Monthly Archives: November 2010


We closed out the third week of SHA 2010 with Kent Whitworth leading us in a discussion about organizational health and building an integrated culture. Then Trina Nelson Thomas helped to prepare the class for re-entry into their own organizations with strategies for implementing change and maintaining energy. Yesterday, the final day, the students shared their thoughts and recommendations for improving the seminar next year, and spoke about their intentions for continuing to develop themselves as leaders in their organizations and in the field.

Last night it was the class party, highlighted by songs about history organizations, set to popular tunes. I’ll be posting one to YouTube later and will link to it through this blog.

It has been an amazing three weeks of focused learning. If you have not yet participated in the seminar, I urge you to do so. It will be one of the most significant steps you take in your professional growth. If you’re interested in applying, contact me at

Items unique to each SHA class

Over my years with the SHA program, I’ve always found it fascinating how each class not only coalesces into a cohesive unit over the course of three weeks but also the issues that bubble up with each class.

Talking today with several members of the Class of 2010 and reading John’s blog, one of the salient points that they’ve raised is the issue of the use of collections in a variety of settings: what to collect, how to care for and preserve and conserve them, use in exhibits, for research, for education, and the like.

I thought I’d post one resource for the field that discusses issues regarding collections for both the Class of 2010 and also for those following this blog, the latest entry in History News: Your Turn, an AASLH online community for discussing articles in the current issue of the magazine. Over the year we’ve covered Radical Trust and Crowdsourcing.

The Autumn’s issue feature is How Collection Planning and Collaboration Supports the Cultural Heritage Institution and Community Memory by Melissa Mannon (twitter: While it’s not 100% apropos of the “role of collections” discussions the Class of 2010 had having, it does discuss some of the challenges (and offers a solution) to one of the issues with this function of our work.

History News: Your Turn is posted at Hope you’ll join the conversation and also share the link with friends and colleagues.


Into the final stretch

We’re mid-way into the final week of the three-week seminar, and the students are starting to think about re-entry. Since my last post we’ve had presentations and discussions with David Crosson on the ethical issues often faced in historical organizations; with Harold Skramstad on creating effective mission statements and managing to the mission; with Hallie Rosen and Susan Funk on building volunteer programs that have a positive impact on the organization, the individual volunteer, and the community; and Tim Grove on many ways in which changes in technology are impacting our work. Today we continue with Jim Vaughan and Ken Turino on the issues of historic site relevance and sustainability.

From the first day of the seminar the class has focused on important issues and questions: the shift from object driven to story driven experiences; the role of the object in story driven experiences; how best to create experiences that appeal to everyone; whether exhibits and programs should support the values of a community, or raise sensitive issues and call for action; how best to engage our communities and share authority with others; how to design our work to both achieve the mission and build financial sustainability;  how to become highly valued in our communities and not just “nice to have.”

Everyday the students have discussed the issues, and learned about strategies and tools for advancing their organizations, from guidance on community engagement to effective leadership practices to planning and implementing change. It’s a bit overwhelming. Now is the time to sort things out and prepare for going home. We’ll be doing that tomorrow and Friday.

The role of collections in story driven experiences

A topic of discussion throughout the seminar this year has been the role of authentic artifacts in story driven experiences. Last Saturday Dan Spock got us started on this with his discussion of approaches to exhibitions at the Minnesota Historical Society, where authentic objects from the collection appear to take a back seat to reproductions and props that visitors can handle. On Thursday of this week the class focused on collections, hearing first from Michele Gates Moresi about the development of a collection from scratch at the National Museum of African American History and Culture, which will open in 2015. She described the interplay between the stories they intend to tell, the material they are acquiring, and the architectural design of the building. It’s a dynamic give-and-take. Steve Haller from the Indiana Historical Society followed Michele with a presentation on their collection policies and practices. Since we are meeting at IHS we toured the collections spaces. In this case the collections are archival – images and documents – which are the basis for the Indiana Experience which John Herbst presented on earlier in the week. After lunch we walked down the canal to the Indiana History Museum, where Rex Garniewicz gave us a tour of the state’s three dimensional collections. We also saw “Odd Indiana”, a great example of an an driven exhibition with great stories built around unrelated but interesting objects.

Yesterday we were out of the classroom again, for a trip first to the Indianapolis Children’s Museum and then to Conner Prairie. At ICM we focused on a story driven exhibition, “The Power of Children”, which tells the story of three children from the 1940s, 60s, and 80s respectively, designed to inspire people to create positive change in their own families, schools and communities. The exhibit uses multiple techniques, including objects (both hands-on and displayed in cases), video, audio, interactives, and dramatic performances. After experiencing the exhibit we met with the exhibition development team – Tricia O’Conner (exhibit developer,) Craig Wetli (designer,) Andrea Hughes (curator,) and Eric Olson (interpretation manager), as well as an educator –  to discuss the development process and results. At Conner Prairie we took a ride on the balloon (yet another form of history experience) and met with Dave Allison, Dan Freas, and Ken Bubp to discuss the changes they’ve made to interpretation over the past ten years, how those changes have led to institutional change, and their strategies for the future, including big plans for 2011…..stay tuned!

