In the week since I last reported on the impact of COVID-19 on house museums and historic sites, things have changed significantly. A sampling of websites around the country shows that most have closed through the end of March and many have canceled events through April. Last Friday, the home pages of The Alamo, Minnesota Historical Society, and Colonial Williamsburg made no mention of the virus, but within days they did. CW made a special effort to contact me to clarify that they had posted a message on its website on Tuesday, March 10 that it was “temporarily suspending ‘hands-on’ aspects of Historic Area and Art Museums programming to limit frequent contact with common objects and surfaces by employees, volunteers and guests. Colonial Williamsburg is otherwise observing normal operations and hours”, however, this was not present on its home page, where most visitors first search for information. One of the lessons we’re learning from this situation is how, when, and where we communicate vital information to our visitors and that we may need to update our emergency response procedures. Keep notes for your debriefings later on!
We can also anticipate this will have significant financial consequences, especially for those who rely heavily on tourism or revenue from admissions. At this point, I haven’t heard of any major decisions in response to this particular situation (such as layoffs), but historic sites are long experienced with hurricanes, snowstorms, hot and humid days, tree falls, and road closures that can suddenly cause attendance to plunge or prevent access to the site. We’re a resilient bunch. On the top of our minds is the unanswerable question is how long will the restrictions last? And how long will it take to resume normal operations after restrictions have lifted? Colleen Dilenschneider provides some advice to the latter question in “Why Marketing Matters During COVID-19 Closures.”
But perhaps there’s an even bigger question that we should be considering: how can house museums and historic sites contribute to our communities in this type of situation? Are we helpless or helpful? Are we vital or trivial? Certainly we need to place the health and safety of our staff (both paid and volunteer) and visitors above our buildings and collections, but then what’s next? Now that the initial response to the virus is waning, I’m seeing some movement in this regard:
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?
This afternoon Ken Turino and I will share the common factors that create a sustainable path forward for our country’s historic places. We’ll be drawing from the dozens of innovative sites described in our newly-published anthology, Reimagining Historic House Museums: New Approaches and Proven Solutions. Topics will include assessing whether an organization’s purpose is meaningful to the public, challenging institutions to think holistically, and ensuring that leadership supports risk and experimentation. We’ll be joined in conversation by Kathy Dwyer Southern, Immediate Past Co-Chair of the International Council of Museums United States. If you’re in the area, we welcome you to join us at 5:30 pm at the George Washington University Museum, 701 21st Street NW (at G Street) in Washington, DC. Several of the contributors to the book will be attending and I suspect we’ll have a rousing discussion over drinks at the nearby Tonic.
Ken and I continue to offer our one-day workshop on reimagining historic house museums around the country through the American Association for State and Local History and we’ve now added this shorter “Observations from the Field” presentation to highlight the big ideas from the book. We first presented it with Lisa Ackerman, Interim CEO of the World Monuments Fund, in New York City in October at the request of the Historic House Trust (video below). It was so well received that we’re bringing it to DC today and to Los Angeles in March (as part of the California Association of Museums meeting). We’ve also presented portions of this talk for the National Society of The Colonial Dames in America and Historic New England. If the workshop or presentation could benefit your organization, contact Ken or me for more details (we can only accommodate a couple of these each year, so we may have to plan far ahead).
This year I’ve been involved in evaluating and designing a new framework for the most valuable membership benefit of the American Association for State and Local History: professional development. Surprised it ranks so high? When you step back and look at what AASLH offers—annual meeting, History News, books, technical leaflets, webinars, workshops, Standards and Excellence Program for History Organizations (StEPs), History Leadership Institute—you realize that they all sharpen the skills and help advance the mission of history organizations. Over the past two years, Conny Graft and I have designed a new framework for creating and aligning these professional development programs, and once it’s been approved and adopted, I’ll share more about this project in a future post.
I’ve also been involved in rethinking the History Leadership Institute (HLI) to better meet the needs of today’s mid-career professionals. The content has been continually tweaked, but more visible is the shift from November to June and a hybrid format. HLI now consists of two weeks online and two weeks in residence in Indianapolis, responding to the needs of professionals who want a better work-life balance and the availability of technologies to effectively deliver online learning experiences. What hasn’t changed is that HLI grapples with the tough and critical issues facing the field in a collegial environment. Although the schedule is still under development, you can get a sense of this by some of the facilitators who will be joining us in June 2020:
Cinnamon Catlin-Legutko, Illinois State Museum
Anne W. Ackerson, Leading by Design
Randi Korn and Stephanie Downey, RK&A
George McDaniel, McDaniel Consulting
Norman Burns and Richard Cooper, Conner Prairie
Erin Carlson Mast, President Lincoln’s Cottage
Trevor Jones, Nebraska Historical Society
David Young, Delaware Historical Society
Sarah Pharaon, International Coalition of Sites of Conscience
Richard M. Josey Jr, Collective Journeys
We’re also including a session by the Frameworks Institute on their research on American’s attitudes towards history, part of the larger “Framing History” project of AASLH. Whether it’s a historical society communicating with new audiences, an academic department talking with potential majors, or a museum making their case to funders or legislators, this project will provide history practitioners with tools to frame their messages as effectively as possible.
If you are interested in participating, please submit an application by December 15. Participation is limited and scholarships are available. For more details, visit HistoryLeadership.org.
