Category Archives: Community engagement

Resources for Transitioning Museum Programs to Online

Attending George Washington University’s online workshop to prepare for teaching online this 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:

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Black Lives Matter (Sort Of)

The “Silence is Not an Option” banner on the website of the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute links to their statement.

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.

“A Message from the Arizona Historical Society” on the News page of the Arizona Historical Society website.

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.

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Rethinking Your Mission? Be Transformative

Erin Carlson Mast, director of President Lincoln’s Cottage in Washington, DC, will discuss how mission and vision impact their daily operations.

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 Museums and 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. 

Historic Sites and COVID-19: What a Difference a Week Makes

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:

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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

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

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

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

Looking to Get Started with an IMLS Application?

This fall I’ll be teaching a project management class in the Museum Studies Program at George Washington University (GW) and the final project will be writing a grant application to the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS). The final project gives graduate students a real-life experience and provides museums with a foundation for an Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) grant application.

If you’ve been thinking about applying for IMLS grant to improve the care of your collections, better engage your community, or improve learning through your museum but have been too busy or unsure where to begin, GW graduate students may be able to help. It’s part of our effort to serve the museum field, especially smaller institutions that are often juggling too many responsibilities without sufficient resources.

IMLS’ Museums for America (MFA) is one of the best federal grant programs available because it supports “projects that strengthen the ability of an individual museum to serve its public.”  That’s pretty flexible but projects do need to focus on one of three areas: Continue reading

Local Museums Connect GW and NSDCA

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Museum studies students learning QGIS in GW’s Museums and Community Engagement course.

Closing out my first semester as a professor in the Museum Studies Program at George Washington University was inspirational.  Graduation was perhaps the culmination of the students’ achievements, but it was also seen in their final products in the three courses I taught.  I always aim to give them a major project that provides a real-world experience, such as completing an Organizational Assessment report from AAM’s Museum Assessment Program (MAP). In the “Museums and Community Engagement” class, the final assignment is a community engagement plan but it was done in partnership with several local museums, creating a mutually-beneficial relationship.

Because The National Society of The Colonial Dames of America (NSCDA) has the largest alliance of museums and historic sites in the nation (except for the National Park Service), I prepared for the course by reaching out to my colleagues at Dumbarton House in Washington, DC, which is the headquarters for the Dames. Karen Daly and Catherine Nuzum welcomed the partnership between this course and their sites, providing advice along the way and helping me identify Continue reading