Seven is the number associated with completeness and perfection, but I’m not perfect and rarely satisfied, so before I complete seven years as director of the History Leadership Institute (HLI), I’m turning the chair over to someone else.
When I was appointed director in 2017, applications had fallen for several years and we held the Seminar with just thirteen people, accepting everyone that applied. If this continued, it would no longer be financially feasible to offer the Seminar. I was puzzled because the program had a terrific reputation in the field and saw its impact on my friends and colleagues.
While we gathered for three weeks in November 2017 for the Seminar at the Indiana Historical Society, I worked on a side project to rethink the program to make it more sustainable and attractive. In the usual HLI fashion, I sketched out ideas on flipcharts spread out on the classroom wall, asking everyone who came into the room for their reactions and ideas. By the end of the Seminar, I had diagrammed a long-range plan with immediate and short-term recommendations that included:
Affirming its focus on organizational leadership and personal leadership.
Changing the name from the Seminar for Historical Administration to shift the emphasis to leadership.
Moving the organizational structure from a partnership among several history organizations to AASLH to better facilitate administration and ensure longterm support.
Considering alternatives to the three-week residential format to better serve mid-career history professionals.
The History Leadership Institute, AASLH’s professional development program for mid-career history professionals, introduced its long-running Seminar in a new format in June.
In 1959, the Seminar began as an effort to train newly graduated history students and directors of history museums in the unique skills of managing museums, historic sites, and archives in a six-week program held at Colonial Williamsburg, During the decades that followed, the Seminar has continually changed to meet the needs of the field and explore new and emerging practices.
The History List, creators of the annual History Camp, continues to launch a series of fun and engaging products to inspire Americans to explore and share their history. Today they’re releasing a limited supply of Presidential Gummies that are sure to turn children into history nerds. They also align with the “Doing History” theme for the 250th Commemoration by encouraging open conversations about what history is, the many ways it is done, and why it matters.
Made by Haribo, the German manufacturer of Goldbears® since 1922, these colorful gummies in flavors from pineapple to strawberry representing all the presidents are sure to delight (and become a collector’s item among history buffs). These Presidential Gummies and other cool history stuff are available online in The History List store.
This Friday, April 1 from 4-6 pm, the Museum Studies Program hosts the 24th Malaro Symposium in Hammer Auditorium at the Corcoran School of the Arts and Design, 500 17th Street, NW (enter from the side entrance on New York Avenue). Admission is free. The annual symposium is held in honor of Marie Malaro, the longtime chair of the Museum Studies Program and author of the landmark book, A Legal Primer on Managing Museum Collections. Kaywin Feldman, director of the National Gallery of Art, will discuss museums in uncompromising times, and we’ll have three students share highlights from their award-winning research papers:
Avery Barth, “New Archives, New Practices: Exploring the Digitial Transgender Archive”
Norman Storer Corrada, “Austerity and Access: The Ongoing Challenges of the Institute of Puerto Rican Culture National Collection”
Haley Higinbotham, “The Utilization of Technology to Show the Polychromy of Ancient Art”
Imagine taking a road trip to visit Independence Hall. It would be impossible to get there if you don’t know where you are (are you starting in Boston? Chicago? Los Angeles?). Yet most museums and historic sites find themselves in this same predicament—but they don’t know it.
Knowing your museum’s financial position within its larger context can more clearly improve performance. We’ve witnessed how demographic shifts, a global pandemic, and social issues have affected all museums in the last year. Identifying which museums are responding well or poorly is largely based on rumor and anecdote, resulting in an incomplete picture of the field—and potentially misleading if a museum bases its decisions on them. Instead, we are following the advice of Karen Berman and Joe Knight, authors of Financial Intelligence (2013): “The art of accounting and finance is the art of using limited data to come as close as possible to an accurate description of how well a company is performing.”
Readers of History News will have caught a preview of her new book in a Technical Leaflet that accompanied the Winter 2021 issue. In this Leaflet, Kristin lays out a compelling need to change our approach:
Presenting the history of slavery inclusive and conscientious school programs is difficult and necessitates challenging the prevailing, and incomplete, narrative. It requires diligence and compassion—for the history itself, for those telling the story, and for those hearing the stories. It is a necessary part of the collective narrative about our past, present, and future.
We must talk with young people about slavery and race, as it is not enough to just talk to them or about the subject. By engaging students in dialogue about slavery and race, they bring their prior knowledge, scaffold new knowledge, and create their own relevance—all while adults hear them and show respect for what they have to say. We cannot fail future generations of learners the way many of us were failed by the sites we visited as children.
