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.

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

Productivity Apps for Emerging Museum Professionals

Projects are the buildings blocks for getting things done. When they’re small, they can be easily completed without much attention but when they get big, involving many people and large budgets, the complexity and risk of failure increases, especially when time and money is limited.

This past semester, graduate students in my “Managing People and Projects” course at George Washington University developed skills and used tools to manage these more challenging situations in a wide variety of museum-related projects, such as exhibitions, events, symposia, publications, school programs, and building construction. As a part of the course, students reviewed some of the latest application software (apps) for project management, including Shortcuts, Evernote, TeamGantt, OmniFocus, Trello, Asana, and Slack.

Unlike reviews prepared by CNET or published in a computer magazine, these reviews are written by emerging museum professionals for emerging museum professionals.  I might disagree with some of their conclusions, but often the difference was about cost or applicability at the start of one’s career.  If you’ve been thinking about increasing your productivity using apps, check out “A Beginner’s Guide to Productivity Apps for Emerging Museum Professionals.”

And if you want my recommendations on apps, I work in the Continue reading

How Should History Museums and Historic Sites Respond to Public Tragedies?

George McDaniel (center) with the HLI Associates 2018.

This blog has laid fallow for many weeks because I’ve been pulled away by the History Leadership Institute’s seminar in November and my museum management courses at George Washington University (plus jury duty!).  That doesn’t mean I haven’t been collecting ideas and resources to share and with winter break upon me, I’ll be posting regularly again.

Today, I’m sharing one of the products created at the History Leadership Institute (HLI). The program not only aims to provide a benefit to the people and organizations that participate but also to the field as a whole. An example is the session on responding to public tragedies.

History organizations are showing a rising interest in playing a more active role in their communities, but when a public tragedy strikes, how should we respond? Public tragedies can take a variety of forms and are unpredictable, as seen in 9/11, Parkland, Columbine, Hurricane Katrina, and California’s Camp Fire.

Working with George McDaniel, president of McDaniel Consulting, the 2018 History Leadership Institute developed a draft list of questions to Continue reading

Excellence in Museum Mission Statements: Some Examples

In my “Introduction to Museum Management” course at George Washington University, we spend an entire day on the purpose and value of mission statements, which is prompted by a wide-ranging set of readings:

  •  Anderson, Gail. “A Framework: Reinventing the Museum” in Reinventing the Museum, pages 1-9.
  • Drucker, Peter. “The Commitment”, “Leadership is a Foul-Weather Job”, and “Summary: The Action Implications.” Chapters 1, 2, and 5 in Part 1 in Managing the Nonprofit Organization.
  • Weil, Stephen. “Creampuffs and Hardball: Are You Really Worth What You Cost or Just Merely Worthwhile?” Chapter 11 in Reinventing the Museum.
  • “Mission and Planning” in AAM’s Standards for U.S. Museums, pages 33-37.
  • Desmidt, Sebastian, Anita Prinzie, and Adelien Decramer, “Looking for the Value of Mission Statements: A Meta-Analysis of 20 Years of Research.” Management Decision 49, no. 3 (2011), 468-483.
  • Liket, Kellie C., Marta Rey-Garcia, and Karen E. H. Maas, “Why Aren’t Evaluations Working and What to Do About It: A Framework for Negotiating Meaningful Evaluation in Nonprofits,” American Journal of Evaluation 35, no. 2 (June 2014): 171-188.

Each of the readings prompted a list of principles and practices for mission statements, which they used to assess a set of 20 randomly-selected mission statements from museums in the United States.  Based on their analysis, they identified the following mission statements as models of excellence (in alphabetical order): Continue reading

A Mixed Prognosis for Regional Museum Associations

In the United States, museums are served by six regional museum associations that are associated (allied?) with the American Alliance of Museums (AAM):

While AAM is doing well with about $10 million in annual revenues and net assets of $2 million, the regional museum associations are much much smaller by comparison. Their annual revenues range from $70,000 to $600,000, which is 1-7% of AAM’s annual revenues (see Figure 1).

Figure 1. Chart of revenues for regional museum associations in the US, FY 2014-16.

