Category Archives: Relevance

Major Challenges Faced by Leaders @SHA

IMG_1610 1080pThe Seminar for Historical Administration has completed the first of a three-week program in Indianapolis and we’re learning a lot—sometimes it’s overwhelming. You’re getting great ideas from the presenters, classmates, and field trips and while we’re a bit quiet during our discussions, it’s probably more due to the processing of all the new information we’re receiving than from an unwillingness to share our opinions. At the end of the week, John Marks, Morgan L’Argent, and Jeff Matsuoka facilitated discussions around three major issues we encountered, including some of the major challenges they’ll be facing when they return to their institutions in a couple weeks. Do any of these sound familiar to you?

1. Managing change: How to best integrate new ideas in our institutions. Will management accept new ideas or recognize a need for change? Will we be allowed to discuss or instigate change? How can change occur within a hierarchical organization? Will our ideas be viewed as an inauthentic or insincere public relations effort? Will the staff and board take action? Are our expectations set too low, making new ideas too much to handle? Will our new ideas result in a loss of our job or alienate donors and supporters?

2. Broadening participation: Are we including other perspectives and voices? Are alternative opinions being heard? Are we working in an echo-chamber, just having a conversation of people who agree with us? How do we ensure volunteers are included?

3. The tyranny of the urgent: Too distracted by daily operations to tackle big issues. How do I pace myself when there’s a long list of things to do? How do I manage my existing workload while processing new ideas from SHA? How do I avoid being discouraged or feeling defeated?

4. Achieving alignment: Articulating a strategic plan that is progressive, cohesive, and relevant in an environment where status quo, non-reflection, and bureaucracy is the norm. How to overcome inertia? How to find alignment between a new vision for the organization and its mission, values, and priorities? How do I find the right team? How do I achieve ambitious goals within the limitations of my job description?

As the director of SHA, I’m absorbing all of these experiences, but I’m not thinking how I can apply them to my museum or historical society back home. Instead, my brain is rattling around with ways to make the program even better next year so that the participants are even more effective as leaders at their organizations and in the history field.

If you have suggestions or comments on these issues, I’d love to hear from you and I’ll be sure to share them with the class. You’ll also want to return to this blog in a few weeks to see how thinking has evolved.  SHA provides an ideal time to step back and reflect on these issues!

The Importance of Great Leadership (cannot be overstated)

By the time I attended what is now Developing History Leaders @ the Seminar for Historical Administration in 2005, the Indiana State Museum and Historic Sites had been through 6 different CEOs in 7 years. In our final exercise as a class, the great history leader, Denny O’Toole, lead us in a conversation regarding what we, as a class, felt were the 5 best characteristics of a good leader.

They were:

5. Passionate
4. Humility
3. Big Picture Thinker
2. Communication Skills, particular listening

and finally…

1.  Integrity.

As you might imagine, I took special note of these, writing them down and posting on the wall in my office immediately afterwards where it has stayed ever since (yes literally for going on 12 years now).

The ISMHS was caught in a whirlpool. Not only was the institution floundering, but the staff, especially those of us who had endured the revolving door of leadership, was worn down and spinning in slow circles. Before the spinning stopped, we had 8 leadership changes in 9 years. Luckily, our collective stakeholders finally became aware of what was needed and the Indiana State Museum and Historic Sites has come roaring out of the tail spin, moving forward with renewed vigor.

The author’s office wall with its many inspirational quotes and various facts. The 5 characteristics of a great leader as determined by the SHA class of 2005 are circled in red.

A series of challenges were overcome to get us where we are today. Like many similar state institutions, the history of the Indiana State Museum and Historic Sites is long and complex. The museum was established in 1869 and state historic sites established beginning in 1917 and continuing throughout the 20th century. A move to the former Indianapolis City Hall in 1967 brought the museum and sites together based on their basic missions of collecting and preserving. Then, in 2002, the State of Indiana built and opened a new state museum building (the first in the state’s history built for that specific purpose). The opening required immense paradigm shifts: quadrupling our exhibition space, moving massive collections, dealing with a sudden, much larger public profile in the Indianapolis cultural arena and adding needed staff, along with everything else that went with such a change.

The Indiana State Museum in Indianapolis, Indiana

One of the changes anticipated with the building’s opening was a transition from a state agency to that of a quasi-governmental entity, allowing flexibility for such common museum practices such as rental of traveling exhibitions, funds generated from deaccessions used for artifact acquisitions, etc. However, the attempts to create this quasi-governmental entity proved more challenging than anticipated.