I recently visited the National September 11 Memorial and Museum in New York City and although I didn’t know anyone who died that day, I was incredibly moved by the experience, even feeling uncomfortable taking photos. But I did because I’m always trying to understand how to interpret various events and topics, especially those that are difficult or sensitive.
I was also surprised that there was a need to explain to visitors how to behave at the memorial, the huge open fountains that mark the location of the Twin Towers and record the names of those who were murdered. Some explain what you can do, others what you shouldn’t, and some explain what’s happening. These might inspire you to think about language that might be appropriate around memorials and historic sites in your community.
At long last, Ken Turino and I have gotten Reimagining Historic House Museums off of our desks and it was released at the American Association for State and Local History annual meeting in Philadelphia in August (all copies sold out!). But there’s no rest. We’ve been encouraging contributors to discuss their chapters at state, regional, and national conferences (Ken, Monta Lee Dakin, and Steve Friesen are presenting this week at the Mountain-Plains Museum Association conference in New Mexico) and we’re debuting a new presentation about the big ideas that cut across the chapters in the book in New York City next week.
One of the big ideas confirmed in Reimagining Historic House Museums is the significant role of a strong mission statement. They’ve been in active use in museums since the 1980s and yet, there are still plenty that are uninspiring, convoluted, or superficial slogans.
Because mission statements are so essential to the management of museums, I spend two classes of my museum management course at George Washington University discussing them using the AAM Standards along with articles by Willard Boyd, Stephen Weil, Peter Drucker, Philip Kennicott, and Sebastian Desmidt, and a chapter from Museums in Motion. Through several small group activities, the students develop a list of characteristics for strong mission statements and then test them against the mission statements for the eighteen museums they are using as case studies. Although these are graduate students with very little experience in museums, they do a terrific job identifying mission statements that can inform decisions and guide actions. For the museums they are studying this semester, these are ones with the strongest mission statements (in alphabetical order):
In the last decade, Americans for the Arts has become a national powerhouse for the value of the arts through their research, advocacy, and programs. Take a look at just a few of the tools and resources they offer (but beware of rabbit holes!):
Arts + Social Impact Explorer (quick summaries on the impact of the arts on dozens of topics such as education, social justice, tourism, and culture and heritage; these straight-forward explanations of the value of arts can be re-used in your presentations or newsletters).
Americans for the Arts provides a possible model for the history field to help us better explain our value to society. You can find similar resources in part at History Relevance, American Association for State and Local History, American Alliance of Museums, National Trust for Historic Preservation, Institute of Museum and Library Services, and other organizations, but there’s no comparable single source like Americans for the Arts. I suspect this will improve as the history field recognizes the need to go beyond the usual “those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it” and towards a fuller explanation for the value of history (see AASLH’s Framing History project). But don’t wait for others—make it happen in your organization. A house museum or a historical society can research, summarize, and prepare information for their board, staff, and members to make the case for the value of their mission and the history of their community (unless you believe your organization is just a social club and history is a personal hobby). Once developed, it can be reused and easily adjusted in the years that follow. Here are some examples of possibilities taken from the History Relevance Toolkit:
In their year-end fundraising letter, the Tennessee Historical Society emphasized the role of history in providing a “sense of place that builds community” and helps us to “understand the issues we face today.”
Naper Settlement consolidated their research into a colorful illustrated impact report for elected officials and donors.
The Indiana Historical Society produced a video that shares how community leaders perceive the value of history to Indiana.
Earlier this year I facilitated a meeting at the American Alliance of Museums to develop a new education category for the Museum Assessment Program. Their staff and I developed the goals, agenda, and logistics in advance. That’s not unusual, except that goals were incredibly ambitious for a one-day meeting with a dozen leaders in the field:
1. To identify the needs and challenges facing education in museums today.
2. To identify how MAP can best address these needs and challenges throughout the process.
3. To identify how Peer Reviewers can be better prepared and supported in their expanded roles.
I knew that the usual technique of asking questions and going around the table to collect individual responses would quickly become tedious, plus it didn’t take advantage of the sharper thinking that occurs through conversation. Likewise, facilitating a series of topical conversations with a dozen people would discourage full participation.
Break into small groups and each group works on a different issue or topic, writing their comments on a flip chart.
The flip charts are posted on the wall and a different small group reviews the comments. Using a different colored pen, they place a check mark next to each item to indicate agreement. If they disagree, they place an X and add their response using a sticky notes. They can also add items at the bottom of the flip chart.
When finished, the groups rotate to review another flip chart.
When the small groups have rotated back to their own flip chart, they will see multiple check marks in different colors indicating agreement, as well as points of disagreement. They review all the disagreements (that is, the sticky notes) and mark yes or no if agree with the comment.
As a large group, all the issues marked “no” are discussed and the entire group decides whether to accept or reject the comment.
I found the technique was efficient and effective, gathering lots of thoughtful perspectives plus people are more actively involved compared to the traditional reporting-out session (when they usually zone out). The participants enjoyed the process as well because they can have meaningful conversations around a focused topic (see Robert Forloney’s post on the AAM blog for a participant’s perspective). AAM staff was pleased with the richness of the responses and it helped them craft the new Education and Interpretation MAP that recently debuted.
Facilitation is a helpful skill if you’re working with groups (and who isn’t nowadays?) but it can be daunting. It always feels like I’m choreographing a Broadway show where I’ve chosen the music but not the dancers, so I’m not ever quite sure what will happen. Trying a new technique adds to the risk, but I’ve found the clear step-by-step guidance in Wilkinson’s book gives me enormous confidence.