Category Archives: Strategy

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

Local Museums Connect GW and NSDCA

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Museum studies students learning QGIS in GW’s Museums and Community Engagement course.

Closing out my first semester as a professor in the Museum Studies Program at George Washington University was inspirational.  Graduation was perhaps the culmination of the students’ achievements, but it was also seen in their final products in the three courses I taught.  I always aim to give them a major project that provides a real-world experience, such as completing an Organizational Assessment report from AAM’s Museum Assessment Program (MAP). In the “Museums and Community Engagement” class, the final assignment is a community engagement plan but it was done in partnership with several local museums, creating a mutually-beneficial relationship.

Because The National Society of The Colonial Dames of America (NSCDA) has the largest alliance of museums and historic sites in the nation (except for the National Park Service), I prepared for the course by reaching out to my colleagues at Dumbarton House in Washington, DC, which is the headquarters for the Dames. Karen Daly and Catherine Nuzum welcomed the partnership between this course and their sites, providing advice along the way and helping me identify 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!

Engaging Places is Expanding its Vision

GWU-or-SHA.jpgThis year has been incredibly busy for me, so much so that I’ve been unable to share many of the ideas that I’ve discovered in my travels to historic sites across America through this blog. Along with my active consulting practice, I’ve recently agreed to become the director of Developing History Leaders @SHA and an assistant professor in the Museum Studies Program at George Washington University (GWU).  Both positions were announced at the same time at the beginning of the year and because they were both attractive opportunities, I applied for both, thinking it was like submitting an application to IMLS and NEH and assuming only one or none would be funded.  I hit the jackpot when both came my way and I’m thrilled about the opportunities.  I’m already at work with SHA in November and teaching at GWU starting in January 2018.

As my friends and colleagues learn about this big change in my career, Continue reading

How to Evaluate the Visitor Experience with Journey Maps

A journey map can show you the strengths and weaknesses of the whole visitor experience at a glance.

A journey map can show you the strengths and weaknesses of the whole visitor experience at a glance.

When people visit historic sites, they not only take a tour but they probably explore your Web site, buy tickets for the tour, shop in your store, and use the restroom. While the tour might be outstanding, the entire experience can be spoiled if the visitor couldn’t find a parking spot, got soaked in a thunderstorm, was frustrated by a broken credit card machine, or encountered a dirty restroom. For most people, a visit to an historic site isn’t just about the tour, but the whole experience from beginning to end. If one element goes awry, the entire visit can go bad—even if you had absolutely no control over it (like the weather).

To improve visitor satisfaction and increase attendance and impact, historic sites are now examining the entire visitor experience to be sure every part functions well and works seamlessly from beginning to end. One of the best ways to analyze and improve the experience is through a “journey map,” a diagram that lays out every step in the visitor experience from home to historic site to back home. It can help organize planning and evaluation; simplify understanding of complex processes; and easily show how different parts of the organization contribute to an excellent visitor experience. For the past two decades, hotels, airlines, and other customer-oriented businesses use this technique to generate higher satisfaction rates and build stronger relationships for increased profitability. Only recently have non-profit organizations adopted mapping as a method for analysis and planning.

mentioned journey mapping previously but because there continues to be so much interest in the topic, I’ve Continue reading

Google’s New Data Gallery Suggests Directions for Historic Sites

Screen Shot 2016-07-15 at 10.16.58 AMGoogle has regularly shared findings from studies conducted from various sources (including its own analytics from searches and YouTube) in Think with Google, which I receive as an email a couple times each month as a subscription.  They’ve now gathered those studies together in a new Data Gallery which, of course, can be searched by topic.  There’s nothing for “museums,” “historic sites,” or “tourism,” but there is lots for “travel & hospitality.”  You can also narrow your search by industry (e.g., “travel & hospitality”), by platform (e.g., mobile, video), by themes (e.g., consumer trends, Millennials, U.S.).

A quick browse through the “travel & hospitality” shows the growing importance of video.  For example, their research shows that two out of three U. S. consumers watch online travel videos when they’re thinking about taking a trip and nearly 90 percent of YouTube travel searches focus on destinations, attractions/points of interest or general travel ideas.  This suggests that historic sites and house museums need to Continue reading

Challenges Facing Historic House Museums: A Report from the Field

AASLH Historic House Management Workshop at Brucemore in 2016.

AASLH Historic House Management Workshop at Brucemore in 2016.

At the annual AASLH workshop on historic house museum management, we always start by asking participants about the biggest or most important challenge they are facing at their historic site.  For the participants, the exercise allows them to get to know each other beyond a name by recognizing the issues they may have in common.  As the instructors, It’s an opportunity for George McDaniel and me to ensure we address their concerns.  For AASLH, it’s a way of keeping a finger on the pulse on what’s happening in the field.  At the end of the workshop, we review the list and provide some time for participants to develop a plan to address their issue.  As a reminder, they also fill out self-addressed postcards with a message to themselves, which I’ll mail to them in six months.

So that you can keep your finger on the pulse of the field, here’s the list of issues and challenges from the Cedar Rapids workshop at Brucemore, which included participants from Iowa, Minnesota, Nebraska, and Illinois: Continue reading

Video: Non-Profit? Most Museum Visitors Don’t Know

In this 1:51 video, Colleen Dilenschneider of Know Your Own Bone explains that nearly 60 percent of Americans don’t know that history museums operate as non-profit organizations.  It doesn’t get much better for those who visit history museums—53 percent are unaware.  That may be alarming because we often distinguish ourselves by our non-profit status.  Dilenschneider, on the other hand, suggests reframing the issue:

Our key differentiator is not our tax status, but that our dedication to making a difference is embedded in the very structure of how we operate. There’s a thought that we need to run “more like for-profit companies” (and in some ways we do, but the blanket directive is an ignorant miss). But look around. For-profit companies are actually trying to be more like us in the sense that they want audiences to know that they stand for something that makes the world a better place.

The video is a quick overview but you’ll find more details in “Nonprofit Recognition: What Matters More to Visitors Than Your Tax Status“.

Data source: National Awareness, Attitudes and Usage Study, a partnership project of IMPACTS Research and the Monterey Bay Aquarium.

Reinventing Historic Houses in National Parks

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Earlier this week I led a workshop on reinventing historic house museums at two great National Parks—Marsh-Billings-Rockefeller in Vermont and Saint-Gaudens in New Hampshire—with Ken Turino of Historic New England. The National Park Service and the American Association for State and Local History co-sponsored this workshop to help their staff rethink the tours of the historic houses at these two sites, especially for visitors under 35 years of age. Using such tools as the Five Forces and a Double-Bottom Line Matrix along with a smorgasbord of ideas from other sites, we explored possible processes and projects that could improve and enhance their tours.  Our goal wasn’t to provide solutions but to raise many useful questions, including: Continue reading