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.

On the Road: Small is Beautiful

Washington County Museum of Fine Arts, Hagerstown, Maryland.

On my first day on the road, I made my first stop just after an hour in Hagerstown, Maryland to see the Washington County Museum of Fine Arts. Set in a county park near its historic downtown, it has a surprisingly fine collection of American and European art from 17th to 19th century. Exemplary portraits by the Peale family, bronze sculptures by Rodin, vases by Tiffany and Lalique, and pots by George Ohr are found among its collections of 7,000 objects–that’s small compared to most art museums. Along with displaying their collections, they also organize temporary exhibitions, such as one on Joshua Johnson (ca. 1763-1824) of Baltimore, the first professional African-American painter. Anna Brugh Singer and her husband William H. Singer, Jr. (heirs to a family fortune, not of sewing machine fame) established the museum in the 1931 after they had traveled the world.

More interesting, however, was my discussion with board president Roger Fairbourn and curator Daniel Fulco about the vision of the museum. It’s clear they don’t want to collect more to become another Metropolitan Museum of Art, but they do plan to grow. They are hosting more ambitious traveling exhibitions, such as the current one on 17th century Italian paintings. They are adding more facilities for education, but that’s in response to community interest. They are expanding their collections, but it is to diverse their American art by including under-represented stories and move further into the 20th century. They also recognize their primary audience is the surrounding four counties, not tourists. Their strengths are uncommon and a refreshing change from the usual bigger-is-better, get-more-tourists mentality that usually infests the minds of museums. This is a tough position to take because it goes against the usual metrics, in this case, smaller is better.

Another surprise: a board president who can explain the history of the museum, its vision for the future, and discuss the significance of the current exhibition. I happened to run into him accident, when he caught me taking photos outside and stopped to chat. When I expressed my interest in the history and management of the museum, he took me around to the side of the museum to explain the physical evolution of the building, then took me inside to talk about the exhibitions and their vision. While we were chatting, he noticed another visitor was puzzled by the Johnson exhibition, so he stopped to describe its significance and pointed out a painting that might interest her. And he didn’t do it by flaunting his position at the museum (he just introduced himself as Roger). What!? If anyone on your board of trustees can do this, you’re in luck. Most can’t.

Visiting these small art museums verifies that small history museums, which dominant the field, can be effective and worthy organizations. They just need to develop a vision that pursues impact on their audience rather than size of collections or attendance.

Taking a Summer Road Trip

Like most of America, I’m taking a road trip this summer. After a long year of teaching and working online, I’m drained so I’m looking to get recharged by this vacation on wheels. I’ve always loved road trips, especially ones with loose itineraries, because it gives a chance to see lots of new places and meet people from around the country.

As I drive across America from Maryland to California, I’ll take you along for the ride with occasional posts of some of the museums and historic sites I’ve visited as well as what I’ve learned from the people who work there. My list is long and my time is short, but I’m eager to see the Ohio History Connection, Missouri Botanic Garden, Cherokee Heritage Center, Oklahoma City National Memorial, and Mary Coulter’s La Posada Restaurant. Plus I’ll be doing some research on Christmas in nineteenth century California when I’m in Los Angeles!

How to Connect Your Site to the Semiquincentennial

Semiquincentennial? That’s the 250th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence—a quarter millennium! Let’s leave the huge words behind and consider that 2026 is coming up fast—and it’s a huge opportunity to raise the profile of your house museum or historic site. When the Bicentennial arrived in 1976, it significantly increased attendance, funding, and interest in history. You don’t want to let this chance get away from you and preparation will be crucial to make the most of it.

If you’re not in Philadelphia, don’t despair. Just because the Declaration of Independence wasn’t signed in your town, no Founding Fathers lived there, and no Revolutionary War battles fought nearby, you can make important connections if you focus on the big ideas that came out of that event. After all, the Declaration of Independence was part of a larger move to separate from Great Britain and become Americans. Well, it’s more complicated than that and the process of becoming Americans continues, and boy, that’s a terrific story with ambition, conflicts, failures, and successes.

Every tour, exhibition, event, and school field trip should have a compelling theme to engage its audience.* Even better, themes should connect across these programs and activities. An overarching theme will help your visitors better recognize the ideas and content that you want to share with them. The ideas are continually reinforced and result in a bigger impact. Good teachers do this all the time in the classroom and it’s easily adapted to museums and historic sites.

What if we adopted a super-overarching theme, one that spanned museums and historic sites across the county or state? It would seem impossible, but help is on the way.

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HLI Seminar: Gone Virtual in 2021

Photo by Katerina Holmes on Pexels.com

The History Leadership Institute Seminar is back this year, going virtual after postponing last year due to the pandemic. Rather than trying to duplicate the residential format online, John Marks, Alex Collins, and I considered the online applications available to AASLH as well as best practices for online learning. For example, effective learning doesn’t occur by passively watching presentations continuously for six hours a day. It has to be broken up to keep participants engaged. As a result, we added considerably more time for participants to work on their own through readings and exercises, building on what is presented and discussed in live online sessions. The new format for each topic is:

  • 2 hours in a facilitated live session to explore a topic through presentations, discussions, and small breakout groups.
  • 2-3 hours on your own to apply the ideas and techniques to your organization or career.
  • 1 hour in a facilitated live session to discuss the results, assess what worked (and what didn’t), ask questions, and determine next steps.

