Museum Surprises in Houston

As a Dallasite, it is required that I dislike Houston. And after spending three days there recently for the Texas Association of Museums conference, I can’t say that I’ve totally changed my mind. However, there are some wonderful museums there, and much like my experience in Philadelphia, I was genuinely surprised by a few spots.

At museum conferences, you spend your evenings at museums, probably drinking and hopefully eating. (sometimes there aren’t quite enough appetizers to turn into dinner). Often, you just dash through exhibits, if you even take the time to stop catching up with old friends and see something. However, at this conference, at least once a night, I was absolutely delighted by at least one of the exhibits.

At The Health Museum, we decided at the last second to be good museum-goers and take the tour of the DeBakey Cell Lab. I had no idea what I was walking into, but it made my educator heart sing. Hands-on experiment activities for all ages. With all the official “scientist” stuff like lab coats and gloves and goggles. The science and technology on display was amazing. But what really captured my heart was the volunteer. You could instantly tell she loved the museum and the science and you. Someone asked her about her background and she replied “I was a psychiartist, but I always wanted to be a medical doctor. So as soon as I retired, I walked across the street and started volunteering.” The other thing that amazed me about the Health Museum was the diversity of its staff and volunteers. I’ve never seen a non-culturally specific museum with that level of diversity. And yes, Houston is a culturally diverse city, but museums don’t always reflect that. So, kudos.

The next night, the highlight was the Houston Museum of African American Culture. When we walked in, I noticed a banner about a Sandra Bland exhibit, but the date the exhibit closed was weeks before. Never fear! It had been so popular that it was held over through the end of April. It was an incredibly simple exhibit that talked about her life, her arrest, her death and her legacy. They divided a large gallery space into three rooms with black curtains, plus a large overview area. The first room contained a video reel of many of her social media posts. The second was video and audio of her arrest. Each of those rooms contained individual headsets. There was something so intimate about each person sitting with a headset, and yet it was still a collective experience. The final room was set up like her funeral, complete with programs from the service.

20180419_182155

In the large gathering area, there was a video with interviews about the “talk” African Americans have with their children about police interactions, as well as comments on all of the recent police shootings. The whole thing had me on the verge of tears.

But perhaps my favorite part was the exhibit label that asked (paraphrased) “Can museums be involved in social justice?” I think you know my answer.

On the final night, I must admit we skipped most of the museums, but we did go to the final stop–the massive Museum of Fine Arts Houston. We walked through their giant galleries, feeling completely overwhelmed. Our brains and our feet were tired. But we decided that we should at least take a glance at whatever was across the street. And that’s where we found our final surprise–an incredible exhibit of Indian art and culture: Peacock in the Desert: The Royal Arts of Jodhpur, India.  The art and material culture were absolutely stunning–such rich colors. And I found myself desperately wanting to read (again, often rare in a jaded museum professional under the best of circumstances) but with no real energy or time to truly explore the exhibit. At the same time, the whole thing felt totally new and I realized how little I know about Indian culture. Though a fairly traditional art exhibit, it still felt very new and different.

Houston will always be Houston. But it’s got some great museums.

18812
The Houston Museum of Natural Science was delightful, but I wasn’t surprised that the dinosaurs delighted me. But I was VERY surprised that I had straight hair in Houston.
Advertisements

Museum Surprises in Philadelphia

Sometimes, being a museum professional ruins museums. We develop our inner checklist, the things that we judge others on. It may have nothing to do with anything a “regular” visitor cares about, but it causes us to think differently and move differently through an exhibit. I’ve warned family and friends not to visit a museum with me. I’ve learned to keep my mouth shut about certain museums that disappointed me. But the fun comes in when I’m truly delighted and surprised by a museum experience. That’s when I gush.

