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


CMS said...

Thank you so much for this insightful post! We too see a lack of awareness of the unique and thought-provoking history in this area.
For this reason, we have undertaken two new website projects - the Hobart Historical Society and the Middletown Historical Society. As the web developer, we are working closely with both groups to combat some of the very issues you have so clearly defined! The biggest one- telling the community about the Society and that it is there for THEM. Getting the Community at large involved is the biggest battle! One we are taking on at full steam and very much hope that an updated, relevant web presence will begin to bring everyone together!

Samantha said...

I just came across your blog and I love it! I'll have to check out your older posts.

I definately agree that each museum needs a great collection policy and everyone needs to abide by it when it comes to accepting donations and accessioning items. I'm currently taking a Collection Management course and we are currently reading about how to accession an item properly.

I started interning after high school and I'm currently in my second semester of graduate school for Museum Studies.


Unknown said...

Spot on post Linda. I have been teaching in a museums studies program on the west coast for almost 20 years and continue to be stunned at how the Historical Societies seem to lag with new thinking. Given the long push toward connecting museums and communities these instituions are ideally situated to be relevant to people's lives. I could write for hours on what I think needs to be done, particularly with shifting content focus from the country's early pioneer days to even say something relevant like the 50s and the historical impact of building suburbia. An organization would improve if they took any one of your suggestions and did something.

I particularly want thank you for your statements about supporting emerging museum professionals by offering life-sustainable salaries. Every year curious and interested students come to the program wanting to get involved with history: more often then not once they graduate we end up placing them in both Science and Children's museums because those institutions recognize the value of the degree and pay more of a living wage.

I look forward to reading your posts about the conference and hope that group can help history museums to find a way to change.

Linda said...

Thanks CMS, museumgirl22 and Susan for your comments. CMS--great that these small places will have a web presence, but I'd suggest not just telling people that the society is there for them, but that the societies go out and actually ask people what they want! Museumgirl--glad you discovered the blog and hope you'll become a regular reader. It's a tough time to enter the field, but a passionate committed person will find work, I think. And Susan, great thoughts--perhaps we should consider developing some conference sessions about shifting the focus of historical societies in terms of content--would love to see the decline of the spinning wheel.

CMS said...

Thanks for the response Linda and the GOOD addition to our list of strategy!

As history "geeks" and people who so appreciate this area's rich and important history, we are very committed to help make a difference for our two clients, and hopefully others in the future! So often what is right in front of us is taken for granted. Every resident in the area should be proud of the folks that came before them, and take the time to stop, listen, and learn from history.

Thank you, and all the others like you, for working so hard at what you do!

Unknown said...

I agree - a very insightful post. I just left a county historical museum that is in danger of imploding just 4 years after moving into a wonderful new facility. While they don't own the building, they do have to oversee and pay for vastly increased utilities and operational costs associated with the building while the number of employees has decreased. The former director and board never instituted any kind of development plan - planned giving, endowment, annual fund - apparently believing that the county would continue to support the organization (although the county board said repeatedly that the society needed to start raising more of its own money).

Obviously the economy has played a big part in the current difficulties, but I think more importantly there was a feeling that "we" didn't need to do x, y, or z because we're "just a nonprofit." I think that the lack of urgency was widespread, from financial affairs to the staffing demands of the new place to technology demands to marketing to collections policies and procedures, the adoption of new technologies, and the use of social media. There was no plan and there were no priorities.

There seems to have been an expectation that hordes of people would suddenly appear once the doors to the new facility were open. They didn't.

There has been an ongoing problem with board members - recruiting new ones, getting current ones to show up for meetings and events, etc. I think part of this is a lack of knowledge on their part about what is required of a board, but this comes back to poor board training and education. There have also been numerous board members who seemed to think that working in a museum required very little training or expertise and that any problems in management had to be trivial compared to their own businesses. Few of them seem to care about the salary and benefits offered to employees.

I suspect this situation is not unique. But unless county museums become more focused and relevant and meet their patrons where they are (often online), I think they will become obsolete.

Lucy Sperlin said...

