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.


Unknown said...

Linda you ask: "How can we, those of us who are museum professionals, do it better?" I ask myself this question every. single. day. Multiple times.

The good news is internet tools let us raise these issues across the field and make connections with each other to solve problems. We have each other to hash things over. I've been looking into network theory to better understand how to reach across and gather forces to help solve these persistent problems. There are many clusters of us who sense these bigger issues, and I wonder how we can tie ourselves together to find solutions. Thanks for using your blog to discuss them.

I'll also say that an upside of a crisis it can be a opportunity to rethink what you have been doing. One of the department's responses to ongoing museum organizational difficulties is to offer a dual degree that is both a Museums Studies Degree, and a Master's in Business Administration. It helps us/students acquire the tools to analyze the structural issues facing the non-profit world. It will take a while for these students to filter into the museum world, but I am confident that in the years to come these students won't be as overwhelmed with the organizational challenges that some earlier graduates have suffered under. Knowing this helps me sleep better at night.

Samantha said...

"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."

I'm in my second semester of a museum studies graduate program. An important part of any program is hands-on training (which is taught in a seminar and internships). This past week, I've read a lot on how to handle objects properly. However, as an intern at various museums, I've noticed that our education doesn't always transfer into the real-world due to budgets or different ways of doing things at the museum. So to me, internships and logging so many hours in a museum should really be a part of every museum studies program. And asking questions, no matter how stupid we may think they are, are not dumb as long as we are learning something from asking them.

Samantha said...

Speaking of internships, I've noticed, at least in my area, its hard to get an internship at a small or mid-size museum because staff don't have the time or budget to train someone. It makes me want to scream, how can we learn if we can't get an internship? To overcome this problem, I'm willing to travel for internships in hopes that after I graduate the hands-on experience will help me land a paying museum job.


Linda said...

Thanks Susan and Samantha-Susan, I think it's really interesting to consider how to really bring people together to talk about these issues. There's some sense it's happening, but in many disconnected ways--and I'd love to know more about network theory! I like the idea of a combined MBA but wouldn't it also be interesting if museum professionals could also receive training in things like social justice and community activism? Samantha--great point about the difficulty of finding internships at small places as no one to supervise. Interesting to consider whether state or regional service agencies could help manage and supervise such internships as a way for everyone to benefit.

And it is a wonderful thing to be able to use the internet to make all these connections, that previously, would have had us perhaps just talking to the same people or just muttering to ourselves. Thanks both of you for contributing to the discussion.

Unknown said...

Linda, I have to laugh a little...we are located in Berkeley, so the social consciousness has been second nature to uu, at least as long as I have been there. We have had a course on Museums and Communities for a very long time, and how we create public good is at the forefront of our minds constantly. The organizational piece with the MBA gives students tools in a culture that is obsessed with a bottom line. My hope is that some sort of a blended model will emerge.

For starters on Network Theory, look up a book by Patti Anklam called Net Work. It is dense, but valuable.

padutchchick said...

Well -- frankly I can't get anyone qualified to do an internship and who wants to learn the nuts and bolts of collections management, so it goes both ways. I can't offer a glamourous internship -- it has to be fundamental collections management where someone wants to learn and do the not-so-fabulous work of day to day museum operations. I don't have time to structure special projects for interns, but will gladly train somone to do the work I don't have time to do, but that has not been desirable.

Linda said...

Susan--thanks, I'll check out the book on network theory--and interesting, I think not all museum programs bring more than lip service to social consciousness...so nice to hear about one that does.

Patudchick--thanks for pointing up the challenges of managing interns. There's loads of work for all of us to do, and it's not always glamorous, whether you're an intern or a director! But would love to have better ways to connect small organizations and potential interns.

Rye History said...