That might be acceptable given these associations serve a few states rather than all 50, but a further analysis of their financial condition in fiscal years 2014-2016 suggests that their health is decidedly mixed: Continue reading

Combining Theory and Practice in GW’s Museum Studies Courses

GW’s Museum Management class in the midst of a whirlwind tour of the Smithsonian on a hot and humid day in Washington, DC.

As I enter my second semester as a full-time faculty member in the Museum Studies Program at George Washington University, I’ve adopted a “flipped classroom” format and am fully integrating theory with real-life experiences.  It’s been an incredible amount of work to revise my syllabi this summer, but so far, the students seem to be learning and enjoying their classes more (we’ll see how the evaluations look at the end of the semester!).

In my museum management class, students will complete an abridged version of a MAP Organizational Assessment for a museum, relying on information available from the website, newspaper articles, IRS Form 990, and the AAM Standards. I assigned the museums based on a random selection to represent the diversity of museums in the United States.  We work through the Standards and as we discuss each topic in class, such as governance or collections, we’ll talk about how their particular museum has approached it. This week we’ll be discussing mission so they’ll be evaluating the mission statements for the 25 museums we’re examining in class to determine a set of criteria and identify model mission statements.

New this semester is my course on project management in museums. Our core readings are: Continue reading

Canadian Geography Conference Highlights

Exhibition hall at IGU/NCGE/CGA meeting in Quebec, August 2018.

I’ve just returned from Quebec where I attended an international geography conference that was a combination of the annual meeting of the Canadian Association of Geographers (CAG), the annual conference of the National Council for Geographic Education (NCGE), and the regional conference for the International Geography Union (IGU).  Despite the combination of organizations, I’d guess it would be comparable to a regional museum association meeting of about 500 people with the usual sessions, plenary speakers, and exhibition hall.

The big difference from museum and history conferences is that the geography associations seem to accept all presentation proposals. Each presentation is assigned a 15-minute slot in a 60 to 90-minute session according to their committees or study groups (e.g., health care, tourism, indigenous peoples, islands). Presenters in the same session usually have not met each other and there’s no moderator, so it’s just one presentation after another with no introductions or transitions. The result is that a session can be a mixed bag, so a session on “teaching geographic content” included Continue reading

Video: Virtual researchers at work at Huntington Library

This 1:30 video features a video projected on a table showing scholars at work behind-the-scenes as part of a small exhibition on research and conservation at the Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens in San Marino, California. It was installed a few years ago in the former board room of the historic library building and is another example of the expanded ways that video is being used in exhibitions (it’s not just a tv monitor anymore).

You may notice that there’s no one in the exhibition. I do deliberately take photos of exhibitions without people so that the entire design can be seen, however, I also take them with people to show how they interact with the content. In this instance, it was a busy day but very few people wandered in and when they did, it was a quick glance and then back out–despite the cleverness of the video projection.  I can perhaps guess at the reasons—located off to the side, uninteresting topic, and passive experience—but it could also be a lost opportunity to do something more intriguing and distinctive.

Look again at the video. What’s distinctive about the exhibition? Continue reading

What Can Historic Sites Learn From Geography?

You’d think historic sites and geography would be an obvious combination because they both focus on place, and yet, I didn’t really see the connection until a few years ago when I started teaching at George Washington University. Joe Downer, an archaeologist at Mount Vernon who was participating in my historic house museum class, inspired me with his work using ArcGIS and their annual conference. By coincidence, I was conducting research for my anthology on interpreting African American history and culture and encountered useful articles in the Journal of Historical GeographySoutheastern Geographer, and Geographical Review. Finally, my wife became the Executive Director of the Society of Woman Geographers, which introduced me to lots of geographers across the United States (you mean they don’t just create maps?). As a result, I’ve increasingly used geographical along with historical approaches in my courses and in the business and interpretive plans I develop for my clients.

Next month, I’m diving in deeper by attending a conference of geography conferences: 2018 International Geographical Union (IGU) Regional Conference; Canadian Association of Geographers (CAG) Annual Meeting; and the National Council for Geographic Education (NCGE) Annual Conference (or as they say in Quebec, Congrès régional de l’UGI – Congrès annuel de l’ACG – Congrès annuel du NCGE). Yes, it’ll be in Quebec, so I’m a bit nervous that the language and content will be foreign to me. Nevertheless, I’m encouraged by the preliminary program, which lists dozens of presentations that immediately appealed to me (and they’re in English!): Continue reading