Category Archives: Resources

Why There? Figuring Out the Presence of America’s History Organizations

As part of a project to develop a new framework for AASLH‘s professional development/continuing education program, I plotted history organizations onto a map of the United States using a subset of IMLS’s database of museums. That’s a big category that includes history museums, historical societies, historic preservation organizations, historic house museums, and general museums that include history as a major topic and while there is some discussion about the comprehensiveness of the IMLS database, it’s the best information we have available and for my project, more than sufficient to get a sense of the big picture.

As you’ll see in the map below, history organizations are mostly located in the eastern half of the US.  Start at the southern tip of Texas and draw an imaginary line due north and the lion’s share is on the right side of the map.

History organizations in the United States. Red is the location of historical societies and historic preservation organizations; green is history museums and house museums; and blue is general museums. Data source: IMLS, 2018. Map: Engaging Places.

That’s probably something we all suspected but now can visualize it better. When I’ve shown this map to a few people, they concluded that it’s because there’s much more history in the East. But take a look at the heat map below while recalling the US history timeline, and you’ll come to a different conclusion. Continue reading

Reimagining House Museums: Fall 2019 Release

collage book contents.pngThis blog has been fairly sparse this past year because Ken Turino and I were editing and assembling two dozens essays for Reimagining Historic House Museums: New Approaches and Proven Solutions, an anthology to be published by Rowman and Littlefield as part of the AASLH series. I’m delighted to announce that it is now off my desk and in the hands of the publisher; we expect it will be released in fall 2019.

One of the biggest consequences of the under-resourced and over-stretched community of house museums is that it is difficult for them to share their successes with others—they just don’t have time. The field doesn’t learn about them except through publications, blog posts, or conference sessions—that’s one of the major reasons we assembled this anthology. There’s lots of good work happening in house museums but we’re simply not aware of it. Our hope is that this book is a good place to grab a hold of the current thinking about reinventing house museums so that they are more relevant, sustainable, diverse, inclusive, equitable, and accessible, hopefully broadening and deepening the current conversations in the field.

The book is a result of a 2014 conference, How are Historic House Museums Adapting for the Future? sponsored by the Historic House Museum Consortium of Washington, DC and the Virginia Association of Museums at Gunston Hall Plantation in Virginia. They invited to give presentations to the 120 participants and noticed that while historic site practitioners and their boards recognized that the world of historic houses has changed dramatically, they weren’t sure how to go about reimagining or reinventing themselves.

With the support of the American Association for State and Local History and local funders, we embarked on a series of workshops in subsequent years to lay out a “reinventing process” that has taken us to Missouri, New Hampshire, Vermont, Kansas, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Illinois with more to come (Washington, DC in June; New York City in October). The one-day workshop, Reinventing the Historic House Museum includes an analysis of the most important opportunities and threats facing historic sites in America based on the latest Continue reading

How to Improve the Interpretation of Slavery by Engaging Descendants

A year ago, James Madison’s Montpelier invited me to the National Summit on Teaching Slavery to create a “methodology for how public historians work with descendants” (program, 6 Mb pdf). Over a long weekend, fifty people from across the country with a wide range of experiences and perspectives worked in small groups to define and prioritize standards and best practices for interpretation, research, and involving the descendant community. It builds upon Montpelier’s award-winning exhibition, A Mere Distinction of Colour, to help “Americans of all types truly understand the ongoing struggle for freedom, rights, and equality in our nation.” The National Council on Public History recently posted a nice series of discussions on the exhibition with students in the Cooperstown Graduate Program.

One of the major challenges was determining what is distinctive about teaching slavery from interpreting other topics, such as women or Asians. At first, the discussions identified practices that had already been figured out years ago by the American Historical Association and the National Association for Interpretation, but that was to be expected because many participants had little experience in scholarship or interpretation–what bound us together was improving and enhancing the interpretation of slavery at museums and historic sites. Although the rehash of these professional practices was frustrating and I wondered why we were going over old ground, it eventually dawned on me that Continue reading

Productivity Apps for Emerging Museum Professionals

Projects are the buildings blocks for getting things done. When they’re small, they can be easily completed without much attention but when they get big, involving many people and large budgets, the complexity and risk of failure increases, especially when time and money is limited.

This past semester, graduate students in my “Managing People and Projects” course at George Washington University developed skills and used tools to manage these more challenging situations in a wide variety of museum-related projects, such as exhibitions, events, symposia, publications, school programs, and building construction. As a part of the course, students reviewed some of the latest application software (apps) for project management, including Shortcuts, Evernote, TeamGantt, OmniFocus, Trello, Asana, and Slack.

Unlike reviews prepared by CNET or published in a computer magazine, these reviews are written by emerging museum professionals for emerging museum professionals.  I might disagree with some of their conclusions, but often the difference was about cost or applicability at the start of one’s career.  If you’ve been thinking about increasing your productivity using apps, check out “A Beginner’s Guide to Productivity Apps for Emerging Museum Professionals.”

