Category Archives: Governance and management

The Big Challenges Facing Leaders at SHA

The Seminar for Historical Administration completed the first of a three-week program in Indianapolis and we’re learning a lot—so much that it’s sometimes overwhelming. We’re getting great ideas from the presenters, classmates, and field trips.  While we’re a bit quiet during our discussions, it’s probably more due to the processing of all the new information we’re receiving than from an unwillingness to share our opinions. At the end of the week, John Marks, Morgan L’Argent, and Jeff Matsuoka facilitated discussions around three major issues we encountered, including some of the major challenges they’ll be facing when they return to their institutions in a couple weeks. Do any of these sound familiar to you?

1. Managing change: How to best integrate new ideas in our institutions. Will management accept new ideas or recognize a need for change? Will we be allowed to discuss or instigate change? How can change occur within a hierarchical organization? Will our ideas be viewed as an inauthentic or insincere public relations effort? Will the staff and board take action? Are our expectations set too low, making new ideas too much to handle? Will our new ideas result in a loss of our job or alienate donors and supporters?

2. Broadening participation: Are we including other perspectives and voices? Are alternative opinions being heard? Are we working in an echo-chamber, just having a conversation of people who agree with us? How do we ensure volunteers are included?

3. The tyranny of the urgent: Too distracted by daily operations to tackle big issues. How do I pace myself when there’s a long list of things to do? How do I manage my existing workload while processing new ideas from SHA? How do I avoid being discouraged or feeling defeated?

4. Achieving alignment: Articulating a strategic plan that is progressive, cohesive, and relevant in an environment where status quo, non-reflection, and bureaucracy is the norm. How to overcome inertia? How to find alignment between a new vision for the organization and its mission, values, and priorities? How do I find the right team? How do I achieve ambitious goals within the limitations of my job description?

As the director of SHA, I’m absorbing all of these experiences, but I’m not thinking how I can apply them to my museum or historical society back home. Instead, my brain is rattling around with ways to make the program even better next year so that the participants are even more effective as leaders at their organizations and in the history field.

If you have suggestions or comments on these issues, I’d love to hear from you and I’ll be sure to share them with the class. You’ll also want to return to this blog in a few weeks to see how thinking has evolved.  It’s great to have the time to step back and reflect on these issues!

Seminar for Historical Administration underway in Indianapolis

Seminar for Historical Administration 2017 in Indianapolis

This year’s Seminar for Historical Administration (SHA) is meeting in Indianapolis and all of our hard work in selecting participants and presenters over the past months is coming to fruition.  For three weeks in Indianapolis, a dozen people in the history field will be discussing the leading issues facing leaders and debating their solutions.  I’ve assembled the schedule and directing the program, so I’m particularly excited to see how it unfolds each day. A big thanks to the dozens of people who are helping to make this extraordinary experience happen.

SHA opened on Sunday with Erin Carlson Mast, the President and CEO of President Lincoln’s Cottage, laying out the trends in the field.  She noted how much has changed in the last ten years and that our work is more important than ever. I was particularly intrigued by her insistence that the mission and vision of the organization need to be manifested not only in the public programs and activities but also in the budget and operations.  For example, their interpretation of slavery during Lincoln’s era motivated them to examine modern-day slavery (human trafficking) through their award-winning SOS program for teens AND make choices about the restoration materials used in the Cottage. Afterwards, we visited the library and archives at the Indiana Historical Society and had dinner together at a local restaurant.

Yesterday, David Young, Executive Director at Cliveden and Tim Grove of the National Air and Space Museum discussed the opportunities and challenges for making history relevant. It seems that everyone is struggling to make this happen, either through their programming or evaluation, and perhaps the most important discovery is that we need to learn more about our audience’s interests, motivations, and needs.

Today, Pamela Napier and Terri Wada at Collabo Creative will lead us through a short workshop on “design thinking” and then we’ll visit the Indiana State Museum to meet their new CEO Cathy Ferree and visit collections, and return to the Indiana Historical Society to learn about conservation.

 

Building Capacity with a Virtual Receptionist

One of the big challenges for small and medium-sized nonprofit organizations is building capacity. Staff salaries and wages are usually the largest expense and it’s hard to grow without a serious long-term hit to your budget. As a result, work tends to pile on the same people and threatening burnout. Thanks to the expansion of online technologies and the freelance economy there may be ways to build capacity as you need it.

