When your history organization is modeling itself on other museums or historical societies, are you choosing the right ones? Are they doing things that are well within your capacity or are you following an impossible dream? There’s nothing wrong with observing the extraordinary leaders in the field, but if you’re modeling your life on a superhero, you may be destined for an avoidable series of crashes and burns. You would have been much more successful had you devoted your time and energy on more achievable efforts.
For example, Historical Organizations (NTEE Code A80) are “organizations that promote awareness of and appreciation for history and historical artifacts,” which is mostly composed of local historic sites, house museums, and memorials that are not solely history museums or historical societies. A sample of Historical Organizations shows that many focus on local history, support museums, or memorialize people, places, or events (see Table 1). Of the 2,500 Historical Organizations providing IRS Forms 990 in 2017, nearly 40 percent include the words “memorial,” “foundation,” “friends,” or “association” in their names.
The History List, creators of the annual History Camp, continues to launch a series of fun and engaging products to inspire Americans to explore and share their history. Today they’re releasing a limited supply of Presidential Gummies that are sure to turn children into history nerds. They also align with the “Doing History” theme for the 250th Commemoration by encouraging open conversations about what history is, the many ways it is done, and why it matters.
Made by Haribo, the German manufacturer of Goldbears® since 1922, these colorful gummies in flavors from pineapple to strawberry representing all the presidents are sure to delight (and become a collector’s item among history buffs). These Presidential Gummies and other cool history stuff are available online in The History List store.
A financial review of more than 1,300 History Museums in 2017 reveals that nearly 90 percent operate on less than $1 million annually, and nearly half on less than $100,000 (see Figures 1 and 2). History museums are financially fragile, but an annual increase in revenue of $5,000 to $10,000 could have a tremendous impact on their capacity and impact. How might this be achieved? Hints of potential solutions are revealed in the changing revenue patterns of larger museums.
A closer look shows that most History Museums derive about 60-70 percent of their revenue from “unearned” sources (i.e., contributions, grants, investments, fundraising events, membership dues), but the mix changes according to size. Museums with less than $10 million in revenue received 4 to 6 percent of their income from investments, which doubled or tripled in the largest museums to 11 percent. While asking for support from people and foundations (i.e., contributions and grants) remained steady, there seems to be increased attention on making money from money (e.g., interest, dividends, sale of securities, drawing funds from endowments).
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 art, efforts to define “museum” are challenging and controversial. The American Alliance of Museums takes the “big tent” approach to defining museums—“if an organization considers itself to be a museum, it’s in the tent” (AAM 2008, 3). The Internal Revenue Service, however, takes a different approach, which can be puzzling to the field. It assigns the type of charitable organization (e.g. history museums, elementary schools, forest conservation) with no guidance or approval from the organization. Among the categories is “Museums” (NTEE code A50), which is described as, “Organizations that acquire, preserve, research, exhibit and provide for the educational use of works of art, objects or artifacts that are related to the study of zoology, biology, botany, mineralogy, geology and other natural sciences; history; archeology; or science and technology.”
An analysis of IRS Forms 990 of museums identified as NTEE code A50 reveals the incredible diversity of the field as well as challenges our notions of “museum” (see list of examples in Table 1; a complete list is available as a pdf). Consisting of roughly 18 percent of the entire museum field, Museums (A50) are the third-largest type behind Historical Organizations (A80) and Historical Societies & Historic Preservation (A82) (see Figure 1). While large in number, Museums (A50) have fewer resources than the average player in the field, but are growing faster. They hold average net assets of $3,501,000, which is 28 percent lower than the museum field as a whole, but their average net assets increased 11 percent year over year compared to the 4 percent average of the entire museum field. They are also united by their smaller scale and resources rather than subject matter with more than 85 percent of institutions receiving less than $1 million in revenue each year (see Figure 2), confirming the value of providing targeted services to small museums, such as the Small Museum Association, or funds, such as NEH’s Preservation Assistance Grants.
Imagine taking a road trip to visit Independence Hall. It would be impossible to get there if you don’t know where you are (are you starting in Boston? Chicago? Los Angeles?). Yet most museums and historic sites find themselves in this same predicament—but they don’t know it.
Knowing your museum’s financial position within its larger context can more clearly improve performance. We’ve witnessed how demographic shifts, a global pandemic, and social issues have affected all museums in the last year. Identifying which museums are responding well or poorly is largely based on rumor and anecdote, resulting in an incomplete picture of the field—and potentially misleading if a museum bases its decisions on them. Instead, we are following the advice of Karen Berman and Joe Knight, authors of Financial Intelligence (2013): “The art of accounting and finance is the art of using limited data to come as close as possible to an accurate description of how well a company is performing.”
