Monthly Archives: November 2016

Business for History Professionals



I came to SHA for a variety of reasons- networking, growing my knowledge of the field, and learning new skills relevant to my particular role, to name a few. At the top of my list was a desire to become more savvy about the business side of running a museum. As someone whose educational background is in history, and who works with interpretation and exhibits for a large organization, I arrived eager to learn more about matters that are outside my day-to-day responsibilities. Here are 3 takeaways from our sessions this past week.


Every single staff member and volunteer in a museum plays a role in development. I’m focused on the guest experience in my museum, which occasionally extends consciously into the realm of development. Since gifts depend on an institution’s reputation, mission, and the love that a donor has for our work, all departments have an effect on our ability to secure those gifts, just as they do in our ability to provide a positive guest experience. I also had a chance to make my first “ask.” I was deferred because I hadn’t been able to provide data on impact. I won’t make that mistake twice, especially in real life.

History leaders need to be involved in the financial process of their museum, regardless of their department. One of our speakers, Jeff Matsuoka, VP Business and Operations at the Indiana Historical Society described budgeting as “a decision to allocate resources in certain places and not in others.” In order to do this, we need to know our revenue streams and how they compare in terms of percentage of total revenue, develop a cash flow model which includes personnel and operating expenses. No museum is so large that they can do everything they want to do, and, for a mission-based organization, the strategic plan guides both the budget and the program. The preparation I did for the session on finance helped me to better understand my own institution’s business model, and investigate those of other museums.

Business model case studies help leaders train themselves to succeed based on what they would do in a given situation. Disengaged boards, personnel costs dangerously similar to total income, crumbling buildings, lagging attendance. Amidst all of these challenges, my first instinct as the hypothetical advisor to the CEO of “Old Pemberly Village” (a fictitious historic site) was to advise her to seek other employment. But there were also positives, like robust local college programs, positive new hires, and community partners. Working through this for a few hours as a group along with our guest faculty member for guidance, we turned OPV into a viable, vibrant, relevant part of its community…at least on paper.


There is one benefit that I hadn’t expected of my time here that I am appreciating all the more each day. There is a freedom that comes from being in a room as professional equals with colleagues who are at varying levels within their organizations from the top to the middle, and yet none of whom report to one another. If I don’t know how to approach a problem, I get to hear the directors in the room share how they would, or have solved that problem. It’s kind of like being a freshman and having friends who are seniors.

Kate Morland is Museum Manager at The Henry Ford.

Getting Comfortable With Relevancy

The study of history is about more than reading cool stories.

The preservation of history is about more than storing cool old stuff.

The longer that I have been involved with history, the more I have come to grips with these uncomfortable truths.

I say uncomfortable because stories and old stuff are the avenues through which I entered historical practice.  It was definitely cool…but that was it.  And if I had ever been pressed for deeper reasons about why anyone should be interested in history, I wouldn’t have been able to articulate it.  Then in recent years I have been exposed to the work in the History Relevance Campaign and was shocked to learn that there were people who believed there was much, much more to history…and not just that, but they were articulating its relevance!  Still, it was uncomfortable for me because my head told me that there was something real to this, but my heart didn’t quite get it.  And I’ve been struggling with that for years.

Until last week.


Innovative insights on historic preservation.

The relevance of what we do in our field continues to come up at SHA.  As Steve Light observed in an earlier blog post, it was the topic we considered on day 1, and continued to be a major undercurrent throughout the week.  And that hasn’t stopped in week 2 – we can’t get away from it! During an intense week, we have thought about the importance of government advocacy for our field, fundraising as the lifeblood of our institutions, the great power of preserved physical spaces, communication with our guests through dialogue rather than lecture, and strategies for inclusive interpretation of race and slavery at historic sites.  These have impressed upon me more than ever the necessity of knowing your audience, knowing your story, and being able to connect those in a relevant mission.


Blurry photo (sorry) with a powerful message about the relevance of history.

And it’s not just the faculty that has helped me see this.  But my brilliant and insightful classmates have helped me to make relevant connections of my site-specific history in ways that I have never thought of before.  And it’s exciting!  Not only has my head come to understand the importance of a relevant message, but my heart has also opened up, so to speak.  I finally get it.  And I have SHA to thank for making it comfortable to think like that.

We still need cools stories.  And we still need cool old stuff.  But we need to make those valuable and meaningful and need to articulate that in a clear and concise message.  I look forward to trying these ideas out when I get back home.

Aaron Genton is the Collections Manager at Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill.

Mentors, Learners, Power

History workers speak about the power of impact.  A researcher’s archival discovery connects an African-American neighborhood with the hidden past of a Revolutionary era house.  At a Navy museum exhibit, a colorfully tattooed 19-year-old U.S. Navy sailor describes secretly embroidered early 1900s “liberty” uniforms as “the coolest thing I’ve ever seen.”

These “wow” moments hold power.  But by focusing on the visitors, the sites, the “old stuff,” we overlook ourselves.   What about us?  To be sustainable organizations, should we focus on history professionals building sustainability through the power of relationships?

Power arises from generosity of spirit.  We build power in the history industry when we share knowledge and insights with our future co-workers.  We build power by broadening organizational capacity to sector-wide capacity.  By nurturing relationships, we develop effectiveness, reputation, and power.

My first week at the Seminar for Historical Administration, it all came together: generosity of spirit builds a powerful network that supports sustainability.  Here in Indianapolis, I see institution-building and journeys to sustainable organizations, not zero-sum destructive competition.  Generosity of spirit is not transactional giving, but a transformational system of mentoring, teaching, receptive lifelong learning, and openness to new roles.  The impacts of transformational leadership have come together for each of us as Developing History Leaders with our readings, lectures, and nighttime discussions.

