The History Leadership Institute, AASLH’s professional development program for mid-career history professionals, introduced its long-running Seminar in a new format in June.
In 1959, the Seminar began as an effort to train newly graduated history students and directors of history museums in the unique skills of managing museums, historic sites, and archives in a six-week program held at Colonial Williamsburg, During the decades that followed, the Seminar has continually changed to meet the needs of the field and explore new and emerging practices.
At my first stop at the Washington County Museum of Fine Arts, I was faced with a historical marker at the entrance to the parking lot. A unexpected location but far more accessible than on the side of a busy highway. All of the recent conversations about decolonization has me always take a closer look at these markers but more interestingly, I’ve encountered several different types of markers so far on my road trip that have me thinking more about their value, veracity, authenticity, and permanence by being “cast in bronze”.
As you’ll see, location matters as much as the text. Some are intentional efforts to deceive, some are not. Some are historical, some artistic, some a bit of both. They are all designed to be inspirational, some more deeply than others. Do any of them matter? Do they have any impact? What do you think?
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 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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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 →
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.