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.”
A century ago, Henry Gantt developed a way to better manage projects by tracking tasks against time in a chart. Yes, the Gantt chart. While we’ve moved from paper to computers to manage projects, small museums and historic sites usually don’t use project management software, such as Microsoft Project, even though they have lots of projects. The software is either expensive or incredibly difficult to learn, so most rely on crafting Gantt charts in a spreadsheet.
Spreadsheets are an easy method for creating a Gantt chart but they have limited value. They’re usually satisfactory for simple planning but you can’t easily shift from a monthly to a daily view, nor show how tasks affect one another. Could I suggest TeamGantt? By using their free account, you can manage one project with three people—which is probably adequate for most small museums. If you’re clever, you can set-up several projects on one sheet, expanding or collapsing them as needed to maintain focus.
For my course on project management in museums at George Washington University, my graduate students learn how to breakdown a project using TeamGantt. They’re using IMLS-funded projects for exhibitions, school programs, and collections digitization, so it can be easily learned and applied to complex museum projects. I use it to plan my semester-long courses, tracking classes and assignments to ensure they align with each other as well as providing a handy page-at-a-glance overview.
While I usually hate registering for a free service, TeamGantt hasn’t annoyed me with advertising and spam. Instead, it sends out helpful videos and emails that focus on improving my project management skills. Unfortunately, pricing for TeamGantt jumps up sharply from free to $25 per month per person, which is probably out of bounds for most non-profit organizations. Nevertheless, I suspect that most staff in organizations large or small will find free account adequate for their own projects.
Disclosure: This review is a service to the field and I receive no compensation or benefits from the developer/provider of TeamGantt.
The History Leadership Institute (formerly known as the Seminar for Historical Administration) is undergoing a significant change to better serve mid-career professionals, thanks in part to the COVID-19 pandemic. Because I’ve been devoting a good portion of my time to this effort over the last year, I wanted to share a behind-the-scenes look at how HLI launched a new program to navigate this unusual situation.
The makings of this new program actually started a couple years ago. In 2018, HLI began implementing a plan to address years of declining applications. The solution wasn’t “more marketing” but clarifying its purpose and becoming more aware of the needs and interests of the professionals that participate AND the organizations that sponsor them. Secondly, it needed organizational stability. Most of the original sponsors had dropped out over the decades except for the American Association for State and Local History, which willingly accepted HLI into its existing suite of professional development offerings.
In 2019, we reformatted the Seminar from a three-week residential program to a four-week hybrid (two weeks online and two weeks in-person) to better accommodate the needs of most working professionals. We also shifted the program from November 2019 to June 2020 to gain access to better housing at a nearby university and serve professionals who were unable to participate in the fall (FYI, given the size and breadth of the US, there seems to be no ideal time to offer a residential program but a survey showed that summer was more popular than fall).
It struck me as I thought about putting tomatoes into the garden. During the COVID-19 quarantine, where would I buy them? My local nurseries are closed and I can’t order them for pickup or delivery through their websites. I may have to buy them from nurseries in Michigan and Alabama–hundreds of miles away. That seems crazy but in some ways it mimics what’s happening at house museums and historic sites across the country as they navigate through the coronavirus pandemic.
Museums and historic sites are responding to the COVID-19 quarantine in many ways that can seem random, but I’m starting to notice a pattern that suggests there’s an evolution of thought, just as I’m experiencing an evolution of thought about growing tomatoes.
Most basic is an immediate focused response to the fear of financial catastrophe due to lost admissions, retail sales, and site rentals. They seek to answer, “What can we stop doing?” and “How can we raise money quick?” The typical responses are appeals for financial support, budget cuts across the board, a general stopping of all projects and collections acquisitions, and staff is laid furloughed or laid off. Teleworking is tolerated but not encouraged. Mission, vision, values, and planning put on hold. Decisions focus on shutting things down rapidly. Leadership is fixing the leaks in a seemingly sinking ship.
Not only does this reveal some of the major interests, but also their longevity. As you may have noticed, membership and mission seem to be undergoing some fundamental rethinking and Continue reading →
I’m in back-to-back conferences—AASLH last week, SEMC this week—because I’m moderating sessions at both. The Southeastern Museums Conference is in New Orleans, which is enjoying incredibly beautiful weather, making it easy to wander the streets to find the many museums that are in walking distance. In the two days I’ve been here so far, I’ve visited the Southern Food and Wine Museum (which includes the Museum of the American Cocktail) and Historic New Orleans Collection, taken a guided tour of St. Louis Cemetery #1, and tonight I’ll be at the evening reception at the National World War II Museum. New Orleans has some unusual museums tackling such unusual topics as tattoos, Mardi Gras, and death but I’m not sure I’ll have time to visit them as well. Over the next few weeks, I’ll share what I’ve learned from the sessions that stood out for me but in the meantime, I’ll post my notes and observations on Twitter during the conference using #SEMC17.
George McDaniel, Sandra Smith, and me at dinner at the LBJ Library.
This week I’m at the AASLH Annual Meeting in Austin, Texas where both the weather and friendships are warm. We’re about halfway through the conference and I’ll have further postings about specific topics and sessions soon, but for now I wanted to share a few photos from my experiences at a couple workshops, a session I moderated on community engagement (also presented later as a webinar), the exhibit hall, dinner at the LBJ Presidential Library and the Briscoe Center on American History, and a reception for the Seminar for Historical Administration.