Monthly Archives: November 2014

Getting to be a Habit

SHA 2014 at the Indiana Statehouse

SHA 2014 at the Indiana Statehouse

Getting to be a Habit

By Rachel Abbott & Jacqueline Langholtz

Habit: A settled or regular tendency or practice, especially one that is hard to give up.

They say it takes 21 days to form a habit. By the time we head back home on Saturday we will have been here in Indianapolis for 21 days. Coincidence? Yes, but an interesting one when reflecting on our time here so far and anticipating the return home.

By coming to SHA, what were we telling ourselves we were going to try for 21 days? What habits were we hoping to form?

1. Practicing reflection & self-examination.

RA: Since being here I’ve gotten in the habit of asking “why?” a lot. “Why are we doing it this way?” “Why do you say that?” “Why are we struggling to accomplish our goals?” Seeing so many different strategies, styles and models has made me even more aware than I was before that we have options. We can choose to shift focus, to take risks and even to let some things go. It’s been incredibly useful and beneficial to look at my organization with a critical eye and I hope I can continue to do that.

2. Asking for help.

RA: I wanted to come to SHA and learn as much as possible from everyone. I wanted to ask my classmates questions, ask our speakers questions, ask local museum leaders questions. I wanted to get into this habit in order to squeeze as much professional development juice out of this experience as I could. And now I find myself hoping that this is a new habit, a new way of working. I work with experts in my “real life” too, and I could be doing a better job of asking them questions and learning from them every day.

SHA 2014 at Conner Prairie before participating in the Follow the North Star Program

SHA 2014 at Conner Prairie before participating in the Follow the North Star Program

3. Going outside our comfort zones.

JCL: Participating in SHA requires taking risks, showing vulnerability, trying the unknown, and trusting in others. Many days have been spent immersed in areas of the field that are foreign and unfamiliar territory: developing a case for support, making a fundraising pitch, strategic planning, creating an entrepreneurial venture plan, and more. A phrase we’ve heard echoed throughout SHA is if you’re feeling uncomfortable you’re doing it right. The hardest seminar days included their fair share of discomfort – they’ve also yielded the most growth, both individually and for our group. It’s easy to do what you’re already good at, avoiding both discomfort and growth. Two weeks into SHA, our class is finding that growing pains are worth it.

4. Focusing on the necessary.

RA: I hoped that being removed from day-to-day work would bring priorities into sharper focus. By stopping everything I would see that some things are more critical than others. We’ve been talking about the importance of the field of history being seen as necessary rather than just nice. I hope that when I get back to work I’ll be better equipped to let go of the activities that might just be nice in order to focus on the things that are most necessary.

5. Nurturing relationships.

RA: Both Jacqueline and I are very social people at home. We prioritize the relationships and community-building in our lives. So we wanted to maintain those habits at SHA. But we also hoped to do a better job of focusing on the people right in front of us. Here in Indy our social circle is always right in front of us. And I think it’s been great practice in not spreading ourselves too thin while still maintaining relationships. Hopefully we can take this habit home with us.

6. Nurturing ourselves.

JCL: Both of us came to SHA with personal habits we wanted to start, something we bonded over early on. While here, we’ve both made daily workouts a priority, Rachel now starts her day an hour earlier than usual, and I’ve abstained from eating meat. These might sound more like lifestyle choices than seminar work, but the intention is aligning “best self” with “best work” and recognizing that the two go hand in hand. It will take discipline to continue the many habits we’ve started here, and may mean creating new boundaries and structure once home. It can feel selfish to make yourself a priority; you may need to say no to others in order to say yes to yourself. After SHA, I plan to do more to protect that balance.



Typically our jobs are about setting and accomplishing goals. Attending SHA, however, is much more about forming new habits that we hope will make us more productive, efficient and effective leaders. We came into this experience with hopes to establish some new habits and now, after 21 days, we may have laid the groundwork. Some bad habits are waning and better habits are taking shape. But returning home is the real test. That’s when we’ll see whether the habits stuck, when we can choose to continue these habits or not.

Sunset on the canal - what habits will we bring home with us?

Sunset on the canal – what habits will we bring home with us?

We know we’ll encounter some triggers – challenges that might cause us to revert to and accept our own old habits. Institutional inertia. Difficulty in communication. Disagreements over priorities. Hearing the word no.

While we hope that the 21 day rule is real and that our new habits have taken root, we’re confident this experience has given us the tools and support to keep working at it.

Rachel Abbott is the Program Associate for Historic Sites and Museums at the Minnesota Historical Society. Jacqueline Langholtz is the Manager of School & Group Programs at Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello. Both hope the habit of working together will last long past their stay in Indy.

