Author Archives: johndurel

Class of 2015, and a visit with Denny O’Toole

Developing History Leaders @SHA gets underway at the end of this week. The Class of 2015 will gather in Indianapolis to begin three weeks of learning and dialogue about the many ways we bring history to communities across the country. A distinguishing characteristic of this year’s class is its geographic spread, with greater representation from the West than is usually the case. This class includes students from Texas, California, Montana, Idaho, North Dakota, and the Yukon Territory in Canada.

While in Santa Fe last week visiting our son, Anita and I had the pleasure of having breakfast with Denny and Trudy O’Toole. For those who don’t know, Denny was the coordinator of SHA prior to my taking the position in 2010. The O’Toole scholarship is named in his honor. Denny was a leader in our field for decades, and inspired and influenced many who now lead and work in history organizations. It has been an honor for me to follow in his footsteps.

Denny was eager to hear about the 2015 class. We talked about what has changed, and what has not, since he passed the baton. Some faculty continue to serve – Conny Graft on evaluation, Barbara Franco and Laura Roberts on organizational change, Kent Whitworth on team building – and we continue to engage with many of the same local organizations – the Indiana Medical History Museum, the Indianapolis Children’s Museum, the Eiteljorg Museum, and Conner Prairie, where we will again participate in “Follow the North Star.” John Herbst and the amazing staff at the Indiana Historical Society continue to host the seminar and provide invaluable support.

Of course, much has changed. Every year there are a few new topics in response to student suggestions and emerging new practices. This year, building on changes made over the past two or three years, we will place emphasis on historical interpretation of contested history. David Young from Cliveden of the National Trust will frame the issues by addressing the role of public history in communities today; Cinnamon Catlin-Legutko from the Abby Museum will present her approach to decolonization in working with the native peoples of Maine; and Sarah Pharaon from the International Coalition of Sites of Conscience will engage the students in methods of dialogue when addressing difficult topics.

We will also continue to tackle the basic challenges of leadership of history organizations: building financially sustainable organizations, stewarding collections, engaging communities, and leading change. Also, a number of the faculty have been involved in the History Relevance Campaign, so we’ll have frequent discussions about the value of history in contemporary life.

I’m really looking forward to seeing what this year’s class thinks and has to say about public history and the work we do to bring history to people in our communities. See you in Indy!

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.


Blog written by Julia Clark, Class of 2013IMG_2224

Image: A Tribe Called Red performing at the Eiteljorg Museum

One of the central themes throughout this year’s program has been impact. The thinking being, that if we don’t have impact, and are not able to demonstrate and quantify our impact, both visitors and funding will dry up. So how can museums/history organizations have impact?

At a point in the three-week program when my mentor advised you start to lose steam, I got a tremendous boost in energy from the busy and varied day we spent on Friday, November 8. I felt the impact of three history organizations that day in ways worth noting and remembering.

The day started out with what I had expected to be fairly dull- statistics.  James Chung from REACH Advisors pelted us, in his rapid delivery, what should have been kind of terrifying. The numbers show that if we don’t change something soon, many history organizations may become history themselves in the not too distant future. But rather than feeling doomed, I felt inspired- the perspectives offered by REACH Advisors (importantly, from outside the history/museum field) give us something real and concrete to work with- the more we know about the problem(s), the more effectively we can work to address them. On that note, we headed out for some much-anticipated fieldtrips, having spent the entire rest of the week in the classroom.

The first stop was the Children’s Museum of Indianapolis. While it would have been a welcome respite from thinking so much about history to go play in the fun spaces, we were headed for a more intense experience- the Power of Children exhibit. This space shares the story of three children – Anne Frank, Ruby Bridges, and Ryan White – who made a difference, and hopes to inspire present-day kids to know that they too can work towards positive change. The theater piece portraying Otto Frank, Anne’s father, was incredibly moving, but it was not the place where I found a deeply personal connection. That was Ryan White’s baby blanket. I have to admit that before going to the Children’s Museum, I didn’t really know who Ryan White was. I won’t tell his story here- visit the museum’s website for more, But Ryan was born just six months after I was, and died in 1990, when we were both 18 years old. In one of the cases of real objects (unusual at a Children’s museum in my experience) was Ryan’s soft, pastel crocheted baby blanket. So very much like my soft, pastel crocheted baby blanket I still keep on a chair in my bedroom. Impact.