Last month, I visited Philadelphia for the very first time. The official reason was a conference, but I stayed a few extra days so I could see what’s required of every history nerd. So yes, we visited Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell and the new Museum of the American Revolution. And I really enjoyed those visits (the George Washington tent experience at MOAR is worth all the fuss). But that’s not what I keep thinking about.

Instead, I keep thinking about the Ben Franklin Museum. My colleague and tour guide, Jenn, used to work within steps of this spot, but she had never been.

20180312_154230
The “Ghost Houses” on the foundation of Franklin’s house are also pretty nifty. And have held up surprisingly well as an exhibit for the last 40+ years. (erected for the Bicentennial.)

We learned later that they had taken content from the tricentennial of Franklin’s birth and re-purposed them. We didn’t care. Unlike anywhere else we visited in Philadelphia, there was this wit and sense of humor in the exhibits. Between the two of us, I think we actually watched every video and did every interactive.

20180312_161446
Might have watched this one twice. It was hysterical. And I just love this style of animation for history projects.

Do you realize how rare that is for two mid-career museum professionals? It takes a lot to delight us. It was stylized and engaging and used primary sources in an amazing way.

I loved the use of their mascot, a squirrel named Skuggs, dressed differently for each exhibit section.

If there had been Skuggs stuff in the gift shop, I would have bought one for every staff member. (they had squirrels, but no great outfits.) We noticed visitors of all ages equally engaged in the exhibit. They hit all the right notes and truly got the whole “Let’s appeal to the entire family” concept throughout the entire museum. Those of you who know me well know that one of my soapboxes is the museums that put their “kid-friendly” exhibit areas off in one corner, rather than integrating throughout the experience. Adults often need that level of engagement too!

Another unexpected delight was an exhibit at the Union League, a fabulous historic building just a few blocks from our hotel.

20180308_171038
Only took a picture of the outside of the building. But fabulous!

Jenn knew it was a great building, but it’s members only. Except for this lower floor exhibit area a few hours a week. So, we acted like we couldn’t read signs and at least made it into the main lobby. And then headed downstairs to the Heritage Center, where non-members are welcome, to check out “Risk and Reward: Entrepreneurship and the Making of Philadelphia.” It was a small exhibit, but truly spanned the entire breadth of Philadelphia history. It was diverse, went right up the present day, and borrowed from collections throughout the city. Again, we read most of it, talked about it, and did all the things a great exhibit should do. We even admired some of the casework! (As a curator, Jenn does this sort of thing all the time. It’s rarer for me!) It was also the first stop during my visit and such a great introduction to the city’s rich history.

And then there was the Betsy Ross House. Again, an example of us thinking “well, we don’t have a lot of time, but we’re close and I bet we can squeeze this in.” And it was a delight. They openly talked about the myth of Betsy and how it developed.

20180313_111307
Some of the many ways Betsy’s name has been used.

They integrated exhibits well into a historic house (something we’re struggling with right now at DHV). There was a wonderful re-enactor, which is so often done poorly. They reminded us of the risk she was taking by making the flag, something I had never really thought about.

20180313_111740
Of course she couldn’t sew the flag in the main house–she was rebelling. But I certainly had never thought about that detail before.

And they spoke about all of the other people that made the house and business work.

20180313_113049
Love these labels and these stories.

We learned so much! They shattered all kinds of myths, but did it in exactly the right way. Plus, they had one of the best gift shops, and I totally bought an unnecessary souvenir for one of my nieces.

So even though I’m often a grumpy museum goer, perhaps my delight at these sort of surprises makes up for it? Our expectations weren’t super high for either place. National Park sites or tiny history organizations that are buried under a giant umbrella organization aren’t generally know for great, innovative exhibits. And yet. . .

This is why I always make it a point to visit a few spots slightly off the beaten tourist path when I visit a new place. You just never know what sort of surprises you might encounter–and how you might be inspired as a museum professional. Or just as a regular person.

It’s time to talk about toxic loyalty

“I’m miserable in my job, but I can’t leave until I finish this major project in two years.”

