Category Archives: Strategy

Creating a 21st Century House Museum in San Francisco

Haas-Lilienthal House, San Francisco.

Haas-Lilienthal House, San Francisco. Courtesy of San Francisco Heritage.

Over the past two years, I’ve been working with San Francisco Heritage to explore how the Haas-Lilienthal House, the 1887 Queen Anne house it owns and operates in the Pacific Heights neighborhood, can engage the public and advance its citywide mission in ways that are both environmentally and financially sustainable.

Just as the Haas-Lilienthal House was rocked by a tremendous earthquake in 1906, so are historic sites today, although in a different manner. The economic downturn that began in 2008 threatens many preservation organizations, house museums, and historic sites, even those that have large endowments and attendance. But the change is bigger than the latest economic recession. Surveys over the past thirty years by the National Endowment for the Arts show that visitation rates at historic sites have fallen from 37 percent in 1982 to 25 percent in 2008, and that rate of decline has only accelerated in the last decade. The Haas-Lilienthal House is experiencing a long and steady decline in attendance—it’s fallen by more than 50 percent over the past thirty years. Historic sites not alone, however: concerts, dance performances, craft fairs, and sporting events have all seen similar declines in attendance.

As a result, many historic preservation organizations around the country are questioning the value of owning historic property. Guided tours and public programs do not generate sufficient revenue to properly maintain historic sites, so unloading them seems to be the only solution. But there are also significant disadvantages.

When a preservation organization owns an historic building, it instantly conveys credibility. (Would you trust a surgeon who has never held a scalpel?) Secondly, by owning and caring for an historic property, Continue reading

A Process for Rethinking the Historic House Museum

Mission-Sustainability Matrix Next week I’ll be at the Margaret Mitchell House in Atlanta, Georgia leading a workshop with Ken Turino of Historic New England on the rethinking the historic house museum.  We’re not the only ones who are working on this topic, indeed, Michelle Zupan at Hickory Hill  assembled a five-page bibliography of books, articles, and dissertations for the workshop, so long that I’m hesitant to distribute it because it could be discouraging (“what? I have to know all this to rethink my historic house?”).

And if we want to go beyond historic house museums, the list would be even longer. Businesses have been “rethinking” for decades in order to grow in size or increase their profits.  They have the resources to study this topic rigorously and there is a lot we can borrow for our field (and much that doesn’t apply and can Continue reading

Is Historic Preservation Ready to Preserve Culture as well as Architecture?

Sustaining San Francisco's Living History by San Francisco Heritage

Sustaining San Francisco’s Living History by San Francisco Heritage

The fundamental boundaries of historic preservation have been significantly expanded by San Francisco Heritage, one of the country’s leading historic preservation organizations. In Sustaining San Francisco’s Living History: Strategies for Conserving Cultural Heritage Assets, they state that, “Despite their effectiveness in conserving architectural resources, traditional historic preservation protections are often ill-suited to address the challenges facing cultural heritage assets. . . Historic designation is not always feasible or appropriate, nor does it protect against rent increases, evictions, challenges with leadership succession, and other factors that threaten longtime institutions.”   In an effort to conserve San Francisco’s non-architectural heritage, historic preservation must consider “both tangible and intangible [elements] that help define the beliefs, customs, and practices of a particular community.” Did you notice the expanded definition?  Here it is again:  “Tangible elements may include a community’s land, buildings, public spaces, or artwork [the traditional domain of historic preservation], while intangible elements may include organizations and institutions, businesses, cultural activities and events, and even people [the unexplored territory].”

With many historic preservation organizations, it’s all about the architecture so protecting landscapes, public spaces, and artwork is already a stretch.  They’re often not aware that Continue reading

Know a Museum or Site Making an Impact with History?

Discussing the History Relevance Campaign at a packed session at AASLH in St. Paul.

Discussing the History Relevance Campaign at a packed session at AASLH in St. Paul. Photo by Lee Wright.