We also have time to add readings to provoke discussions, expand perspectives, and add more detail. This week’s session on “You as the Instrument of Change,” Julie Johnson is suggesting the following:

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Forthcoming: Interpreting Christmas at House Museums

The past year has been so busy for me that I’ve rarely been able to share what I’m discovering and learning through this blog, but with the pandemic restrictions lifting, my posts should be more frequent. The biggest challenge for me was teaching graduate courses online at George Washington University. I usually teach in-person using a whiteboard and a list of goals for each class, using the class discussion to inspire how the presentation will proceed. Online, whiteboards are very difficult to use (try writing with a mouse!) and students were reluctant to have discussions online (most students kept their cameras off). So I built PowerPoint presentations for every class to address each of my goals, keep students engaged, and avoid being a talking head on a computer screen. Incredibly time consuming and exhausting. I’m so glad to be returning to campus this fall for in-person instruction—and so are our students!

Although online teaching was incredibly demanding, I still had time to pursue other projects including a second book with Ken Turino of Historic New England: Interpreting Christmas at House Museums and Historic Sites. Although dozens of books have been published on the national and regional history of Christmas celebrations in the last two decades, there are no how-to books on the research, interpretation, and programming of Christmas at historic sites or museums.  In March, Rowman and Littlefield accepted our proposal and it will be part of the Interpreting series at the American Association for State and Local History. We are working with contributors from across the country to assemble two dozen chapters for publication in spring 2023 and although we’re still identifying contributors and case studies, and the contents are subject to change, here’s what’s happening so far:

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National Park Service Installing Face Masks on Monuments

Monuments at US National Parks will be wearing face masks to encourage safe practices during the pandemic.

In response to climbing COVID rates, federal monuments will be wearing “face masks” to follow guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The Biden Administration has urged governors and mayors to implement mask mandates nationwide, however, adoption has been inconsistent and infection rates are climbing.

Mask wearing has become a political, rather than health issue, in the United States. In a recent Washington Post article, Dr. Einav Rabinovitch-Fox, who teaches U.S. and women’s and gender history at Case Western Reserve University, noted that “masks have become the most visible sign of our current political, cultural and social moment. …It’s now the latest chapter in the culture wars over our identity as a nation, our fundamental values and our rights as citizens.”

The Louvre, France’s national museum of art, has promoted face masks in a campaign featuring the iconic Mona Lisa.

As part of the U. S. Department of the Interior’s “Meeting the Moment” campaign, the National Park Service will install “face masks” on monuments at national parks on April 1 to promote healthy behaviors that reduce spread during the pandemic. “Our monuments feature some of America’s greatest heroes and if they’re wearing face masks, it will further encourage participation by our citizens,” said Jenny Anzelmo-Sarles, chief of public affairs. “European museums have been incredibly successful in turning selfie-worthy artworks into public health campaigns. Our National Parks will have a bigger impact because our monuments are bigger. And of course the presidents at Mount Rushmore should wear face masks—look how close they are to each other!”

Mount Rushmore, the Statue of Liberty, and the Lincoln Memorial will be among the most visible monuments to wear face masks, however, the campaign will include lesser known statues such as Baron Von Steuben at Valley Forge National Historical Park and Ansel Adams at the National Garden of American Heroes. The goal is to include at least one monument in every National Park, which will be challenging. The Pony Express National Historic Trail only has a statue of a galloping horse at its visitor center in St. Joseph, Missouri. “I know horses aren’t wearing face masks during COVID, but that’s the only option we have,” said executive director Cindy Daffron. “It may look foolish, but it creates the kind of Instagram moment that the public wants.”

Who Knows How COVID Affected History Organizations? AASLH Will With Your Help.

Photo by Sora Shimazaki from Pexels

Visitation at history organizations was flat from 2018 to 2019, according to AASLH’s 2020 National Visitation Report. More than 1,100 institutions across the country found almost no change in visitation from 2018 to 2019. But what will be the impact of COVID-19 on visitation in 2020?

According to AAM and Wilkening Consulting, their “National Snapshot of COVID-19 Impact on United States Museums” in October 2020 survey of museums revealed that nearly one-third of executive directors believed there was a “significant risk” (12%) of closing permanently by fall 2021 or they “didn’t know” (17%) if they would survive. Secondly, it showed that “museums are operating at, on average, 35% of their capacity–an attendance reduction that is unsustainable long-term.”

