutions or conclusions embedded within, such as, “irresponsible stewardship” or “lost connection” or “aging volunteer base.”  When we claim that “volunteers are aging,” it describes a situation but obscures the problem. Why are aging volunteers a problem? Can they no longer fulfill their responsibilities? Are they quitting? Are they discouraging younger volunteers? Are older volunteers weak, grouchy, or unfashionable? Are they unwilling to use a computerized point-of-sale system? Are they unwilling to open and close the museum by themselves every week?  Indeed, by describing the challenge as an “aging volunteer base,” it implies a solution—younger volunteers—without adequately describing the problem. And when problems aren’t adequately identified, we can wind up solving the wrong problems. How can we identify the problem behind the problem? Ask why: Why is that a problem? Why is that important? Why is that the top priority? Recent books by Simon Sinek and Amanda Lang discuss the importance of “why” but the Five Whys technique developed in the Japanese auto industry forty years ago helps uncover the core problem and inform decision-making.

Do you see any additional patterns in this list of challenges? If so, share them in the comments below.

One thought on “Are We Confusing Problems with Solutions?

  1. Sarah Clark

    Confusing solutions with challenges–I see what you mean! And I realize that sometimes we start from the perspective of what WE want, and then articulate the problem in such a way as to suggest that preconceived solution. Thanks for the insight!

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