A few comments: (1) we (small house museum and historical society) get great interns from local high schools and colleges, (2) we have a hard time persuading people that we're not elitist or filled with little old ladies, but (3) our biggest problem, I think, is getting share of mind and share of attention. We're in a major suburban area close to NYC. Local residents are stressed out over work, stressed out over their kids in school etc., and they have all of the NYC cultural institutions to attract their attention. We have lots of people who are interested at a superficial level, but it's hard to get people to engage on a deeper, more substantive level, and thus hard to translate engagement into volunteerism and financial support.

Anonymous said...

I really enjoyed both of these posts, and all the comments.

Self-perception is definitely part of the problem. I wrote a post in August 09 about visiting an enjoyable county historical society museum in Florida, where the woman at the counter said "History doesn't change." I suspect some historical societies see themselves as the guardians of a static thing, rather than conveyors of a dynamic idea.

Linda said...

Rye History--I've been interested, in these posts, to hear about the challenges that different organizations face--I can understand the challenge of NYC; while equally understanding that challenges of a small town with only 2000 residents. There's lots of competition for all of our time.

ME Brett--ah, "history doesn't change." Love the distinction you make between static and dynamic. Thanks for reading!

MsKizzy said...

Regarding Patudchick's comment that interns aren't interested in basic collections management tasks -- Just a thought, but maybe one way to interest community members in the museum and local history would be to invite them to help with those jobs. There are lots of people out there (often sans blue hair or bow ties) who would like to volunteer but are not interested in the typical (often mindless) volunteer jobs. Volunteers need tasks that feel valuable to them, and collections management might have that kind of draw.

Anonymous said...

Just today I was talking with a group of museum staff and volunteers about one solution to the problem of "Dinosaur" historical socities and history museums. It is an idea proposed in "A Golden Age for Historic Properties", by John Durel and Anita Nowery Durel- http://www.qm2.org/Golden_Age.pdf

Basically, it suggests a better business model would be to form "affinity groups" based on geneology, history, gardening, yoga, etc. and provide meeting space and staff support in your building and grounds. It is an intriguing idea, especially for sites that can rely on a simple tourist-based income.

Anonymous said...

padutchchick I'd be more than happy to undertake a 'nuts & bolts' internship. I have just graduated and I know that a degree is just the start. I want to learn the basics and hope that I will eventually find an internship. Anyone who goes into the museum 'industry' seeking glamorous endeavor will be sorely disappointed!


You little brother said...

The blog looks great these days Linda. Very happy to see it as a site for lively conversation, particularly on the potential demise of the local Historical Society.

I think part of the challenge lies in branding -- something called a 'Historical Society' sounds formal, static and somewhat off-putting to younger ears. There is little sense of opportunity for engagement for potential visitors. Yet at the same time, the general genealogy craze would suggest that people are more interested in history than ever, but very much like the thrill of the search and the interactivity of the process.

I am sure that is not news to the practitioners visiting the site, but it does feel like the question of 'what makes our museum an interesting place to visit' is too often asked after a collection is put together -- rather than at the beginning of the design.

That's my two cents,

Enjoy Ukraine!

Linda said...

Thanks everyone, for your continuing comments. John, interesting to hear from an outsider--and I always wish that more potential organizations would consider if they are really needed, visionary, and sustainable before they acquire a building and collections. I think the Durel article is a great example of how we might rethink our work and know some museums are beginning to consider it.

And I think the overall answer here, is that we, as practioners, need to be asking questions all the time--about what we do, about what our place is in the community, about what we collect--and we can't ask those questions just of ourselves!

David Grabitske said...

Hi Linda, good continuing discussion!

Your note about training disconnect struck a chord, but also got me thinking about the fact that local history museums often form a network. Depending on how the organizations are connected may determine how quickly they might adopt/accept training as seen in two recent examples.

Therefore, it may be that we as a community need to study how our networks work in order to maximize the spread of training, or at least learn to live with those that wish to remain on the periphery.

Check it out: http://discussions.mnhs.org/MNLocalHistory/?p=449