Category Archives: Governance and management

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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Navigating to Success at Historic Sites and House Museums

Flipping to the index in Reimagining Historic House Museums tells you much more about the contents that the table of contents.

Do you flip to the back of a book before you buy it? Indexes and bibliographies, more than a table of contents, provide a better glimpse into the ideas of a book. I appreciate them when they’re at my fingertips but assembling them is a tedious task that requires absolute attention to every page. But one of the benefits, as Ken Turino and I discovered while indexing Reimagining Historic House Museums, are the common ideas that cut across the chapters contributed by two dozen leaders in the field. Rising up to the top were three factors that are most essential to navigating to success at historic sites and house museums:

1. Finding a Mission and Purpose That’s Meaningful.

Mission statements have long been used in nonprofit organizations and the version of “collect, preserve, and interpret [insert your museum’s topic here]” has now become a cliché. Better mission statements are an overlap of the site’s historical significance and the visitors’ needs, interests, and motivations. In our book, President Lincoln’s Cottage, the Harriet Beecher Stowe Center, and the Trustees demonstrate how meaningful mission statements permeate decision-making at every level of the organization. Indeed, as my thinking continues to evolve on mission statements, they should not simply describe the work of the organization but address a major problem or issue in the community—that’s what makes them meaningful to a broader segment of the public. Why do museums collect, preserve, and interpret? To what end?

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Museums and Historic Sites Have Mixed Response to COVID-19

With concerns about the COVID-19 virus increasing, schools have moved to online instruction, the United States has closed entry to European citizens, and late-night talk shows are performing to empty rooms. The response by museums and historic sites, however, has been mixed. Some major museums, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Smithsonian Institution, and Historic New England have closed or will close soon. Because of the major outbreak in Seattle, Washington, museums in that city are most affected. The Seattle Art Museum, Museum of History and Industry, and Burke Museum have closed effective today or yesterday through at least the end of the month. Other history organizations, such as The Alamo, Colonial Williamsburg, and Minnesota Historical Society are proceeding as normal, not even mentioning the current epidemic and its effect on their operations.

Others are open but have addressed the epidemic with detailed messages on their websites:

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Retooling Professional Development for the History Field’s Leaders

The History Leadership Institute is among AASLH’s professional development programs being retooled to better meet the needs and interests of the history museums, historical societies, historic sites, archives, and other history organizations.

This year I’ve been involved in evaluating and designing a new framework for the most valuable membership benefit of the American Association for State and Local History: professional development. Surprised it ranks so high? When you step back and look at what AASLH offers—annual meeting, History News, books, technical leaflets, webinars, workshops, Standards and Excellence Program for History Organizations (StEPs), History Leadership Institute—you realize that they all sharpen the skills and help advance the mission of history organizations. Over the past two years, Conny Graft and I have designed a new framework for creating and aligning these professional development programs, and once it’s been approved and adopted, I’ll share more about this project in a future post.

I’ve also been involved in rethinking the History Leadership Institute (HLI) to better meet the needs of today’s mid-career professionals. The content has been continually tweaked, but more visible is the shift from November to June and a hybrid format. HLI now consists of two weeks online and two weeks in residence in Indianapolis, responding to the needs of professionals who want a better work-life balance and the availability of technologies to effectively deliver online learning experiences. What hasn’t changed is that HLI grapples with the tough and critical issues facing the field in a collegial environment. Although the schedule is still under development, you can get a sense of this by some of the facilitators who will be joining us in June 2020:

  • Cinnamon Catlin-Legutko, Illinois State Museum
  • Anne W. Ackerson, Leading by Design
  • Randi Korn and Stephanie Downey, RK&A
  • George McDaniel, McDaniel Consulting
  • Norman Burns and Richard Cooper, Conner Prairie
  • Erin Carlson Mast, President Lincoln’s Cottage
  • Trevor Jones, Nebraska Historical Society
  • David Young, Delaware Historical Society
  • Sarah Pharaon, International Coalition of Sites of Conscience
  • Richard M. Josey Jr, Collective Journeys

We’re also including a session by the Frameworks Institute on their research on American’s attitudes towards history, part of the larger “Framing History” project of AASLH. Whether it’s a historical society communicating with new audiences, an academic department talking with potential majors, or a museum making their case to funders or legislators, this project will provide history practitioners with tools to frame their messages as effectively as possible.