At the American Association for State and Local History annual meeting in St. Paul, the History Relevance Campaign presented an update on their work to a packed audience. During the session, we presented the Impact Project, a year-long process for identifying and studying historic sites and history museums that are making history relevant in their community. The goals of the Impact Project are to:

  • Increase the use of history as a way to understand and address critical community issues.
  • Help board members and staff make an impact in their communities by integrating best practices into their strategic and interpretive plans
  • Encourage AASLH and other professional associations to include standards on community relevance and impact
  • Encourage academic programs in history, public history, and museum studies to include community relevance and impact in their curriculum
  • Encourage elected officials, funders, and communities to provide more support for history organizations that are making an impact
  • Provide every Governor with at least one example of history organizations that are making an impact in their state

We Need Your Help

We are looking for history museums, historic sites, and similar organizations that are 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

How a Classic Business Matrix Can Help Museums and Historic Site

BCG MatrixIn the 1970s, Bruce Henderson at the Boston Consulting Group (BCG) introduced the “growth-share matrix” to help its clients better manage a portfolio of business units and products.  The matrix facilitates management decisions by rating each product according to their share of the market and their potential for growth.  Putting each product in one of the four quadrants of the matrix graphically showed which ones were the stars, cash cows, question marks, and pets (cute but worthless).  More importantly, it showed the overall position and health of the company and suggested next steps.  For example, “cash cows” should be maintained and used to invest in “stars” but “pets” should be abandoned (sorry for offending pet owners, but calling them “dogs” probably won’t make it any easier).

During the past 40 years, the BCG matrix has become a classic tool for business strategy and Harvard Business Review recently named it one of the frameworks that changed the world.  Yet it is rarely used by museums and historic sites, who seem to favor the much more limited SWOT exercise.  It may be because non-profits are unaware of the matrix but it’s more likely that “market share” and “market growth” are unfamiliar or impracticable concepts.  I do like the idea of assessing our work in ways other than attendance and income, so I’ve revised the framework to make it more useful to museums and historic sites.

Mission-Sustainability Matrix
In this “mission-sustainability matrix,” Continue reading

Delaware’s Strategic Plan Meets AAM Standards

AAM's "Continuum of Excellence."

AAM’s “Continuum of Excellence.”

A couple years ago, the American Alliance of Museums introduced the Continuum of Excellence, a “multi-program structure [that] offers opportunities for various levels of assessment, feedback, and recognition that build on one another.”  It’s a significant expansion of the Museum Assessment Program and Accreditation process because it now includes additional intermediate steps, including verification of five core documents, including a strategic plan.

Delaware Strategic Plan FY15-FY19 coverLast year I worked with the Historical and Cultural Affairs Division of the State of Delaware to prepare a strategic plan that would meet or exceed AAM’s standards for professional museums.  The planning process was more complex than usual because it involved a state government agency that is responsible for over forty historic properties, five museums, a conference center, welcome center, historic preservation, and archaeology and has numerous local partners and affiliates. They also wanted a strong emphasis on team work and a heavy reliance on staff expertise, so the process included large and small group meetings, staff surveys, and community research to create a vision, core values, major audiences, goals, implementation, evaluation, and a budget within eight months.  Whew!

I facilitated the meetings and provided general direction, but the staff wrote, revised, and developed the strategic plan from beginning to end while still working their regular jobs.  I’m incredibly proud Continue reading

Video: Happy 4th from Philadelphia

In this 1:39 video, Historic Philadelphia features Benjamin Franklin and a dozen living history actors dancing to Pharrel William’s “Happy” on the streets of the City of Brotherly Love. Dozens of ongoing and special events will take place on and around Independence Mall over Independence Week and the summer and this video shows the fun and lively side of its history.  It was produced by Historic Philadelphia, Inc. (@HistoricPhilly), Independence Visitor Center (@PHLVisitorCntr), National Constitution Center (@ConstitutionCtr), Visit Philadelphia (@VisitPhilly), and Independence National Historical Park (@INDEPENDENCENHP). More information is available at www.historicphillysummer.com.   Thanks to Sandy Lloyd for sharing this video.

Is Planning Giving You the Creeps?

Scope CreepThis afternoon at the annual meeting of the American Alliance of Museums in Seattle, Washington, I’ll be part of “Strategic Planning Made Simple,” a panel session discussing approaches to designing and implementing strategic plans with Liz Maurer (National Women’s Museum), Laurie Baty (National Capital Radio and Television Museum), and Steve Shwarzman (Institute of Library and Museum Services).  I’ll be highlighting four ways to overcome “planning creep,” the seemingly inevitable and invisible force that pulls you away from your goals:

1.  Adopting a Meaningful Purpose and Vision.  Strategic plans have been with us for nearly a century, first for military purposes and then adopted by businesses in the 1970s.  It’s now pretty clear that planning without a purpose is a wasted effort and now you’ll find both businesses and non-profit organizations adopting “mission statements.”  While mission statements are needed, not all mission statements are helpful.  I’ll be outlining the six elements of a Continue reading