It’s now nearly six months later and time for the field to share our annual metrics to understand what actually happened, not rely on predictions. AASLH is now collecting data for the 2021 National Visitation Survey—it closes on Wednesday, March 31. It takes ten minutes to complete and all survey respondents will receive free, advance access to the results later this year. You will need on-hand your visitation data for 2019 and 2020, and your institution’s budget and staffing for 2020. More details and the survey are available at https://www.surveymonkey.com/r/Visitation2021.

March Webinars for House Museums and Historic Sites

It’s a webinar bonanza at Engaging Places this month! We’ll be participating in two different back-to-back webinars in March for house museums and historic sites, one on interpreting women’s history and the other on management and strategy.

On Thursday, March 25, 2021 at 10:00 am Central, the Wisconsin Historical Society is hosting a free panel discussion on Sharing Women’s History: Exploring New Stories and Formats for Engaging Audiences. Panelists include Mary van Balgooy, Vice President of Engaging Places, LLC and Executive Director of the Society of Woman Geographers; Meredith S. Horsford, Executive Director, Dyckman Farmhouse Museum; and Brooke Steinhauser, Program Director, The Emily Dickinson Museum. House museums, historic sites, and other cultural organizations can share women’s history through special programs, tours, and other storytelling formats. From a broad view of new directions for interpretation to strategies for virtual engagement, panelists will share examples of innovative programming and best practices for interpreting complex stories that engage new audiences. For more details, visit https://www.wisconsinhistory.org/Records/Event/EV8032

On Friday, March 26 at 3:30 pm Eastern, Stenton, The National Society of The Colonial Dames of American, and Historic Germantown are hosting, “Historic House Museum in the 21st Century: Reimaginings and New Solutions“. Stenton Curator Laura Keim will moderate a discussion with Donna Ann Harris (author of the recently updated New Solutions for House Museums) and Kenneth C. Turino and Max A. van Balgooy of Engaging Places (editors of Reimagining Historic House Museums), who will provide overviews of their recently released publications, share lessons they’ve learned from the field and their researches, and explore the nature and future of historic house museums. Cost is “Pay What You Can” and register in advance at www.stenton.org/programs. Visit http://www.rowman.com to purchase both books and use code 4S21MUS30 for a 30% discount.

Managing Projects using Gantt Charts

Henry Gantt’s chart juxtaposing tasks versus time changed project management practices a century ago.

A century ago, Henry Gantt developed a way to better manage projects by tracking tasks against time in a chart. Yes, the Gantt chart. While we’ve moved from paper to computers to manage projects, small museums and historic sites usually don’t use project management software, such as Microsoft Project, even though they have lots of projects. The software is either expensive or incredibly difficult to learn, so most rely on crafting Gantt charts in a spreadsheet.

Spreadsheets are an easy method for creating a Gantt chart but they have limited value. They’re usually satisfactory for simple planning but you can’t easily shift from a monthly to a daily view, nor show how tasks affect one another. Could I suggest TeamGantt? By using their free account, you can manage one project with three people—which is probably adequate for most small museums. If you’re clever, you can set-up several projects on one sheet, expanding or collapsing them as needed to maintain focus.

For my course on project management in museums at George Washington University, my graduate students learn how to breakdown a project using TeamGantt. They’re using IMLS-funded projects for exhibitions, school programs, and collections digitization, so it can be easily learned and applied to complex museum projects. I use it to plan my semester-long courses, tracking classes and assignments to ensure they align with each other as well as providing a handy page-at-a-glance overview.

While I usually hate registering for a free service, TeamGantt hasn’t annoyed me with advertising and spam. Instead, it sends out helpful videos and emails that focus on improving my project management skills. Unfortunately, pricing for TeamGantt jumps up sharply from free to $25 per month per person, which is probably out of bounds for most non-profit organizations. Nevertheless, I suspect that most staff in organizations large or small will find free account adequate for their own projects.

My process for planning graduate courses, with each class of the syllabus posted on the left (three of fourteen pages shown) and the TeamGantt-produced Gantt chart on the right.

Disclosure: This review is a service to the field and I receive no compensation or benefits from the developer/provider of TeamGantt.

San Diego Adopts Virtual Deed of Gift

Photo by Matthias Zomer via Pexels.

The pandemic is prompting changes throughout museums and history organizations, including the processing of deeds of gift for collection acquisitions. It is the muddy stretch of the road. I’d prepare two deeds of gift, use sticky notes to show where to sign, attach a cover sheet asking the donor to sign both copies and return one to the museum, and enclose a self-addressed stamped envelope to encourage a quick response. Finally, you drop the packet in the mail and hope to hear from the donor soon. Otherwise, it entailed more follow-up that could take weeks, sometimes months, to complete. Meanwhile, the new acquisition stared at you from the shelves in limbo every time you walked into storage.

To streamline the process, the San Diego History Center recently adopted DocuSign, an online service that allows documents to be signed and returned quickly. No need for scanning signatures or using a mouse to write out an illegible name. DocuSign uses your name to craft a “signature” in a script typeface. I recently completed a house sale using DocuSign and sailed through piles of paperwork with ease.

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