The Next Step

There has been so much to see, do, and learn during our first half of SHA 2014.  As Louise and Liz already mentioned we have been learning quite a bit about strategic planning, managing change, the impact of objects, and so on and so forth.  On Monday, Benjamin Filene and Dan Spock walked us through the various ways that museums can collaborate with their communities, whether neighborhood communities or heritage communities, to create exhibitions with broader impact.  We discussed that each collaboration takes a different form and may even have a different measure of success.  If the collaboration is primarily between the museum and its guests, then a contributory venue for guests might work best….like a talk-back board.  It is all about setting priorities and goals before you ever begin the project so you can clearly determine what classifies the “success” of that individual project.

Official SHA Class Photo

Official SHA Class Photo

After learning all about these great exhibition possibilities, we spent Tuesday and Wednesday with a selection of excellent speakers who taught us something very important….how to fund such ventures.  We all wish we had endowments that could support every thing we could ever dream of doing, but I doubt any of us are that lucky.  Anita Durel, Ellen Spear, and Mike Murphy, walked us through a variety of ways to gain financial support to do the things we wish to do in our communities.  Anita led us in a discussion about how to identify, cultivate, and (most scarily) ask a donor for a major donation to support your organization’s vision.  Ellen focused on the equal importance of investing and de-investing in programs, while also focusing on the idea of finding the assets that you can monetize…how can we make the money to support the programs that we find important.

Wednesday afternoon we toured the state capitol building and met with Mike who gave us yet another idea of how to find some much needed capitol….at our capitol.  He discussed how to cultivate support in your government for the community importance of cultural organizations and then how to get the money necessary to keep them alive and well.

Although it was a VERY full beginning of the week, we celebrated the half-way point by attending a program at the Indiana Historical Society entitled “Will You Marry Me”—part theatrical presentation, part community discussion.  It is so inspiring to be around others who share your passion for historical organizations, to hear about their struggles and successes.  We are all making great connections, and fast friends.  I can’t wait to see how the rest of this amazing experience plays out!

Ready for Change

By Liz Schultz

I think my classmates would agree that when our co-workers, families, and friends ask how things are going and what we’re learning, it’s hard to summarize. The lessons of last week can be boiled down to soundbites: Change is hard, you can’t tolerate mediocrity, objects can engage. But through all of the discussions, readings, case examples, and Q&As, what we’re really doing here is rethinking how we think, and how we do our jobs. What do people really get out of visiting a history museum? Is it more important to design a program that earns revenue to fix the roof, or do five outreach programs for schools? Should I spend the next ten minutes digitizing a letter from 1863 or walking a summer intern through our strategic plan? We don’t have answers to these questions, but we’re becoming more aware of the challenges we all need to tackle, and the need for balance and change.

We spent one day learning about our own leadership strengths, such as whether you are an Administrator, Integrator, Producer, or Entrepreneur. Not only was it useful to recognize the imbalances in my own skills and the need to work with a team that fills the gaps, it was fascinating exploring how organizational imbalances in those four areas can summarize the maturity, and perhaps growth or decline, of an organization. If a museum is strong in Administration, Integration, and Productivity but not Entrepreneurialism, is it going to be able to anticipate, not to mention adapt to, a change in its funding base? If it has strong Administration and Production but no Integration, is it functioning efficiently? Is everyone on board with the same message? And if a museum manages to get all pistons firing, AIPE, will it then rest on its laurels? I think as we all listened to this lesson we were evaluating our own organizations in a new light.

Another core subject of the week was Change. One of our readings started off with the point that in order to fully bring about change, you have to convince 75% of your leadership that the status quo is more dangerous than the unknown. Congratulations SHA – you have us scared. Between sessions about decreases in funding, real and perceived gaps in relevancy, and a world rapidly changing in technology, demographics, economy, and climate, we are scared.

But, as we learned, change doesn’t have to be scary. Everyone’s stomach will plummet on the way down the fast-moving Ferris wheel of change. Some people, by choice or because their ride is up, will exit at the bottom. And just when you start to enjoy the rise back to the top, you see the world drop out from under your feet and the next cycle of change starts. My analogy doesn’t cover what was a great run of SHA sessions, but the main point was that in the museum world, your organization should constantly be riding a Ferris wheel of change* and the more often you go around, the less afraid you will be.

Why do we do it, and even look forward to the ride? As you can see from some of our many photos from the week, WE LOVE MUSEUMS!

Indiana State Museum

Indiana State Museum

American Spirits Exhibit

American Spirits Exhibit


Busted at the American Spirits exhibit

Busted at the American Spirits exhibit

Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art

Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art


Indiana Landmarks Morris-Butler House

Indiana Landmarks Morris-Butler House

Indiana Medical History Museum

Indiana Medical History Museum

"You Are There" Photo Experience at the Indiana Historical Society

“You Are There” Photo Experience at the Indiana Historical Society


Class photo a la Awkward Family Photos (The official photo should be coming soon)

Class photo a la Awkward Family Photos (The official photo should be coming soon)


*A Ferris wheel with a strong framework and reliable, friendly attendants. Not a flaming, out-of-control, Ferris wheel from hell. For an analogy of change like that, maybe you should check out the carousel scene from Hitchcock’s “Strangers on a Train.” (spoiler alert – it does not end well)

There is no “right answer”

SHA 2014

SHA 2014

Well, here we are about half way through week one of SHA 2014 and oh, my!  I hope I speak for the rest of my classmates when I say that I have run the gamut from energized to overwhelmed and back to inspired.  We all survived the Sunday afternoon introductions, laughing, dancing and drawing our way through the lives of our quirky colleagues.  My big take-away?  We’ve got humor and talent, folks!

