If a well-managed museum has robust programming, a large endowment, and a profitable gift shop, should they still rely on contributions and grants? Often regarded as a fundraising burden to reduce or eliminate, instead we might want to consider these revenue sources as one of the best ways to sustain and expand an institution. Sixty-six percent of History-Focused Organizations [Museums (NTEE A50), History Museums (A54), History Organizations (A80), and Historical Societies & Historic Preservation (A82)] depend on contributions and grants for at least half of their annual revenue and nearly forty percent rely on contributions and grants for more than three-quarters of their revenue (see Figure 1 below).
To maximize revenue, museums must navigate fundraising in the present and future. Understanding the donor and engagement pyramids simplifies fundraising and ensures focus. Small history-focused organizations, in particular, must invest their limited bandwidth strategically to achieve success.
The third edition of the Encyclopedia of Local History, edited by Amy Wilson, is now available for free to members of the American Association for State and Local History. The print version is a nearly two-inch thick, 814-page resource to a wide range of topics related to the issues and practices in local history, but now available digitally as a pdf to AASLH members. This edition includes my contributions on mission, vision, values and house museums in the 21st century, plus a photo of the Gamble House—but there are dozens of experts who share their knowledge of the field in one place.
Ken Turino and I will once again lead our workshops on reimagining historic house museums in 2023 after taking several years off due to the pandemic. Our first workshop will be held at the Gamble House in Pasadena, California on Friday, April 1 and our second will be held at the Decorative Arts Center of Ohio in Lancaster, Ohio on Thursday, June 22. AASLH is managing the workshop and registration is $325 but it’s $200 for AASLH members (and it’s $150 if you register by February 1!). Participation is limited to 25 people for the April workshop.
The workshop is closely related to the book, Reimagining Historic House Museums (2019), but we take a much deeper dive into the challenges facing house museums, assess current programs against a “double-bottom” line for a big-picture perspective, analyze the five forces that affect programs and events to find opportunities and obstacles, and highlight some of the ways that house museums have reinvented themselves. The day is packed with information and activities, but we take a good break in the middle of the day for lunch and we get to meet lots of other people who are working hard to make their historic site better. Plus it’s great fun!
Over the past year, Engaging Places has been looking over individual segments of the museum field. While these segments are unique in specific ways, as demonstrated by the data, several of them do share a common theme and mission: an overall goal to promote history. These four segments are History Museums (A54), History Organizations (A80), Historical Societies & Historic Preservation (A82), as well as the broad Museums (A50) category. By combining these segments we can focus on the history-centric portion of the museum field that makes up close to half of its revenue and consists of a whopping 89% of its institutions (see Figure 1). This block of museums is incredibly dominant within the field and a major focus of Engaging Places’ work. For ease of reference, we will be referring to them as History-Focused Organizations.
It is important to remember that as an aggregate these History-Focused Organizations still trend small. Over 90% operate on less than $1 million in revenue annually, with contributions and grants bringing in over half of that vital revenue. For these smaller museums, financial security is a constant and essential priority. While many of these History-Focused Organizations are unable to achieve large pools of investment to stabilize operations, unlike some of their larger counterparts, they can develop practices to move them in this direction.
This Friday, April 1 from 4-6 pm, the Museum Studies Program hosts the 24th Malaro Symposium in Hammer Auditorium at the Corcoran School of the Arts and Design, 500 17th Street, NW (enter from the side entrance on New York Avenue). Admission is free. The annual symposium is held in honor of Marie Malaro, the longtime chair of the Museum Studies Program and author of the landmark book, A Legal Primer on Managing Museum Collections. Kaywin Feldman, director of the National Gallery of Art, will discuss museums in uncompromising times, and we’ll have three students share highlights from their award-winning research papers:
Avery Barth, “New Archives, New Practices: Exploring the Digitial Transgender Archive”
Norman Storer Corrada, “Austerity and Access: The Ongoing Challenges of the Institute of Puerto Rican Culture National Collection”
Haley Higinbotham, “The Utilization of Technology to Show the Polychromy of Ancient Art”
Like most of America, I’m taking a road trip this summer. After a long year of teaching and working online, I’m drained so I’m looking to get recharged by this vacation on wheels. I’ve always loved road trips, especially ones with loose itineraries, because it gives a chance to see lots of new places and meet people from around the country.
As I drive across America from Maryland to California, I’ll take you along for the ride with occasional posts of some of the museums and historic sites I’ve visited as well as what I’ve learned from the people who work there. My list is long and my time is short, but I’m eager to see the Ohio History Connection, Missouri Botanic Garden, Cherokee Heritage Center, Oklahoma City National Memorial, and Mary Coulter’s La Posada Restaurant. Plus I’ll be doing some research on Christmas in nineteenth century California when I’m in Los Angeles!
Semiquincentennial? That’s the 250th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence—a quarter millennium! Let’s leave the huge words behind and consider that 2026 is coming up fast—and it’s a huge opportunity to raise the profile of your house museum or historic site. When the Bicentennial arrived in 1976, it significantly increased attendance, funding, and interest in history. You don’t want to let this chance get away from you and preparation will be crucial to make the most of it.
