Generally speaking, August in Texas is a terrible, terrible thing. So I planned a trip to escape to New England and catch up with a few friends, visit a few museums, and drink a few beers. Ironically, the temps in New England were about the same as they were in Texas, but it will still a delightful trip. In a lot of ways, this was a trip made possible by SHA–stayed with SHA friend Aimee, toured a SHA lecturer’s museum, and hung out with a second SHA friend Carrie. Here are a few museum related highlights:
I’ve been following the good work done by Stawbery Banke for years. In a lot of ways, we have more in common with them than any other museum–located in an urban environment, no huge endowment to shore up finances, lots of buildings to interpret and care for. It was wonderful to tour with Larry Yerdon, their director. He spent most of the day with us, on crutches, no less! My favorite exhibit element is the house they left completely unrestored–layers of wallpaper, exposed lathe, holes, etc.
It was remarkable to see some of the entrepreneurial elements they’ve put into the museum–an independent museum store (providing a second entrance to the museum!), residential and business rentals on second floors, etc. Everyone we encountered was absolutely lovely, and I don’t think that was just because we were walking around with their boss. Highly recommended if you’re in the area. There’s also a great brewery, Portsmouth Brewery, not too far away!
I was staying in Quincy, so it seemed logical to visit the homes of the Adams family. I’m no colonial historian, but when in Boston, it’s required to dip your toes into the Revolution. Peace Field, the Adams’ last home, was delightful–it’s rare to see a house that shows generations of ownership. And then there was the library! The tour guides did an excellent job of telling the story of the family, not just the Presidents. And I admit it–I had a bit of a “historical moment” (upswelling of emotion, often resulting in a tear, at the weight of history in a physical place) standing outside the room where John Adams died on July 4, 1826, thinking of his friend and enemy, Thomas Jefferson.
I will admit I wasn’t as impressed by the JFK Library. After a stint as an intern at the Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza back in the dark ages and solid friendships with many staff members, I’ve learned a fair amount about Kennedy. The introduction film was excellent, the beginning of the exhibit pretty good, and then I started asking myself some pretty key questions. Where is Jackie? Where are the kids? And there were minor exhibit annoyances too–too many Kennedy voices around me, saying different things. An unclear exhibit flow. And then, we got to the assassination. It was just a hallway, painted black. On one side, silver letters that said “November 22, 1963” on the other side, a series of small screens, playing the footage of Walter Cronkite announcing his death and some shots of the funeral. That was it. No context. No explanation. Just an exit into a bright, cheerful gallery about his legacy. I was sputtering in shock.
Now I get why the family doesn’t like to talk about this tragedy. Aimee said “Well, everyone knows the story.” But I really don’t think they do. The Sixth Floor Museum is constantly struggling with how to keep the story relevant, now that most people don’t have memories of that day in Dallas. It could be simply done–just a few paragraphs about why he was in Dallas and the immediate aftermath. The Library also misses a chance to create a “historical moment.” Where’s the emotion? Where’s the mourning? It can be done tastefully and well–perhaps follow the example of the Bush Library and their treatment of 9/11. But I feel that the visitor deserves to know more about that crucial turning point in American history.
On Saturday, I was solo and decided to do a hop-on/hop-off trolley. At the last second, I decided to hop off at the USS Constitution spot. As a rule, I’m not a fan of military history, but I remembered that they had won some major grants and awards to research family learning. And they deserved every award! It was a busy Saturday, and people of all ages were enjoying the exhibits, playing with the interactives, and talking with staff. Love, love, love!
On Sunday, we visited the Governor Lippitt House Museum, run by fellow SHA Alum, Carrie. Such a beautiful home! And such a great family story! I will admit that I am a bit envious of her only having one house to worry about. We wrapped up our adventures with a trip to RISD (Rhode Island School of Design) that had a special Todd Oldham exhibit. Some truly wonderful pieces, but the layout of the museum was one of the most confusing I’ve ever encountered. Three museum pros couldn’t figure it out!
It was a museum-filled trip, and I think some don’t quite believe it was a vacation. And yet, I still came back to Dallas, relaxed and energized. Good museums and good friends will do that for you.
On Thursday, July 7, I was watching a recorded episode of The Daily Show and decided to do one last Facebook scroll. A friend that lives downtown posted about shots fired at that evening’s protest. I thought to myself “Hmm. That’s interesting.” And then I saw a few more posts and realized that I should perhaps start watching live TV.
