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.

Video: Interactive “Book”

While I’m in Indianapolis for the Seminar for Historical Administration, I had a chance to view the “The Power of Poison“, a traveling exhibition at the Indiana State Museum. Organized by the American Museum of Natural History, it includes a wide variety of exhibition techniques but one I’ve never seen before is a “Harry Potter”-style interactive book that features moving images activated by touch as well as pages that can be turned.  It’s best explained in a short video, so watch as these two girls look at the book to see what happens (and whose father told me it was their fourth visit to the exhibition).

The Big Challenges Facing Leaders at SHA

The Seminar for Historical Administration completed the first of a three-week program in Indianapolis and we’re learning a lot—so much that it’s sometimes overwhelming. We’re getting great ideas from the presenters, classmates, and field trips.  While we’re a bit quiet during our discussions, it’s probably more due to the processing of all the new information we’re receiving than from an unwillingness to share our opinions. At the end of the week, John Marks, Morgan L’Argent, and Jeff Matsuoka facilitated discussions around three major issues we encountered, including some of the major challenges they’ll be facing when they return to their institutions in a couple weeks. Do any of these sound familiar to you?

1. Managing change: How to best integrate new ideas in our institutions. Will management accept new ideas or recognize a need for change? Will we be allowed to discuss or instigate change? How can change occur within a hierarchical organization? Will our ideas be viewed as an inauthentic or insincere public relations effort? Will the staff and board take action? Are our expectations set too low, making new ideas too much to handle? Will our new ideas result in a loss of our job or alienate donors and supporters?

2. Broadening participation: Are we including other perspectives and voices? Are alternative opinions being heard? Are we working in an echo-chamber, just having a conversation of people who agree with us? How do we ensure volunteers are included?

3. The tyranny of the urgent: Too distracted by daily operations to tackle big issues. How do I pace myself when there’s a long list of things to do? How do I manage my existing workload while processing new ideas from SHA? How do I avoid being discouraged or feeling defeated?

4. Achieving alignment: Articulating a strategic plan that is progressive, cohesive, and relevant in an environment where status quo, non-reflection, and bureaucracy is the norm. How to overcome inertia? How to find alignment between a new vision for the organization and its mission, values, and priorities? How do I find the right team? How do I achieve ambitious goals within the limitations of my job description?

As the director of SHA, I’m absorbing all of these experiences, but I’m not thinking how I can apply them to my museum or historical society back home. Instead, my brain is rattling around with ways to make the program even better next year so that the participants are even more effective as leaders at their organizations and in the history field.

If you have suggestions or comments on these issues, I’d love to hear from you and I’ll be sure to share them with the class. You’ll also want to return to this blog in a few weeks to see how thinking has evolved.  It’s great to have the time to step back and reflect on these issues!

Review: Historic House Museums in the US and UK by Linda Young (2017)

Young House MuseumsHistoric House Museums in the United States and the United Kingdom: A History by Linda Young. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2017. v + 299 pp.; bibliography, index; clothbound, $85.00; eBook, $80.00.

Historic house museums are one of the most popular ways that the public experiences history in the United States, although we only have a fragmentary understanding of their history. Linda Young tackles this topic not only for the United States but also the United Kingdom, with occasional examples from her homeland in Australia.

Linda Young is a senior lecturer in cultural heritage and museum studies at Deakin University in Melbourne, trained as a historian focused on nineteenth-century Britain. She has also worked as a curator at several house museums. After completing a survey of house museums in Australia, she expanded her scope to include the United Kingdom and United States in order to develop transnational comparisons that would reveal patterns in the motivations for transforming private houses into public museums (a process she calls ‘‘museumization’’). Furthermore, she wanted to distinguish house museums from other types of museums, giving them a distinctiveness and prominence that the museum field rarely considers. In a sense, she is giving house museums their own history and identity.

