Tuesday, September 28, 2010

History Museums as Dinosaurs: Take 2

Somewhat to my surprise,  my earlier post really hit a nerve with readers--well over a thousand hits so far.  I've appreciated the thoughtful comments that I've received both here on the blog and directly in emails.  In this post, I  share some of those comments and try to continue my own thinking on the topic.

Training Disconnects

Is there a disconnect between professionalism and these organizations? Why, after decades of training and an enormous increase in the number of museum studies programs haven't more organizations moved forward?  I think it's often too easy to blame the organizations, which in a way, is like blaming a student when he or she doesn't learn.  Perhaps it's not the student, but our teaching and training methods (and I write that having run a museum service organization for more than a decade).  I think it's worth questioning what our expectations are for local history groups and how we do training and professional development, including the graduate level training of museum professionals.   How can we, those of us who are museum professionals,  do it better?

History Museum?  Community Organization? or groan, Hysterical Society?

In his comment, David Grabitske described 3 kinds of local history museums:
1) those that have got their act together and do very well adapting to economic woes much like their larger counterparts,
2) those that have professionalized but lack the support base due to many years of unclear direction, and
3) those that operate on a shoestring that are never affected by the economy because they are too small to suffer adverse affects.   
It is category two that seem at the most risk because of unsettled stakeholder buy-in. 
 An anonymous commenter shared another perspective on how to define local history organizations.
Many small museums don't consider themselves "professional" organizations, but comprised of people who love their community and express it through the local historical society. Others do so through Scouts, arts groups, sports, Boys/Girls clubs, etc. So we're talking less about the museum field as much as we're talking about local community service, in one of its many forms.
I think that's a critical factor--and I'd argue that many organizations, saddled by a decrepit building and undocumented collections are hindered in becoming the vital, important community organization they could be,  real places of community engagement and community service.  Should they be a history club and not a collecting institution?  Perhaps.

Another historical society director wrote about the problems of public perception:
The one problem always facing us, which you did not mention - public perception of historical societies is, for all the reasons you mentioned, fairly dismal, and we need to continually face the challenge of overcoming the characterization that we are either the hysterical or the hisnorical society (a persona that, unfortunately, so many blue haired ladies and bow-tied gentlemen have worked diligently over decades to maintain in historical societies everywhere). 
Focus on Your Strengths

But there's not a single magic answer.  The solutions are different for every organization, as Suzanne Buchanan of the Hingham Historical Society eloquently wrote:
As the director of a local historical society, I find that my organization, and several similar ones nearby are bucking the trend. Yes, we’re perpetually short staffed, and lack professionalization in some areas. But we’ve found that if you join the fray and market your organization creatively, you can get a lot of folks interested in local history and its preservation. I find the most useful thing about AASLH sessions is sharing ideas that work with colleagues and learning how not to re-invent the wheel.

Each historical society has its specific local assets and drawbacks that define the parameters that one has to work within. It’s good to figure out how to capitalize on the assets and not waste time trying fix inherent weaknesses (eg. we capitalized on our location in a retail center by expanding our gift shop. My peers our more rural areas don’t bother, and work instead on events that draw large numbers of people to their large sites for picnics, outdoor events. I have found that if you focus on your strengths, you’re not left with much time to wring your hands about the future or the weaknesses you can’t fix. (And, yes, our website is very out of date, but we’re working on it.)
I look forward to continuing to think and talk about this.  I attended a session at AASLH about the Museum Different, a fascinating look at what mainstream museums can learn from tribal cultural centers that I think relates directly to many of these issues.  Blog post to come on it.

It's been terrific to hear from so many readers and so many different perspectives.  Keep those comments coming!

Front of combined Evangeline Museum and Navy store, Saint Martinville, Louisiana.
Lee, Russell, 1903-1986, photographer, Library of Congress, FSA/OWI Collection.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Click! from Oklahoma City

I often see exhibit or interpretive elements that I like, don't like, or want to think about more.  So I've decided to do quick posts, called Click! that share those with blog readers.  I look forward to hearing your thoughts on these as well--and hope you'll alert me to other things worth seeing.  So some clicks from Oklahoma City.  

Above, a gallery at the Oklahoma City Museum of Art, and below, the main label for that gallery.  I thought it was great because it was so direct.   If I had been there with children, it would have easily given me the tools to have a great conversation about the works.   At the same time, it didn't talk down to anyone.