The next stop was Conner Prairie, where the centerpiece of the evening was the Follow the North Star program ( In this program, you play the role of an escaping enslaved person in a highly dramatized hour-long experience. I expect that my background more in anthropology that history made me more like the regular person participating in this experience, so it was interesting to hear the detailed responses of my classmates to the program, but I have to say I found it to be an immersive and intense experience. In the early part of the program, you are yelled at, demeaned and told to never look up, never look a white person in the face. It sucks. I quickly found myself staying as still and quiet as possible, and trying to come up with answers to the questions I heard hurled at other participants, so I would not get yelled at again. About half way through the hour, we made it to the home of a Quaker family, where we were told we were safe (at least for a little while), and told we could look up. Hell, no, I wasn’t going to look up! Just stay invisible. And I felt this at a very basic level, not intellectually. Even if this is not just like what enslaved people would have experienced in 1830s Indiana, I felt it. Perhaps this is how women living with domestic violence feel every day? Impact.

But tired and emotionally a bit overwhelmed, my evening was not over. After a conversation filled bus ride back to town, a small group of us went to one more event. The Eiteljorg Museum was celebrating the opening of their 2013 Contemporary Art Fellowship exhibition, RED (, and followed their more tradition exhibit opening with an after-party with live music from A Tribe Called Red (, a native Producer/DJ crew who in their own words mix “traditional pow wow vocals and drumming with cutting-edge electronic music.” In a room filled with a much younger crowd that almost any other museum would see at an exhibit opening, we danced to loud, creative and culturally relevant music. It was totally fun, and there was actually some learning going on, even if it was mostly subconscious. But mostly it was fun… for young adults…at a museum. Impact.

So is the future for museums and other history organizations scary? Absolutely. But maybe we can see James Chung’s synthesis of the data as a wake-up call to start trying some risky, exciting, and cool new things. While I realize that the examples above are very individual, and I don’t know if they will make me a better citizen of the world, making that personal connection to your visitors is a key first step. Museum can most definitely have impact if we are willing to try!

Reflections on SHA by Marc Blackburn

2013-11-06 15.47.19

Reflections by Marc Blackburn: As we start the last week of SHA I have had the weekend to reflect on where we have been and where we are going in this final week. I am one of four National Park employees who were sent to SHA this year. Unlike my peers in the museum world, we don’t have to constantly think about when the next donor will walk into the door or deal with an obstreperous board, but we have our own challenges of a daunting bureaucracy and declining funding from Congress. Putting those differences aside, what has really captured my attention over the past two weeks is that we are all bounded by a passion for our jobs, and a deep, deep love of history.

While it is always fun to swap war stories over a beer after dinner, what has intrigued me is that what can make our profession stronger is reaching across our institutional lines and helping each other out. In one of the in-class exercises, I had the pleasure of working with the director of the Chemical Heritage Foundation Museum Director, Jennifer Landry. While discussing the merits of an exhibit project her institution is hosting in the coming year, I shared my excitement for the topic, Chemistry Sets in America, and I came up with some ideas that had not been considered in the scoping process of her exhibit project. It’s been a great opportunity to share and make new friends.

The subject matter of SHA has been engaging and though provoking. It has given me permission to go back to my park and make a positive change.  Moreover, this experience has opened my eyes to the potential that we have as a group of professionals in the realm of museums and interpretation to continue to not only move our institutions forward, but to create a network of professionals who want to continue to make history relevant to our institutions, ourselves, our audience, and to our country.

Welcoming my SHA Classmates to Indianapolis!

Posted by Eleanor Batic, Indiana Historical Society


We are about to embark on the day of field trips that will shape our fourth day of study with the 2013 class of Seminar for Historical Administration. I realize that we still have more than two weeks to go, but frankly, if it ended now, I would have already felt this to be an incredible experience. As a participant based at the Indiana Historical Society, home base for the SHA classroom, and a resident of Indianapolis, the hosting city, I feel a tremendous sense of pride for the amazing museum work being done locally that can be used as a living classroom for students of the field. I am looking forward to seeing the President Benjamin Harrison Home and the Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art today through fresh eyes, all the while thinking about the big picture questions raised by our presenters thus far.