At SHA for me, I see power from my past.   Twenty years ago, I was a graduate student researching African-American coal miners who founded the nation’s first bi-racial labor unions.  Wilma Moore, archivist for African-American history at the Indiana Historical Society, helped in the researcher-archivist exchange.  But in Wilma’s writings and her presence, she exuded grace, calm, and connectedness.  Over time, Wilma became a mentor to me and my research uncovered her ancestor Thomas Washington’s part in history.


Two years later, in 1998, a young northwest Indiana college student named Amy Belcher connected with my employer and me for internship learning.   Amy was bright, hardworking, but needed social capital.  I pulled her alongside me during the fast-paced workdays and experiences.  She thrived.  Later, Amy risked a leap to Indianapolis, then pushed through two master’s degrees.  Amy landed at the Indiana Historical Society and worked with my mentor, Wilma Moore, as her mentor.  Relationships intersected.

In the early 2000s, I saw opportunities in expanding my then-employer’s scope of impact beyond the physical walls of a Midwestern regional archival repository in Chicago.  If researchers were to come to the archives, I needed to bring the archives to potential researchers.  The Indiana Historical Society was centrally located three hours away.  At IHS, Trina Nelson-Thomas (SHA ’96) recognized the possibilities of the two institutions fitting together for focused programs. But Trina went beyond an exchange: she talked about a shared vision, like business partners.  Then Trina encouraged me repeatedly to apply to the Seminar for Historical Administration.

But my life got interrupted.  And got interrupted more.  Fifteen years.  Transformations take incredible effort, vision, persistence, and resilience.

New jobs provided me amazing new opportunities and growth.  I finally could apply to SHA.  Being accepted is thrilling.  The learning is intensive and challenging, but instructors and classmates show many common traits.  The three most common we share?  An indirect, sometimes winding path in a career, generosity of spirit, and a drive to make history professionals powerful.

“My” one-time intern Amy attended the Seminar for Historical Administration in 2010.  Recently, Amy rose to become the Director of Reference at the Indiana Historical Society’s special collections library.  She also co-edited a major book.  Wilma Moore remains the griot of African-American History in the Midwest, an incredibly wise mentor, seeker, questioner, writer.  Trina Nelson-Thomas moved outward from IHS a few years ago to become an executive director in Texas, but current SHA instructors name her and cite her transformational impact upon the institution.

img_3842And I am the SHA student, learning, listening, thinking, envisioning from SHA teachers, classmates, colleagues.  I am grateful for their generosity of spirit.

Your relationships can be transformational, if you allow yourself to build capacity in others and yourself.  Be generous in your spirit and build relationships.  Build power.  Consider developing your own leadership at the Seminar for Historical Administration next year.


Thoughts on Relevancy

We haven’t yet finished week one of SHA, and my brain is swimming with ideas. Most of all, I’ve spent a great deal of time thinking about how our institutions can promote a better understanding of the relevance of history.


David Young asks us to consider what’s relevant about history.

On Monday, David Young (Cliveden) and Tim Grove (National Air and Space Museum) sparked this discussion of historical relevance, a theme that has stayed close to the surface throughout the week. Both David and Tim challenged us to think about how our institutions answer the two most important questions we receive from our visitors and communities: So what? Why does this matter to me? The session generated a fascinating conversation focused on how historical organizations can (and must) adapt our content to remain relevant to current conversations at the local, state, and national levels.

On Tuesday, relevancy weaved its way into our discussion with Colleen Dilenschneider (IMPACTS Research) about the massive millennial generation. Using an incredible array of data, Colleen walked us through insights about millennials. Most strikingly, this research revealed that millennials are more likely to support an institution financially because they care about supporting the institution’s cause or mission, rather than because of the benefits or access their support provides. In other words: to reach Gen-Y, we need to focus on the “why?” We must convince them that our institutions are relevant and important.


Collen Dilenschneider reveals the superpowers of millennials.

On Wednesday, we saw a great example of an institution striving for relevancy when we visited the Indianapolis Children’s Museum’s The Power of Children exhibit. This powerful exhibit utilized the stories of three children – Anne Frank, Ruby Bridges, and Ryan White – to explore issues of intolerance, fear, and prejudice. It strives to create a family learning experience that inspires guests to create positive change within their own communities. As proof of the exhibit’s effectiveness, evaluation has shown that 94% of families had post-visit conversations about the ideas and messages of the exhibit, and 65% of visitors returned to the exhibit at least once.


The SHA Class of 2016 at the Indianapolis Children’s Museum.

All of these discussions have inspired me to think critically about ways in which my institution – Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello – can present the relevance of history to our guests. As a site of national and global significance, each day at Monticello we engage with our guests about the powerful ideas of the Declaration of Independence, the importance of self-government, and the role of educated, engaged citizens. We are also a site of enslavement, and have a duty to discuss the legacy of systemic racism that continues to impact our nation. As news headlines over the past few years demonstrate, both subjects remain critical topics of our national conversation today. I am grateful for the time SHA provides to think deeply about new ways to keep Monticello relevant for our guests, and I look forward to mining the creativity of my fellow classmates and the SHA faculty over the next few weeks.  I hope to leave Indianapolis with new ideas for inspiring Monticello’s guests to become engaged citizens and create positive change in our world.

Steve Light is the Manager of House Tours at Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello.

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