Are We Confusing Problems with Solutions?

AASLH workshop on historic house museums at the Homestead Museum in June 2018.

On June 11-12, George McDaniel and I led the AASLH workshop, “Historic House Museum Issues and Operations” at the Homestead Museum in California.  This was our 18th workshop and we open every one by asking the participants to share the biggest challenge facing their museum, which we revisit at the end to ensure we adequately addressed their issue.

In the latest workshop, a dozen participants provided this list:

  1. Irresponsible stewardship by the city despite local community support.
  2. Lost connection to the local community and parent organization.
  3. Relationship with the parent organization. Aging volunteer base.
  4. Shifting priorities, finding overarching vision with changing leadership and multiple stakeholders.
  5. Managing growth and change; coordinating mission and vision of the site. Relevance to people 20-35 years.
  6. Prioritizing a lot of maintenance and repair issues. Should the site become a house museum?
  7. Prioritizing issues and engaging volunteers to help (one person trying to do it all).
  8. Connecting to interests and needs of the local communities; being a service to the community.
  9. Increase recognition of the site’s significance and value to the community and open site to the public as a museum; ensure the preservation of site if sold to a developer (e.g., easements).
  10. How to grow volunteer program (older volunteers moving out; younger volunteers have different interests and needs; engaging new or different cultures in the local community)
  11. How to drive traffic into the museum.
  12. Outreach to new audiences (currently “oldtimers”; want to add underprivileged communities who don’t know the history of the area; make relevant to all residents, have ownership).
  13. Overcoming preconceptions of historic house museum and negative perceptions of history.
  14. Connecting to the needs and interests to the community through the collection (e.g., hot issues); get people excited about history and empowering them to care for their own collections (tangible pieces of history).

I’ve anonymized and reorganized the list so the participants aren’t identified and on further reflection, I’ve come to a few conclusions: 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

Exhibition: Unseen: Our Past in a New Light

UnSeen: Our Past in a New Light at National Portrait Gallery (2018)

Ken Gonzales-Day and Titus Kaphar are exhibiting a series of their contemporary paintings and photographs at the National Portrait Gallery that explore how American history could be interpreted, using the perspective of African American history and Native American history.  The works are large and dramatic, clearly conveying counter-narratives or stories that often overlooked or ignored. As a historian, much of it resonated with me but I did wonder if others found it puzzling or undecipherable. But surprisingly, many people read the labels and it may be because there was enough of an image that was familiar but the rest of it was mysterious, so they sought answers in the labels.

In case you can’t visit Unseen this year at the National Portrait Gallery, here are a few photos of the exhibition and excerpts from the labels to give you a taste (boy, they write exemplary labels at NPG!). 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

Indiana Historical Society blending Conservation with Comic-Com

San Diego’s Comic-Con, the international conference “dedicated to creating awareness of, and appreciation for, comics and related popular artforms,” has morphed into one of the biggest events in the nation with attendance topping 130,000 people. It’s also spawned local versions around the country, including Indianapolis at the end of this month.

The Indiana Historical Society has cleverly combined its mission to connect “people to the past by collecting, preserving and sharing the state’s history” with the interests of the Comic Con audience by creating “Comic CONservation.” Participants will “learn how professionals use science and technology to restore and care for comic books” plus they get to play vintage arcade games and see original Ray Bradbury cover art from the nearby Center for Ray Bradbury Studies at IUPUI. Wow!  IHS collections consists primarily of documents and photographs, plus they have a team of conservators working in a state-of-the-art paper conservation lab (The forceps are strong with this one), so they are drawing on their strengths to reach a new audience. Can’t wait to hear how this turns out (especially if people can dress as their favorite comic book character!).

Do you have a clever idea for using conservation or preservation to reach a new audience? Please share it in the comments below.

Try Question-Storming Rather Than Brainstorming

Question-storming women’s history at George Washington University.

Over the years I’ve done a lot of brainstorming, either by myself or with groups, to find creative solutions to various challenges. The technique has been around for decades and consists of listing as many ideas as possible without discussion or judgment. It can be fun and lead to some new ideas, but I’ve also found that its success is significantly shaped by who’s in the room. It’s also so focused on finding an answer that you often overlook if you’ve defined the problem correctly.

As an alternative I’ve been experimenting with question-storming, an idea pioneered by the Right Question Institute (yup, there is such a thing). They’ve designed it for K-12 teachers as a way for students to develop their analytical skills, but I’ve had success with graduate students as well. Rather than provide a list of solutions, the goal is to produce as many questions as possible about the topic or issue.  I’ve set twenty-five as the minimum, aiming for fifty questions. As in brainstorming, you don’t discuss, judge, or answer any questions—that’s done later.  For more details, Continue reading

Webinar: Detecting & Preventing Embezzlement with Kelly Paxton

I’ve written previously about embezzlement and financial fraud in museums and historic sites, but even better is an AASLH webinar on Thursday, February 22 at 3:00 pm Eastern with Kelly Paxton, a national expert on embezzlement.  Kelly is a certified fraud examiner who has worked in both the public and private sectors, including the US Customs Office of Investigations, Office of Personnel Management, and the Department of Homeland Security. I’ve gotten to know her through her website pinkcollarcrime.com about women embezzlers in the workplace, who unfortunately count many museums and nonprofits among their victims.

In less than two hours, you’ll learn policies and procedures that not only will help you prevent a devastating financial loss, but protect your staff and board members as well. The cost is $65 ($40 for AASLH members) and can help you avoid the loss of thousands of dollars and the long-term damage to your reputation. Indeed, it might be happening to you right now (these criminals are sneaky—has your bookkeeper avoided vacation in the last couple of years?).  Learn more at Fraud at the Museum: Protecting Your Organization from a Devasting Event (part of AASLH’s Nightmare at the Museum webinar series).

In case you missed it, some recent news stories about embezzlement in museums: Continue reading

Video: Berlin’s Memorial to Homosexual Victims of Nazism

Berlin has an incredible number of memorials, museums, and “documentation centers” that address the history and consequences of the Nazis but one that can be easily overlooked is the “Memorial to Homosexuals Persecuted Under Nazism” (Denkmal für die im Nationalsozialismus verfolgten Homosexuellen) installed in the Tiergarten (Berlin’s Central Park) in 2008. From a distance, it looks like a grey concrete slab. It’s not until you walk around it that you notice a small window in which a short video plays in a loop. Even after watching it, you wouldn’t be sure what you’ve experienced until you found the low interpretive panel placed off to the side. It reads:

In German: Im nationalsozialistischen Deutschland fand eine Homosexuellen-Verfolgung onhe gleichen in der Geschichte statt. . . . 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