So far talks by Spencer Crew, Katherine Kane, Estevan Rael-Galvez, Jim Vaughn, Ken Turino, and Elee Wood have all raised fascinating points and hit on issues both that I struggle with currently or realize that I will encounter in the future. Starting out with a discussion about why we went into the field of history in the first place (and how wildly that varies for even the small sample present in my classroom), was a wonderful validation of the choices I made more than 15 years ago when I decided to pursue this career.

The SHA class of 2013 is only beginning the learning opportunities that will unfold in the next few weeks. I am proud to welcome my fellow classmates and faculty to the city of Indianapolis and look forward to unpacking a Midwestern city’s approach to the public history field through the eyes from professionals from some of the nation’s top organizations. Already, just four days in, I am hitting my pillow each night intellectually (and in two cases so far, emotionally) exhausted, but so excited for that alarm to go off so that I can begin a new day. I am so grateful for this opportunity and cannot wait to continue on this adventure alongside my SHA classmates and partners in this journey.

2013 Class begins this weekend

Posted by John Durel, Coordinator, DHL@SHA

On Saturday I’ll be traveling to Indianapolis to meet the 2013 class of Developing History Leaders @SHA. As in the past, this year’s seminar will be rich in discussions about innovations and best practices in leading and managing historic sites, history museums, historical societies, archives, and historic preservation organizations. Twenty-one public history practitioners and thirty-three faculty from across the nation will spend three weeks grappling with ways to make history organizations more valued, of greater service to their communities, and financially sustainable.

Here is a photo from last year’s class as an example of how students engage in the issues. Image

In recent years the seminar has focused on institutional change driven by the need to engage visitors and communities in more relevant ways; the demand for new funding models; and a better understanding of how people actually use and value history. This year we are adding emphasis on two related topics:

  • How to make historic places more valued and financially sustainable. We are fortunate that the first week of the seminar coincides with the annual preservation conference of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Estevan Rael-Galvez, Vice President for Historic Sites, will engage in a process of re-imagining the purpose and use of historic houses; and students will attend the conference keynote address by Henry Glassie, as well as other sessions.
  • How to use historical artifacts more effectively in helping people find meaning in the past. Traditionally discussions about collections have focused on how to best care for them. We intend to push the discussion further, asking what distinctive values objects hold for people engaged in seeking to understand history.

Over the next three weeks members of the class will be posting their thoughts about these topics on this blog. It promises to be a stimulating time, with an energetic exchange of ideas and questions. I hope you will follow the discussions and add your own comments to the blog posts.




The Intersection of Public History and Historic Preservation

I recall in 2010, my first year as coordinator of Developing History Leaders @SHA, a student showed me an email she had received. She was the director of a local historical society, and the email concerned a local historic building that was threatened with demolition. Her question for me was: should she do anything, and if so, what could she do? Her hands were already full managing the historical society, and the property developer was one of her donors.

This incident led to a new session last year, offered by Brent Leggs of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, on ways to assist grassroots preservation efforts. Members of the class made contact with Reverend Cory Grady, pastor of Bethel AME Church, which is only a block from the Indiana Historical Society where the seminar meets. Brent adapted his session to include a tour of the historic church, and a discussion with Rev. Grady about his efforts to preserve it. It was great “on the ground” learning.

The National Trust is one of our Partner organizations, and for many years has provided funds that have made this program possible. This year we are fortunate that the Trust’s annual meeting is in Indianapolis during the first week of the seminar. We are planning to have the students attend a portion of the conference to learn about preservation issues.

Also, Estevan Rael-Galvez, Senior Vice President of Historic Sites, will join the seminar faculty and lead a session on “Re-Imagining Historic House Museums,” a project funded by the Innovation Lab for Museums. The Innovation Lab is a program of the American Alliance of Museums, another one of our partners. The funding is enabling the Trust to prototype innovative approaches to historic site sustainability, stewardship, and programming.

The seminar continues to evolve in response to issues and trends facing our field. If you work in a history organization – a museum, historical society, archive, historic site, preservation organization, etc. – and you see yourself as a leader, the seminar is the best way for you to advance your knowledge, skills, and network. If you are the executive director of a history organization, consider sending one of your star performers. It’s the best investment you can make in leadership development.

Click here to get application guidelines. The deadline for submitting applications is May 13, 2013.

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.

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