In 2009, ISMHS stakeholders began to realize that the struggle required someone who had both an understanding of Indiana’s political landscape as well as extensive fundraising and organizational skills. The selection of Tom King, former CEO with the Indianapolis Chamber of Commerce and also recently retired president of the omnipresent (at least to the Hoosier State) nonprofit, Lilly Foundation, was an extremely wise choice. He worked first to build the board, using extensive communications skills and sharing his larger, long term goals and then establishing a core group of invested and interested individuals from around the state. He firmly and forcefully showed his integrity by ensuring all aspects of the ISMHS were properly represented.

Then came the successful legislation in 2011 that established the Indiana State Museum and Historic Sites Corporation, as “a public body, corporate and politic.” To say that lots of careful thought and effort went into establishing the corporation is not even half of it. We thoroughly and carefully examined every word, punctuation mark, and so on: from careful wording of what constitutes a quorum to the definitions to the abilities of the corporation. Once again, Tom demonstrated all of these characteristics in that process. And then the real work began…

Very soon after we became a corporation work began on INvision, a capital campaign for the State’s Bicentennial in 2016 and for the museum’s sesquicentennial in 2019. It was no small effort with a $17 million goal, major rehabilitation of the permanent galleries at the Indiana State Museum, and a large project at each of the 11 State Historic Sites. But we are moving forward confidently and surely into the institution’s next chapter. When Tom King retires from the ISMHS this spring, he will have brought about all this transition, this turnaround, through his strong, steady, and sure leadership. With our board, he will also have helped hand pick his successor. He has done all this with integrity, passion, humility, great listening skillsm and by thinking very big about what the Indiana State Museum and Historic Sites could be. Unsurprisingly, those 5 characteristics of a great leader that my SHA Class of 2005 identified all those years ago.

A new day dawned Dec. 8, 2016, for the Levi and Catharine Coffin State Historic Site when the ribbon was cut to open the visitor center there. The white building in the photo is the visitor center sitting just north of the Levi and Catharine Coffin Home. The project was one of the highest profile in the ISMHS’ INvision campaign.  

Laura Minzes is Associate Vice President of Historic Sites, Indiana State Museum and Historic Sites Corporation and a proud member of the SHA Class of 2005.

Journey from Thought to Action

The Journey from Thought to Action
Chris Goodlett, SHA Class of 2016

Kentucky Derby Museum

It’s been about a week and half since I returned from SHA. I think about the experience daily and am still coping with the challenge of how to turn thought and discussion into action at my own institution, the Kentucky Derby Museum. Returning to the office during a holiday week allowed some time for reflection, and I spent ample time reviewing things. I went back and listened to the keynote address by John Fleming. I found myself adding key details to my synopsis of his discussion on implicit bias. I reviewed other presentations as well and again found details that I had missed.

Of course, as great as it is to return to the experience that is SHA, at some point you have to think about what it means for your institution. I have an advantage as we are currently going through strategic planning. What better time to introduce some of the concepts I learned from faculty and peers at SHA. Presenting the ideas as action items is the first challenge. As my fellow SHA graduates can attest, your head is swimming with ideas after your three weeks away, and you need to find ways to translate these into something measurable.

Of the many ideas I brought back from SHA, one I keep returning to is community outreach. As I listened to faculty discuss history relevance and asking “so what?” and “for whom?” I felt that KDM can be more intentional in asking these questions in its community. As an entity that looks at the history and culture surrounding an iconic American sporting event, the citizens of Kentucky commemorate the Derby in unique ways. Many SHA faculty related stories of how engaging potential audiences with stories relevant to them transformed their institutions, and it’s my hope that KDM can engage the surrounding community with similar results.

That’s just one small, but important, idea to start. I hope to be able to report successes on the road to relevance. I’m very interested in learning about the efforts of my fellow SHA 2016 alums, as well as others who have taken ideas and thoughts from SHA and turned them into action.

Memory is a Tricky Thing

We all have a story about the day we were born, or the day of our adoption as in my daughter’s case. My father was a captain in the Army Medical Corps stationed in Panama in the mid 1960s. Yes, I know, that tells you how old I am. My mother had accompanied him, thank goodness, or where would I be?