New This Year at the Seminar

On Tuesday afternoon of this second week Ellen Spear engaged the class in a consideration of radical change. Much of our discussions have been about gradual change: improving our abilities to engage communities, develop better visitor experiences, and bring staff along who are resistant. As leader of Hancock Shaker Village, which for many years has faced chronic deficits, declining support, and deferred maintenance, Ellen has had to change the game. She is leading the organization into a new mission, vision, and financial model, still grounded in the history of the Shakers. HSV now helps people learn how to live a principled life in the 21st Century, using the Shakers as an example. Ellen also spoke about their practice of investment/de-investment, rather than spend/cut, so that every major activity is not only mission-related but also generates revenue and builds long term sustainability.

On Tuesday evening three CEOs – John Herbst, Ellen Spear, and Phyllis Geeslin, who heads the Benjamin Harrison Presidential Site – spent an hour and a half in informal, open discussion with the class about the challenges and rewards of leading history organizations. They spoke of their careers and responded to questions about working with boards, finding balance with personal life, and being leaders in their respective communities.

Yesterday morning another new faculty member, Melissa Hayes from the Chicago History Museum, presenting on marketing and branding. She described the process of rebranding her institution and their strategies for building audience. The class learned about their methods for integrating marketing into the organization with, for example, bi-weekly meetings between marketing staff and education staff. Melissa was followed by veteran faculty member Conny Graft, who helped the class understand program evaluation. In an exercise three students, with the help of their colleagues, developed plans for evaluating  an exhibit or program in their respective institutions. The pictures are from that activity.

The second week of the seminar is underway

We started our second week by focusing inward on two important sets of skill and knowledge that leaders must have: financial management and building the board. Monday morning Jane Piasecki took us through financial management systems and practices. Jane is one of those rare people who understands both accounting and museums/history organizations. We covered charts of accounts, budget development and management, balance sheets, and a host of other tools and functions that leaders at any level in the organization must understand if they are going to be effective. After lunch Charlie Bryan engaged the class on the CEO’s responsibility to lead the board, and develop a practice of shared leadership. He drew on his twenty years experience as president of the Virginia Historical Society as well as current role as a consultant to boards around the country. Charlie emphasized the need to have a vision and strategic plan, grounded in core institutional values, to align the board’s work.

On Monday night the class met on its own to discuss the place of authentic objects in exhibits and programs. As we’ve discussed the shift in history organizations from internal focus to external, from collections focus to audience, a creative tension has emerged.

This morning John Herbst continued our discussion about organizational change and engaging audiences with presentation with the approach he and the staff at the Indiana Historical Society have taken. Drawing on the Experience Economy model presented by Joseph Pine and James Gilmore, IHS has developed an array of programs that give visitors various experiences with Indiana history. The class engaged in a critical discussion about the benefits and challenges of this approach, and then started to develop ideas for their own organizations.

The end of the first week

We’re near the end of the first week, so I’ll recap what we covered on Wed-Thurs-Friday. Wednesday’s focus was on leadership. We visited with leaders at three very different history organizations: Phyllis Geeslin at the Benjamin Harrison Presidential Site; Mary Ellen Nottage at the Indiana Medical History Museum; and John Vanausdall at the Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art. We discussed leadership styles and practices, and the challenges of being effective at different stages in the lifecycle of organizations.
On Thursday Benjamin Filene, who directs the public history program at the University of North Carolina Greensboro, and Cynthia Chavez Lamar from the Indian Arts Research Center in Santa Fe, presented on community engagement. Benjamin led us in a consideration of the breadth and variety of activities that fall under this label, including the Kitchen Dialogues at the Tenement Museum, the Independence Community Gallery at the Brooklyn Historical Society, and an exhibit called “Courage” at the Levine Museum of the New South. Cynthia spoke on the challenges she faced in working with native communities in developing the “Our Lives” exhibition at the National Museum of the American Indian.
For something completely different, on Friday Sal Cilella from the Atlanta History Center gave a sweeping overview of the challenges and best practices for raising money. He covered what the institution needs to have in place for effective fund development, what the philanthropic market looks like today, and how to build and maintain positive donor relations. Success comes at the intersection of these three sets of activities.
This morning we’re going to hear from Dan Spock from the Minnesota Historical Society on the critical components of successful history exhibits. The class has already had discussions about the challenges of creating exhibits with all of the changes that are occurring in our communities and in our institutions.  It should be a good discussion.
Then we’re off for the rest of the weekend. Some within driving distance will be heading home to be with family. Being away for three weeks is a big commitment. As any successful leader knows, you can’t neglect your personal life. You’ve got to navigate your various commitments with the support of both your work colleagues and your family. 