Readers of History News will have caught a preview of her new book in a Technical Leaflet that accompanied the Winter 2021 issue. In this Leaflet, Kristin lays out a compelling need to change our approach:
Presenting the history of slavery inclusive and conscientious school programs is difficult and necessitates challenging the prevailing, and incomplete, narrative. It requires diligence and compassion—for the history itself, for those telling the story, and for those hearing the stories. It is a necessary part of the collective narrative about our past, present, and future.
We must talk with young people about slavery and race, as it is not enough to just talk to them or about the subject. By engaging students in dialogue about slavery and race, they bring their prior knowledge, scaffold new knowledge, and create their own relevance—all while adults hear them and show respect for what they have to say. We cannot fail future generations of learners the way many of us were failed by the sites we visited as children.
Her new book will provide more advice, examples, and replicable practices for the comprehensive development and implementation of slavery-related school and family programs at museums and historic sites.
If you haven’t met Kristin, she’s worked in museums for nearly 30 years. She holds a master’s degree in museum education from George Washington University (where I now teach in the museum studies program) and has led the education departments at the Montana Historical Society and the USS Constitution Museum and is currently the project manager for education development at the Tsongas Industrial History Center. She facilitates workshops for museums and historic sites on developing comprehensive and conscientious interpretation of slavery and speaks regularly at public history and museum conferences.
History Nebraska (formerly known as the Nebraska Historical Society) has six historic sites, including Chimney Rock near Bayard. Growing up in California, this natural landmark figures prominently in the schoolbook history of western settlement with images of slowly moving wagons crossing empty plains accompanied by men carrying rifles and women carrying children.
As my first experience in Nebraska, my road trip showed me the physical challenges of living in the mountains and plains of the western United States. That’s one of the big reasons I love to travel because it establishes the physical context for historical events and places that can’t be adequately captured in books or exhibitions. It’s one of the reasons I’m so committed to the preservation and interpretation of historic sites—it’s where history happened.
History Nebraska debuted a renovated Visitor Center at Chimney Rock in July 2020 and received a Rising Star Award as an outstanding tourism attraction from the NebraskaLand Foundation. My chance to see it last month showed that it was a terrific experience for tourists with families from the architecture to the exhibitions to the restrooms. It’s a significant improvement from a couple years ago, as described by Karrin Doll Tolliver at A Taste for Travel.
I’ve now traveled from Maryland to California and noticing patterns in the ways that museums, historic sites, hotels, and restaurants are reopening after the quarantine. It’s a mixed assortment of responses, mostly because the guidelines and regulations vary from state to state and from museum to restaurant, creating a lot of confusion among travelers. But there are a few trends that reveal how museums and historic sites can create better visitor experiences.
Spreading infection through touch seems to be the most inconsistently addressed issue. When the country first shut down in spring 2019, there were concerns that the virus could be spread by touching surfaces. Research conducted in the last year, however, shows that risk is very low compared to holding a conversation with someone nearby without using masks. Yet most museums continue to have sanitary lotion stands, are covering elevator buttons in plastic, shutting down interactives, disinfecting counters, or warning you about “high touch” areas. Yet there are never any warnings about door handles or handrails, and I rarely find these precautions at restaurants or hotels. Are museums receiving guidance from different authorities, are they particularly risk averse, or do they have visitors that are especially risk averse compared to other similar tourist destinations?
At the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City, a monumental bright white sculpture of an Indian slouched on a horse fills the end of the entrance hall. James Earle Fraser created “The End of the Trail” for the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco, earning him a Gold Medal. It also became a popular image that signaled the end of a free people.
The Museum acquired the plaster statue from Tulare County (California) Historical Society, where it sat outside in a city park deteriorating for nearly 50 years. Now the restored statue is the centerpiece of this large museum and they’ve used this one object to hit a triple with visitors, to borrow a phrase from baseball.
Along with a typical label describing the sculpture’s creation, acquisition, and significance, it includes a Native American View in a second label of equal length by Dr. R. David Edmunds, a Cherokee. He states that the sculpture represents the popular view of “a nineteenth century Indian warrior defeated and bound for oblivion—frozen in time. By the 1890s, Native Americans knew their trail had become steep and rocky, but they believed it would continue.” The label continues to discuss the challenges and opportunities faced by Native Americans in the 20th century and that “being Indian has never been cast in stone. Today, Native Americans proudly ride forward on a trail into the future.”
The use of labels to provide multiple perspectives is not uncommon in art museums, but I haven’t seen it used enough in history museums. They are ideal places to show that events, places, and eras are experienced differently by different people. It’s an easy way to enrich interpretation without the need to create entirely new exhibitions or special events on women, African Americans, or Native Americans.