Thanks for this Linda. and also Bobbie for your comments that mirror much of my experience.
I'm a retired professional working for a County Historical Society in California that is currently without resources to pay staff. We have all of these six factors in a greater or lesser degree. I've forwarded this to our Board Members and I hope this will spur our creative thinking.
The concept of 'disconnect' rang especially true for me. While research using our Archives is booming, we struggle to get people to attend events at our museum. And recently, in collaboration with some other local historical societies we mounted a large 2000 sq. ft. exhibit at the County Fair. In 5 days over 2,100 people entered the exhibit space and spent time looking. They became very engaged, and some came back several times. It became clear to me that our struggles are not because the people out there have lost interest in history! It appears that we have to find more ways to make history available to them besides expecting them to come to us.

johnverrill said...

These are all good points, but local historical societies and very small museums despite their lack of forward thinking continue to plod on. They seem to have ups and downs depending on the energy of one or two people who take leadership roles. They do serve to secure and preserve the history of one small localized community. That rusty sadiron or that exhibit in the basement may inspire some young person to become interested in history and use that interest to serve others. All museums and historical societies cannot be led by museum professionals or even energetic board members, they may not follow the standards of care that we as professionals expect
but they can serve to preserve the stories, the culture and the history of a small community. Let's hope that these entities continue on like the crocodile as "living" dinosaurs.

M. M. Justus said...

I'm here via MuseumL. Thanks for this post. I've been working with a number of small local historical societies and museums in my quest to start a freelance curatorial business, and all of these points are right on the money from my point of view.


Lissa Harris said...

Thanks for this, Linda.

I blogged about this at our Catskills-area local news site, the Watershed Post:

I think the "build it and they will come" attitude isn't limited to physical buildings. Lots of promising online projects get started, only to peter out after the first flush of enthusiasm wears off. (It's a fate we ourselves fervently hope to avoid.)

Would love to hear more of your thoughts about "best practices" for history-oriented online projects.

Robert Connolly said...

This is a very interesting post - something I have been thinking about and writing about quite a bit of late. I teach in a Museum Studies Program and direct a small museum located at a prehistoric Native American temple mound complex in Memphis, TN, US. I realize that I am fortunate in having 3 Grad Assistants and various interns assigned to the museum each semester to supplement our staff of 3.5. Oh, and I am a complete small county museum junkie. I been to tons of them. Clearly, those that are surviving are innovative, thinking a bit to a lot outside the box, and most importantly, engaging their community.

This past summer, my wife and I traveled the Great River Road from Lake Itasca back down to Memphis, stopping at a bunch of museums and various historic venues along the way. My favorite was the Pearl Button Museum in Muscatine, Iowa. Here is a blog I wrote on that experience:

One of the good potential ways to think about these venues is as "third places"

At the Museum I direct, we found new ways to engage with our community. We have a somewhat unique situation of interpreting a Native American site, but being wrapped up in historic events of the African American neighborhood in which we are located. Here are a couple of blog posts on this experience. One from launching a community program:

and from the exhibit opening:

Coming out of my own experiences at the C.H. Nash Museum at Chucalissa, what is crystal clear to me is that if we do not adapt, we will cease to exist. I am keenly interested in hearing of other

Linda said...

Great comments, thank you all--Bobbie--unfortunately sounds like your former place fell into the same boat--they won't just come...and Lucy...think your model about all those visitors at the county fair is a great one...and of course, anywhere could do that without having a permanent physical place. John, my apologies, but I think just plodding on is not good enough. And I actually see many places with trained staff as problematic and sometimes the really energetic all volunteer museums are going at a much faster, more engaged pace. M.M., thanks for finding relevance from my NY experience and Robert, so interesting about the intersection between Native American pre-history and the neighborhood--great to see both connect. Lissa--of course the Catskills are near and dear to me, and I think their history organizations are notably, and sadly, weak. I'll try and think and write some more about online best practices for history organizations...
Thanks all for such a stimulating Monday!

Morgan said...

This is a really interesting, insightful post. I've never worked at a museum, but am currently in a museum studies program and hope to have a long-lasting career in the field one day. I think it's really important to stress that younger generations are often coming from a different place than older generations -- they're taught with different methods and think in different ways. In the era of video games, movies, and TV shows where single shots don't last more than a second or two, museums and other public educational institutes need to find a way to interest and engage these younger generations. After all, as time passes, they will be all that's left.

