Sunday, September 19, 2010
Are County Historical Societies Dinosaurs?
Rensselaer County Historical Society may Close
Ceiling Portion Collapses at Oneida Historical Society
County Historical Society Struggles to Perform Mission
Wayne County (Pennsylvania) Historical Society Museum Closes Until April 15 Due to Budget Cuts
There's no question that part of the problem is the current financial crisis affecting all non-profits. But the crisis revealed weaknesses that already existed. Every organization and every community is different, but here's a list of six factors that many have in common.
Owning a building
Historic buildings are enormously expensive and historical societies found themselves caught in two scenarios. Either completing a huge capital project put them in a financial hole because optimistic projections said that the new building would generate new income or the buildings are at substantial risk because of decades of deferred maintenance. Could you do more if you weren't burdened by the place you own? And by the way, how interesting to the larger community is the story represented by that particular building?
The inability to say no
To say no to objects. Local historical societies are sinking in objects that have no provenance but were donated by someone because someone at the society couldn't say no. Without a collecting plan, the random rusty sad irons and white petticoats keep coming, barely cataloged and jammed into storage. Another inability--to say no to the people who say, "we've always done it this way" as a way of hindering progress.
The inability to say yes
To new ideas that is. Just the other day, I heard a complaint about how hard it is to find new board members--but this is for an organization where nothing is happening. That same board member who complained then told me that she had just accepted an additional board position--one with an organization with a clear sense of mission and vision. The inability to say yes to community members, to collaborative efforts with other organizations, to new ideas--that's a death knell.
Few connections between professional training and county historical societies
There are more and more graduates of museum training programs--but it seems like county historical societies are run by fewer and fewer of them. Part of the issue, it goes without saying, is the ability of a county historical society under financial pressure to pay a decent salary to a new MA with student loans, but I think there's sometimes a sense that local societies don't "need" staff with training. I think graduate programs need to see these places as important, potentially vital places; boards need to see young graduates as great resources and pay them a living wage.
No sense of urgency
I just looked at the websites of several different county historical societies. On one, the latest news was from 2008; on another, under recent events, the most recent event listed was Winter Recess 2009. Does that make me think I've landed upon the site of a vital, forward looking organization that I might want to be involved with? Is the largest part of your museum taken up with a permanent exhibit that hasn't been changed in decades while changing exhibits are relegated to a grim room in the inaccessible basement?
There seems to be a disconnection between community history and local historical societies. As interest in being involved in a local museum appears to decline, virtual interest increases. I'm a Facebook fan of a group dedicated to my hometown and there's lively discussion and memories. Is it that we're more interested in nostalgia than history? Or does it mean that so few of us live where we grew up that we seek those connections online rather than in person? What can county historical societies do about it? How can we be about meaning and relevance in an increasingly global world?
My friend and colleague Anne Ackerson has written several posts over at Leading by Design recently about the signs of trouble for failing organizations and a scalable way to clamber back into success. Well worth reading.
There's not a single answer but unless each county historical society takes a clear, cold, hard look at the issues they will become extinct. My thoughts in this post were framed primarily by my experience with New York State museums--and this coming week I'm headed off to the American Association for State and Local History annual conference in Oklahoma City. I look forward to some lively conversations about how organizations in other parts of the country are addressing these dilemmas. I hope my next few posts both here and as a guest blogger for AASLH will highlight some solutions. Going to be at AASLH and want to chat about this issue (or others) in person? Just email me!
And of course, I want to hear from all of you--is your organization a dinosaur or a nimble adapter (bees, birds, cockroaches, for instance) and why?
Dead end dinosaur sign from Animal World
Sorry we're closed by threelittlecupcakes on Flickr