If you’re not in Philadelphia, don’t despair. Just because the Declaration of Independence wasn’t signed in your town, no Founding Fathers lived there, and no Revolutionary War battles fought nearby, you can make important connections if you focus on the big ideas that came out of that event. After all, the Declaration of Independence was part of a larger move to separate from Great Britain and become Americans. Well, it’s more complicated than that and the process of becoming Americans continues, and boy, that’s a terrific story with ambition, conflicts, failures, and successes.
Every tour, exhibition, event, and school field trip should have a compelling theme to engage its audience.* Even better, themes should connect across these programs and activities. An overarching theme will help your visitors better recognize the ideas and content that you want to share with them. The ideas are continually reinforced and result in a bigger impact. Good teachers do this all the time in the classroom and it’s easily adapted to museums and historic sites.
What if we adopted a super-overarching theme, one that spanned museums and historic sites across the county or state? It would seem impossible, but help is on the way.
The History Leadership Institute Seminar is back this year, going virtual after postponing last year due to the pandemic. Rather than trying to duplicate the residential format online, John Marks, Alex Collins, and I considered the online applications available to AASLH as well as best practices for online learning. For example, effective learning doesn’t occur by passively watching presentations continuously for six hours a day. It has to be broken up to keep participants engaged. As a result, we added considerably more time for participants to work on their own through readings and exercises, building on what is presented and discussed in live online sessions. The new format for each topic is:
2 hours in a facilitated live session to explore a topic through presentations, discussions, and small breakout groups.
2-3 hours on your own to apply the ideas and techniques to your organization or career.
1 hour in a facilitated live session to discuss the results, assess what worked (and what didn’t), ask questions, and determine next steps.
We also have time to add readings to provoke discussions, expand perspectives, and add more detail. This week’s session on “You as the Instrument of Change,” Julie Johnson is suggesting the following:
The past year has been so busy for me that I’ve rarely been able to share what I’m discovering and learning through this blog, but with the pandemic restrictions lifting, my posts should be more frequent. The biggest challenge for me was teaching graduate courses online at George Washington University. I usually teach in-person using a whiteboard and a list of goals for each class, using the class discussion to inspire how the presentation will proceed. Online, whiteboards are very difficult to use (try writing with a mouse!) and students were reluctant to have discussions online (most students kept their cameras off). So I built PowerPoint presentations for every class to address each of my goals, keep students engaged, and avoid being a talking head on a computer screen. Incredibly time consuming and exhausting. I’m so glad to be returning to campus this fall for in-person instruction—and so are our students!
Although online teaching was incredibly demanding, I still had time to pursue other projects including a second book with Ken Turino of Historic New England: Interpreting Christmas at House Museums and Historic Sites. Although dozens of books have been published on the national and regional history of Christmas celebrations in the last two decades, there are no how-to books on the research, interpretation, and programming of Christmas at historic sites or museums. In March, Rowman and Littlefield accepted our proposal and it will be part of the Interpreting series at the American Association for State and Local History. We are working with contributors from across the country to assemble two dozen chapters for publication in spring 2023 and although we’re still identifying contributors and case studies, and the contents are subject to change, here’s what’s happening so far:
In response to climbing COVID rates, federal monuments will be wearing “face masks” to follow guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The Biden Administration has urged governors and mayors to implement mask mandates nationwide, however, adoption has been inconsistent and infection rates are climbing.
Mask wearing has become a political, rather than health issue, in the United States. In a recent Washington Post article, Dr. Einav Rabinovitch-Fox, who teaches U.S. and women’s and gender history at Case Western Reserve University, noted that “masks have become the most visible sign of our current political, cultural and social moment. …It’s now the latest chapter in the culture wars over our identity as a nation, our fundamental values and our rights as citizens.”
As part of the U. S. Department of the Interior’s “Meeting the Moment” campaign, the National Park Service will install “face masks” on monuments at national parks on April 1 to promote healthy behaviors that reduce spread during the pandemic. “Our monuments feature some of America’s greatest heroes and if they’re wearing face masks, it will further encourage participation by our citizens,” said Jenny Anzelmo-Sarles, chief of public affairs. “European museums have been incredibly successful in turning selfie-worthy artworks into public health campaigns. Our National Parks will have a bigger impact because our monuments are bigger. And of course the presidents at Mount Rushmore should wear face masks—look how close they are to each other!”
Mount Rushmore, the Statue of Liberty, and the Lincoln Memorial will be among the most visible monuments to wear face masks, however, the campaign will include lesser known statues such as Baron Von Steuben at Valley Forge National Historical Park and Ansel Adams at the National Garden of American Heroes. The goal is to include at least one monument in every National Park, which will be challenging. The Pony Express National Historic Trail only has a statue of a galloping horse at its visitor center in St. Joseph, Missouri. “I know horses aren’t wearing face masks during COVID, but that’s the only option we have,” said executive director Cindy Daffron. “It may look foolish, but it creates the kind of Instagram moment that the public wants.”