“I keep thinking that my next boss will be better.”

“I feel terrible about leaving my staff behind in this terrible situation.”

We probably all have a friend that has said something like this. And for those that aren’t in the museum field, the answer often seems so obvious: the job or institution doesn’t love you back. Take care of yourself first. Just leave. And yet, so often, museum colleagues hang on to jobs, not because they can’t find something else. Not because they need to stay in that area for family or financial or other reasons. They stay because they feel some sort of deep loyalty to an institution. They stay because of a passion for the field or the subject or the work. Sometimes that loyalty is rewarded, but often it just becomes a trap. In a recent conversation about this big issue, a friend and I hit on another way to describe this situation that occurs far too often in our field: toxic loyalty.

Think about it. That loyalty keeps you tied to a place. It keeps you from thinking objectively about your situation—or if things at the institution can ever become better. It paints you into the corner of thinking that even though you’re absolutely miserable, you are the right and only person that can hold that job. It’s another way to layer on guilt as issues and concerns pile up.

In the meantime, you’re not considering other options. You’re not polishing your resume. You’re not looking for the kind of place that will appreciate you and your talents and your skills.

Lately, I’ve had this conversation with far too many colleagues. But each time I say the words “toxic loyalty” they pause. They get this look on their face. And they realize that they’re slowly poisoning themselves with this mindset. Loyalty is supposed to be this wonderful attribute–a thing that you want in your staff. But what if it isn’t always a good thing?

So, let’s bring this phrase into the museum lexicon. Is your loyalty to your institution helping you as an individual? Or is it hurting you? Is that loyalty the warm, fuzzy feeling it should be? Or something else entirely? Do you have a friend or colleague that needs to hear these words to shift their thinking?

We spend a lot of time thinking about how to make workplaces better, but I believe we also need to remember that it’s okay to say “There’s not a darn thing I can do to make this any better, and I need to move on for my own health and sanity. And the institution will probably carry on as it has before, with or without me.” Sometimes, we have to put ourselves first.

Balancing Act: Organizational Structure

A few weeks ago, a friend texted me: “Did you have staff turnover?” Honestly, I’ve been waiting for that question. We all know how much gossip there is in the museum world–and we all notice when organizations start posting lots of openings. We have been posting a lot of job openings over the last six months–and we’re not done yet. It’s been a combination of planned restructuring and people just deciding to move on. It’s meant things have been crazier than usual, and some staff are temporarily taking on work loads that are heavier than I’d like. So, what exactly are we up to?

Last summer, I sat down with a small team to start thinking about our budget. Like most organizations, personnel is the largest chunk to consider. Were we spending that money in the best, most efficient way? Were we getting the job done with the positions we had? We know we need to grow our staff (and suspect that growth is coming with our changing neighborhood), but we also know that can’t happen right away. But was there a way to position ourselves in such a way to make that growth smoother?

As a smaller, cash-strapped organization, sometimes our job descriptions just don’t make sense. The best example of this is probably our Administrative Assistant. When she was hired, her primary job duties were to take care of field trip reservations and provide some light admin help to our Director of Sales. We quickly figured out that she was awfully good at social media, and so we bumped up her hours a bit and gave that task to her. She’s doing a great job at both, but when she moves on, how will we find someone that can do both?

Thinking about this particular position got us to thinking about all of our positions. So, we made a giant list of all of the key functions that have to happen in order to keep the museum running. And instead of grouping them by the people currently doing the jobs, we grouped them by the actual function. Should our curator with a shiny PhD be spending time calling plumbers?

As we began re-crafting job descriptions, I began to also think more about the actual organizational structure. We had a very flat structure–a long line of people without much below them. There had been several issues over the last few years where some staff weren’t chatting with their colleagues before making key decisions. Though we are small, it seemed like we weren’t talking to each other enough. I wanted some sort of symbol that better indicated how we were all working together towards the common good–the visitor.

