Category Archives: Leaders in the field

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

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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