Some themes are starting to emerge as we move through this first week.  The big one is that no two history organizations are exactly alike and so there are no absolute solutions to the problems that face us.  However, there are approaches and philosophies that can be applied, so that is what I will attempt to summarize.  I hope that my classmates, our speakers, and SHA alums will pipe in with their own opinions.

JD and EricOr perhaps get together over a beer or two to have a heated discussion about it!


The history field is not for spectators.  If you are going to be relevant in the 21st century you need to commit time for change.  Janet Gallimore (Executive Director, Idaho State Historical Society) showed us the path she used to take a fully irrelevant organization from nice to necessary.  It takes time (5 years to establish sustainable change) but the results are worth it.  So many of our speakers have presented pictures of success based on energy, both staff and community generated.  If we have power, strength, vitality and spirit vibrating from our very core, we can meet budget challenges, overcome disinterest and ennui, inspire future history professionals and, yes, change the world around us.

Serious study and exploration

Serious study and exploration

Does anybody care?

We have all experienced empty public spaces during open hours.  Some public history staffs breathe a sigh of relief and think “now I can get some work done.”  Well not for this SHA class!  We worry, fret and downright panic at the very thought.  Providing relevant, inspiring and positive experiences for our users is as important as collecting and preserving the authentic, real stuff that makes up our collections.  Meeting our audiences where they are is part of our discovery process.  Perhaps we have to stop thinking of it as history programming and just view it as engagement activities.  How do our communities view us, what do they want from us and would they care if we disappeared?  There is no one right answer to these questions but we really need to be asking them.


Technology is evolving so rapidly, the tech industry can barely keep up.  Small and large museums are facing serious financial

Inspired by professionals who share their experiences

Inspired by professionals who share their experiences

challenges.  Federal, state and local agencies are making decisions about support  and inclusion for history organizations every day which threaten our organization’s futures.  A less stalwart group might think “there is no time to plan or prepare” but many in the history field are trying new things, taking risks and exploring new collaborations and partnerships.  Again there is no secret formula to cure all but the organization that wants to succeed needs to be looking around at what success looks like in all forms.  If  Target and Wegmans can offer inspiration for customer service and community expansion, then by all means, we need to be paying attention.


One common thread running through it all is, regardless of your title, you are now part of the leadership in this field.  Each of us brings different skills to the table, but we all want to see our organizations succeed and thrive.  We hope to absorb as much as possible from each leader we speak with over the next three weeks and then go home to integrate all we have learned into our daily lives.  Today, we each wrote down a strategy we hope to implement over the next six months.  When that note comes to us in the mail next April, how many of us will have been empowered enough to follow through?

A huge shout out to all the folks at the Indiana Historical Society who are making us feel so welcome and smoothing our way where ever we go!  You guys rock!

Here we go! Class of 2014 is underway.

Today begins the 2014 Class of Developing History Leaders @SHA. Twenty-one public history practitioners from across the nation have gathered in Indianapolis to learn from leaders, and from one another, about changes that are occurring in our field. Increasingly history organizations are finding ways to be more relevant to the people in their communities, states, the nation and the world. Innovative and courageous leaders are addressing tough issues, as the world around us continues to change.

First up will be Jan Gallimore, Executive Director of the Idaho State Historical Society, who will discuss the challenges she has faced in getting her organization “to the table” at the state level, in helping state leaders to address issues of education and economic development. So often history is left out of discussions about the big issues confronting our communities. History is viewed as something nice to have, but not especially useful when it comes to improving the lives of people. This has to change.

Tomorrow David Young from Cliveden will engage the class in thinking about some of the critical and tough issues facing their communities, and how history can be part of the solution, using his own experience in the Germantown neighborhood of Philadelphia.

But wait a minute, why do we have to change? Can’t we continue to operate our organizations as we always have, caring for the historic collections and buildings, sharing our expert knowledge through exhibitions and publications, and inviting the public to do research and enjoy events at our places? Tomorrow afternoon Susie Wilkening from Reach Advisors will discuss changes external to our field that compel us to change: demographic and economic trends, changing views of the value of museums, new philanthropic priorities, changing expectations of the public regarding leisure and education, and more. Institutions that don’t change will be left behind.

On Tuesday Tim Grove from the National Air and Space Museum and Jamie Glavic from the Ohio Historical Society will present changes in technology. In this case we have begun to embrace change as younger people have entered the field. Tim and Jamie will help us understand what is happening and what is coming in technology.

Stay tuned for more blog posts over the next three weeks.

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