Category Archives: Leaders in the field

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:

Continue reading

Reimagining Historic House Museums: Observations From the Field

Cover of the book, Reimagining Historic House Museums, published 2019.
Reimagining Historic House Museums (2019)

This afternoon Ken Turino and I will share the common factors that create a sustainable path forward for our country’s historic places. We’ll be drawing from the dozens of innovative sites described in our newly-published anthology, Reimagining Historic House Museums: New Approaches and Proven Solutions. Topics will include assessing whether an organization’s purpose is meaningful to the public, challenging institutions to think holistically, and ensuring that leadership supports risk and experimentation. We’ll be joined in conversation by Kathy Dwyer Southern, Immediate Past Co-Chair of the International Council of Museums United States. If you’re in the area, we welcome you to join us at 5:30 pm at the George Washington University Museum, 701 21st Street NW (at G Street) in Washington, DC. Several of the contributors to the book will be attending and I suspect we’ll have a rousing discussion over drinks at the nearby Tonic.

Ken and I continue to offer our one-day workshop on reimagining historic house museums around the country through the American Association for State and Local History and we’ve now added this shorter “Observations from the Field” presentation to highlight the big ideas from the book. We first presented it with Lisa Ackerman, Interim CEO of the World Monuments Fund, in New York City in October at the request of the Historic House Trust (video below). It was so well received that we’re bringing it to DC today and to Los Angeles in March (as part of the California Association of Museums meeting). We’ve also presented portions of this talk for the National Society of The Colonial Dames in America and Historic New England. If the workshop or presentation could benefit your organization, contact Ken or me for more details (we can only accommodate a couple of these each year, so we may have to plan far ahead).

“Observations from the Field”, Historic House Trust, October 2019

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

Learn from Leading Scholars in Your Home or Office

TED Talks has spawned the renewal of lectures as an engaging form of education (who would have guessed?) and many universities and organizations are regularly sharing lectures from their public programs, staff workshops, and student courses online with the public.  They’re also a great resource for house museums and historic sites, who can use them for professional development and staff training, or to check out a potential speaker for a special event.  They might even inspire museums to record their own events and share them online.  Here are a couple programs that caught my eye: Continue reading

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.

 

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

NMAAHC Director Lonnie Bunch Named a Washingtonian of the Year

Lonnie Bunch, a Washingtonian of the Year.

Lonnie Bunch, a Washingtonian of the Year.

The January 2017 issue of Washingtonian, the magazine for the Washington DC region, named Lonnie Bunch as one of its “eleven locals whose commitment to helping others makes Washington a better place to live.” Usually the list is made up of wealthy philanthropists, sports figures, political leaders, and education reformers, so it was a nice surprise to see an historian who works at a museum named among its most benevolent in a city full of history and museums .

Lonnie Bunch is the founding director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, which opened last fall and whose continuing popularity makes admission one of the hottest tickets in town.  Bunch was previously the president of the Chicago Historical Society and curator at the National Air and Space Museum, National Museum of American History, and the California African American Museum, where I first met him twenty years ago when I was conducting research on jazz bands in 1920s Los Angeles.  I’ve always enjoyed my encounters with him, which often happen as happy accidents through a last-minute invitation to dinner in Chicago, running into him during the Folklife Festival, or sharing a car ride with him to the airport in Charleston.  So I was delighted when he agreed to write the foreword for my first book, Interpreting African American History and Culture at Museums and Historic Sites.

Washingtonian recognizes Bunch for his effort to find a spot on the Mall for the museum, raising much of the $270 million to match Congress’ contribution, and attracting donations from people across America.  I also know him as a Continue reading