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.
When your history organization is modeling itself on other museums or historical societies, are you choosing the right ones? Are they doing things that are well within your capacity or are you following an impossible dream? There’s nothing wrong with observing the extraordinary leaders in the field, but if you’re modeling your life on a superhero, you may be destined for an avoidable series of crashes and burns. You would have been much more successful had you devoted your time and energy on more achievable efforts.
For example, Historical Organizations (NTEE Code A80) are “organizations that promote awareness of and appreciation for history and historical artifacts,” which is mostly composed of local historic sites, house museums, and memorials that are not solely history museums or historical societies. A sample of Historical Organizations shows that many focus on local history, support museums, or memorialize people, places, or events (see Table 1). Of the 2,500 Historical Organizations providing IRS Forms 990 in 2017, nearly 40 percent include the words “memorial,” “foundation,” “friends,” or “association” in their names.
Like art, efforts to define “museum” are challenging and controversial. The American Alliance of Museums takes the “big tent” approach to defining museums—“if an organization considers itself to be a museum, it’s in the tent” (AAM 2008, 3). The Internal Revenue Service, however, takes a different approach, which can be puzzling to the field. It assigns the type of charitable organization (e.g. history museums, elementary schools, forest conservation) with no guidance or approval from the organization. Among the categories is “Museums” (NTEE code A50), which is described as, “Organizations that acquire, preserve, research, exhibit and provide for the educational use of works of art, objects or artifacts that are related to the study of zoology, biology, botany, mineralogy, geology and other natural sciences; history; archeology; or science and technology.”
An analysis of IRS Forms 990 of museums identified as NTEE code A50 reveals the incredible diversity of the field as well as challenges our notions of “museum” (see list of examples in Table 1; a complete list is available as a pdf). Consisting of roughly 18 percent of the entire museum field, Museums (A50) are the third-largest type behind Historical Organizations (A80) and Historical Societies & Historic Preservation (A82) (see Figure 1). While large in number, Museums (A50) have fewer resources than the average player in the field, but are growing faster. They hold average net assets of $3,501,000, which is 28 percent lower than the museum field as a whole, but their average net assets increased 11 percent year over year compared to the 4 percent average of the entire museum field. They are also united by their smaller scale and resources rather than subject matter with more than 85 percent of institutions receiving less than $1 million in revenue each year (see Figure 2), confirming the value of providing targeted services to small museums, such as the Small Museum Association, or funds, such as NEH’s Preservation Assistance Grants.
Imagine taking a road trip to visit Independence Hall. It would be impossible to get there if you don’t know where you are (are you starting in Boston? Chicago? Los Angeles?). Yet most museums and historic sites find themselves in this same predicament—but they don’t know it.
Knowing your museum’s financial position within its larger context can more clearly improve performance. We’ve witnessed how demographic shifts, a global pandemic, and social issues have affected all museums in the last year. Identifying which museums are responding well or poorly is largely based on rumor and anecdote, resulting in an incomplete picture of the field—and potentially misleading if a museum bases its decisions on them. Instead, we are following the advice of Karen Berman and Joe Knight, authors of Financial Intelligence (2013): “The art of accounting and finance is the art of using limited data to come as close as possible to an accurate description of how well a company is performing.”
On my first day on the road, I made my first stop just after an hour in Hagerstown, Maryland to see the Washington County Museum of Fine Arts. Set in a county park near its historic downtown, it has a surprisingly fine collection of American and European art from 17th to 19th century. Exemplary portraits by the Peale family, bronze sculptures by Rodin, vases by Tiffany and Lalique, and pots by George Ohr are found among its collections of 7,000 objects–that’s small compared to most art museums. Along with displaying their collections, they also organize temporary exhibitions, such as one on Joshua Johnson (ca. 1763-1824) of Baltimore, the first professional African-American painter. Anna Brugh Singer and her husband William H. Singer, Jr. (heirs to a family fortune, not of sewing machine fame) established the museum in the 1931 after they had traveled the world.
More interesting, however, was my discussion with board president Roger Fairbourn and curator Daniel Fulco about the vision of the museum. It’s clear they don’t want to collect more to become another Metropolitan Museum of Art, but they do plan to grow. They are hosting more ambitious traveling exhibitions, such as the current one on 17th century Italian paintings. They are adding more facilities for education, but that’s in response to community interest. They are expanding their collections, but it is to diverse their American art by including under-represented stories and move further into the 20th century. They also recognize their primary audience is the surrounding four counties, not tourists. Their strengths are uncommon and a refreshing change from the usual bigger-is-better, get-more-tourists mentality that usually infests the minds of museums. This is a tough position to take because it goes against the usual metrics, in this case, smaller is better.
Another surprise: a board president who can explain the history of the museum, its vision for the future, and discuss the significance of the current exhibition. I happened to run into him accident, when he caught me taking photos outside and stopped to chat. When I expressed my interest in the history and management of the museum, he took me around to the side of the museum to explain the physical evolution of the building, then took me inside to talk about the exhibitions and their vision. While we were chatting, he noticed another visitor was puzzled by the Johnson exhibition, so he stopped to describe its significance and pointed out a painting that might interest her. And he didn’t do it by flaunting his position at the museum (he just introduced himself as Roger). What!? If anyone on your board of trustees can do this, you’re in luck. Most can’t.
Visiting these small art museums verifies that small history museums, which dominant the field, can be effective and worthy organizations. They just need to develop a vision that pursues impact on their audience rather than size of collections or attendance.
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.
The pandemic is prompting changes throughout museums and history organizations, including the processing of deeds of gift for collection acquisitions. It is the muddy stretch of the road. I’d prepare two deeds of gift, use sticky notes to show where to sign, attach a cover sheet asking the donor to sign both copies and return one to the museum, and enclose a self-addressed stamped envelope to encourage a quick response. Finally, you drop the packet in the mail and hope to hear from the donor soon. Otherwise, it entailed more follow-up that could take weeks, sometimes months, to complete. Meanwhile, the new acquisition stared at you from the shelves in limbo every time you walked into storage.
To streamline the process, the San Diego History Center recently adopted DocuSign, an online service that allows documents to be signed and returned quickly. No need for scanning signatures or using a mouse to write out an illegible name. DocuSign uses your name to craft a “signature” in a script typeface. I recently completed a house sale using DocuSign and sailed through piles of paperwork with ease.
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:
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?