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:
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.
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!
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.
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.
On Friday, I had the most meaningful beer I’ve ever had.
Most of you know what’s happening in the Cedars. Back in 2014, a lot of major buildings on Ervay (one of DHV’s borders) changed hands–with significant redevelopment plans. Promises were made with projected opening dates of 2016. All of those buildings remain quiet for a variety of complicated reasons.
Months after that initial flurry, Four Corners Brewing announced they were moving from their original location in Trinity Groves (West Dallas) to the Cedars. This was a different kind of development plan–an established business expanding–and though the last announced, they’re the first to open.
I don’t remember exactly when I first met Greg, one of the co-owners, but I remember how I approached that first meeting. Meeting new potential partners can be a little like dating–the main purpose is to get to know each other. You don’t want to reveal everything on that first date. What if your special brand of crazy shows too early? My goals for that first meeting were pretty simple–I really just wanted them to know who we are, that we like beer, and determine their timeline. Of course, I had lots and lots of other ideas. After all, I love craft beer almost as much as I love museums. But it seemed a little too forward to put all that out there on the first meeting.
But then Greg and I got to talking. I learned that he had volunteered at DHV as a kid back in the 1980s. I learned that he was already thinking about ways we could partner. So, I pretty much shared all of my ideas at the first meeting. And I don’t think I scared him too much, since we’ve kept talking.
Of course, with any construction project, there are delays. Their original opening date was supposed to be in March. But when the tap room opened for the first time on Friday, I was there. And I had a beer. And it was delicious.
But it’s not just about the beer. The completion of this project is such a clear articulation of the vision so many of us have for the future of the Cedars. They took an overlooked, historic building (it was originally the stables for the Ambassador Hotel across the street), beautifully updated it, and created a new community gathering space.
Last night, we hosted a DHV members happy hour. Many familiar faces were there, but by far, the most important person there was Ruth Ann. She’s one of our founders and has been involved with us for over 50 years. Ruth Ann graciously declined a beer, but she just had to see what our new neighbors had done with the building. She ended up chatting at length with Greg, both about the business and the neighborhood.
As we were chatting, she said to me “I’m so amazed at what you’re doing. You’re just one of the most clever people I’ve ever met.” And I turned to her and said “I don’t know, Ruth Ann. You’re pretty smart too. You saw what the museum and this neighborhood could be all those years ago, when there was absolutely nothing.” I guess our mutual admiration society continues.
Trying to ride the wave of all this neighborhood redevelopment is exhausting. Sometimes it is frustrating. It certainly requires a lot of patience! But the last few days have reminded me why we keep going. If the presence of Ruth Ann at a brewery on a Tuesday night doesn’t speak volumes to the faith and loyalty our supporters have in both the museum and the neighborhood, then I don’t know what will.
And it continues. Tonight, I had drinks with another neighborhood partner, also giving new life to a fabulous historical building. It will be an unprecedented partnership, one I can’t talk about quite yet. But it’s yet another reminder of how naturally collaboration comes to our organization. The difference now is geography. Finally having neighbors–and our mutual desire to work together–will transform the museum in ways that were beyond my wildest dreams when I took the Executive Director title 3.5 years ago. I think we can all drink to that.
About 30 minutes into the tour, my parents started giving me the side eye. That look that says “Why on earth did you think this would be a good idea?” and “How much longer must we suffer?” I avoided their gaze. I wasn’t too thrilled either.
We were at the Whitney Plantation, just outside of New Orleans. It was the last day of our trip, and the Whitney had been on my list of “must-dos” I had read the articles about how the Whitney was putting the story of the enslaved front and center. I had read the articles about how the Whitney was becoming a leader in the history museum field as we struggle to share and interpret the history of slavery. As a director and a historian, I felt like I really needed to check this all out.
In a way, it was fitting that I visited the Whitney this year. In February, I had the distinct privilege of visiting the brand new National Museum of African American History and Culture in DC. In some ways, it wasn’t a great museum experience. After all, it was wall to wall people! I got hit twice in the ankles by a wheelchair. It was hard to see everything just because of the crowds. But I couldn’t be upset. After all, it was clear that the people I was surrounded by were reading, learning, connecting—and probably hadn’t spent a lot of time in museums. The narrative put the African American experience at the center. It wasn’t just about slavery and oppression, but identity and stretching boundaries. There was a huge range of artifacts, and the curators didn’t shy away from anything.