You all know what happened next. That night, I turned off the tv around 12:30, stunned and numb and so very, very worried about my city.
When I woke up the next morning, I laid in bed for a while, listening to NPR, scrolling through social media. As I drove into work, I started thinking about how DHV should respond. Because I knew we had to respond in some way.
The problem with becoming a community engaged museum is that when tragedy strikes your community, it hurts a lot more. We’ve worked with a lot of officers to make the neighborhood safer. We host monthly crime watch meetings. We’ve become good friends with various political leaders. And it’s not just “we the museum” but also “me, Melissa.”
When I got to work on Friday, I sent a quick email to staff: we were going to be free that day. And then I posted the following on DHV’s Facebook page:
Today, we are grieving with our entire city over the terrible events that took place last night. We know that many in our neighborhood are directly impacted by these events. Though it feels like such a small gesture, today we’re offering free admission. If you need a place to reflect, we have a beautiful view of the skyline, shady trees, and two donkeys that are happy to give hugs. We love you, Dallas.
I also shared it on my personal page. This one little post garnered more Facebook likes and shares than anything we’ve ever done. Many of my friends, even non-local ones, shared it as well, praising me. Here’s some of what they said:
High School friend: And this is why Dallas is the best. Melissa Prycer I’m sure you had a lot to do with this and I applaud you. What a great place for people to find a little peace.
Book Club Friend: The world is a dark and miserable place, and all we can do is be kinder. Here’s my friend Melissa, doing what she can.
Book Club Friend:
From Dallas – a community resource being the voice of reason. And offering free hugs in the midst of turmoil. Thank you Melissa Prycer! you and your organization are a breath of sanity – for your city, and for the country
All of Friday, I continued to be stunned–not just to the events of Thursday night, but to the response of what I considered to be an obvious and far too small gesture. But no other cultural institution offered free admission as a response. Every other institution seemed to have a fairly standard “thoughts and prayers” response, not one that connected directly to our neighborhood. And people seemed to notice.
I’m not here to call out my local colleagues, many of whom had to close for a few days as the crime scene was processed. But I am here to say this to the field: how sad is it that people are surprised when a history museum responds to current events? Isn’t that part of our job?
Here in Dallas, we’re still grieving and processing. But I am so damn proud of my city right now. Recently, a friend of mine called me a “civic leader,” and when he said that, I twitched a little. Those just aren’t words that feel right for what I’m doing. The contrast between my last few days and what friends like Adam Medrano (our councilman) and Kourtny Garrett (ED of Downtown Dallas, Inc) have been through makes me very glad to be leading a small history museum on the edge of downtown. I’ve at least gotten some sleep.
I confess that I avoided the prayer vigil on Friday and the candlelight vigil last night. I just wasn’t ready to grieve in public with others. But tonight, as usual, we hosted our monthly crime watch meeting. Our awesome officer, Jeanette Weng, was there. Much of the meeting was business as usual, but we had cookies. And we offered hugs, which she gladly accepted. I know I wasn’t the only that teared up a bit tonight.
I will never understand why museums hesitate to become more involved in their communities. But perhaps if we hadn’t had our joint battles about unsheltered homeless or highway design, I wouldn’t still be grieving. If we didn’t host crime watch and neighborhood association meetings, we wouldn’t still be grieving. It may feel safer to remain distant. But if we hadn’t taken these steps, we also wouldn’t be quite so proud of how well our city is handling this tragedy. And we certainly wouldn’t have been prepared to respond when history came to our front door.
We all have our museum bucket lists–places that we desperately want to visit. Sometimes, it’s because of an admiration for whoever’s home it was. (See Louisa May Alcott’s Orchard House). Sometimes it’s due to its place in a favorite book (See Green Gables). Sometimes it’s because you admire the work that they’re doing (See the Pittsburgh Children’s Museum). Sometimes it’s amazing, grandiose architecture (see Biltmore). Last week, I got to cross another museum off the list: the birthplace and home of Juliette Gordon Low in Savannah.
Yes, as a matter of fact, I was a Girl Scout. I was part of the very first group of Daisys (for kindergarten age girls), and my mom was our leader. Like many, our troop fell apart in Junior High, but I continued to be a member, helping out with some younger troops that met at our church. I never pursued the Silver Award or Gold Award, but I kept my membership up through graduation. And through all of that, I wanted to visit Savannah and see Daisy’s house.
