Author Archives: Max van Balgooy

About Max van Balgooy

President of Engaging Places LLC, a design and strategy firm that connects people to historic places.

GW Students Identify Strong Mission Statements

Students in the museum management course at George Washington University ranking museum mission statements.

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):

Continue reading

Can the Arts Can Be a Model for History?

Arts + Social Impact Explorer from Americans for the Arts.

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!):

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.

Rotate Flip Charts for a Higher Quality Group Discussion

The “rotating flipcharts” technique: beginning, middle, and end.

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.

So I turned to Michael Wilkinson’s The Secrets of Facilitation: The Smart Guide to Getting Results to learn about his technique for “rotating flip charts.” It works like this:

  1. Break into small groups and each group works on a different issue or topic, writing their comments on a flip chart.
  2. 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.
  3. When finished, the groups rotate to review another flip chart.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.

Why There? Figuring Out the Presence of America’s History Organizations

As part of a project to develop a new framework for AASLH‘s professional development/continuing education program, I plotted history organizations onto a map of the United States using a subset of IMLS’s database of museums. That’s a big category that includes history museums, historical societies, historic preservation organizations, historic house museums, and general museums that include history as a major topic and while there is some discussion about the comprehensiveness of the IMLS database, it’s the best information we have available and for my project, more than sufficient to get a sense of the big picture.

As you’ll see in the map below, history organizations are mostly located in the eastern half of the US.  Start at the southern tip of Texas and draw an imaginary line due north and the lion’s share is on the right side of the map.

History organizations in the United States. Red is the location of historical societies and historic preservation organizations; green is history museums and house museums; and blue is general museums. Data source: IMLS, 2018. Map: Engaging Places.

That’s probably something we all suspected but now can visualize it better. When I’ve shown this map to a few people, they concluded that it’s because there’s much more history in the East. But take a look at the heat map below while recalling the US history timeline, and you’ll come to a different conclusion. Continue reading

Recent Research on Common Target Audiences for Museums

Students in “Museums and Community Engagement” develop engagement plans through a wide variety of tools and techniques, including crowdsourcing research on target audiences.

This semester my course on museums and community engagement at George Washington University prepared an annotated bibliography of research published in the last decade on audiences that are a common focus for museums in the United States:  students in grades 3-5, families with children under 12 years, and adults over 50 years.  Because most museums don’t have access to academic research libraries, the class has agreed to share their bibliography with the field (link to pdf below).  While the thirty-six articles provide a useful picture of the research for these audiences, please recognize it is not complete nor comprehensive—with twelve students in the course in a fast-moving semester, this is just to get them started on a community engagement plan for the Alexander Ramsey House, Joel Lane House Museum, and Van Cortland House.

Highlights of Recent Research on Common Target Audiences for Museums 2019

Reimagining House Museums: Fall 2019 Release

collage book contents.pngThis blog has been fairly sparse this past year because Ken Turino and I were editing and assembling two dozens essays for Reimagining Historic House Museums: New Approaches and Proven Solutions, an anthology to be published by Rowman and Littlefield as part of the AASLH series. I’m delighted to announce that it is now off my desk and in the hands of the publisher; we expect it will be released in fall 2019.

One of the biggest consequences of the under-resourced and over-stretched community of house museums is that it is difficult for them to share their successes with others—they just don’t have time. The field doesn’t learn about them except through publications, blog posts, or conference sessions—that’s one of the major reasons we assembled this anthology. There’s lots of good work happening in house museums but we’re simply not aware of it. Our hope is that this book is a good place to grab a hold of the current thinking about reinventing house museums so that they are more relevant, sustainable, diverse, inclusive, equitable, and accessible, hopefully broadening and deepening the current conversations in the field.

The book is a result of a 2014 conference, How are Historic House Museums Adapting for the Future? sponsored by the Historic House Museum Consortium of Washington, DC and the Virginia Association of Museums at Gunston Hall Plantation in Virginia. They invited to give presentations to the 120 participants and noticed that while historic site practitioners and their boards recognized that the world of historic houses has changed dramatically, they weren’t sure how to go about reimagining or reinventing themselves.

With the support of the American Association for State and Local History and local funders, we embarked on a series of workshops in subsequent years to lay out a “reinventing process” that has taken us to Missouri, New Hampshire, Vermont, Kansas, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Illinois with more to come (Washington, DC in June; New York City in October). The one-day workshop, Reinventing the Historic House Museum includes an analysis of the most important opportunities and threats facing historic sites in America based on the latest Continue reading

Webinar: Interpreting Women at Historic Sites

Helping Hands Memorial to Jane Addams by Louise Bourgeois (Chicago).

