Category Archives: Leaders in the field

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

IMHO: Trump’s Election Reflects Trends in History Museums and Historic Preservation

change-sameDonald J. Trump’s election to the U. S. presidency is a shock to many pundits and career politicians because he never held elected office and didn’t seem to care about politics or government, except as it might benefit his businesses. His interest is business, following his father into real estate and receiving his bachelor’s degree in economics from the Wharton School, and then pursuing real estate development, professional sports, beauty pageants, for-profit education, branding and licensing, and entertainment. While the 2016 campaign will be heavily analyzed for years to understand its unfolding, my sense is that it’s not just about “change,” but a change in the skills and qualifications required for effective leadership.  It’s no longer about mission, vision, or values, but the expertise and perspective of independent business entrepreneurs.  And it’s a trend I’ve been witnessing in house museums and historic sites as well.

In the last decade, several major history and preservation organizations have selected CEOs who have little passion for or experience with the mission of the organization but instead offer outsider perspectives, often informed exclusively by an MBA: Continue reading

IMHO: Historic Preservation Needs to Move the Goal Posts

Goal posts movingOne way to measure the success of historic preservation is to count the number of listings on the National Register of Historic Places. In its first year nearly 700 properties were registered, and today the National Register has more than 90,000 entries representing nearly 1.8 million buildings, sites, and structures and is growing at a rate of about 1,500 listings annually. We could easily celebrate that as an achievement of the National Historic Preservation Act, however, the sobering truth is that fewer and fewer Americans find historic sites “inspirational” or “beneficial,” to use NHPA parlance. In the last thirty years, the number of adults who visited an historic park, monument, building, or neighborhood has dropped, from 39 percent in 1982 to 24 percent in 2012. A similar pattern appears in a study of cultural travelers in San Francisco, which showed that while 66 percent said that historic sites were important to visit, only 26 percent had actually visited one in the previous three years.

There are probably several reasons for this decline, including the near-elimination of history from public schools and a decreasing amount of leisure time, but our own field of historic preservation may also be at fault. Over the past fifty years, historic preservation has become more complex, often requiring expertise in legal strategies, real estate development, fundraising, and architectural conservation. It’s become more focused around technique, such as how to designate a property, navigate Section 106, or repair a double-hung window. It’s become more intellectual, with battles fought over statements of significance, National Register criteria, and applicability of the National Environmental Policy Act. It’s become an endless circuit in which we seem to fight the same battles and hear the same objections: “We can’t save everything,” “It’s not historic,” “We can’t stop progress,” and “You’re taking away my rights.” Historic preservation seems to have become less, rather than more, relevant and meaningful to Americans since the passage of the NHPA.

Maybe we’ve confused the ends with the means and are chasing the wrong goals. Preservation is not a destination but a means of reaching a destination. So what is the goal of preservation? According to the NHPA, it’s a “sense of orientation” and a “genuine opportunity to appreciate and enjoy the rich heritage of our Nation.” We need to rebalance the term “historic preservation” so that there’s equal emphasis on both words, rather than just the latter. We need to move the goal posts so that historic preservation is not about something but for somebody.

As management guru Peter Drucker reminds us, the nonprofit organization’s “product is a changed human being. Non-profit institutions are human-change agents. The ‘product’ is a cured patient, a child that learns, a young man or woman grown into a self-respecting adults, a changed human life altogether.” Historic preservation is not just about saving buildings; it’s about changing the lives of people.

Protecting, preserving, and interpreting is not sufficient. These are simply methods, tasks, jobs, works, or actions that define a purpose and explain how it will be accomplished. What is needed is a goal, a destination, a target, an idealized description of the future that explains “why.” To borrow from grammar, we need Continue reading

Video: Evaluation Consultant Randi Korn on Impact

In this 2:01 video, Randi Korn explains how museums and historic sites can define impact and how an “impact statement” integrates personal passion, the organization’s strengths, and the audience’s interests and needs.  And to measure impact you have to go beyond the usual numbers involving attendance and income and instead look at the experience that people had.  This is one in the “Questions of Practice” video series produced by the Pew Center for Arts and Heritage.

History Relevance Campaign meets at Smithsonian

I’ll be at an all-day workshop today at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History to discuss the work of the History Relevance Campaign with representatives of two dozen national organizations, including the Library of Congress, National Archives, National Endowment for the Humanities, National Park Service, American Historical Association, American Alliance of Museums, National Coalition for History, National History Day, National Humanities Alliance, and National Governors Association.  We’ll use our work on the values of history, impact project, and research on popular attitudes towards history to discuss where the campaign should go next and how they might get more involved (most of these organizations have already endorsed the values statement).  I’m not sure what the results will be but you can follow along on Twitter at #historyrelevance.

