Category Archives: Opinions

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

Brown University and National Trust Provide Recommendations for Historic House Museums

The financial sustainability and social relevance of historic house museums continue to intrigue scholars, preservationists, organizations, and even pundits on National Public Radio (I was recently interviewed by them about this topic) and adding to the conversation are two recent publications by the John Nicholas Brown Center at Brown University and the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

Bedroom at Liberty Hall Museum, Kean University, New Jersey.

Bedroom at Liberty Hall Museum, Kean University, New Jersey.

If historic house museums are historic sites that primarily educational (not commercial) in purpose, how would they be different if they were managed by educational institutions? “University-Affiliated Historic House Museums,” a report by the John Nicholas Brown Center at Brown University may provide some answers. Prepared for the 1772 Foundation by Hillary Brady, Steven Lubar, and Rebecca Soules, the report examines the issues facing historic house museums that are owned or operated by colleges and universities based on a survey of existing practices at ten sites.  Offering recommendations for “new ways to make these museums more useful to the university community,” it concludes with a half dozen alternatives for the Liberty Hall Museum at Kean University, which might be applicable to sites that are not affiliated with universities (swap “campus” and “students” with “community” and “residents”).  By the way, the Center is hosting an intriguing colloquium in May 2015 on “lost museums“.

Future of Historic Sites Forum Journal 2014In 1949, Congress created the National Trust for Historic Preservation to Continue reading

Delaware Offering Lessons on Museum Management of the Wrong Kind IMHO

I’m a 1980s graduate of the University of Delaware, which is a great place to learn about museums because of its affiliation with Winterthur, Hagley Museum and Library, and Longwood Gardens.  Now we’re all discovering it’s also a great place to learn how to mismanage a museum.

Delaware Art Museum

If you haven’t been following the story for the past year, the Delaware Art Museum in Wilmington is selling some of its collections in an effort to pay off a $20 million debt for the construction of a museum expansion in 2005 and refill its endowment.  They first sold a painting by William Holman Hunt a few months ago and they’re getting ready to sell a couple more items soon, including a painting by Winslow Homer and a sculpture by Alexander Calder.  Their actions were censured by the Association of Art Museum Directors (a group that’s typically reluctant to criticize its members), but the Delaware Art Museum doesn’t care.  In “Museum Under Fire for Selling Its Art,” Deborah Solomon of the New York Times provides the latest painful details.

This case study isn’t finished (and it’ll be a doozy), but we’re learning plenty of lessons already:

1.  People visit museums and historic sites to have a great experience with the collections, not Continue reading

History News for Spring 2013 Arrives

History News, Spring 2013

History News, Spring 2013

It’s mid-June and the spring 2013 issue of History News just arrived.  If you’re wondering why it’s late, it’s my fault.

Katherine Kane and Bob Beatty invited me to write an article that would highlight this year’s annual meeting theme: “Turning Points:  Ordinary People, Extraordinary Change.”  I was honored—and challenged.  Heroic stories of ordinary Americans changing history would be inspirational but too easy.  So I focused on us —the ordinary people who work in history organizations—to explore how we can provoke extraordinary change in our communities and audiences.  Nice idea, but it went through a dozen revisions that trampled deadlines in the process.  I hope it’s worth the wait.  I’ll be posting excerpts from it along with the entire article starting next week (have to give the AASLH members first opportunity!).

But if you don’t find my article satisfying, there are plenty of alternatives in this issue: Continue reading

NEH Announces $39M in Grants but Sites Fare Poorly IMHO

At the end of July, the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) announced $39 million in grants for 244 projects across 15 program areas (e.g., America’s Historical and Cultural Organizations, Landmarks of American History and Culture, and Sustaining Cultural Heritage Collections Grants).  NEH is the major federal source of funds for historic sites and house museums, so these grant announcements provide a sense of what’s happening in the field to see what’s innovative or excellent (or what attracts funding).  Some examples of grant recipients who are focused on historic sites include:

Chicago Architecture Foundation
NEH Program: Landmarks of American History, $172,393
Project Director: Jean Linsner
Project Title: The American Skyscraper: Transforming Chicago and the Nation
Project Description: Two one-week workshops for eighty school teachers on the
development of the skyscraper in Chicago and the relationship of skyscrapers to

U.S.S. Constitution Museum 
NEH Program: Landmarks of American History, $179,548
Project Director: Sarah Watkins
Project Title: The U.S.S. Constitution and the War of 1812
Project Description: Two one-week workshops for eighty school teachers on the naval War of 1812 and its most important and complex artifact, the United States frigate Constitution, anchored in Boston.

Wilderstein Preservation
NEH Program: Sustaining Cultural Heritage Collections, $50,000
Project Director: Duane Watson
Project Title: Planning for a Sustainable Preservation Environment in the Wilderstein Mansion
Project Description: A planning project to identify ways to create and maintain Continue reading

College History Degree is Getting A Tune Up; Historic Sites Get a Flat Tire IMHO

The American Historical Association recently announced that it is initiating a nationwide, faculty-led project to articulate the disciplinary core of historical study and to define what a student should know and be able to do at the completion of a history degree program. Professors Anne Hyde (Colorado College) and Patricia Limerick (University of Colorado Boulder) will lead faculty from more than sixty colleges and universities across the country to frame common goals and reference points for post-secondary history education. According to the AHA, “these faculty participants will work together to develop common language that communicates to a broad audience the significance and value of a history degree.”

Hmm, just the degree?  What about the significance and value of history?  My sense is that this project is being prompted by the funder, Continue reading

The Changing Nature of Careers in Museums and Historic Sites

One of the perennial topics at professional conferences and when I meet colleagues are the challenges of working at an historic site, historic house museum, or history museum.  They often center around ever-decreasing resources, board members who aren’t raising money, and the constant attention to financial and personnel management.  Nothing new about that, except you’ll notice some additional topics depending on the person’s age.

Generation X (those born 1965 to 1980) frequently mentions that career advancement is stagnant.  They’ve been blocked by the previous generation, who were the first major generation of trained museum professionals and have held senior positions at museums and historic sites for twenty years or more. These Baby Boomers will be retiring en masse soon to open up many opportunities, but Gen X may be caught Continue reading