I’m a big fan of Mac Power Users, a podcast that focuses on the hardware, software, and workflows that can make your business more productive. I’ve adopted their recommendations to use Evernote and the Fujitsu ScanSnap iX500 scanner with great success during the past few years. Although the podcast focuses Apple computers and applications, they can often be applied to other situations. For example, recent episode number 389 “The Mac-based Small Business” describes “virtual receptionists,” Continue reading

Engaging Places is Expanding its Vision

GWU-or-SHA.jpgThis year has been incredibly busy for me, so much so that I’ve been unable to share many of the ideas that I’ve discovered in my travels to historic sites across America through this blog. Along with my active consulting practice, I’ve recently agreed to become the director of Developing History Leaders @SHA and an assistant professor in the Museum Studies Program at George Washington University (GWU).  Both positions were announced at the same time at the beginning of the year and because they were both attractive opportunities, I applied for both, thinking it was like submitting an application to IMLS and NEH and assuming only one or none would be funded.  I hit the jackpot when both came my way and I’m thrilled about the opportunities.  I’m already at work with SHA in November and teaching at GWU starting in January 2018.

As my friends and colleagues learn about this big change in my career, Continue reading

Be the Early Bird to Catch a Deal on AASLH’s Annual Meeting

Friday, July 21 is the deadline to catch the early registration price of $328 ($253 for members); it jumps to $393 the next day.  AASLH offers the widest variety of sessions and workshops for house museums and historic sites at a national level and attracts some of the best minds in the field.  This year, the annual meeting will be held in Austin, Texas from September 6-9 and include:

  • Awaken the Historic House: A Fresh Look at the Traditional Model, an afternoon workshop led by Brett Lobello of Brucemore.
  • Current Issues Forum: What Role Should Historic Sites Play in Teacher Professional Development? moderated by Sarah Jencks at the Ford’s Theatre Society.
  • Engaging Programs = Engaging Communities?, a session I’ll be moderating on different ways to engage more effectively with your local community.
  • Preserving and Interpreting Contested Histories of Missions and Missionaries moderated by Barbara Franco, an independent scholar.
  • Historic Preservation Never Ends: Practical Maintenance for Your Historic Buildings moderated by Evelyn Montgomery of the Dallas Heritage Village.
  • From Millstone to Crown Jewel: Revitalization and Transition of a “Tired” Site moderated by Mike Follin of Ohio History Connection.
  • Parks and Prejudice: The Legacy of Segregation and State Parks moderated by Cynthia Brandimarte of Texas State Parks.
  • The Great Debate: Engaging Audiences vs. Protecting Dollhouses moderated by Brandie Ragghianti of the Charlotte Hawkins Brown Museum.
  • Lessons Learned: The Legal, Ethical, and Practical Issues Involved in Finding a New Steward for Upsala moderated by Carrie Villar of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
  • Open the Door! Approaches to Interpreting Historic Landscapes moderated by Sean Sawyer of the Olana Partnership.
  • Historic House Museum Affinity Group Breakfast featuring Ken Turino of Historic New England.
  • Bucking the Trend: Energizing Historic Homes in Central Texas moderated by Oliver Franklin at the Elisabet Ney Museum.

Of course, these are just a small part of the 85 sessions, keynote presentations, field trips, evening events, and an exhibit hall happening over a few days in Austin.  There’s usually much much more available than you’ll ever have time to do and I’m often torn between 2-3 sessions at the same time.

To register or for more information, visit go.aaslh.org/AMreg.  Although registration fees for this national conference are very reasonable, especially at the early registration rate, AASLH offers several scholarships to reduce expenses (although their application deadlines have already passed).  If you can’t attend, there’s also an online version where you can hear six sessions that are especially presented as webinars, including my session on Engaging Programs = Engaging Communities? (they’re not simply a broadcast of the conference session).  They’ll be available for six months and can be viewed as many times as you like at rates starting at $60.

Embezzlement: Is It Our Dirty Secret? (a five-year update)

Five years ago I posted an essay about embezzlement at history organizations while I was on AASLH Council and in the midst of recovering from the financial fraud perpetrated by its chief financial officer.  History News recently published my updated version and included a sidebar by John Dichtl to describe the fraud at AASLH.  When it occurred, AASLH wanted to be open and transparent about the situation and use it to help others, and yet, we often found ourselves silent and frustrated because it could have jeopardized the criminal investigation and lawsuits.  Now that the CFO has been sentenced, AASLH can discuss it more openly (although some aspects are covered by confidentiality agreements). Please share this article with your colleagues to help them tighten their financial controls and reduce the chances of embezzlement at their organizations.

By the way, this issue of History News has lots of good articles for historic sites, including:

  • “The Many Voices of a Historic House” by Jane Mitchell Eliasof (about the effort reinterpret the Crane House in Montclair, New Jersey as an African American YWCA from 1920 to 1965)
  • “Like a Phoenix: Opportunities in the Aftermath of Disaster” by Samantha Engel (about the fire that occurred during a construction project at the Whaley Historic House Museum in Flint, Michigan)
  • “A Please Touch Historic House Tour” by Christine Ermenc, Christina Vida, and Scott Wands (a case study of an award-winning program at the Strong-Howard House in Windsor, Connecticut).

