– by Kathryn M. Blackwell

What did I gain from SHA? A lot! It helps with organizing what’s going on at my work, and helps to put it in perspective. I know in my mind that we’re *not* the only ones who are going through __X__. That everyone is struggling with the question of how to stay relevant, how to attract new audiences, and basically how to make a difference doing something that we enjoy. Because let’s be honest, no one goes into this field looking for money. I gained a lot of insight into what other people were doing at their institutions to stay on top of changing audiences and their needs and interests — through using technology, through new exhibits or programs, and just by networking with our colleagues.
Also, friends. 20 people that I know I can contact with questions, and 20 new sites to visit.

What questions did it leave me with? Well, why am I doing what I’m doing??? Mostly, SHA left me with questions about how to work within a government framework. It’s limiting! There are a lot of regulations and red tape through which I have to wade. There’s the limitations – declining staff, no budget, no resources…. There’s the increased demand for our school programs. How can I balance the needs we have, those constraints, AND pressure to do more with less? Baby steps! I was lucky to have two mentors at work who also attended SHA. They recognize the value, and have been supportive of changes that are do-able at a site level (without permission from on high). It also left me with a sense of what I wanted to do with my professional life.

What surprised me about SHA? Mostly how quickly it flew by. Three weeks living with someone I didn’t know was daunting for an introvert (there’s a reason some of us go in to collections management – things in storage don’t talk back). I was surprised about just how much *useful* information I received, and how I’m still unpacking it mentally, even 4 months out.

What should prospective applicants know? Three weeks is doable. My friends (who I really think would benefit from, and enjoy the program) are always, without fail, put off by the cost and the time. Yes, the cost is a lot. It’s worth it. There’s also a scholarship – which I was lucky to be awarded. Even if I had to use my hard-earned vacation time, and run up a higher than normal credit card bill, the program is worth it professionally. The amount of information is overwhelming – in a good way.

What ideas or theories are we applying because of the SHA experience? The teamwork sessions really rang a bell. I feel fortunate to be at a site where we all get along. I gave the staff the work personality test (Producer/Entrepreneur/Administrative/Integrator), and it turns out of the 4 of us that do most of the programming, we have one of each! I gave these results to our site manager, who knows he’s got a perfect storm of a staff anyway as a concrete way to measure that. But now we are pretty aware of how each of us works together when we are planning and implementing a site program.

Susie Wilkening’s research was presented at the Small Museum Association Conference in February 2014, and we had actually started to apply some of her ideas about “free choice” to our field trip tours. Seeing her and being able to tell her how well those ideas worked in practice was exciting for both me and her – it shows that these ideas that you pick up or at SHA really can work at your site.

Another idea that we really need to focus on at my site is to do what we do, WELL. Like almost everyone in the field, we have suffered financial cutbacks, find ourselves with dwindling volunteers (whom we have always relied heavily on), and retiring staff (which also places a greater burden not only on the staff who are left, but that dwindling volunteer corps). My former supervisor and I overlapped only for only a week between my return from SHA and her retirement date. I feel like I’m better prepared now to help with the burden of work that was left, but the work I’ve taken on as a result is in addition to my specific position. She was a big cheerleader for me to attend SHA in the first place, herself a graduate of the program in 1996.

What do I continue to think about 4 months later? Honestly it’s a relief to know that we’re not alone in the field! I think about some of the modules we had on programming at your site, and whether or not we are maximizing our gain compared to what we put into it. I also think about how we can keep our site relevant. We DO do a great job with our field trip program, specifically targeted at 3rd grade students learning about simple machines. But what about all of the potential we have to reach other groups, and how do we stay relevant in our local community? All of this of course with dwindling staff and resources. 🙂


I also still think about the experience of actually participating in the “Follow the North Star” program at Conner Prairie. This is a program that touches on a very hot-button topic (slavery), and has been doing it for some time. We are a site that really only interprets “safe” topics – this is a merchant mill, here’s the house where the miller’s family lived, this is our general store…. However, this is a mill in Virginia that was likely built by slaves. The miller’s family lived in that house, and after his death, his wife kept the milling business running even though she had 14 (of 20) children who survived to adulthood. Slavery and women/domestic subjects are some that we could also talk about in the context of our site, but how do we do that?


Kathryn M. Blackwell
Historian I
Site Collections & Programming
Colvin Run Mill Historic Site

Posted on May 8, 2015, in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. Comments Off on Q&A.

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