It was pouring rain when we arrived, so the carriage house was pretty crowded. We were a group of 5 (my parents, myself and family friends D&S), and only mom and I were looking forward to the tour. D&S kept asking “Now, it’s not just a big museum about Girl Scouts, right?” And I kept saying “It’s a beautiful historic house that was the founder’s home. So yes, there will be stuff about Girl Scouts, but it’s also a fancy house tour in Savannah.” (they really wanted to see fancy houses). When the next available tour wasn’t for an hour, the companions weren’t happy at all. So I went back to the ticket desk and asked if we could move our tickets to the next day. We couldn’t but she happily gave me a refund.
Historic House Win #1: The staff at the front desk was incredibly gracious, helpful and nice. Even though I was totally “that customer.” And this continued throughout all of our interactions with various staff members.
After all this, mom and I told the rest of the group that we were absolutely fine if they didn’t join us the next day on the tour. But that we were going No Matter What. At the last minute, they decided to join us. The next morning, we headed back and were able to get tickets on the first available tour. We had a little time to kill, and D&S walked the neighborhood while I chatted with the director, Lisa. She and I were on an IMLS panel review last summer, and she had taken the job at Low about six months ago. I don’t know her super well, so was hesitant to say to frontline staff “Hey, I know your director. Is she available?” But I’m so glad we did! We got recommendations for afternoon activities and dinner, plus it was good to hear more about the behind-the-scenes. Lisa mentioned that she came into an organization with an incredible team that was ready for change–and this became even more evident as we met more of her staff.
I knew the tour was off to a great start when the guide, Michael, asked our group “How many of you are Girl Scouts?” Most raised their hand. And then he said “This is your house.” And that was fundamentally the attitude throughout the tour.
Historic House Win #2: The museum clearly approaches their visitors with an attitude of trust: there were no ropes or barriers. On the second floor, we were allowed to wander freely after hearing the basics. It was incredible.
Historic House Win #3: Though the kids and their questions came first, there was a wonderful balance for everyone in the group. This is so hard to do, and I applaud them for it. D&S were dreading going on a tour with a troop of Girl Scouts, but they later said that part of what made it so special was the presence of the kids.
Historic House Win #4: It felt like a real home. Part of it was that so many of Daisy’s things are still in the collection–and she had a pretty strong personality! And of course, part of it was the lack of barriers. But again, it was also the attitude of our tour guide. He asked if anyone would like to play the piano in the formal parlor. No one raised their hand, but then we asked if he would play for us (we may have been told to do this by his coworkers). And he sat down and played, and it was one of the most magical moments I’ve ever had in a house museum.
Historic House Win #5: They aren’t afraid to play with tradition. About a year ago, they transformed the library into a hands-on learning space. It includes some real artifacts, but the centerpieces is this amazing table filled with lots of different activities. Of course, I’m a sucker for anything to do with books, so I fell head over heels in love with the space. It’s the last stop on the tour, so you can spend as much time as you like in that space. The girls on the tour seemed to love it too–and they were still there long after we left.
This historic house museum was on my bucket list because of my childhood admiration for Juliette Gordon Low. I had no idea how much it would inspire me today, in my grownup career as museum director. It is truly one of the best house tours I’ve been on in a very long time. Three cheers for the Girl Scouts!
On this rainy Friday before a holiday weekend, I’m wrapping up one of my favorite annual tasks: creating a photo collage of our graduating Junior Historians. For many years, figuring out a way to honor graduating Seniors wasn’t an issue, because the kids never stuck around that long. But now, it’s an absolutely wonderful problem to have. All graduates get a brick on our walkway with their name and the years they were part of the program. Most also get a photo collage of their time at DHV.
I’ve written many times before about our revitalized Junior Historian program, including this article for AASLH’s History News. But this spring, there have been a few moments when I’ve realized anew what the long term impact this program can have on both the kids, my museum and me. And also what it means to stay at a museum for 10+ years and watch these kids grow up. These moments are the kind that make me choke up a little and realize how much museums matter to our world.
A few highlights:
A former JH attended our big fundraiser, History with a Twist, with her mom (now a board member). Kaitlin is now old enough to legally enjoy the cocktails, which blows my mind. And she’s about to start med school.
I made a surprise visit to a JH during her freshman year of college. Grace will be spending her summer working as a History Host and getting paid. Plus, she’ll be doing some development work as an unpaid intern.
