Monthly Archives: November 2012

Be Nimble!

Guest post by Rachel Baum, Monticello

We have spent much of our SHA time reflecting on the need to adapt and respond to the shifting needs of our communities in an era of rapid change. “Be nimble!” we tell ourselves. How wonderful, then, to have this quality modeled by our SHA leaders as they recognized and embraced an unexpected opportunity which appeared (quite literally) in our own backyard.

It all started on the Friday of our first week, when faculty member David Young happened to mention the Right Reverend Richard Allen, the 18th century founder of the African Methodist Episcopal Church.  By Saturday, SHA coordinator John Durel observed a historic AME church a stone’s throw from our hotel. On Sunday, several of our classmates chose to attend services there. They were warmly welcomed by the congregation and its pastor, Rev. Carey Grady.  Chatting after worship, Rev. Grady shared that he had majored in history at Howard University and that he had interned at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. He took our classmates on a tour of the historic church building and showed them the church’s archives.

Bethel Cathedral AME Church

Rev. Grady also shared that he has a dilemma: while the congregation would like to preserve their historic structure and pay homage to their church’s rich and significant history, the building is literally falling down around them and its repair is sapping the congregation’s financial resources. What to do?

John Durel acted on this opportunity to make a connection between SHA and the local Indy community. He contacted Brent Leggs, our faculty member for a session on Grassroots Leadership, and Brent agreed to co-present his session with Rev. Grady.

The result? This Tuesday, we had the honor and privilege to visit the church, to meet with their historian Sister O.J., to hear about their ideas and plans for preserving and interpreting their history, and to consider Bethel Cathedral AME Church as a real-life case study. I know I personally felt humbled when asked to analyze this complex situation and to make some recommendations. Working with a real-life situation felt very different from the fictional case studies we had encountered in class. We learned a great deal from the experience, and I hope that some of our ideas will prove useful to the church.

Rev. Grady and Sister O.J. show us the beautiful sanctuary, which is currently undergoing repair work

Reflecting back on what it means to be nimble, I can see that this particular case involved many factors: serendipity, proximity, awareness, observation, curiosity, courage, connection, flexibility, and hospitality, to name a few. Depending on your faith perspective, you might also see a higher power at work here as well.

As a result of nimbleness, we had an enriching and authentic experience to help us understand the meaning of grassroots leadership. I would like to thank the people of Bethel Cathedral AME Church, and the people of SHA, for making that possible.

SHA visits the Past, Present, and Future

Guest Post by K. Allison Wickens, National Postal Museum

The second week of SHA has been marked by journeys to the past, present, and future.

Past (Duck Pin Lanes, Busted!, & Connor Prairie):

Nothing like Duck Pin Bowling to build the nostalgia for a time I don’t even remember. SHA took over the lanes of Atomic Bowl in Fountain Square for an evening of 1950s fun.

When it came time to do a class photo, we dutifully took our professional looking one…

But then went back in time to pose in the Indiana Experience’s “Busted!” Exhibit for a little 1920s flair (hats provided by IHS).

Our week ended with a trip to the Connor Prairie Interactive History Park and we traveled back in time again to the 1836 “Follow the North Star” program and 1863 “Civil War Journey.”

Phew!  That’s a lot of time-travel.

Present (Birthdays, Census, and the Power of Children):

Luckily our week was not only about the past and we also got to live in (and learn about) the present. 

What a treat!  Both Kim and Rachel celebrated their birthdays on Thursday.  Along with singing happy birthday multiple times, the group got to enjoy balloons, pizza, cupcakes and smiles to celebrate all day long.

Our class time, on Thursday, was spent with Susie Wilkening of Reach Advisors and Conny Graft, of Conny Graft Research and Evaluation.  They shone a spotlight on the present with their work in audience research and visitor evaluation.   Susie illustrated museum-going trends and national demographic data with using the powerful resource of the current US census and the research they’ve been doing with museum going audiences.

Conny focused on how we can use research now to change our practice and that the act of thinking evaluatively can actually change our process in the present.

Friday we took a trip to the Indianapolis Children’s Museum and spent time in “The Power of Children” exhibition which featured the stories of Anne Frank, Ruby Bridges, and Ryan White.  Although their stories were in the past, the exhibit did an amazing job of connecting their lives to the present and providing relevance for our lives today.  

Yes, the exhibit in this museum with the dinosaurs climbing into it had our class living up to its reputation of being the “crying-ist” class in SHA history.  We were bawling after experiencing the live performances and sound and light shows in object-filled rooms like this one of Ruby Bridges’ 1st Grade classroom.

Future (uh, everything):

All the sessions we’ve had over the last two weeks have asked us to think about how we’ll apply the material we learn in the near future.  As the days progress, topics such as community engagement, radical trust, entrepreneurship, and the potential of authentic objects to provide transformative  experiences* start weaving together and forming our future practice.