Her research into guidebooks, directories, Wikipedia entries, articles, and books, as well as field trips, convinced her that there are Continue reading

Seminar for Historical Administration underway in Indianapolis

Seminar for Historical Administration 2017 in Indianapolis

This year’s Seminar for Historical Administration (SHA) is meeting in Indianapolis and all of our hard work in selecting participants and presenters over the past months is coming to fruition.  For three weeks in Indianapolis, a dozen people in the history field will be discussing the leading issues facing leaders and debating their solutions.  I’ve assembled the schedule and directing the program, so I’m particularly excited to see how it unfolds each day. A big thanks to the dozens of people who are helping to make this extraordinary experience happen.

SHA opened on Sunday with Erin Carlson Mast, the President and CEO of President Lincoln’s Cottage, laying out the trends in the field.  She noted how much has changed in the last ten years and that our work is more important than ever. I was particularly intrigued by her insistence that the mission and vision of the organization need to be manifested not only in the public programs and activities but also in the budget and operations.  For example, their interpretation of slavery during Lincoln’s era motivated them to examine modern-day slavery (human trafficking) through their award-winning SOS program for teens AND make choices about the restoration materials used in the Cottage. Afterwards, we visited the library and archives at the Indiana Historical Society and had dinner together at a local restaurant.

Yesterday, David Young, Executive Director at Cliveden and Tim Grove of the National Air and Space Museum discussed the opportunities and challenges for making history relevant. It seems that everyone is struggling to make this happen, either through their programming or evaluation, and perhaps the most important discovery is that we need to learn more about our audience’s interests, motivations, and needs.

Today, Pamela Napier and Terri Wada at Collabo Creative will lead us through a short workshop on “design thinking” and then we’ll visit the Indiana State Museum to meet their new CEO Cathy Ferree and visit collections, and return to the Indiana Historical Society to learn about conservation.

 

Exhibiting Details: Decisions of War at the LBJ Library

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One of the big challenges in interpreting history is conveying the uncertainty of the future. When we look back at the past, the decisions around the pitfalls seem so obvious but at the time, it’s hazy and unclear.

My recent visit to the LBJ Presidential Library in Austin, Texas presented an effective technique using a “touch table” to explore LBJ’s response to the Vietnam War, putting visitors in the hot seat.  In this interactive activity, the President is faced with a decision, such as increasing U.S. ground troops in Vietnam, and you’re asked to advise him yes or no. On the screen you can explore primary documents, watch news reports, and when the phone rings, overhear LBJ talking about the issue. In the upper right hand corner, the clock reminds you that time matters and you can’t dawdle.  After you provide your advice, you’re told what actually happened. I seemed to never give the right advice (or my good advice was ignored, depending on how you look at it), but nevertheless it was fun to have a glimpse of the moment (and thankful I didn’t have to make these decisions).

Gallagher and Associates designed the exhibition and Cortina Productions developed the interactives.

Building Capacity with a Virtual Receptionist

One of the big challenges for small and medium-sized nonprofit organizations is building capacity. Staff salaries and wages are usually the largest expense and it’s hard to grow without a serious long-term hit to your budget. As a result, work tends to pile on the same people and threatening burnout. Thanks to the expansion of online technologies and the freelance economy there may be ways to build capacity as you need it.

I’m a big fan of Mac Power Users, a podcast that focuses on the hardware, software, and workflows that can make your business more productive. I’ve adopted their recommendations to use Evernote and the Fujitsu ScanSnap iX500 scanner with great success during the past few years. Although the podcast focuses Apple computers and applications, they can often be applied to other situations. For example, recent episode number 389 “The Mac-based Small Business” describes “virtual receptionists,” Continue reading

Greetings from New Orleans: SEMC

IMG_0984 copyI’m in back-to-back conferences—AASLH last week, SEMC this week—because I’m moderating sessions at both.  The Southeastern Museums Conference is in New Orleans, which is enjoying incredibly beautiful weather, making it easy to wander the streets to find the many museums that are in walking distance.  In the two days I’ve been here so far, I’ve visited the Southern Food and Wine Museum (which includes the Museum of the American Cocktail) and Historic New Orleans Collection, taken a guided tour of St. Louis Cemetery #1, and tonight I’ll be at the evening reception at the National World War II Museum.  New Orleans has some unusual museums tackling such unusual topics as tattoos, Mardi Gras, and death but I’m not sure I’ll have time to visit them as well.  Over the next few weeks, I’ll share what I’ve learned from the sessions that stood out for me but in the meantime, I’ll post my notes and observations on Twitter during the conference using #SEMC17.