And if you want my recommendations on apps, I work in the Continue reading

How Should History Museums and Historic Sites Respond to Public Tragedies?

George McDaniel (center) with the HLI Associates 2018.

This blog has laid fallow for many weeks because I’ve been pulled away by the History Leadership Institute’s seminar in November and my museum management courses at George Washington University (plus jury duty!).  That doesn’t mean I haven’t been collecting ideas and resources to share and with winter break upon me, I’ll be posting regularly again.

Today, I’m sharing one of the products created at the History Leadership Institute (HLI). The program not only aims to provide a benefit to the people and organizations that participate but also to the field as a whole. An example is the session on responding to public tragedies.

History organizations are showing a rising interest in playing a more active role in their communities, but when a public tragedy strikes, how should we respond? Public tragedies can take a variety of forms and are unpredictable, as seen in 9/11, Parkland, Columbine, Hurricane Katrina, and California’s Camp Fire.

Working with George McDaniel, president of McDaniel Consulting, the 2018 History Leadership Institute developed a draft list of questions to Continue reading

Combining Theory and Practice in GW’s Museum Studies Courses

GW’s Museum Management class in the midst of a whirlwind tour of the Smithsonian on a hot and humid day in Washington, DC.

As I enter my second semester as a full-time faculty member in the Museum Studies Program at George Washington University, I’ve adopted a “flipped classroom” format and am fully integrating theory with real-life experiences.  It’s been an incredible amount of work to revise my syllabi this summer, but so far, the students seem to be learning and enjoying their classes more (we’ll see how the evaluations look at the end of the semester!).

In my museum management class, students will complete an abridged version of a MAP Organizational Assessment for a museum, relying on information available from the website, newspaper articles, IRS Form 990, and the AAM Standards. I assigned the museums based on a random selection to represent the diversity of museums in the United States.  We work through the Standards and as we discuss each topic in class, such as governance or collections, we’ll talk about how their particular museum has approached it. This week we’ll be discussing mission so they’ll be evaluating the mission statements for the 25 museums we’re examining in class to determine a set of criteria and identify model mission statements.

New this semester is my course on project management in museums. Our core readings are: Continue reading

Canadian Geography Conference Highlights

Exhibition hall at IGU/NCGE/CGA meeting in Quebec, August 2018.

I’ve just returned from Quebec where I attended an international geography conference that was a combination of the annual meeting of the Canadian Association of Geographers (CAG), the annual conference of the National Council for Geographic Education (NCGE), and the regional conference for the International Geography Union (IGU).  Despite the combination of organizations, I’d guess it would be comparable to a regional museum association meeting of about 500 people with the usual sessions, plenary speakers, and exhibition hall.

The big difference from museum and history conferences is that the geography associations seem to accept all presentation proposals. Each presentation is assigned a 15-minute slot in a 60 to 90-minute session according to their committees or study groups (e.g., health care, tourism, indigenous peoples, islands). Presenters in the same session usually have not met each other and there’s no moderator, so it’s just one presentation after another with no introductions or transitions. The result is that a session can be a mixed bag, so a session on “teaching geographic content” included Continue reading

Advice for Future Consultants and Freelancers

Because I have a successful consulting practice, friends and colleagues occasionally ask for guidance on starting their own business. Working for yourself is thrilling, which can be both joyous and scary. We can all imagine that running your own business is very different than being an employee, and that consulting is much more than being paid for your advice.

We are witnessing a growth in the number of freelancers in the United States, both in response to the 2008 economic downturn but also to meet the demand of businesses and organizations who are looking to build capacity without the ongoing cost of more staff (which is typically the largest expense in a nonprofit organization). Free Agent Nation by Daniel Pink (2001) is a helpful introduction to the major changes occurring in the workplace and will help you decide if freelancing suitable for you (it’s not for everyone).

My best advice to those who are contemplating the move to independence is: Continue reading

Strengthen Your Interpretive Themes with these Tools

I didn’t realize it at the time, but twenty years ago I began working with interpretive themes when I was refreshing the tours at the Homestead Museum in California. The tours were organized and based on recent research, however, they seemed to lack cohesiveness and structure. Armed with a freshly minted M.A. in history, I applied the idea of a thesis to the tour.  It wasn’t until I was introduced to Great Tours by Barbara Levy, Sandra Lloyd, and Susan Schreiber and worked on the interpretive plan for President Lincoln’s Cottage that I developed a much better understanding of how to develop interpretive themes.

Unlike topics, which are simply subjects like colonial life or the Civil War, themes are a complete idea with a message. I often explain them with an analogy to music, where topics are notes and themes are melodies. Since then I’ve been on the hunt for excellent themes, ones that provide a memorable, hummable melody for historic sites that stays with people long after they’ve visited (like the song in the Disneyland ride, “It’s a Small World”). In the years that followed, I’ve treated it like fine art: I’ll know it when I see it.

Thankfully, Sam Ham, the interpretation guru from the West, wrote 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