It’s a safe bet that everything we learn in our 3 weeks at SHA is about the future.

*Susie Wilkening, after teaching us about her research on Transformative Museum Experiences, poses with Bumblebee, the Transformer (Jeanette and her clever wordplay gets credit for this photo-op moment).

Thanks to my roomie Heather for checking my spelling!

Digital History

Guest post by Emily Dunnack, Connecticut Historical Society

Today marks the halfway point of SHA! I think all of us are at the point where we are beginning to take some of the information we’ve learned and examples we’ve seen and thinking about how everything fits in (or doesn’t) in our current institutions and jobs.

The theme for today was DIGITAL HISTORY. Our faculty was Tim Grove, Chief of Education at the National Air and Space Museum and Lisa Fischer, Director of the Digital History Center, Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.

We started off with the YouTube video Social Media Revolution, which was equal parts exhilarating and terrifying and pretty much set the tone for the day:

It was a day full of information, discussion, and examples and while I would love to be able to write a nice little blog wrap up, the biggest thing I took away were questions. These are the questions I’ll be thinking about, talking about during SHA, and taking back with me to my institution:

– What are the benefits and risks of cultivating a culture of user generated content?
– How are museums using technology on-site? Via mobile devices? Online?

Materials from Rev Quest- a great example from Colonial Williamsburg of a game using web technology and mobile texting to enhance to online and onsite visitor experience.

– What are the advantages of using the technology available? What are the limitations?
– How does your web presence impact the overall visitor experience to your institution?
– Where does social media fit into your staff and how is it handled?
– How do you prioritize digitization projects?
– How do you build into your budget the necessary maintenance costs for technology?
– Where do our objects fit into all of this?
– How do small museums with limited staff and budgets begin to implement some of these new ideas?

We ended the day on a lighter note with an activity to show how people navigate websites. One of us volunteered for our institution’s website to be the guinea pig and Maureen and Leo were tasked with navigating the website, narrating out loud as they searched for the answers to a series of questions. What are the hours? Where is a specific teacher curriculum? What is the museum’s mission? This simple activity very effectiviely demonstrated some major flaws in the demo website and would be a great activity to take back to your staff and begin the process of rethinking your website.

CEO Open Forum

Guest post by [Elizabeth Scott Shatto] [Heart of the Civil War Heritage Area]

Every day at SHA is rich and intense and Monday was no different.  Our morning session, led by Larry Yerdon, President, Strawbery Banke Museum, focused on Revenue Models and Financial Sustainability.  Using a daunting case study, we worked on how to prioritize a list of museum liabilities and suggested ways to convert the museum’s liabilities into income-producing assets. 

In the afternoon, John Herbst, President and CEO, Indiana Historical Society, challenged us to consider “Using the Visitor Experience to Reinvent a History Organization.This time our task was to define what the public would find “authentic” about our own institutions and suggest an engaging experience or program that that would flow from the site’s authenticity and also command a fee for participation.

Finally, four brave CEOs opened up an evening forum for Seminarians to ask about the challenges of leading history organizations.  The team included the two already mentioned, as well as Phyllis D. Geeslin, President and CEO, Benjamin Harrison Presidential Site and Debora Schwartz, President, Brooklyn Historical Society. The frank dialogue that ensued was funny, scary, sage, encouraging, and honest in a way that was both gentle and at times harsh (we are learning a lot about the power in such tension). 

I thought it would be fun to capture some of the nuggets that emerged from that discussion, but in keeping with our pact that, “What happens in Indianapolis, stays in Indianapolis,” (also known as code word, “Vegas”), the quotes from our discussion are not attributed.  Here are some snippets from the evening dialogue:

What CEO’s wish they knew before starting their first Executive Director position: “I wish I had better skills working with people”; “I thought I knew budgets, but could have used coaching in dealing with institutional budgets”; “It is important to know that people are capable of despicable, bad behavior – just because you are affiliated with something worthy doesn’t mean that something despicable won’t come out.”

In response to questions about trust: “You get a sixth sense”; “Don’t act in fear of the worst. Be confident you are doing the right thing”; “The famous Bill Alderson (well loved former SHA Resident Coordinator) said, ‘Never get yourself in a place where you can’t say good bye.”

About the fear of asking for money: “My palms still get sweaty”; “Make your first few calls with someone experienced;”  “Start with calls you know will have positive results”; “I find it hard when I have really become friends with donors, when I have grown to love them, yet I still have to ask them for $20,000 at the end of the year.”

Is there every downtime for a CEO? “When I go to the grocery store or run an errand, ‘I go out to swim in my donor pool’”; “Many more people know me than I know them”; “I need downtime and accept that sometimes I will be seen in my gardening clothes.”