Change at SHA

Here’s a photo of Spencer Crew presenting to the class of 2010. Note the laptops. Fifteen of nineteen students are using laptops to take notes and download handouts. The traditional SHA 4-inch 3-ring binder will soon disappear from the Seminar. Welcome to the 21st Century.

Changing history organizations in response to the changes around us

We followed Eric Sandweiss’ introductory presentation with three more on Monday afternoon and Tuesday, all continuing with the broad themes of institutional change and turning from an internal to an external focus. Spencer Crew, former director of the Freedom Center in Cincinnati, and before that the National Museum of American History, and now teaching at George Mason University, gave us three types of museum to consider: Essential – focusing on the traditional internal functions of collecting, preserving, researching and display; Adaptive – focusing outward and adapting to a changing society and challenging entrenched values; and Ideological – supporting the current power structure and using the museum to bring the unwashed into the value system of the mainstream. The difference between adaptive and ideological was at the center of our discussion: should we challenge our staffs, boards, and audiences to consider alternate interpretations of the past, or should we play it safe? Should we be temples or forums? Should we help our communities confront the tough issues? One big challenge is funding, which is often difficult to raise for exhibits that can be incendiary.
On Tuesday morning we shifted our attention to how to change our organizations to become more externally focused and adaptive to changes on the outside. Barbara Franco, who leads the state owned museums and historic sites in Pennsylvania, and Laura Roberts, who has been working with history organizations for decades, presented several models and strategies for managing organizational change. The class as a whole is ready for change in their respective institutions; the challenge is figuring out their role as emerging leaders, who often lack the authority to make things happen.
James Chung from Reach Advisors presented Tuesday afternoon on the major demographic, economic and cultural changes that will likely occur in America over the next decade. Some interesting findings that may impact history organizations:
  • ·      As they age, boomers are participating in arts and culture at a lower rate than previous generations. They may not be the boon to museums that we’ve thought.
  • ·      Kids today are growing up in a world where 40% of their friends are minorities.
  • ·      Currently minorities make up only 9% of museum core visitors, contrasted with 34% of the total population. Over the next decade income for whites during their peak earning years of age 25 to 54 will decline by 7%, but for nonwhites it will increase.

      Perhaps the most significant finding for history organizations from James’ most recent research is this: As we know, moms tend to make the decision about bringing kids or a family to a museum. Digging deeper, there are “ultra-moms” who do this on a regular basis. Most ultra-moms do this for the sake of the kids, and are motivated by their desire that their children have fun, family time, and learn something. Most ultra-moms are not interested in history. However, there is a subset: 9% are described as “ultra-curious-moms” and they bring their children to all types of museums, including history, because they themselves are interested. This appears to be a promising audience for history organizations. Significantly, these moms report that their interest in history was sparked by an encounter with an object or artifact when they were young, usually around the age of seven.

First Faculty Presentation: Eric Sandweiss

On Monday morning we heard from Eric Sandweiss, who teaches at Indiana University. He used recent changes in the way history organizations state their missions to talk about the changing nature of our work. “Collecting, preserving and interpreting” was once seen as a legitimate end in itself, having value for society as a whole. Now it is only a means to an end, which is to have some positive effect on the public. Often this is stated as helping others find a meaningful, personal connection with the past. A generic mission today would read: we use history to have an effect on the public.
However, this way of thinking about our purpose has deep roots. The Smithsonian was founded for both the increase and diffusion of knowledge. Charles Wilson Peale and P.T. Barnum created democratic enterprises, for the amusement and edification of the masses. In contrast, early historical societies sought to do this only for the elite. These places emphasized reading, with objects used only as illustrations, and labels as the primary means of conveying information.
We still feel the tension between these two purposes in our organizations today.
In our discussion with Eric class members talked about the pressures we feel not to offend certain people and groups. Tony Glen from the Canadian War Museum told of an episode where controversy over a label led to the resignation of the museum director. Jackie Barton from the Ohio Historical Society said that some in the public are frustrated that we are too compromising. Dina Bailey from the Freedom Center described her work as walking a tightrope, sometimes compromising too much, sometimes not enough. We talked about topics that seem to be off limits, the demands of pressure groups, and our shifting role from authoritative voice to convener.
This was a great way to start the seminar. We jumped right into the complexities, frustrations, and challenges of using history to serve the public in today’s world.

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