I got a Save the Date card for a JH wedding this fall, which will be held at DHV.
And then there’s Isabel, our senior. I first met her 10 years ago when she was a camp kid at my beloved (but long defunct) Pages from the Past camp. And now she’s all grown up!
A kid who was a regular at Barnyard Buddies (preschool story time) will soon be an official Junior Historian.
We don’t always have the data to prove our impact and relevance, but all of this certainly gives me a pretty confident gut feeling that our institution has had a profound impact on these kids’ lives. Someone did have the data to do some work on this, and I’m so grateful they shared that study with the world. After all, it helps prove that my gut isn’t always wrong.
When I became Executive Director, I couldn’t leave these kids behind. Obviously, I’m no longer as involved, but I still work on the fun stuff with them, including this video.
This year, I’ll be out of town for most of JH camp. It makes me a little sad, but I also know that Mandy is fully capable of teaching these kids as well as I did–and caring for them as much as I do. In a sign of the continued evolution of our neighborhood: for the first time ever, we have a neighborhood kid joining us. We finally have neighbors with kids that want to hang out at a history museum!
Community involvement isn’t just about being involved with your neighborhood; it’s also about creating a community through your museum. We have some great examples of this at DHV, but the Junior Historian program will always be my favorite.
But here’s a new answer: I don’t think I would have survived this past week without the past two years of increasing community involvement. And my museum would be in a very different place.
On Monday, we needed to make a call about whether or not to pursue a rain plan for our largest fundraiser, History with a Twist. During a two hour meeting, the forecast for rain on Saturday went from 40% to 80%. We decided to wait until Tuesday morning to make the call.
Usually, DHV can’t do much about rain. We can cram about 200 people into the Pavilion, but with 300+ expected guests, food, silent auction, and drinks, there weren’t any good options to keep it at DHV. However, when the 10 day forecast came out, with an 80% chance of rain, I emailed Karen, the ED at Vogel Alcove. I asked: “Is there any way we can move Twist to your building? I know you may have a lot of issues to consider regarding this request, but please think about.” I was expecting a long conversation because this was a very, very big favor. Within a few hours, Karen wrote back “Of course. Whatever you need.” I shouted Hallelujah at my desk. More than once.
First thing Tuesday, I had a long chat with my event chair, Don. Forecast varied depended on where you looked, but all said we would have severe weather on Friday night. This meant set up, particularly for sound and lighting, became more complicated. We knew Vogel would be a very tight fit, but I thought it would be better to spend the week stressing about things we could control, rather than things we can’t. I decided to ask Helen, my director of sales, how she would advise a bride and get back to Don. While I was on the phone with Helen, my phone rang. The last time I ignored a call from the Ticket Office, a reporter had shown up. So I picked up–another reporter had arrived. I texted Don as I walked over, letting him know it would be a little while before I got back to him.
As I was chatting with the reporter, he thought he had a scoop on the growth of the encampment behind DHV (nicknamed Tent Village) as Tent City was closed. I told him that he was the 3rd reporter this month. (Story 1,Story 2, and Story 3)
When I got back to the office, I called Don and we made the decision to proceed with moving Twist to Vogel. Helen and I had a quick meeting, and we got to work on contacting vendors and figuring out the setup.
In the midst of all this, I had a long conversation with Michael, one of my favorite neighborhood advocates–and a member of our board. The day before, there had been a rather contentious Public Safety Committee meeting at City Hall. CM Greyson asked a lot of questions regarding police plans regarding Tent Village, and they continued to state that it wasn’t a priority. But this was the first time someone besides our council member, Adam Medrano, had asked any questions. This seemed like a small glimmer of light in what has been a very long, dark tunnel.
Earlier that morning, I had received an email from Stephanie, who is our primary contact for schools. As a result of Friday’s Channel 8 story, schools were calling, concerned about their students’ safety if they came to DHV. Two schools requested to talk to me directly. A few schools cancelled. Late Tuesday afternoon, I sent an email to Mayor Rawlings and Adam letting them know that I had just reassured two schools that their students would be safe on their field trips.
That evening was the monthly CBD (Central Business District) crime watch meeting. I hadn’t planned on attending–I have been to a lot of crime watch meetings over the past year, and I can only tolerate them so often. Also, it was FYA book club night. But after hearing more about the Public Safety meeting and seeing a note that one of the agenda items was Tent Village, I figured I should probably go.