What I ultimately came up with is far from perfect, but it’s closer to the way I think we need to function. Instead of several departments of one or two, we have three departments: Engagement, Advancement and Operations. The chart is set up like a Venn diagram, with myself and the board at the center. We still have a reporting structure in place, but there’s also a team leader for each department that may or may not be the person everyone reports to on that team. (A good example of this is Engagement–the Educator is the team leader, but both she and the Curator report to me.) I also added some other teams that aren’t on the chart, but still need to meet regularly: Exhibits and Facilities.

staff
A few DHV staff members and our city council rep at the moving of the Blue House last week.

None of this is fully implemented, because we’re not fully staffed yet. And we’re taking our time to hire these new positions–we can only train so many folks at a time. We’ve rolled this out in two phases, so we were able to stagger the announcement of new positions. Essentially, we took one FT position, split it into two part-time positions. And then we took two other PT positions and reshuffled them. So, same number of people, but balanced in a different way. As we rolled out these changes, we talked first with impacted staff and told them they could apply for the new position, but their position would no longer exist after a certain point. By the end of this year, we’ll have more new faces than we’ve had in quite some time.

A few weeks ago, we hired one of those brand new positions–Membership and Marketing Manager. She comes with a broad nonprofit background and already seems to be fitting in well. And on Monday morning, we’re having a meeting because she has four pages of ideas and it’s time to chat about them. Which is exactly why we’ve made all these changes–new brains. new ideas as we continue to move the past forward.

Four Years

Today is the fourth anniversary of the board vote. You know, that board vote. The one where I was no longer Interim Executive Director and became President and Executive Director of Dallas Heritage Village.

Here’s how I shared that news on facebook:

This afternoon, I’m having a lot of fun deleting the word “interim” from various places. More official announcements to come, but today I was named President/Executive Director at DHV. Never dreamed of this when I began work here almost exactly 10 years ago.

And in some ways, it’s still hard to believe that I’m the boss. . . and I’m actually pretty good at this whole executive director thing. On the way home tonight, I got a little choked up, thinking about how things have changed and how I’ve grown into this position. And maybe I wouldn’t be so nostalgic on this anniversary if it hadn’t been a rather unusual day to begin with.

Once a year, my friend Jenn Landry and I head to Waco, Texas to speak to the Baylor University Museum Studies students. This whole thing began when my predecessor, Gary Smith, asked Jenn and I to come talk to his capstone class as a “here’s what life looks like halfway through your career.” Jenn and I first met during the infamous SHA and she moved to Texas in 2014. So, I’m thinking that our first visit to Baylor for our song and dance was in 2015.

What’s so great about this particular experience is that a large part of the three hour seminar is us just telling our career path story. At this point, it might be fun for me to tell Jenn’s story and for her to tell mine–because I’m pretty sure we can do that. We’re a great team, because we come at leadership from slightly different angles (her from collections/archives, me from education), and she’s had to balance a husband and a kid, while I’m footloose and fancy free. Sorta.

19621124_10211064947673235_1708623805535646110_o
Jenn and I at a play last summer about another strong Texas woman, Ann Richards. And a perk of her new job!

When Gary stopped teaching the class, we were super lucky that a fellow SHA alumni, Kim McCray, took it over. And she decided that we were still a pretty good piece of the class. The past two years, the class has been early in the morning, so Jenn and I drive down the day before. This gives us time to also catch up with colleagues at the Dr Pepper Museum and stare in awe at how Waco has changed after Chip and JoJo.

Though this has become routine, it’s also pretty special. As museum professionals, we don’t often take the time to stop and reflect. Last year at this time, Jenn was in a pretty dark place professionally. And now, she has a job that she is perfect for and has the opportunity to do some really cool things. About halfway through the class, I realized that today was the 4th anniversary of being named ED. And it was just one of those moments where I paused. And in my head, I just thought WOW. So much has happened in the last four years, and yet it doesn’t seem possible that much time has passed.