For me, the most moving moment was as I was waiting in line to see Emmett Till’s casket. There’s a small room in front of the room containing the casket, where news footage of the funeral is played. Standing in that anteroom were two women, who I presumed to be mother and daughter. They were leaning on each other, watching the video, softly crying. It was a moment that wouldn’t have been possible without the museum.
In May, I flew into Memphis for a work trip and headed straight to the National Civil Rights Museum. I had first visited back in 1997 as part of a college orientation trip. That was long before the new building and the inclusion of the boarding house where the shots that killed Martin Luther King Jr were fired. I don’t have many firm memories of that visit, but I remember liking it.
I know they just went through a massive reinterpretation, but I’m not sure exactly what all was new. Again, they did a fabulous job of putting the African American experience front and center. They also had some powerful artifacts, including a bombed out bus that moved me to tears.
Powerful artifacts, mixed with lots and lots of individual voices from those that were active in the Movement.
So, heading to the Whitney felt like a natural next stop on this year’s tour of African American history museums. And there were aspects of it that were very good. But I have difficulty recommending it.
Perhaps I should start with what I liked? The tour did start out well. The first stop was an African American church, built after Emancipation, and moved to the Whitney Plantation a few years ago. Inside, were a collection of statues of children, representing the hundreds of children born into slavery at the Whitney. There was a nice introductory video and a discussion of the WPA slave narratives. The docent discussed how those narratives captured the voices of slaves, but is almost exclusively memories of a childhood in slavery.
We proceeded next to a memorial, listing all of the known names of the people brought to the Whitney during the slave trade years. And this is where the tour began to fall apart. We spent over 20 minutes at one side of the monument. And then he said “now let’s go to the other side of the monument.” Another 20 minutes talking about all of the known names of people born into slavery on the plantation. Then 20 minutes at the next memorial. Ten at the next. And then we finally got to see another building.
The entire tour was 2 hours—and about half of it was spent at the memorials. These memorials are important, but do we really need to spend that much time at them? Especially in the New Orleans heat? On the day we were there, we had intermittent rain. They provided umbrellas, but the docent also made no moves to hurry the tour along or make any adjustments due to the weather. In the heat, this would be almost unbearable. Definitely not something to inspire a good visitor experience that would allow minds to be opened for learning.
And then there was the tour guide himself. He was passionate. He certainly knew his history. But he was also incredibly repetitive. He did a good job of pointing out that slavery is as much an economic system as a racist system, but he said it over and over and over again. An hour into a tour, I think everyone more than understood.
But the thing that bothered me the most is that even as they gave names to the enslaved, they didn’t give them much else. There were no stories of life on the plantation. No stories of how those that were enslaved struggled to live their lives within such harsh boundaries—how they made families and traditions in spite of their enslavement. There was no mention of any personal agency. All of the complexities surrounding slavery were obscured by an overwhelming agenda.
As we all know, tour guides can make or break a museum visit. I don’t know if a different tour guide would have been less repetitive. However, he was certainly working within parameters set by the institution. The memorials are important, but a quick explanation of them and then allowing people to return after the tour would be far more effective. No guided tour, especially outside, and especially with few spots to sit, should be much more than an hour. Attention spans waver. Feet get tired. With my mom’s knee issues, she can’t stand for too long in one place—and there was a lot of standing in one place. It was an incredibly disappointing and frustrating experience.
For those that do want to explore the complex relationships on a plantation between enslaved and slaveowner, I would highly recommend the Laura Plantation. It was our first tourist stop when we arrived in New Orleans, chosen because it had been managed by four generations of women. They did an amazing job of describing slave life and pointing out all the complexities. They gave us time to pause and reflect, but also kept us moving. Our tour guide had passion, but never let that passion overtake the pace of the tour. All three of us (parents and myself) loved the tour, felt like we learned something, and were challenged by some of that information.
African American history is a complex subject that has long been ignored by major museums. There is some stellar interpretation out there, but we have to continue to question it just like we do any other interpretation. In this age where nuance and complexity are getting bulldozed by loud voices shouting, I commend those organizations that are holding fast to telling the complete, messy history of our past.