Greetings from Austin: AASLH Annual Meeting

George McDaniel, Sandra Smith, and me at dinner at the LBJ Library.

This week I’m at the AASLH Annual Meeting in Austin, Texas where both the weather and friendships are warm.  We’re about halfway through the conference and I’ll have further postings about specific topics and sessions soon, but for now I wanted to share a few photos from my experiences at a couple workshops, a session I moderated on community engagement (also presented later as a webinar), the exhibit hall, dinner at the LBJ Presidential Library and the Briscoe Center on American History, and a reception for the Seminar for Historical Administration.

 

Analyzing Visitor Engagement Through Mapping

The July/August 2017 issue of Museum, the magazine of the American Alliance of Museums, features articles on engaging families, veterans, and LGBTQ audiences and my general article, “A Visitor’s Perspective on Visitor Engagement”. It introduces three major factors that influence visitor engagement at museums: convenience, novelty, and values. I had a limited space so I’d like to share a bit more information about the influence of convenience, the idea that the more convenient it is to visit a museum, the more likely that people will visit. It’s not just about living close by but also other effects, such as traffic, roadway patterns, museum hours of operation, finding a place to park, and ease of purchasing tickets. Nevertheless, distance is a major factor and you can see it through mapping.

In my article I referenced a couple of my clients—Cliveden (Philadelphia) and Caramoor (Katonah, New York)—and described the differences in their program participants or supporters.  Below I’m showing these differences through maps created in ArcGIS. Each red dot represents a household and for Cliveden, the map shows that the majority of their supporters live within a 30-minute drive of the site. For Caramoor, the map shows that the majority also live within 30 minutes but there is a significant number who live within 45 minutes to the south (and very few to the north). As you can see, the distance of the audience varies (in other words, the meaning of “convenience” varies). Every place is different and you have to analyze your own data to fully understand it.  As I mention in my article, convenience is also affected by novelty and values, which might explain the clustering.

Drive times from Cliveden (left) and Caramoor (right) are shown in graduated drivetimes of 30, 45, and 60 minutes.

This type of mapping also pokes a big hole in one of the most common refrains I hear at museums: “we get visitors from every state in the nation.” Unless that’s your engagement goal, it’s a nonsensical recognition of success. First of all, it’s more likely that a site’s visitors are local, not national, so they’re overlooking the obvious audience for repeat visitation and support. By mapping your visitors and supporters, you can make better decisions about promotion, programming, and fundraising. Secondly, this statement creates a false sense of success. It’s been said numerous times that attendance shouldn’t be the only measure of success and yet it often is. More important is the impact that the history of your site has had on the people who visit. If the significance of your site is insignificant to the people who visit, perhaps it’s time to rethink your purpose and goals.

Fort Vancouver Has a Great Visitor Map (and a Lousy One, Too)

The simplest things impress me when I visit historic sites, like a good visitor map.  They’re hard to find so when I spot one, I’m thrilled.

I recently visited Fort Vancouver National Site in Vancouver, Washington, across the Columbia River from Portland, Oregon. In the Visitor Center, they provide a visitor map printed on 11 x 17″ paper that’s gathered in pads of 50 sheets. I’ve always loved these tear-off maps because they’re always neat and generously sized, and in this particular case, also well designed. Even though it’s simply printed with black ink on white paper, the designer carefully used tinting, serif and sans serif faces in different sizes, varied line weights, and symbols to help visitors easily find their way around this very large site. Most important, information that is not important to visitors is omitted. On the back side are Continue reading