As I walked up, I happened to run into Adam. He told me that the letter writing campaign we launched on April 15 was working–and we needed to keep it up. He also mentioned the letter I had just written to the Mayor–and that he had already gotten a call from the Mayor’s office. Another glimmer of light in the tunnel.
The Dallas Police Chief was there, which I hadn’t realized when I made my decision to go. When the floor was opened for general questions, the very first question, not asked by me, was about their plans regarding Tent Village.
I want to pause for a moment to say this: at every single meeting I’ve attended regarding the current Dallas homeless crisis, I have never been the one to bring up Tent Village. Someone else always does it first. This isn’t by design–there’s no planning or coordination. It just happens. Do you know how gratifying that is? How good it feels to see all your advocacy work out in the community like that? I don’t think there’s a better expression of how the Cedars neighborhood feels about Dallas Heritage Village than what is said in these meetings.
Chief Brown said “I’d like to hear more about what’s going on down there.” The entire room tilted towards me. I introduced myself. I mentioned Friday’s story on Channel 8 and that schools no longer felt it was safe to visit DHV. He asked if the story was accurate. I said yes. And then I said: “My one question for you, Chief Brown, is why it’s not a priority for the City of Dallas to protect a city-owned cultural institution?”
At that, he and Chief Lawton (over our area) sat straight up and started to sputter. Chief Brown “I never said it wasn’t a priority.” And then the strangest thing happened: at least four voices, including my own, responded: “But your actions do.”
That may be the moment when all the momentum we’ve been building as a community–the letter writing, the tweets, the meetings, the news stories–finally began to turn the tide. Chief Brown promised to make closing Tent Village a priority. He asked us to help with creating barriers to make it a less enticing spot. I responded that we had neighbors that have been talking about a cactus/rock garden for months. Enthusiastic nods around the room. At 7:15, I left to head to book club. I really needed a beer.
Early Wednesday evening, I was chatting with my board chair, Trey, after a meeting. My phone buzzed, and I glanced at it. It was a direct Twitter message: a photo of a cleared area behind the Farmstead and the message “Thanks to all involved.” I stared at my phone, not quite believing what I was seeing. “Umm, Trey. . .” And then Michael posted something in one of the neighborhood groups on Faceboook. I clicked on that and saw this picture:
After a long trying process, most of tent Village is gone. This is been the culmination of the efforts of many many people. We hope we can remain that way. Some cleanup still has to get done Landscaping xcetera to prevent them from coming back. Many thanks to Chief David Brown Adam Medrano and all the people in The Cedars, DHV, and Farmers Market who made this happen over the past few months.thanks to all DPD and support from friends downtown.
Trey headed out as I called Michael. Several neighbors were in our small parking lot off Ervay, so I ran over there. We all kinda looked at each other in amazement, stunned that the city had finally taken action. We all know it was just a first step, that there is still much work to do–both to help the homeless and discourage the camp from forming again. However, we still decided that we needed a beer.
On Thursday, the forecast changed again. Late that afternoon a committee member asked the question I had been avoiding: can Twist be moved back to DHV? We started reaching out to key vendors to find out if they could change their set up schedule. They could. On Friday morning, I made the call–back to DHV! And I thanked Karen again, who responded “You know if you hadn’t made all those plans, the forecast wouldn’t have changed.” Nothing about the time her staff spent answering our questions, planning the setup, all the week before their own big fundraiser. As I said in my remarks on Saturday, they are the definition of neighborly.
That evening, I went to the monthly Cedars Neighborhood Association meeting. We are the default hosts, but on Monday, with my cloudy crystal ball, I asked them to find a different location as I didn’t want to ask anyone to stay late to host–and I knew I didn’t want to. But with all that had happened, I knew I had to go. While I was eating dinner, the official word was spread that Tent Village would be closed in conjunction with Tent City on May 4. I spoke briefly about the landscape/barrier plans, and then I said “There are certainly challenges in running a museum in our neighborhood, but there’s not another neighborhood in Dallas I would rather be in.” And then I totally started crying and quickly sat down.
My Saturday started pretty early by my standards–breakfast at 8 with the Mayor Mike Rawlings and selected neighbors. it was on the calendar before the events of the past week, but the timing certainly felt fortuitous. We talked more about Tent Village, the challenges of being in the Cedars and feeling neglected by the Powers That Be. It was a very good conversation, though I remain somewhat pessimistic about any radical changes. And then, I headed to DHV to start setting up for Twist.