On the subject of working with staff: “I don’t need to worry out loud, it doesn’t help the staff”; “[To get staff out of their silos and working together] hold hands and sing Kumbaya”;  “Create an expectation that people have to work together.  It will not work if people don’t cooperate and collaborate”; “There’s some people you can’t fix, so give them an opportunity to find other employment”; “I don’t like to fire people but I’ve never felt that I did the wrong thing.”

Important staff qualities: “Integrity, hard work, energy, excitement, ability to see the big picture and capacity to see beyond one’s turf”

Thoughts on museum leadership and family life: “Nothing is more important than your family”; “The field is more adaptable than it has ever been.”

What boards look for in a new director: “Often, the opposite of what they just had”; “A PhD is not necessary but it isn’t a liability”; “More organizations will be looking for someone with a business degree.”

How to stay motivated? “This work can be lonely…when you are alone the colleague you can call makes a huge difference”; “You are not your job.  Remind yourself, ‘I am a person and I am good at what I do.’”

A poignant summary: “What we do is servant leadership.”

Thank you to the CEOs who shared their accumulated wisdom so generously!


Do Museums Still Need Objects?

Guest post by Stacia Kuceyeski, Ohio Historical Society

Week one of SHA is a wrap! In today’s review session we discussed some of the overall themes of the week.  While discussing “do museums need objects?”  John Durel mentioned a study by Reach Advisors which focused on different types of moms who take their children to museums.  The “Curious Moms” are described as having had special museum experiences as children which were usually tied to objects.  These experiences sparked their imagination: placing themselves in the painting; the time period; the object.  As I processed this a vivid image of a jewelry store window popped into my mind.

The Toledo Museum of Art was a staple school field trip for me as a child.  I still love that museum, and when I go home to Toledo I like to visit some old friends who still live there.  One of which is the Don Eddy painting Jewelry.  I can still remember the docent sitting my class in front of this painting year after year and going through what I now identify as visual thinking strategies to guide our inquiry about the painting.  I always loved this painting.  I loved the bright, flashy colors.  I loved the shapes.  I loved that I understood what was happening in the painting, which made me feel smart.  I imagined walking past that shop window, going into the store, and trying on jewelry.

This is my transformative object.  This is what sparked my imagination as a child.  Sure, the mummy was super cool, but as an adult, when I think of my museum experience as a child, my warm and fuzzy memories consist of sitting on the wood floor in front of a flashy jewelry shop window.  When I decided I’d wax poetic about my childhood art museum experience for this blog I had this terrifying thought: I wanted to post an image of the painting, but I had no idea its title or creator.  I literally knew nothing about this piece.  I had forged this weird bond with a painting from my childhood and after years of visiting my friend I never thought to look and see what the title of the painting was or who the artist was.  Or if I did I certainly didn’t retain this information.  It didn’t matter.

What does this all mean?  Did this painting shape my love of bright colors and flash?  Maybe.  Did it instill in me a love of sassy earrings?  Possibly.  Did it make me want to work in a museum?  Perhaps.  So do museums still need objects?  I can argue both sides.  I do know I’m certainly glad the Toledo Museum of Art had this one.

FOUND IT! Jewelry, Don Eddy, 1974. From the Collection of the Toledo Museum of Art

Class Fieldtrip: Models of Leadership

Wednesday, October 31, 2012- Models in Leadership


Today was an incredibly full and stimulating day in which we examined challenges that face museum leadership at three different sites.  At each museum, we examined governance, leadership models, mission, programming, and audience.

We began our tour at the Indiana Medical History Museum, located at the old Central Indiana Hospital for the Insane. There we met Mary Ellen Nottage, Executive Director.  Mary Ellen was enthusiastic about her work and exhibited a great deal of professional poise as she discussed the sensitive nature of her site’s history as a treatment facility for individuals with mental illness.  We were very inspired by her dedication and ingenuity in developing innovative programming for various audiences.

1896 Medical Amphitheater

Late 19th/ Early 20th century autopsy table


Next we visited Phyllis Geeslin, President and CEO of the Benjamin Harrison Presidential Site.  At President Harrison’s Indianapolis home, we learned about the incredible work Phyllis and staff members are doing to teach Americans about President Benjamin Harrison’s laudable characteristics such as quiet charity, devotion to family, courage, and patriotism.

State Historic Marker for President Benjamin Harrison’s home in Indianapolis

Exterior of Harrison home

We then visited John Vanausdall, President and CEO of the Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art.  John shared the unique challenges of making a museum of Western art relevant in Indiana.  The museum has had terrific success in meeting this challenge as its programming, attendance, and collection have grown tremendously in recent years.

Song of the Aspen, Eiteljorg Museum

Our day came to a beautiful ending with a harvest dinner at Twin Oaks, home of Indiana Historical Society’s President and CEO, John Herbst.  Great conversation and food in an inspired setting made for a memorable experience.

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