Usually, bond packages aren’t the spark of lively internet conversations. But a few things on the proposed November bond package (namely Fair Park) are causing quite a stir. Without weighing in too heavily on one side or the other of the Great Fair Park Debate (I feel like I’ve done that here and here), I thought I’d tell you a story about one very tiny, like 0.0002 per cent, piece of the puzzle.
Dallas Heritage Village has been in a management agreement with the City of Dallas for over 40 years. The Park Department owns the land (we were the very first city park) and takes care of basic grounds care and trash. The Office of Cultural Affairs (OCA) owns all of our buildings and provides modest operating support, to the tune of about 20% of our annual operating expenses. They also pay all of our utilities.
In return, the Dallas County Heritage Society (or DCHS–our legal name) interprets the buildings and provides educational programming. We also must raise, through a variety of means, the rest of our operational expenses. Our budget hovers around $1 million annually. We are not City of Dallas employees, but employees of DCHS. The museum is governed by a Board of Trustees, and they’re the ones that hired me as Executive Director.
One challenge that has been growing over the years is deferred maintenance. If you’ve been to DHV, you know that some of our buildings are in much better shape than others. Though the city does provide funds for maintenance, it’s only about $50,000 annually. For over 30 historic structures. That bear the wear and tear of 20,000 school kids annually, plus all of our other visitors. These funds essentially cover emergency repairs to plumbing and HVAC, porch repair, pest control, and maybe one or two larger projects annually. Quite simply, it is not enough.
OCA has been chronically underfunded for years. It was the last line item in the City’s budget to be restored to pre-recession levels–and yet, before the recession the Arts District wasn’t complete. Therefore, the same amount of money is being spread among more organizations. And meanwhile, the deferred maintenance bill grows–not just at our organization, but at city owned cultural facilities everywhere.
According to our management agreement, it is the city’s responsibility to maintain and care for their buildings. A promise was made when all these buildings were moved to DHV that the City would care for them, so endowment funds weren’t raised. For years now, we’ve actively raised funds so that we can tackle some of the big projects–to make sure none of these historic buildings are lost after being saved all those years ago. In fact, over the last 5 years, we’ve spent over $700,000 on various deferred maintenance projects. Of those funds, only $164,500, or 24%, are City of Dallas funds. Sometimes I wonder what we might be able to accomplish as an organization if we didn’t have to devote so many resources (both time and money) to caring for these city-owned buildings.
Which brings us to the 2017 Bond Package, currently up for debate. In that proposal, we have a line item for $200,000–to primarily go towards roof repair. Roofs and foundations always have to be fixed first or else you’re just going to have to redo repairs again. This rather modest amount represents a huge leap forward for our deferred maintenance list.
Throughout the city, there are many management agreements. It’s important to remember that no matter who is the manager, the city remains the owner. This bond package is an important step forward in making up for years of neglect. Frankly, I know exactly how I’ll be voting in November. And I’m really looking forward to heading to the polls.
In the last few months, my work has taken a surprising turn. I’m having meetings about things that I don’t think most history museum directors ever dream about. People are approaching us with some pretty incredible ideas–ideas that have made my jaw drop and my mind whirl. After about the third time, I started thinking about what caused all of this. And though I could be wrong, the motivations seem to boil down to three main things: our location, our reputation, and the fact that I spend an awful lot of time out in the community talking to people.
And then I flashed back to a board meeting a few years ago. We were looking at the budget, and it wasn’t pretty. We were running a deficit again. Heck, we’re still running a deficit. Out of frustration, a board member said “How will we ever stop this slide?”
“Well, we’re hiring development consultants so we can all learn how to better fund raise. And we can’t discount the impact that the coming development will have. A rising tide lifts all boats.”
“So, you’re saying you’re pinning the entire future of this organization on neighborhood redevelopment?”
“No. But I’m saying this pending development makes me a lot more optimistic about our future, though we’re going to have to work hard to fully take advantage of it.”
Some board members nodded. Some avoided looking me in the eye. Some gave me the side eye.
And though it’s too early to say “I told you so,” I do believe these conversations are a sign of what’s to come–and a sign that a vital neighborhood will make a real difference for our museum. Of course, it’s all taken far longer than I anticipated. Of all the buildings on Ervay that changed hands in 2014, only one is under construction. Back then, we were told that things would be done and open in 2016. Now I just laugh at developer timelines. But yesterday, I had a big meeting with one of our neighbors and that project is finally starting to move forward (and it will be amazing!)