As much as I love the nostalgia aspect of museums and historical societies, I also want to see new things that seem to actively pull me in and take me on a journey. We're living in a world of change -- we should learn to embrace that and make the most of it! I'm sure there's not enough money to keep everything constantly rotating, but stagnation will just not do in our present (and future!) society.

David Grabitske said...

@johnverrill - it seems like there are 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.

From a survey conducted in 2008, the average annual gross income/gross square foot of facility breaks down this way: 1) $18 and higher, 2) $10-$15, and 3) $8 or less. Linda is correct that too many local organizations have an unsustainable footprint because they literally took everything.

I would argue that it is in the best interest of state historical organizations to do what they can to foster county historical organizations in each of their counties. 1) this is a manageable number in many states (not sure about Texas with 254, but in MN with 87 or OH with 88 this seems achieveable), 2) having this kind of network will help get the state history organization into all parts of its state, which should help with development and legislatively, and 3) such a network will absorb history work that would otherwise be left to the state to do or not cared for at all, much like wetlands preserve the integrity of healthy rivers.

To do all that, a state historical organization would be well served from a cost efficiency standpoint to develop a Field Services program. See for more details.

Unknown said...

These are all great comments and, based upon my own experience with small historical societies, right on the money. However, I find it interessting that none mentioned the role of these institutions as centers for civic engagement. I have always felt that historical societies have a unique opportunity as "safe places" to be the site for communities to discuss present issues and challenges within the context of of the past. So, how appropriate that I found this post alongside a link to a recent study that between 2008 and 2009 58% of Americans engaged in "civic engagement."

Tramia said...

Dear Linda,
your blog post is so timely! I'm currently a first year graduate student and one of the first projects that my class is assigned to do is recommend whether a local historical society should be chartered as a museum since it has a collection. I will definitely show this blog to my fellow group members and use it as a resource to help us define some of the points we hope to recommend to this society. Thanks for the post!

Anonymous said...

First, please pardon the anonymous post. I serve in leadership with museum service organizations, have 20+ years in small museums, and have served as a MAP reviewer for small museums, so I prefer that my comments be taken as mine, and not representative of an organization.

That lengthy disclaimer notwithstanding: 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.

Yet, these organizations are looking for that professional museum help more often than is indicated in this blog.

There are an increasing number of standards-teaching tools that are much more user-friendly than was AAM's accreditation process in the past. I know, I went through it for a small museum. It took nine years. Even AAM is now completely retooling the system, because so few museums opted to go through the process.

These new standards programs are designed to give leaders in small organizations more confidence to complete these tasks/goals, and then to move on to the next level as they are capable.

The museum studies field and small museums can also make mutually beneficial arrangements. For example: these small organizations can't pay for a museum-studies graduate to serve as director (and they also sense that these students see the site as a first career step and then move on), so why don't museum studies programs partner with these local groups to provide those needed services as part of a class project or internship? There are other possibilities for service; this is just one idea.

So, could we do less to label the small museum, and instead do more to discover ways to serve them, to collaborate for the good of saving the community's history?

Linda said...

More thoughts to come on all this, but Anonymous (and fine to do so) I wanted to follow up on yours. I'm been spending some time thinking about training in the museum field and wondering if we're doing it wrong. We've been at it for a long time and we still (me included) bemoan the lack of progress. If we were school teachers, would we be blaming students? I'm not sure what the answer is, but there is that disconnect in all kinds of ways between standards and local organizations...and maybe, just maybe it's our fault as professionals.

Bill Barrow said...

Back in 1979 I wrote an article about a similar question, namely whether humane societies were a nineteenth century relic that would be replaced by 2000 by more professional, better-funded animal control operations which were seemingly taking over the mission of the societies' shelters and services. Obviously that didn't happen, so I've tempered my feelings that, as you've articulated so well, historical societies might befall a similar fate. I suspect that both charities stay alive partially because there's an emotional element that isn't satisfied with some of the modern solutions. An identification with suffering animals or one's local history may motivate personal involvement, since some people aren't satisfied by the idea that some big agency will do something adequate about their cause. That's what re-seeds such charities with concerned amateurs seeking hands-on, small scale solutions they find emotionally satisfying by their terms.