History News is one of the best benefits of membership in AASLH.  Along with a quarterly copy in the mail, they recently added online access through JStor and send members a pdf version in advance via email. I’ve been a member for nearly 40 years and if you want to find consistently useful ideas for managing your historic site or house museum, there’s no better place than AASLH.

Can You Create a Mission-Related Petting Zoo?

A clever storage area for odd-shaped tools and equipment at Strawbery Banke.

I just returned from leading a historic house management workshop for AASLH at the Strawbery Banke Museum in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. It’s always an opportunity to pick up some good ideas from the host institution and at Strawbery Banke, there was no shortage. Most intriguing was their Heritage House Program which restores and leases fifteen underutilized properties, creating a virtual endowment fund to support their educational programs. It’s an outstanding combination of mission and financial sustainability, earning it an award from the New Hampshire Preservation Alliance and a feature on NPR’s “All Things Considered.”

In my workshop, we discuss the importance of combining mission and sustainability using one of my favorite tools: the Double-Bottom Line.  I often joke that if historic sites just wanted to increase attendance, they might as well become petting zoos of puppies and kittens. Incredibly, Strawbery Banke has figured out how to make a mission-related puppy zoo in an event called, “Baby Animals.”  For one week, visitors can learn about a dozen heritage breeds such as Jacob sheep, Nigerian goats, and Gloucester Old Spot pigs.  No, they can’t be petted but families can watch lambs, kids, and piglets play, eat, and sleep.  For those who are really interested, there are a couple lectures and a “meet the animals” program for children ages 4 to 8 where they can have a snack, feed the animals, and create a take-home gift for $25.  What a clever idea! I’ve attached the brochure on Baby Animals at Strawberry Banke with more details.

Advice for CEOs from the NCMC Annual Meeting

Earlier this week I had a chance to attend the annual meeting of the North Carolina Museums Council in Wilmington.  It was incredibly beautiful weather in this historic port town and I had a great time meeting colleagues (some who were fellow graduates from the University of Delaware and others who had mutual friends in my hometown—small world!).  The conference attracted just over a hundred people, which is very small compared to the national meetings I usually attend, and when I arrived, I wondered about their value to the field.  By the time I left, I saw that they fill a special niche:

  • provides connections that are vital for aligning advocacy efforts, strengthening tourism, and sharing resources at a local level
  • provides training for people that are unable to afford to attend a national meeting (such as graduate students) or cannot travel out of state (which is becoming increasingly common in government agencies)
  • sessions are often more practical and focus on a single topic (e.g., how to create an interactive museum exhibit using Raspberry Pi, how to use journey mapping)
  • sessions are smaller (one to two dozen people) and shorter (45 minutes) which give speakers a chance to try out new ideas in a more informal setting.

I also found that participants share many of the same challenges and offer the same wisdom found in larger conferences, On Sunday, I was invited to speak at the Leadership Forum and started by asking a few questions so Continue reading

SHA Appoints New Director: Me!

I’m thrilled to announce that Developing History Leaders @SHA (formerly known as Seminar for Historic Administration) has appointed me as their Director.  Since 1959, this prestigious program has brought together some of the leading practitioners in the field of history to discuss best and future practices with a small group of mid-career professionals who want to hone their skills.  Over the decades, SHA graduates have become executives doing outstanding work at numerous museums, archives, historical societies, heritage areas, historic sites, and preservation organizations across the country.  I’ve always admired the faculty and graduates, and even though I was never able to participate in the program, I made sure that I attended the SHA Reception at the AASLH annual meeting.  It guaranteed that I would meet the people in my field who are among the most ambitious, passionate, and thoughtful.

This year will have a steep learning curve because the program has such a long history but I’m anxious to get started.  Thankfully, I’m working with a great team that includes Continue reading

Small Museum Association Conference Was Really Big

For the first time, College Park, Maryland hosted the annual Small Museum Association conference, which was previously held for decades in Ocean City, Maryland (a seaside resort town where the rooms are cheap in winter).  The relocation was controversial but it attracted a record attendance of 315 persons, plus the facilities at the Marriott Hotel and Conference Center were much better suited for a national conference.  Not only were there a nice assortment of rooms and places to meet (not just for sessions but informal chats) but it features an outstanding art collection from the University of Maryland in its hallways, not the usual hotel pablum. Paintings and sculptures mostly by Maryland artists lined the hallways and in their own galleries, curated by Jon West-Bey (formerly at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum).  Were we in a hotel? a conference center? a museum?

While some people might assume that a conference for small museums means that it’s for beginners, you’ll find that like most professional conferences it has a variety of sessions for different levels of experience, except that it’s aimed at institutions that have a small staff and budget. Flexibility and speed are among the characteristic advantages of small museums, who sometimes forget they can innovate much faster than their bigger brethern. Some quick highlights from the education sessions I attended are: Continue reading