Navigating to Success at Historic Sites and House Museums

Flipping to the index in Reimagining Historic House Museums tells you much more about the contents that the table of contents.

Do you flip to the back of a book before you buy it? Indexes and bibliographies, more than a table of contents, provide a better glimpse into the ideas of a book. I appreciate them when they’re at my fingertips but assembling them is a tedious task that requires absolute attention to every page. But one of the benefits, as Ken Turino and I discovered while indexing Reimagining Historic House Museums, are the common ideas that cut across the chapters contributed by two dozen leaders in the field. Rising up to the top were three factors that are most essential to navigating to success at historic sites and house museums:

1. Finding a Mission and Purpose That’s Meaningful.

Mission statements have long been used in nonprofit organizations and the version of “collect, preserve, and interpret [insert your museum’s topic here]” has now become a cliché. Better mission statements are an overlap of the site’s historical significance and the visitors’ needs, interests, and motivations. In our book, President Lincoln’s Cottage, the Harriet Beecher Stowe Center, and the Trustees demonstrate how meaningful mission statements permeate decision-making at every level of the organization. Indeed, as my thinking continues to evolve on mission statements, they should not simply describe the work of the organization but address a major problem or issue in the community—that’s what makes them meaningful to a broader segment of the public. Why do museums collect, preserve, and interpret? To what end?

2. Think Holistically to Get Beyond the Four Walls of the House.

This is actually two closely-related ideas in one, but the key idea is seeing the whole organization, not just the parts, both inside and outside the physical site. We could call it a birds-eye view or seeing the forest (not just the trees), but it’s more active and analytical. It’s about noticing the relationships among the pieces and how they affect one another—sometimes balancing, sometimes reinforcing, sometimes conflicting, sometimes missing— to determine what will move the organization forward. In our book, El Pueblo History Museum approaches its relationship with the community with this perspective and offers a useful model for programming and activities. It also confirms that we need to better understand “systems thinking,” a relatively obscure method for resolving complex problems. I have the growing sense that the typical linear approaches for tackling simple problems don’t work on more complicated ones.

3. Support Risk and Experimentation.

History organizations value and preserve the past, which often creates an environment that is conservative and reluctant to change. That’s unfortunate because history shows us that risk, experimentation, creativity, and innovation will cause us to rethink practices and find new solutions. Sometimes, my snarky self wonders if history organizations prefer to escape into the past rather than learn from it. In our book, the Montclair History Center, Latimer House, Peralta Hacienda Historical Park, Stenton, Durant Kendrick House, President Lincoln’s Cottage and the Harriet Beecher Stowe Center and many others demonstrate the value of experimentation and risk. The process, however, needs to be more like a scientific experiment with a hypothesis and evaluation; it can’t just be throwing darts and hoping something will hit the target.

A discussion with the audience after our “Observations from the Field” presentation at the GW Museum in Washington, DC.

After our book was published last August, Ken Turino and I developed “Observations from the Field” to share these findings with the Historic House Trust of New York City, GW Museum, and the California Association of Museums (CAM). To put our presentation in context and provide a different perspective, we included a good discussion with the audience or invited comments from local experts, such as Lisa Ackerman and Kathy Dwyer Southern.

I’m also confirming our experience with house museums with other types of museums. Before our session at CAM last week, I slipped into “Museums on the Edge: Stories of Transformation and Failure,” where Susanna Smith-Bautista, Elena Brokaw, and Jeannette Kihs discussed the organizational response to crises at the Pasadena Museum of California Art, Museum of Ventura County, and the Pacific Grove Museum of Natural History, respectively. Each faced potential bankruptcy (and the Pasadena Museum ultimately closed) and the lessons they learned were the importance of finding a purpose that’s meaningful to the community (though that may not be popular with some staff and board members); establishing clear priorities (which is only possible if you have a meaningful mission statement); building relationships with people and organizations outside the museum (to obtain useful advice and strengthen support); and thinking beyond the usual and traditional (that’s taking risks and perhaps doing something new, which some people may hate).

Ken and I will be talking about this again at the annual meeting of the American Association for State and Local History this fall and putting it in an international context with Remko W. T. Jansonius, board secretary of DEMHIST (ICOM’s International Committee for Historic House Museums).

If your house museum or historic site has reimagined itself to reach a higher level of performance or to navigate a crisis, I’d love to know what factors led to your success. Please share them in the comments below.