Linda said...

Thanks Bill, for such thoughtful commentary. It's fascinating to hear a similar situation, and one that's been going on equally as long. My concern though, is that these organizations are not being re-seeded with people with new emotional connections. It's rare that I visit a small museum where I don't hear major concerns about involving new people. So the emotional, human connection is with those involved now, but somehow not conveyed to others.

Pam McGuire said...

The comment about emotional connection is very accurate, I think. As I mentioned in a comment to Linda's second post, we're having a hard time getting the community to connect with us on a deeper level. Maybe it's the emotional component of connection that's missing. People still think of history as being somewhat dry, not matter what we do to try to bring it alive.

Conrad Bladey (Peasant) said...

This is a wonderful blog and should be read by everyone in the field!
The biggest two problems are here

1. Most Historical Societies concentrate on Society and neglect the history. You have only to attend an over priced event or banquet to know that poor people and students who lack funds just cant take part. Go to one sit down and see if anyone talks to you- it wont happen. The old guard bless their souls and they are a valid cultural tribe are in the way of most things. The historical society is an interesting cultural entity but most of them buck academic knowledge and historic preservation science. They want to overrule preservationists and put no path in rather than put a correct path in. Simple as that. Leaders of socieites need to simply take up the proper practices and insist on them. They have to remove barriers to membership make things extremely affordable and put new members to work and use their talents. You have to inflict correct practics not defer to the old guard. Leaders of societies must remember that most of the people are not members and for good reasons. Why appease the few inside that are keeping those from outside from entering? Why dismiss skilled people just because they are newcomers.....I could write a book.

2. Intrusion of politics.
When you go to the hospital and need surgery do you call your local politico or politically attached friend? No. But that is how the Historical Preservation world is operated. Too much political manipulation. The trouble is that societies do not rise above the system but manipulate it themselves often for the wrong reasons- to overrule local preservation agencies or to use historic preservation for personal gain. Districts created for control of neighbors and tax breaks not for preservation. We need to get history and politics divided as church and state.

One of the biggest problems is that there is a growing miss match between culture and historic preservation. Much of this is caused by the barriers maintained by the "society" of the historical society. Poor people and students are put off. Historical preservation is not practiced as a lifeway it is presented as an esoteric hobby. There is little access at times to the science of it, the new cutting edges. The solution is more anthropological than political.

Yes many societies are doing good things but many more are not. There is a way to sell historic research and preservation and conservation to the public but some of these groups are marching in the wrong direction and unfortunately many would rather die than change.

Conrad Bladey

Conrad Bladey (Peasant) said...

A great blog should be read by everyone in the field.

The biggest problem here is that there is too much emphasis on the "Society" and not enough on the history.

Second is exclusion of the non elite. Look at the costs of events. an any poor person attend? Probably not (yes vast generalization but all of my local society events save one are rather pricey)

There needs to be a division between historic preservation and politics. Societies engage in politics for all the wrong reasons and it becomes an elitist mess

James W. Loewen said...

I'm sorry to come so late to this discussion. The post makes many good points, to which I would add: in my experience, many -- most -- local historical society museums avoid the controversial aspects of their past. By definition the opposite of controversial is bland, boring.
As I said at AASLH (or should have said -- it was after the banquet! -- if the town for decades was all-white on purpose, as were so many, SAY SO. Tell how. Do good oral history on it.
If the town was divided on the Vietnam War -- as were so many -- then say so. Include good oral history and memorabilia from both sides.
All history is local. The women's movement happened HERE. People from HERE fought in the Civil War, and the town was likely divided between Republicans and "Peace Democrats," a division with deep implications. Etc.
GOOD history is always controversial. Controversial history gets people thinking and coming.

Karen said...

Very interesting post -- I've distributed it to our board. Re: event costs. As a free museum, that offers many free events or cost minimal ($5) I disagree with the "elistist" view, expressed by Mr. Bladey. We have one fundraiser a year that charges $$ -- something has to pay the bills. Grants alone, particularly in this economy, won't do the trick.