Bill & Molly Parke in Panama, 1965

Bill & Molly Parke in Panama, 1965

Every year on my birthday, my dad used to recount the morning of my birth. I would hear how the Army physician who delivered me would not let my father in the delivery room, even though he was also a doctor. My dad would love to tell me about seeing the most beautiful sunrise over the Pacific Ocean and how rare that is in the Americas, perhaps even unique. My mother’s parents and maternal grandparents had traveled to Panama on a freighter to be there for my arrival…I was late, I might add, so their visit lasted a month. My parents’ stories from Panama are wonderful, especially the ones about me, of course. Every year on my birthday, however, I used to think, “Oh no. Here comes the story about the sunrise.”

Memory projects are so incredibly valuable, and, sadly, too many times we realize that when it’s too late. I joined the field during what seemed like the heyday of the oral history movement. This was before everyone had a computer, so it was cassette tape recorders. Today, programs like StoryCorps on NPR are keeping that flame not only lit, but well-fueled. I love StoryCorps, so I was thrilled to learn last fall that StoryCorps founder Dave Isay had been honored with the 2015 TED Award.

Dave Isay

Dave Isay

How wonderfully validating!  Isay plans to use the award to take StoryCorps global and has developed the StoryCorps app. We’ve come a long way from the cassette tape recorder. Thank you, StoryCorps! Check out Isay’s TED Talk to hear more.

Following the StoryCorps model, WVPE Public Radio in South Bend, Indiana has been airing South Bend Stories celebrating the city’s 150th anniversary. And the work of countless, dedicated people in museums and libraries across the nation contribute daily to recording and preserving the everyday stories of the men and women who make our communities so vibrant.

Picture 3 - Leadership In History logoYou simply need to scroll through the list of AASLH 2015 Leadership in History Award winners to see that the stories we collect and recount continue to inspire our communities. So don’t wait another season. Take that shelved project and get that story written down, or recorded or filmed. Useful resources abound. Help may be found at StoryCorps, on the AASLH website here and at Groundswell among many others.

Isay says that these stories are about listening.

From the TED blog post in the link above we are reminded, “But interestingly, while ‘story’ is in the name, Isay sees StoryCorps as primarily about listening. ‘Listening is generosity,’ he tells us. ‘Listening to someone else closely is one of the most valuable gifts we can give to another human being.’” Don’t miss the chance to listen this Thanksgiving and over the coming winter holidays.

My father is 80 now. He suffers from dementia. He often forgets who I am. I would give anything for my dad to tell me one more time…or 100 more times….about the sunrise the day I was born.

Julie Parke
SHA Class of 1999

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.

BIG Questions for Leaders in History Organizations

On Sunday I will be traveling to Indianapolis to spend three weeks with fifteen practitioners of public history, the 2011 class of Developing History Leaders @SHA. We will engage in deep discussions with many leaders in our field, probing some of the BIG questions about the relevance and future sustainability of our work.
Every two or three days I’ll post a summary of what we’ve been talking about. If you’d like to follow and comment on our discussions, sign up to follow this blog by clicking on the button to the right.
During the first week our questions will center on the nature of our work in relationship to the people and communities we serve. Why is it that so many Americans find history, for the most part, boring and irrelevant? Why is it that they think of visiting a history museum, historic site, or any history organization as something nice to do occasionally, if at all, and certainly not on a regular basis? Is it because history is really not so important in today’s world?
Here are some specific questions we’ll be asking.
1.Whose history is it? Do we decide what’s important about the past, or do we let the people we serve decide? How do we share authority with them? How do we get them “involved” in history and still maintain standards of accuracy and authenticity?
2.What if they have different points of view among themselves? Do we take sides, or do we take a neutral stance? What is our role, and how do we best fulfill that role? This is an especially relevant question when one group of people has oppressed another group in the past.
3.Is it enough that we make history engaging by telling great stories and displaying evocative and provocative objects, or should we find ways to make history useful to present-day concerns? What roles should we play in our communities?
4.How can we be more creative in using authentic objects to involve people in exploring the past? For decades we have used objects to illustrate an interpretation of the past, displayed in cases, on platforms, and in room settings. Are there creative ways to use objects, not as illustrations, but as sources of evidence to enable others to develop their own interpretations?
5.How can we best use technology to enhance a person’s involvement with history? What are people already doing outside of our field? How can we take what’s out there and use it to our advantage?
6.Is there a limit to what we should do? Should that limit be determined only by available funding? Does everything old that comes our way have to be saved for the benefit of the public? How do we make choices?
Remember, if you’d like to follow our discussions, sign up for this blog.
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