Later in the class, I said something that is hard for a lot of us women in leadership to say (and of course, because I am female, I later explained that this is tough to say): There could not be a better leader for DHV at this particular moment in time than me.

I have grown into this position in a way that I think only one person would have fully predicted: my predecessor, Gary Smith. And so when I got home tonight, I told him that. Because sometimes I think we forget to thank the people that believed in us before we believed in ourselves.

This evening, we had a happy hour for a departing staff member that we really hate to see go. But he’s ready to try a new adventure and is heading to Denver tomorrow morning. We had such a good time, laughing, telling stories about odd visitors and odder former staff.

This has been a pretty stressful few months, with lots of changes and big projects pending (and not moving at the pace I would prefer.) But today was a day that I was reminded how lucky I am–to be in a job that I love, with amazing opportunities around every corner, and a team that cannot be beat.

So yes, I got a little teary on my drive home. Because it’s been four wonderful, long, complicated, full years. And I still can’t believe how my life and my museum have changed. Some days, I still have imposter syndrome, where I’m convinced that the real boss is going to come around the corner and tell me what to do. But those days are fewer and fewer.

So thanks, Gary, for saying “What if you take over running this museum in a few years?” And thanks to the family I gained through SHA. They understood why I broke down sobbing on that last day, convinced that I would need to start looking for a new job when I got back home. But I think they also knew that things were going to be okay. And thanks to those board allies who also knew I was the right person for the job and pushed that appointment through. It’s been four years, and I’m finally starting to feel like I know what I’m doing.

Except when it comes to llamas.

 

 

(don’t worry. I’ll explain that at some point!)

The joys of data

It’s nice to be proven right.

Way back in 2010, back when I was the Director of Education and Gary was still running things, Dallas Heritage Village went through a strategic planning process. The recession was crushing us, and we knew we needed to make some dramatic changes. We made a few key decisions that have really shaped our work over the past several years:

  • Focus on customer service and visitor experience. Unlike some museums, we have actual people on the grounds that can talk with visitors and get those personal interactions that Colleen Dilenschneider has talked about as being so key to visitor satisfaction. (though we made this decision a long time before she had a blog).
  • Start making some changes to our exhibit buildings. More interactive opportunities. More information.
  • Focus on being family friendly. This idea seems to terrify most history museums, but we felt we had the right mix of facility and staff to make this work.

When I took over in spring 2014, participating in Visitor Counts was high on my project list. I knew some of the things we were doing at DHV were special, but I hadn’t realized how special until after attending SHA. Things that had become second nature to us were met with looks of surprise from my colleagues. But how to share that with the staff and board? Many still had the mindset of “poor little DHV.” After all, when you have facilities like the Perot Museum of Nature and Science as your neighbor, we do pale in comparison. But what if we stopped comparing ourselves to other Dallas cultural institutions that had budgets 10 times larger? What if we had comparisons that made sense and actually told us something?

Visitor Counts, an AASLH program, provides a standard survey, data analysis and benchmarking against other participating museums. Though it’s pretty affordable in the scheme of things, the $5,000 price tag was steep for us. After careful planning, we applied for a grant from the Carl B. and Florence E. King Foundation. The grant was for visitor experience overall–increased frontline staff, supplies, salary support for the manager–and the Visitor Counts survey.

DHV St Patricks Day 2013

We started our survey in Spring 2017 and got the report in November. I talk more about our results on DHV’s blog. Some quick highlights:

  • Survey respondents love our staff and volunteers.
  • They want more details and more history. And the buildings where we’ve made dramatic changes (the General Store) are cited as one of the top “better than expected” items.
  • Our visitors are significantly younger than at other participating museums–and more likely to have children with them.

Though we have no “before 2010” data, I can’t help but think about what our rankings would have been before we started making those institutional shifts. We still have a lot of work to do (yep, visitors definitely see the deferred maintenance issues), but it really does appear that we’re heading in the right direction–a direction initially set several years ago.