Also: re: MAP. We started MAP 10 years or so ago, but dropped it because there to be seemed little real benefit to us, and the recommendations were completely out of touch with who we were, and our ability or interest in implementing them. The comment about teachers needing to consider why the program fails with the students is on target. On our own we have subsequently undertaken major strategic planning, have a strong collections policy, exhibit and public programming committee, and a working and increasingly effective development committee.
And we did hire a professional in the field as our Executive Director.

We're fortunate and do not own our building, but have a strong working relationship with our city, which does leases it to us for a minimal fee.

In a town with changing demographics, it is a challenge to engage current residents -- but we're working on it.

One word of caution to the professionals involved in these discussions -- the people working in these organizations who are "white hairs" are often seasoned and dedicated people with a great deal of community and most importantly, work experience.
I've noted when attending meetings like the SMA that there is a tendency to dismiss volunteers by those a little too wrapped up in the "profession." There is little effort to welcome those who are ultimately responsible for an organization or who in the case of small museums who do huge amounts of volunteer work, in these meetings.

Linda said...

Thanks everyone, for such great points--James Loewen--thanks particularly--I didn't hear you speak at AASLH but am a huge fan--and I absolutely agree, what makes this places matter is that something happened HERE. That's also a way to make those emotional connections that Pam, an earlier commenter mentioned.
I see two different threads in the comments, which interest me. One is that these places are run by dedicated volunteers but that no one wants to be involved--and those 2 threads are combined with the 2 threads of we want/don't want to be more professional. I've worked with volunteers my whole career and my experiences have been immensely enriched by their dedication and enthusiasm--to say nothing of how much I learned from many of them about life, work and more. That said though, I do see some local history groups who really don't want new people, who by reason, not of price, but perhaps of attitude, cannot be quite welcoming enough to others. That is absolutely changeable, and to succeed for the next generation, must happen. Thanks everyone for such thoughtful comments and I hope you keep reading and sharing your thoughts!

Dan Spock said...

I have a couple of observations, coming late I know, but they haven't yet been mentioned. One aspect worth considering is that in the nation's remote rural areas, the historical society is often the only museum of any kind within reach. This means that the initial impression of what a museum is for many rural children is formed by that primary experience of visiting the historical society. It's important to appreciate the power of these initial impressions since a negative experience will affect the sense of value a person puts on the both the institution and the entire enterprise of history more broadly. We have to ask if the death of the local museum is a loss we're willing to accept for broad reaches of this country, or is this really part and parcel of the economic and population decline we're seeing of non-metro area America.

I also think this discussion has ignored the evolution of house museums over time (sometimes the historical society is indistinguishable from a house museum). While it is true that many have become unsustainable, new house museums are opening all the time (the Allman Brothers Band House, the Paul Robeson House, etc.) It seems that all of these institutions begin as civically inspired projects, what changes is the degree of civic relevance these places inspire as the story of the founders recedes in public memory. Each generation requires its own examples, but an antiquarian society has a tough time reframing what it is to suit a changing public.

These museums are very nearly always created in a spirit of celebration, which is why they are culturally resistant to questioning narratives (per James Loewen's exhortations here.) In this way they have been more about projecting identity than about interpreting history. Of course bigger state, civic and national history museums labor under the same burdens of...history?

Rainey Tisdale said...

Many of you have probably already read Nina Simon's March 2009 blog post on museums that outlive their usefulness, but it makes such a nice companion to this post that I'm providing the link:

Unknown said...

The question "Is it that we're more interested in nostalgia than history?" is certainly what I experience in my life. I come from a "very" historical county in Virginia with history and past passion that literally germinated most of what we hold as "The American Way." When I chat with folk who are "active" in local historical activities, I certainly feel "nostalgia" in their mission more than a realistic assessment of past living. Historical figures become archetypes of ideals rather than "real folk" who were just living their lives. The protectionism around that idealism then starts to express as almost religious fervor for protecting, not the past, but what we "should remember about the past." This falls on deaf ears when the audience is a younger, critically-thinking person, who's current goal in life is making it in the immediate time and space they live in. However, when a "newcomer" or "scholastic outsider" comes to do research or "run things" at the society, the current, and long-time, citizenry also become dubious of motives and take on the same, aforementioned protective attitude and disengage with the society, library, etc. I do think that local historical societies have a long row to how to overcome these factors.

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