And last weekend, we celebrated another big project and big win for the neighborhood–the grand opening of the Lorenzo Hotel. This building, super visible from DHV, has been empty for years. It was an eyesore, overrun by homeless. Initially, the redevelopment proposal was for affordable housing, and the neighborhood fought that. Today, we have a gorgeous, funky boutique hotel with a pretty fabulous bar.
There was no question about whether or not I would go to the party–I wanted to celebrate that one of the big ideas for the Cedars was complete. And when it was mentioned that a few folks were renting hotel rooms that night, I decided to splurge and get one too.
It was a party unlike anything I’ve ever been too. Of course, there was lots of food and drink. But there were also aerialists spinning by the pool, mermaids swimming in the pool, body paint artists and fairies roaming around.
And most shocking, there was a line around the block of people trying to get in. At that party, a lot of people learned that there is life south of I-30.
We’ve got a long way to go, both as a neighborhood and as an organization. Balancing the budget continues to be a real challenge. Quality of life issues are enormous. But I can’t help but think big and continue to be incredibly optimistic. In a few weeks, we’ll present to the Master Plan Committee and staff some initial ideas for DHV’s future, and we’ll be doing it at the Lorenzo Hotel. It just feels exactly right to think about the future in a place that is a few steps ahead of us.
P. S. I wish I could be less vague about some of these big ideas and partnerships. I want to shout it from the rooftops! (and if I see you in person, I’ll probably share). But nothing is official yet. Trust me–I’ll share when I can.
A few days ago, I saw a play that made me think a lot about museums. And though the story was incredibly powerful, I kept thinking about how they told it–and the implications for museums that are still wrestling with curatorial authority.
I’ve had season tickets to the Dallas Theater Center since 2014–it was one of my treats to myself when I became Executive Director. Over the years, my mom and I have seen some incredible shows. Several months ago, I got a letter in the mail about their upcoming performance of Electra. Since they were performing the entire show, would we mind switching our usual matinee time to an evening performance? From that moment forward, I was very intrigued.
Electra, that ancient Greek tragedy, is currently being performed outside in the Dallas Arts District. The audience is given headphones, and follows the actors from scene to scene–4 locations in all. Sometimes we were standing, sometimes we were sitting. The city noises of sirens and the highway added to the overall effect. At times, the actors were right in front of us. At other times, they were yards away. There were no assigned spots or seats, we were just there, together, experiencing something magical.
When we moved from Scene 1 to Scene 2, I got really emotional as we stepped through the curtain. What was next? I have never felt that sense of anticipation during a play before. Each time we moved, there was this sense of urgency. Somehow, we had become a part of the action. We, the audience, had become deeply involved with the play, the actors, and the story.
In the playbook, director Kevin Moriarty writes about the decision to take it outside:
This not only connects back to the Ancient Greek tradition of performing under the sky, but it also allows for a more expansive acting style. . . It also locates the performance as a public event–you are hyper-aware of your surroundings, the other people experiencing the play alongside you, and your own relationship to the actors. This combination of a simultaneously public/private event and the interplay of intimate/grand emotions is central to the experience of these ancient plays.
But I can’t turn off my ED brain. What were the logistics of moving the audience multiple times? How many times have audience members gotten left behind? What was the board meeting like when this idea was first mentioned? What kind of sound technology made all this possible? How are more traditional theater goers responding?
Amidst all the questions, there are some answers. From the moment we picked up our headset, I knew that the DTC trusted us, the audience, to come along with them for the ride. How often do we place such radical trust in our audiences? The DTC took one of the oldest plays in existence and made it feel completely fresh and current and new. All of the “radical” ideas in this production served and amplified the story. Nothing felt like a gimmick. They didn’t make these choices “because we can” but because it made for a better theatrical experience.
The last scene was at a reflecting pool. We had each been handed LED candles and stood around the pool, the lights of downtown and our candles mingling. And then, each actor went up to an audience member and gently took off their headphones, signaling the rest of the audience to do the same. The lapping of water, voices singing, and the end to an incredible night of theater. I left feeling inspired and grateful and amazed. Theaters are the king of “sit there and I’ll tell you a story” entertainment. Museums often do the same. But if a theater can involve their audience, make them feel a part of the story, while still maintaining control of the story, what can we as museums do? Perhaps the issue isn’t always curatorial authority, but rather figuring out how to take your visitors along for the ride.