Although women are a crucial part of our heritage, historic sites often portray them as pleasant homemakers or radical feminists. Is this an accurate representation? No. Historians use many tools in interpreting history, and the tools used by present-day historians give the impression that men make history. However, by using a different set of tools to interpret women, a new narrative arises where women are just as active as men, participating in all facets of society and redefining history as we know it. In this free webinar on Wednesday, March 27, 2019, 1:30 – 3:00 pm CT, Mary van Balgooy will discuss the state of the field of women’s history; examine the current challenges and opportunities for interpreting women at historic sites; and give audience participants the right tools to research, uncover, and interpret women and their significance in history. To register or to find lots of other webinars offered by the Wisconsin Historical Society, visit WisconsinHistory.org.

Mary A. Van Balgooy is vice president of Engaging Places and executive director of the Society of Woman Geographers. Her presentation is based on her chapter in the forthcoming book, Reimagining Historic House Museums: New Approaches and Proven Solutions edited by Ken Turino and Max A. van Balgooy. Mary is an award-winning museum professional who has worked in a variety of institutions, including archives, botanic gardens, historic houses, historical societies, museums, preservation organizations, universities, and governmental agencies at city, county, and federal levels with major responsibilities for administration, collections, education and interpretation, fundraising, governance, preservation, and public relations.

Program in New England Studies Offered in June

Workshop with Brock Jobe during the Program in New England Studies.

This summer Historic New England is offering its Program in New England Studies (PINES), an intensive week-long exploration of New England decorative arts and architecture from Monday, June 17 to Saturday, June 22, 2019. This biennial program explores New England history and culture from the seventeenth century to the Colonial Revival through workshops, lectures, and visits to Historic New England properties, other museums, and private homes and collections. Highlights include the restored Quincy House Museum, the recently opened museum and study center at the Eustis Estate, and a champagne reception on the terrace of Beauport, the Sleeper-McCann House on Gloucester Harbor.

Registration is $1,600 and includes all lectures, admissions, transportation to special visits and excursions, daily breakfast and lunch, evening receptions, and various service charges. Participation is limited to 24 museum professionals, museum board members, collectors, and graduate students and will next be offered in 2021. Multiple scholarships are available for mid-career museum professionals and graduate students in the fields of architecture, decorative arts, material culture, or public history. At least one scholarship is available for a candidate from diverse cultural backgrounds. All are encouraged to apply. For more information, visit HistoricNewEngland.org or contact Ken Turino, Manager of Community Engagement and Exhibitions, at 617-994-5958.

How to Improve the Interpretation of Slavery by Engaging Descendants

A year ago, James Madison’s Montpelier invited me to the National Summit on Teaching Slavery to create a “methodology for how public historians work with descendants” (program, 6 Mb pdf). Over a long weekend, fifty people from across the country with a wide range of experiences and perspectives worked in small groups to define and prioritize standards and best practices for interpretation, research, and involving the descendant community. It builds upon Montpelier’s award-winning exhibition, A Mere Distinction of Colour, to help “Americans of all types truly understand the ongoing struggle for freedom, rights, and equality in our nation.” The National Council on Public History recently posted a nice series of discussions on the exhibition with students in the Cooperstown Graduate Program.

One of the major challenges was determining what is distinctive about teaching slavery from interpreting other topics, such as women or Asians. At first, the discussions identified practices that had already been figured out years ago by the American Historical Association and the National Association for Interpretation, but that was to be expected because many participants had little experience in scholarship or interpretation–what bound us together was improving and enhancing the interpretation of slavery at museums and historic sites. Although the rehash of these professional practices was frustrating and I wondered why we were going over old ground, it eventually dawned on me that Continue reading

Highlights and Lowlights for Engaging Places in 2018

Last year was incredibly busy with various planning and research projects for Engaging Places along with directing the History Leadership Institute and teaching fulltime in the museum studies program at George Washington University. The result is that the blog had only 21 posts, which is less than half than what I produced a couple years earlier.  It’s not that I’m lacking for topics, just time.

I hope to be more productive this year and as usual, I look at the statistics for my blog/website to guide me for the upcoming year.  For 2018, the most popular posts were:

  1. Welcoming New Members: Examples from the Field (posted 2012)
  2. Rethinking the Mission Statement (2013)
  3. HBR: The Truth About the Customer Experience (2013)
  4. Million Dollar Salaries at America’s Biggest Museums (2014)
  5. Try Question-Storming Rather Than Brainstorming (2018)

Not only does this reveal some of the major interests, but also their longevity.  As you may have noticed, membership and mission seem to be undergoing some fundamental rethinking and Continue reading