The History Leadership Institute (formerly known as the Seminar for Historical Administration) is undergoing a significant change to better serve mid-career professionals, thanks in part to the COVID-19 pandemic. Because I’ve been devoting a good portion of my time to this effort over the last year, I wanted to share a behind-the-scenes look at how HLI launched a new program to navigate this unusual situation.
The makings of this new program actually started a couple years ago. In 2018, HLI began implementing a plan to address years of declining applications. The solution wasn’t “more marketing” but clarifying its purpose and becoming more aware of the needs and interests of the professionals that participate AND the organizations that sponsor them. Secondly, it needed organizational stability. Most of the original sponsors had dropped out over the decades except for the American Association for State and Local History, which willingly accepted HLI into its existing suite of professional development offerings.
In 2019, we reformatted the Seminar from a three-week residential program to a four-week hybrid (two weeks online and two weeks in-person) to better accommodate the needs of most working professionals. We also shifted the program from November 2019 to June 2020 to gain access to better housing at a nearby university and serve professionals who were unable to participate in the fall (FYI, given the size and breadth of the US, there seems to be no ideal time to offer a residential program but a survey showed that summer was more popular than fall).
George Washington University (GW), where I teach in the Museum Studies Program, recently decided to move all of its courses online this fall. To prepare, I completed an intensive three-day course to create effective online courses, which introduced the latest research on the factors that make online courses effective and wide (and overwhelming) range of teaching tools that are available.
I’m incredibly fortunate that GW is supporting the faculty with lots of resources and training this summer, which required the Libraries and Academic Innovation staff to move quickly to prepare videos, workshops, and materials faster than I ever would for a student course. Many of the ideas that I gathered could easily be adapted by museums and historic sites as they shift their programming, so I wanted to share them with you. Some don’t require any costly software applications or learning management systems, but just some new planning approaches:
Across the country, history museums and historical societies have issued statements in response to the recent police killing of George Floyd and protests against racism—but it’s a mixed bag. I’ve examined more than fifty history organizations and found that while there are some common values in the field, there’s a wide disparity of thought.
Who is Concerned?
About twenty percent of the history organizations in this study made no statement but it is likely lower because statements were posted on websites, as news releases, sent as emails to members, or shared on Twitter or Facebook (and rarely on more than one channel), which makes it difficult to easily collect statements. Where you make a statement is just as important as what you say. Listing a “Statement from the CEO” in the “Press” section of a website is different from a banner on the home page is different from an email sent to a few hundred members is different from a single tweet.
Typically, the CEO or executive director issued the statement and very few included the board chair. Did the CEO take a personal risk to issue a statement? Are boards unwilling to get involved or unable to achieve consensus? Will current events force organizations to rethink their mission, vision, or values?
Without conducting interviews, it’s unclear why this pattern exists. It could be uncertainty about what to say, fear of offending donors or their community, a lack of consensus among staff and board, a policy on statements, or an effort to avoid conflict or current events. Nevertheless, the patterns are revealing and suggest that history organizations have a long way to go in their efforts to be a relevant and meaningful part of their entire community. I strongly encourage all history organizations who are making statements to include them on their websites—unless there’s an important reason to avoid it.
History organizations issued their statements as early as May 30 and most during the first week of June, about a week after George Floyd’s murder on May 25 and when the protests had spread nationally. These statements are more challenging to write and I know some went through extensive review processes to gain consensus and approval, which can take days to accomplish. I also sense that Floyd’s death was a tipping point for many organizations because African Americans had been senselessly killed for decades but rarely had historical societies responded. About half of the statements mentioned George Floyd by name and about a quarter also included Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor, so recent events seem to have been the greatest influence on these statements. About ten percent named other victims as far back as the beating of Rodney King in Los Angeles in 1991, but some looked back centuries to put recent events in historical context, such as the American Historical Association, Historic Germantown, Maine Preservation, and Minnesota Historical Society. I recommend that history organizations clearly connect their statements to their mission or vision to ensure this is not merely a token effort; connect your concerns to the history of the region or period you interpret because, well, you’re a history organization; and include individual names whenever possible to move from the abstract to the personal.
It struck me as I thought about putting tomatoes into the garden. During the COVID-19 quarantine, where would I buy them? My local nurseries are closed and I can’t order them for pickup or delivery through their websites. I may have to buy them from nurseries in Michigan and Alabama–hundreds of miles away. That seems crazy but in some ways it mimics what’s happening at house museums and historic sites across the country as they navigate through the coronavirus pandemic.
Museums and historic sites are responding to the COVID-19 quarantine in many ways that can seem random, but I’m starting to notice a pattern that suggests there’s an evolution of thought, just as I’m experiencing an evolution of thought about growing tomatoes.
Most basic is an immediate focused response to the fear of financial catastrophe due to lost admissions, retail sales, and site rentals. They seek to answer, “What can we stop doing?” and “How can we raise money quick?” The typical responses are appeals for financial support, budget cuts across the board, a general stopping of all projects and collections acquisitions, and staff is laid furloughed or laid off. Teleworking is tolerated but not encouraged. Mission, vision, values, and planning put on hold. Decisions focus on shutting things down rapidly. Leadership is fixing the leaks in a seemingly sinking ship.
House museums are complex organizations but one of the most effective tools for navigating this complexity is the humble mission statement. In this 30-minute webinar, Erin Carlson Mast, president and CEO of President Lincoln’s Cottage in Washington, DC, discusses how she’s leveraged the values embedded in their mission statement to transform their community programs and daily operations to affect the lives of their visitors. She’ll be interviewed by Max A. van Balgooy (me!), co-editor of the recently published Reimagining Historic House Museumsand president of Engaging Places.
The webinar is today (Thursday,April 23, 2020) at 3:00 – 3:30 pm Eastern (that’s 12 noon Pacific) and registration is free to AASLH Members and $30 Nonmembers. This webinar will be recorded and will be available in the AASLH Resource Center after the event has passed. Registrants of this event receive complimentary access to the recording in their Dashboard.
This webinar is part of the Historic House Call webinar series. Organized by the committee of the AASLH Historic House Affinity Community, Historic House Call webinars provide staff and volunteers working in historic house museums the chance to hear from a leading expert on a topic related to historic sites and ask questions about that topic. Historic House Calls are presented quarterly at no charge for AASLH members.
Amidst the tidal wave of museum layoffs and closures, many independent consultants and freelance workers are struggling to stay afloat. As Anne Ackerson writes in The COVID-19 Impact on Museum Consulting, “These are the people who work independently across the field in collections, education, governance, art handling and more. They work from job to job, shouldering the full costs of benefits, building careers while offering services many museums and heritage organizations need, but can’t afford on a full-time basis.” What does the future, both short- and long-term, look like for consultants in the museum field? Join Anne Ackerson, Dina Bailey, and Max van Balgooy to discuss unique challenges facing consultants as they consider envisioning new paths or staying the course. American Association for State and Local History is hosting this conversation on Thursday, April 16 (today!) at 3:00 pm Eastern (sorry, we’re moving rapidly to respond to COVID-19). Registration is $10, $5 for AASLH members; and if you are an organization, consultant, or student that is facing financial strain due to COVID-19, please use promo code FREEWBR20 to waive the registration fee for this conversation. Register here.
I’ll be on the panel to open the discussion with examples from Engaging Places but we’ll be emphasizing a conversation with the attendees gather perspectives from across the nation to understand where things are now and where they might (or should) be going.
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).