Her new book will provide more advice, examples, and replicable practices for the comprehensive development and implementation of slavery-related school and family programs at museums and historic sites.
If you haven’t met Kristin, she’s worked in museums for nearly 30 years. She holds a master’s degree in museum education from George Washington University (where I now teach in the museum studies program) and has led the education departments at the Montana Historical Society and the USS Constitution Museum and is currently the project manager for education development at the Tsongas Industrial History Center. She facilitates workshops for museums and historic sites on developing comprehensive and conscientious interpretation of slavery and speaks regularly at public history and museum conferences.
History Nebraska (formerly known as the Nebraska Historical Society) has six historic sites, including Chimney Rock near Bayard. Growing up in California, this natural landmark figures prominently in the schoolbook history of western settlement with images of slowly moving wagons crossing empty plains accompanied by men carrying rifles and women carrying children.
As my first experience in Nebraska, my road trip showed me the physical challenges of living in the mountains and plains of the western United States. That’s one of the big reasons I love to travel because it establishes the physical context for historical events and places that can’t be adequately captured in books or exhibitions. It’s one of the reasons I’m so committed to the preservation and interpretation of historic sites—it’s where history happened.
History Nebraska debuted a renovated Visitor Center at Chimney Rock in July 2020 and received a Rising Star Award as an outstanding tourism attraction from the NebraskaLand Foundation. My chance to see it last month showed that it was a terrific experience for tourists with families from the architecture to the exhibitions to the restrooms. It’s a significant improvement from a couple years ago, as described by Karrin Doll Tolliver at A Taste for Travel.
I’ve now traveled from Maryland to California and noticing patterns in the ways that museums, historic sites, hotels, and restaurants are reopening after the quarantine. It’s a mixed assortment of responses, mostly because the guidelines and regulations vary from state to state and from museum to restaurant, creating a lot of confusion among travelers. But there are a few trends that reveal how museums and historic sites can create better visitor experiences.
Spreading infection through touch seems to be the most inconsistently addressed issue. When the country first shut down in spring 2019, there were concerns that the virus could be spread by touching surfaces. Research conducted in the last year, however, shows that risk is very low compared to holding a conversation with someone nearby without using masks. Yet most museums continue to have sanitary lotion stands, are covering elevator buttons in plastic, shutting down interactives, disinfecting counters, or warning you about “high touch” areas. Yet there are never any warnings about door handles or handrails, and I rarely find these precautions at restaurants or hotels. Are museums receiving guidance from different authorities, are they particularly risk averse, or do they have visitors that are especially risk averse compared to other similar tourist destinations?
At the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City, a monumental bright white sculpture of an Indian slouched on a horse fills the end of the entrance hall. James Earle Fraser created “The End of the Trail” for the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco, earning him a Gold Medal. It also became a popular image that signaled the end of a free people.
The Museum acquired the plaster statue from Tulare County (California) Historical Society, where it sat outside in a city park deteriorating for nearly 50 years. Now the restored statue is the centerpiece of this large museum and they’ve used this one object to hit a triple with visitors, to borrow a phrase from baseball.
Along with a typical label describing the sculpture’s creation, acquisition, and significance, it includes a Native American View in a second label of equal length by Dr. R. David Edmunds, a Cherokee. He states that the sculpture represents the popular view of “a nineteenth century Indian warrior defeated and bound for oblivion—frozen in time. By the 1890s, Native Americans knew their trail had become steep and rocky, but they believed it would continue.” The label continues to discuss the challenges and opportunities faced by Native Americans in the 20th century and that “being Indian has never been cast in stone. Today, Native Americans proudly ride forward on a trail into the future.”
The use of labels to provide multiple perspectives is not uncommon in art museums, but I haven’t seen it used enough in history museums. They are ideal places to show that events, places, and eras are experienced differently by different people. It’s an easy way to enrich interpretation without the need to create entirely new exhibitions or special events on women, African Americans, or Native Americans.
At my first stop at the Washington County Museum of Fine Arts, I was faced with a historical marker at the entrance to the parking lot. A unexpected location but far more accessible than on the side of a busy highway. All of the recent conversations about decolonization has me always take a closer look at these markers but more interestingly, I’ve encountered several different types of markers so far on my road trip that have me thinking more about their value, veracity, authenticity, and permanence by being “cast in bronze”.
As you’ll see, location matters as much as the text. Some are intentional efforts to deceive, some are not. Some are historical, some artistic, some a bit of both. They are all designed to be inspirational, some more deeply than others. Do any of them matter? Do they have any impact? What do you think?