Monthly Archives: April 2013
In the beginning of the movie Back to the Future, Marty McFly struggles to get his band off the ground and find direction in his life. Before I attended SHA in 2011, I felt like Marty—spinning my wheels, not really sure where to go next, etc. Luckily for those of us in the history field, we have a Doc Brown to turn to: SHA. Granted, it’s not a time machine made out of a Delorian, but still just as effective.
Now in your mind, jump to the end of Back to the Future when Marty experiences the new 1985. His parents and family are better off than they were before and Marty’s got a brand new truck in the garage. Completing SHA is a lot like Marty re-entering reality. You see things differently. New opportunities become available (although I did not get a new truck out of it but you see what I mean). The world looks and feels bigger, if only because your eyes are open with a fresh perspective.
One year after SHA, I was promoted to Assistant Director of Education and Community Engagement at the Indiana Historical Society. I worked hard in the year following SHA to lead from the middle, volunteer to assist with more projects and become a more active member of the education field. This, coupled with my new perspective and knowledge from SHA, led me to where I am today.
I learned a lot about myself during those three weeks. I gained lifelong friendships, created a national network of history colleagues and allowed myself to take time for me. There is always a reason not to do something. Push those to the back of your mind and apply for SHA today.
Becca Beck (SHA ’11), Assistant Director of Education and Community Engagement at the Indiana Historical Society
SHA does all kinds of amazing things – exposes you to the best thinkers in the field, gives you practical knowledge you can instantly use, and creates an incredible professional network that you can call on for just about anything. All those things are important, but none of them are why SHA was a pivotal event in my life.
In 2009, SHA gave me the tools to be intentional about my role in the public history field. When I applied I had been working as a curator for 10 years. I loved hands-on work with collections and exhibits, but as I gained experience I found myself gradually drifting toward administration. In non-profits too often people move into administrative roles without self reflection. We move from doing things to managing things without really thinking about whether that’s the right fit. This negatively impacts both individuals and organizations. Reluctant managers often cannot let go of their previous jobs, or they become disillusioned and uninspired because administration doesn’t feed their souls.
SHA allowed me the time to reflect on why I got into the field and think hard about what I wanted to do. I left after three weeks convinced that I was ready to move into administration, and that I was going to work hard to be the best manager I could possibly be. Other professional development programs supply you with information, but SHA is the only one I know of that reconnects you with your passions and helps you live a more intentional life.
I’ll immediately reveal my vintage. I attended the Seminar way back in the day when it was a 6-week summer program in Williamsburg, comprised of 9 professionals and 9 graduate Fellows. I was a graduate fellow, attending in 1972 midway in my doctoral coursework at William and Mary.
For me, the Seminar was not only introductory, but affirming. I had headed to William and Mary for graduate school on the recommendation of James Morton Smith, one of my undergraduate professors at Cornell. A scholar of American civil liberties and 18th-century America, Smith was an Ivy League academic who also bridged to the world of museums, historical organizations, and archives. He subsequently served as Director of the Historical Society of Wisconsin, and later as the head of Winterthur. I had discussed with several of my professors that I had always loved history – biography, historic sites and historic house museums, collections, architecture – and teaching, but was less enthralled with research and writing. While the classroom would be fine, I really wanted to be with the real stuff and the public, in museums. Smith had been at the Institute of Early American History and Culture in Williamsburg earlier in his career and recommended William and Mary for graduate school. While there was no partnership program in place with Colonial Williamsburg, Jim suggested that maybe I could “pick something up.”
And pick it up I did. In the Seminar.
The Seminar was a dream come true — great readings and class discussions about everything museums; rubbing elbows with the heads of the National Trust, AAM, and AASLH; amazing field trips to behind-the-scenes at the Smithsonian to historic houses and museums, several of which were helmed by retired admirals who poured afternoon sherry for us. Surely these places would be ripe for a new generation of professionally trained historians and administrators! The class mix also was a plus, and the coordinator was a genial Texan named William Seale, who would become White House historian.
Most importantly for me, I met Jim Short, the Vice President for Preservation and Research at Colonial Williamsburg. Jim was a highly respected leader in the field, the Colonial Williamsburg lynchpin, with AASLH’s Bill Alderson, for the Seminar and the well-connected colleague of others advancing the professionalism of nonacademic history.
Shortly after the Seminar Jim called to ask if I could come talk about a job at Colonial Williamsburg. An opening was coming up in Archives, and part of the work would be to carry on the oral history program he had started in the 1950s. I was dying to do it, and we worked out a schedule that enabled me to complete my coursework as well.