I found intended and unintended messages at the Oklahoma City National Memorial and Museum.  We approached the site from one direction and this is the first thing we were greeted with:

Not the friendliest.  On the other hand, as you waited for the elevator to go up to the exhibits, the museum had this screen alerting you to where you could find them online which I thought was great.

Upstairs at the museum we found it curious that the small alcoves where you could view videos from survivors and rescuers contained only one stool.   Wouldn't you want to do this with the friends or family you came with?

At the memorial part of the site, a friend and I spent a little time debating whether we could walk on the grass where the chairs honoring those who died are placed.  There was a low fence, but in one part, no fence, but no one on the grass.   We decided to step on and see what happened--and two things did.  A ranger approached and asked if we wanted additional information;  pulling out a laminated card he explained the chairs' arrangement and answered our questions.  But equally interesting, as soon as we stepped onto the grass, others began to do so as well.   There wasn't a physical barrier, but a conceptual one.

And finally, back at the art museum, just a beautiful immersive space, with a ceiling by Dale Chihuly, a reminder to use all four walls when we think about exhibits.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

More Questions than Answers

From the AASLH conference blog.  Be sure and check out all the blog entries for a great sense of the conference and the lively conversations that took place here.

My idea of a great session is one that leaves me with more questions than answers.   Particularly in these days of immediate access to all kinds of information I don't view conference sessions as how-tos as much as places that stimulate new thinking.   Yesterday afternoon's session, Dealing with Tragedy:  Museums and Memorialization was just that.    The issues related to three different tragedies and their subsequent memorials and museum presentations were discussed:  the Oklahoma City bombing;  the Columbine shootings and September 11.   The situations were also quite different for the museums:  the memorial and museum here is created on the site;  the Littleton Historical Society's exhibit on Columbine was presented as a part of a local community story, and the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History looked at September 11 within a broad national context.

At the Oklahoma City Memorial and Museum, 350 community members helped write the mission which is, "We come here to remember those who were killed, those who survived and those changed forever. May all who leave here know the impact of violence. May this memorial offer comfort, strength, peace, hope and serenity."   It does that effectively, but on my visit to the museum, I was struck by what it didn't do, also an issue addressed by historian Bill Bryans.    It doesn't really explain the why,  in part because family members, who played a significant role in shaping the memorial and museum, felt that to do so gave voice to the perpetrators.   But, as Bryans noted, over time, the question of why becomes more important.

Marilyn Zoldis,  who had worked at the Smithsonian on the September 11 exhibit set forth a set of questions they considered as they developed the September 11 exhibit:

what role should a museum play in an event such as this?  what public expectations do we face?  what responsibilities do we face?  how do we establish and maintain historical perspective?  how do we deal with emotions?  how do we maintain historical objectivity in a time of crisis?

Great questions all--and out of the following discussion came more questions for me.
  • Should memorials and museums be differentiated?
  • How do we define a "sacred space?"   and does that harken back to Lincoln and the Gettysburg Address in our American sensibility?
  • Do these particular events, ones that happen almost in the blink of an eye,  lend themselves more easily to museums and memorials than events than unfold more slowly, such as this summer's oil spill?
  • Has a 24 hour news cycle, twitter and the immediacy of the web shaped the public's interest and perspective on events like these?  What role then, do museums play in peeling back the onion of the media's coverage?
  • And finally,  how can these museums/exhibits/memorials be places where we not only remember and grieve, but gain understandings and create change in the world?   I think that comes from looking at the whys of terrorism (state-sponsored or not)  straight in the face, as places like the Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC and the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam do every day.
Thanks to these session presenters for their compassion and frankness.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010


My last post seemed to resonate with a great number of people, judging by the number of hits, comments and emails I've received.  Much to think about and more posts to come including one, perhaps, on the value of a catchy title.

This week I'm at the American Association for State and Local History conference in Oklahoma City and you can also find me blogging on their conference blog.   Check out what my fellow bloggers and I are up to.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Are County Historical Societies Dinosaurs?

I began my museum career at age 14 as a volunteer at a county historical society;  volunteered at a different county historical society all through college;  and became director of yet a different county historical society after finishing graduate school.   These are places I've spent lots of time in and I'm beginning to wonder whether they are, as a class of museums, in danger of going the way of the dinosaur.   The signs are all around.   Here are some headlines from a quick search:

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?