If you are interested in participating, please submit an application by December 15. Participation is limited and scholarships are available. For more details, visit HistoryLeadership.org.

GW Students Identify Strong Mission Statements

Students in the museum management course at George Washington University ranking museum mission statements.

One of the big ideas confirmed in Reimagining Historic House Museums is the significant role of a strong mission statement. They’ve been in active use in museums since the 1980s and yet, there are still plenty that are uninspiring, convoluted, or superficial slogans.

Because mission statements are so essential to the management of museums, I spend two classes of my museum management course at George Washington University discussing them using the AAM Standards along with articles by Willard Boyd, Stephen Weil, Peter Drucker, Philip Kennicott, and Sebastian Desmidt, and a chapter from Museums in Motion. Through several small group activities, the students develop a list of characteristics for strong mission statements and then test them against the mission statements for the eighteen museums they are using as case studies. Although these are graduate students with very little experience in museums, they do a terrific job identifying mission statements that can inform decisions and guide actions. For the museums they are studying this semester, these are ones with the strongest mission statements (in alphabetical order):

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Can the Arts Can Be a Model for History?

Arts + Social Impact Explorer from Americans for the Arts.

In the last decade, Americans for the Arts has become a national powerhouse for the value of the arts through their research, advocacy, and programs. Take a look at just a few of the tools and resources they offer (but beware of rabbit holes!):

Americans for the Arts provides a possible model for the history field to help us better explain our value to society. You can find similar resources in part at History Relevance, American Association for State and Local History, American Alliance of Museums, National Trust for Historic Preservation, Institute of Museum and Library Services, and other organizations, but there’s no comparable single source like Americans for the Arts. I suspect this will improve as the history field recognizes the need to go beyond the usual “those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it” and towards a fuller explanation for the value of history (see AASLH’s Framing History project). But don’t wait for others—make it happen in your organization. A house museum or a historical society can research, summarize, and prepare information for their board, staff, and members to make the case for the value of their mission and the history of their community (unless you believe your organization is just a social club and history is a personal hobby). Once developed, it can be reused and easily adjusted in the years that follow. Here are some examples of possibilities taken from the History Relevance Toolkit:

  • In their year-end fundraising letter, the Tennessee Historical Society emphasized the role of history in providing a “sense of place that builds community” and helps us to “understand the issues we face today.”
  • Naper Settlement consolidated their research into a colorful illustrated impact report for elected officials and donors.
  • The Indiana Historical Society produced a video that shares how community leaders perceive the value of history to Indiana.

Reimagining House Museums: Fall 2019 Release

collage book contents.pngThis blog has been fairly sparse this past year because Ken Turino and I were editing and assembling two dozens essays for Reimagining Historic House Museums: New Approaches and Proven Solutions, an anthology to be published by Rowman and Littlefield as part of the AASLH series. I’m delighted to announce that it is now off my desk and in the hands of the publisher; we expect it will be released in fall 2019.

One of the biggest consequences of the under-resourced and over-stretched community of house museums is that it is difficult for them to share their successes with others—they just don’t have time. The field doesn’t learn about them except through publications, blog posts, or conference sessions—that’s one of the major reasons we assembled this anthology. There’s lots of good work happening in house museums but we’re simply not aware of it. Our hope is that this book is a good place to grab a hold of the current thinking about reinventing house museums so that they are more relevant, sustainable, diverse, inclusive, equitable, and accessible, hopefully broadening and deepening the current conversations in the field.

The book is a result of a 2014 conference, How are Historic House Museums Adapting for the Future? sponsored by the Historic House Museum Consortium of Washington, DC and the Virginia Association of Museums at Gunston Hall Plantation in Virginia. They invited to give presentations to the 120 participants and noticed that while historic site practitioners and their boards recognized that the world of historic houses has changed dramatically, they weren’t sure how to go about reimagining or reinventing themselves.

With the support of the American Association for State and Local History and local funders, we embarked on a series of workshops in subsequent years to lay out a “reinventing process” that has taken us to Missouri, New Hampshire, Vermont, Kansas, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Illinois with more to come (Washington, DC in June; New York City in October). The one-day workshop, Reinventing the Historic House Museum includes an analysis of the most important opportunities and threats facing historic sites in America based on the latest 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