I owe my subsequent career of 40-and-counting years to the Seminar and to Jim Short, who also was a leader in the American Association of State and Local History. I stayed on at Colonial Williamsburg for 28 years, becoming Executive Assistant to the President and Foundation Secretary, linking my work with two exceptional Board Chairs, Associate Justice Lewis Powell and Charlie Brown, then also CEO of AT&T. I moved through several Vice President and division head posts, including Corporate Planning Officer, VP for Quality Performance and Information Management, VP and Chief Administration Officer, and the VP for Education overseeing all of the mission-delivery divisions of the Foundation (research, preservation, collections and museums, Historic Area interpretation and programs, publishing, and educational outreach). Over the years, after Jim Short’s untimely death, I assumed the mantle of working with the other Seminar sponsors to maintain its strength, appeal, and value.
Subsequently, I have had the good fortune of leading The New York State Historical Association, with its significant museum of American art and culture, and the outdoor living history Farmers’ Museum, all joined with the State University of New York in mounting the country’s premier graduate program in museum studies, the Cooperstown Graduate Program.
And since 2011 I have been privileged to be the Director and CEO of the Minnesota Historical Society, whose truly amazing staff administer an incredibly rich and diverse collection that includes the state’s archives; a network of thirty state historic sites and museums; the state’s History Center with its innovative exhibition program and library; and Minnesota’s State Historic Preservation Office. The Society’s field services, museum education programs, and statewide educational program, including the largest (and best!) state History Day programs, are exceptional, as are its ground-breaking initiatives working with American Indian nations, communities of color, and new immigrant communities.
It’s great to wake up every morning and come to work in a history organization!
And I have had the pleasure of paying back to AASLH and the Seminar by chairing the AASLH Council. What a delight to see the strong content of the Seminar experience in recent years under former CW colleague Denny O’Toole and now John Durel! And what fun to sense the excitement at AASLH receptions for SHA alumni and prospective attendees!
While the Seminar experience has changed since 1972 (what hasn’t!), it is every bit as dense, engaging, thoroughly enjoyable, and valuable as it was then. And I know that those experiencing the Seminar of the 21st century also come away better equipped to deal with the steep challenges facing history organizations in today’s world. They emerge smarter, with a stronger network of resources and collegial support, and energized. And they go right back to work.
How important is their good work in a country whose educational policy is leaving all its children behind when it comes to the social studies, humanities, and the arts?
If we place any value on Americans’ ability to understand our country’s distinctive history, ideas, culture, development, and context; to find and assess information and to think through issues; and to chart a course for sustainability and success on an ever-shrinking planet, then we have to believe it is huge!
D. Stephen Elliott, Director and Chief Executive Officer, Minnesota Historical Society
Last year I wrote a bit about what I felt were the strengths of Developing History Leaders @ SHA. I opined on SHA’s top-notch faculty and the importance of the relationships that I developed as part of the SHA Class of 2011. My blog was one part of an all out effort by the SHA Class of 2011 to increase awareness of a program that we all feel indebted to and one which we are convinced is our field’s most important and effective leadership program.
Now, I’m setting out to continue to spread the good word of SHA; but, this time I’m going to try a different angle. This time, at the risk of sounding sarcastic, overbearing, or rude, I’m going to lay out who I think may not be a good fit for Developing History Leaders @SHA.
- If you don’t want to be a leader, you might want to reconsider applying to attend SHA. It’s understandable that not everybody wants to lead (in fact the world needs as many good followers as it does good leaders); but, SHA’s main emphasis is to develop leaders for our field. So, if you have no interest in being a leader, than SHA is probably not for you.
- If you are not very interested in collaboration, than you probably shouldn’t attend SHA. It’s understandable if you’re not interested in collaboration. But, at its heart SHA is essentially a collaborative program—attendees learn and develop by collaborating with each other, the faculty, and the area museums. So, if you aren’t interested in a high level of collaborative activity, you may want to stay home.
- If you’re satisfied where you are in your personal and professional development, than SHA might not be the best choice for you. SHA should be part of your career-development plan. I’m not saying that you need to be overly ambitious, but I think you certainly should have some ambitions to improve yourself and your career. SHA is not easy. Throughout your time at SHA, you’ll have plenty of reading assignments and plenty of challenging and rewarding small-group assignments. If you don’t have some ambition to work hard and an eagerness to expand your abilities, you’ll probably be unhappy. You can have a good time at SHA, but it’s no vacation.