A disconnect?
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

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Doing Time at Eastern State

A couple weeks ago I finally visited the Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia.  It's long been on my list of places to visit because I'd heard about their work with contemporary artists,  because I like big abandoned spaces, and because I'd visited Kilmainham Gaol in Dublin and was interested in how approaches to interpreting a prison might differ.  Far from doing time, it was instead an experience that led me in on several different levels.

I went with my 21 year old daughter, who's interested in art, not history, and we both found plenty to like.  It's a very free form experience.  The audio tour comes with admission but you don't need to go in any order and it's not necessary to listen to the tour to gain something--although I gained a great deal by listening.   I've been working on a project that includes labeling for audio tours--and the very clear labeling here was terrific--not obtrusive, but very clear and easy-to-find.

Because it's not fully restored,  there's also the opportunity to explore a bit, to feel like you're actually getting seeing a place that's undiscovered.   I appreciate the way not everything was fenced off.  There's something compelling about un-restored spaces that I think many historic sites, in the urge to "recreate"  forget.

The artist installations bring an entirely new dimension to the site.  Most are installed in the cells and they all deal, in some way, with prison life.  Whether it's sculpture,  paintings, or media installations, these works of art made the place come alive in a way that wasn't about recreations, but about internal life, internal conversations, internal thoughts.   There were useful labels and audio segments to help visitors learn more and understand the art--and its connection to the prison's former life and to issues that still concern us today.

And what did my daughter like?  The beautiful light for photographing.

Intriguingly,  my mention of this visit led to a discussion with non-museum friends about the motivation for going to these places, and wondering whether the future would hold visits to Guantanamo and other detention centers.    I'm appreciative of any site where the experience encourages conversation--not just about what was seen, but about what the present means and what the future holds.

And final best thing:  this sign as you left the museum.  I liked being given a reason to visit the website.  A bit hard to read, but it says, "You've seen the museum.  Why visit our website?" and then tells you what you'll find there.  Nice!

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Random Thoughts on Ask a Curator Day

Today, as many museum readers might know, was Ask a Curator Day, a worldwide event on Twitter.  Museums signed up, volunteering to answer any and all questions via Twitter.  I dipped in and out all day, as the questions and answers rolled across the globe, from New Zealand and Australia,  through Europe, and then on to the Western Hemisphere.  It was the top trending topic on Twitter for a while, and the questions and answers make fascinating reading.

But I was particularly interested in the questions put to history museums.  In looking at the list, for US museums at least, history museums were underrepresented in terms of the proportion of history museums as compared to museums overall.  Why?  Are history museums less likely to use Twitter?  are their supporters, fans, people interested in history less likely to use?  Hundreds of questions were posed generally to curators and I really appreciated the small history museums that took the time to weigh in on entering the field, the best part of the job and the like.   I'd be interested in hear from those history museums who did participate about how they heard about it and why they chose to.

Ask a Curator reinforced the idea that we can never know what our audience is interested in.  We plan, we script, we prototype, we focus group--but then, surprising questions!  For instance:
  • Where can I find a good collection of antique maps and globes in the Boston area
  • To the Police Museum, Vancouver:
  • Do you have any info about my great-grandfather Chief Constable WW (Billy) Foster? 
  • What is the oldest known color photo?
  • What resources do you suggest for research on specific lighthouses and their keepers?
  • What do curators think of the ending of the western narrative?
  • From the Chekhov Museum in Russia to the Imperial War Museum in London:  What Russian artifacts do you have in your collection?
  • To Monticello:  Do you know how many times TJ traveled to New England?
  • Do you have a link to a site that outlines the work you do with people at risk of social inclusion?
  • Any Alaska museums--do you do anything special to attract visitors in winter?
  • To the Lower East Side Tenement Museum:  why r so many tenements on the LES build around the same size? 5 to 6 floors. Was that a law requirement? 
 At the end of the day many museums invited their followers to ask them questions anytime.  And that memory, I think, is a wonderful take-away.  We think we're open, that people could ask anything anytime--but museums are often pretty intimidating places.  One great aspect of the day was that the questioner didn't risk seeming silly by asking the question.  Both the nature of Twitter and the enthusiastic participation made sure that all questions were good questions.   And so my question for #Askacurator?  How do we make this attitude--this attitude of curiousity combined with great good will--happen every day within the walls of our museum?

And a special thanks to the event's organizer, Jim Richardson--a truly amazing effort!