AASLH Annual Meeting Provokes Historical Thinking

Tim Grove facilitating a lively conversation about historical thinking at the AASLH Annual Meeting in 2015.

Tim Grove facilitating a lively conversation about historical thinking at the AASLH Annual Meeting in 2015.

The annual meeting of the American Association for State and Local History always offers a good mix of educational sessions, social events, and opportunities to visit museums and historic sites around the country.  This year, Sam Wineburg, a Stanford University professor and author of Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts (2001), prompted an ongoing discussion with his plenary address on the first day of the annual meeting.  Through his research on students and scholars, he showed that the analysis of historical documents is a sophisticated skill that isn’t apparent to most people (and I can confidently say this also applies to objects, buildings, and landscapes).  He went on to argue that teaching people to think historically isn’t about teaching history but making them better citizens.  John Dichtl, president of AASLH, discusses this further on the AASLH blog.

These ideas were pursued the next day at a packed session facilitated by Tim Grove of the National Air and Space Museum.  Using excerpts from Wineburg’s book, Tim encouraged a lively dialogue that allowed me to report out 15 Tweets, including:

  • Historical thinking: multiple perspectives; analysis of sources; context; and based on evidence.
  • Are we underestimating visitors if we don’t give them oppty to debate ideas & issues at museums/historic sites?
  • Debates always happen, but history gets flattened over time. Build multiple perspectives, uncertainty, & questions into exhibits.
  • Asking good provocative questions is a skill. Learn more at the Right Question Institute.
  • Challenge for marketing & communications staff about handling provocative topics in social media era.
  • Are museums & sites imposing their ideology on visitors? Have we become arrogant? Do we need to learn about visitor interests?

which resulted in 31 favorites and 20 retweets.  Just to be clear, these ideas didn’t come from me but from the persons gathered in the room.  I could have tweeted out many more but I couldn’t listen and type them out quickly at the same time.

If you weren’t able to attend, there’s next year in Detroit.  In the meantime, enjoy these snaps from the recent meeting in Louisville (and thanks to everyone at the Kentucky Historical Society for being such gracious hosts).

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International Museum Management Conference Coming to US

Screen Shot 2015-07-31 at 10.56.44 AM The International Committee of Museum Management (InterCom) of the the International Council of Museums (ICOM) with be holding its annual meeting in Washington, DC from October 28-31, 2015, the first time it has held its meeting in the United States. InterCom works toward the development of sound museum management throughout the world, including the managerial aspects of policy formulation, legislation, and resource management.  Registration is $350 ($150 for students) and early bird registration for $295 ends today (July 31).

This year’s conference focuses on three themes–The Sustainable Leader, The Enduring
Organization, and the Essential Museum–and plenary speakers include Lonnie Bunch, Founding Director, Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and CultureElaine Heumann Gurian, author and museum consultant; and Richard C. Harwood, Harwood Institute for Public Innovation. Sessions involve diverse topics from around the world and several caught my eye. I wonder what someone from Columbia has to say about museums as tourist attractions; how violence or civil unrest are affecting museums in Mexico, Denmark, and Minnesota (Minnesota??); or how the Research Center for Anatolian Civilizations in Turkey tackles the value of history and heritage in the contemporary world (how do you make thousands of years of history relevant?).

I’ll be there to expand my horizons and reporting out when I get a chance. It also looks like we’ll be having special tours of several museums in DC (it’s the behind-the-scenes experience at museums that lured me into this field) so that will be great fun. Hope to see you there!

Hangout with Historians to Discuss the Nation’s Report Card

NAEP History Scores 1994-2014Discuss strategies to improve history education in our schools with people coming at it from different perspectives on Tuesday, July 7 at 12 noon (Eastern) in a Google Hangout co-hosted by the National Assessment Governing Board and the American Historical Association.  It’s in response to the latest results of the Nation’s Report Card, which shows that many students lack a strong understanding of our nation’s history (as seen in the chart, scores have been flat for the past twenty years, and the conversation will explore ways that students can become more engaged and informed.  Hmm, can historic sites and house museums play a role?

Participants include

  • Jim Grossman, executive director of the American Historical Association
  • Chasidy White, history and geography teacher at Brookwood (Ala.) Middle School and member of the National Assessment Governing Board
  • Judith Gradwohl, MacMillan associate director for education and public engagement at the National Museum of American History
  • Libby O’Connell, chief historian at the History channel
  • Frank Valadez, executive director of the Chicago Metro History Education Center

and the conversation will be moderated by Jessica Brown, contributing writer at Education Week.

To register or for more information, visit Why History Matters at the National Assessment Governing Board.