- If you feel you have no role outside your own institution, than SHA may not be your thing. One of the great strengths of SHA is its ability to inculcate in its attendees the importance of not only being a leader at their own institution but also being a leader in the field. Most SHA alumni feel a commitment to the field—they ask not only How can I contribute and lead at my own institution? but they also ask How can I contribute to the betterment of my field and all institutions?
All that being said, my intent is certainly not to scare anyone away from SHA. However, SHA is a commitment that should not be taken lightly. From the competitive application process to the extended time away from home to the soul-searching discussions you’ll have with your classmates—SHA will challenge you. I encourage you to be a leader, to be collaborative, to discover your role outside the walls of your own institution, and to continue to push yourself to improve—I encourage you to consider SHA.
Mark Sundlov (SHA ’11) is Site Supervisor at the Ronald Reagan Minuteman Missile State Historic Site in Cooperstown, North Dakota. He currently serves on the SHA Alumni Committee and the AASLH Program Committee.
SHA coordinator John Durel is busy finalizing the 2013 SHA schedule. Below are his thoughts on this year’s program.
The curriculum for Developing History Leaders @ SHA 2013 is taking shape, with continued emphasis on trends and innovations that are affecting the work of history organizations, as well as fundamental skills necessary to be a successful leader in our field. This year Katherine Kane, Executive Director of the Harriet Beecher Stowe Center, will give the keynote on the first day of the seminar, setting the stage for discussions over the next three weeks. The Stowe Center is more than a traditional historic house. It is a place that uses Stowe’s life and work to inspire others to take action addressing the concerns of today. It is a prime example of making history useful to contemporary life.
Discussions the first week will center on other innovative ways to use history to engage audiences and benefit communities, sometimes dealing with sensitive issues. Among the topics will working with communities to create meaningful exhibitions, the latest use of technology to enhance history experiences, and reinterpreting historic sites using historical research and community engagement. In addition, we are working with SHA partner the National Trust for Historic Preservation to include seminarians in the 2013 National Preservation Conference. (Check out this fantastic video on Indianapolis and the Trust conference.)
Week two will begin with discussions led by five executive directors who are taking different approaches to reinventing their organizations. To varying degrees they have focused on the guest experience, the financial model, community engagement, the collections, the staff, and the board. Their stories reveal the complexity of leading change for a whole organization, and not just a single function or department. Students will have opportunities to talk with these directors, both formally and informally.
In the latter part of the second week we will address questions about audience, specifically demographic trends and evaluation, and end with a field trip to see and discuss the Power of Children exhibit at the Indianapolis Children’s Museum, and to participate in Follow the North Star at Conner Prairie.
In the final week we will turn attention inward to organizational development, with sessions on creating a vision, raising money, managing change, leading from the middle, and building teams. Increasingly the conversation will turn toward practical steps and strategies that students can employ when they return home, ready to be stronger leaders in their respective institutions and in the field as a whole.
I was three years into a position at Old Sturbridge Village. It was 1979. The announcement was so engaging, especially the fact that it would then be held in the mecca of outdoor history museums, Colonial Williamsburg.
While at the Seminar I met some remarkable individuals, kindred spirits in fact. Our own Denny O’Toole was one of them. Even more fortunately, a job was available at CW (though I was not looking) that was right up my alley,and by year’s end Denny and I (along with a cast of other kindred spirits) were at work together during a very exciting time at CW. In time, my enthusiasm for the SHA was such that there came an opportunity to assist with its annual offerings as the CW coordinator. This I was fortunate to do for seven years, years that enabled me to meet over 100 hundred good colleagues.
In short, I can think of no other professional development scheme that has inspired me more; introduced me to life-long friends and colleagues; and–more importantly–has changed the field more than the SHA. Knowing the history of this Seminar over its half-century-plus life span, it is very clear that it has played a seminal part in “peopling a profession” with well-qualified, enthusiastic, and well-connected alumni who, together have had huge impact on our field. It is quite the engine!
I was fortunate to have been at institutions that highly value professional development, places that appreciate that they have an obligation to a larger field and more universal ethic of history teaching and administration. Sturbridge and Williamsburg were, an hopefully still are, enlightened in this regard. One’s very attendance at the SHA encourages this responsible thinking while discouraging institutional myopia. The field is much, much better for the SHA, for it offers all an opportunity to leave for a while and come back greatly renewed and engaged.
Ad Summa, SHA!