As I was sitting in an ugly hotel conference room in Nashville, learning how to really analyze and understand our report, I had a moment where I thought to myself: “In a few years, we could look back at this project and realize it was another pivotal moment for this institution.”

But first, we have some more work to do. Onwards and upwards, but now with data!

I don’t know where to start

 

When people ask me: “What’s going on at DHV?” my standard reply has become: “Where do you want me to start?” It’s partly a joke, and partly a way to gauge what they’re actually interested in (or if they’re just being polite) and partly the honest truth: I just don’t know where to start.

A few days before Christmas, we sent out the following email:

It’s been a remarkable year at Dallas Heritage Village–and we’re so glad you were a part of it. Here are just a few of the magical moments that our volunteer photographers captured in 2017.
What memories will we make together in 2018?
Ninety donors made it possible to create this giant replica of the first official Dallas flag. We raised it for the first time at Sunday Social, and it flew over Dallas Heritage Village through the summer. Watch for its return in 2018. Photo by Lois Lehman.

 

Waylon and Willie made their carriage-pulling debut at Old-Fashioned Fourth. Of course, Nip had to help show them the way. Photo by John Lehman.

 

The Robert Kam Playhouse arrived in its new home this summer. Robert Kam was a longtime volunteer at DHV and lovingly restored this playhouse at his home in East Dallas. Thanks to his family and friends that provided the funds to move and restore it–and preserve his legacy. “Before” photo by John Lehman. “After” photo by Lois Lehman.

 

Our fall exhibit, Neighborhoods We Called Home, wouldn’t have been possible without these fabulous partners. From left to right: Debra Polsky, Dallas Jewish Historical Society; Melissa Prycer, Dallas Heritage Village; George Keaton, Remembering Black Dallas; Evelyn Montgomery, Dallas Heritage Village; and Juanita Nanez, Dallas Mexican American Historical League. Photo by Bud Mallar.

 

In September, the former Law Office reopened as The Parlor, a preschool play space. We’ve been thrilled to welcome our littlest visitors in this special space. Special thanks to our program partners at Vogel Alcove and our funding partners: The Institute of Museum and Library Services, The Hoglund Foundation, and The Thompson & Knight Foundation. Photo by Drew Timmons.

When I put this together, I reflected a bit on the past year. There is a reason why I’m tired–and why my staff is tired! We’ve gotten a lot accomplished this year, including several projects that were literally years in the making. Almost everything in that email (except the Dallas flag) took over a year from inception to completion. I first had the idea about the Parlor back in 2010!

And, of course, there’s all the things that have been going on behind the scenes that aren’t reflected in any charming photos quite yet.

They include:

  • A new master site plan, that includes turning a significant portion of our property into a public park
  • A reorganization of our staffing structure–no more hierarchical tree, but instead more of a Venn diagram.  We’re still working out the kinks.
  • Preparing to embark on a new interpretative plan in 2018
  • Many, many conversations with our neighbors about pending developments and ways to work together
  • Completion of the Visitor Counts survey–and beginning to absorb the findings. This study will go hand in hand with the work on the interpretative plan.
  • Lots and lots of grant writing–and strategizing for grants. Funding is still a real issue, though we managed to cut our operating deficit in half this year

In 2018, I’ll begin my fourth year as Executive Director–and I still feel like I’m just getting started. There is so much to do and try! I’ve also come to realize how much of this work is a long game.  Every time I get impatient, I try to remember that. But patience is a challenge, especially when you’re waiting on developers to start construction. Or funders to give you an answer.

I know I need to write more and share more about what we’re attempting, but finding the energy is a real challenge. And it’s also a challenge to figure out when to share–there are a few things we’ve been working on over the past several months that I just can’t share yet! So, I’m here and I’m thinking and trying to decide when to think out loud. Thanks for listening.