Saturday ended up being just about a perfect day, weather-wise. Not too humid, not too hot. It was a beautiful night at DHV. Many, many neighbors were there too–along with Adam Medrano, board members that have definitely had my back through all of this, my parents, family friends, and museum friends. It was a good night–we raised some money, had some fun, and I didn’t tear up once.
So, why write this very long blog post on some issues that are perhaps unique to DHV? Well, first, I write to process–and there is a lot to process. But for my museum friends that are reading this, I ask you:
Could you ask a favor of one of your neighbors on the level of what I asked Karen?
If you were in the middle of a local political crisis, would your neighbors speak up for you?
If, as a director, you had to enter into some very tricky political waters, would your board have your back? (I should mention not a single board member has questioned the letter writing campaign. At least not to me.)
Would you be invited to a “neighborhood” breakfast with the mayor?
Lots of work still to do, and the Dallas homeless crisis continues. Tent City and Tent Village will be closed on Wednesday. It will likely be another crazy week, but perhaps a bit calmer since Twist is now behind us. And no matter how crazy it gets, I know I have some neighbors and friends that are willing to have a drink with me as we attempt to build a better community.
For months, I had been looking forward to lunch on Friday, April 22. As part of the North Texas Teen Book Festival, three very well known YA authors (Sarah Dessen, E. Lockhart and Ruta Sepetys) would be speaking, and there would be no teens to get in the way. I knew the timing wasn’t ideal, work-wise, as we’re just a week out from our largest fundraiser of the year. But I was going, because this was important to me.
As I was pulling out of my parking spot on Friday to head to Irving, my cell phone rang. At that moment, my phone decided to freak out and wouldn’t let me answer the call or see who was calling. I pulled back into my parking spot, fiddled with the phone, and saw that Evelyn, my curator had called. Just as I was about to hit redial, there was a knock on my window. A reporter from Channel 8 had arrived and wanted to talk to me about the homeless encampment behind the Farmstead.
I will admit that I didn’t react well. “Couldn’t they have called first? Can’t they wait two hours?” Evelyn offered to talk to them. But I knew that it should really be me. So, I allowed myself one more shout to the universe: “I was just trying to do something for myself!” and got out of the car to talk to the reporter. Amazingly, I made it to the lunch with 5 minutes to spare.
Since becoming Executive Director two years ago, the whole work/life balance thing has been a real struggle. Though everything worked out fine on Friday, it was more than a little stressful. I was frazzled as I talked to the reporter, frazzled as I drove to Irving, and frazzled for the first few minutes of the lunch. Perhaps I was naive, but I really didn’t realize how radically my life would change as Executive Director.
About six months into ED life, I read Anne Ackerson’s Leadership Matters. It’s a collection of profiles of various museum leaders, centered around some key ideas. And, of course, there was a lot of talk about work/life balance. It made me realize that I needed to stake my claim on a few of my hobbies and personal obligations and just let the rest go. I’ve hired a maid, but still do a fair amount of yard work. I’ll let my DVR stack up in favor of reading. My church small group was already floundering before I became ED, but I didn’t pursue another one as I know I can’t commit to one specific night a week.
There are two things that I really try to make time for. One is Jazzercise. This has been my workout of choice since grad school. Though a few friends tease me, it makes me feel like I’m not actually exercising and does make me feel like I’m dancing. And it makes me happy. My Jazzercise instructor retired a few years ago, so I had been working out at home. A combination of mid-30s metabolism slow down and ED busyness means my weight has crept up a bit. (And who has time to shop for new clothes?) Last summer, I randomly put on one of my Jazzercise DVDs and realized how much I missed it. The nearest class is about 15 minutes away, but most weeks, I’m making it to the 7 a.m. class a few times a week. I’ve even rearranged some standing morning meetings to accommodate Jazzercise. My weight has stopped climbing, and I’m happier.
The other thing is the DFW chapter of the Forever Young Adult book club. Through this group, I’ve read so many great things and met some really great people. It is very rare for me to miss book club or not read the book. Several fellow members were deeply involved in the planning of the book festival, so Friday’s luncheon wasn’t just about the authors but about some very good friends.
And then Saturday was the amazing festival with ALL THE TEENS. 8,000 of them, to be exact. I moderated two panels, one on historical research (surprise!) and one on stand-alone novels. Because I’m an overachiever, I did my very best to read as much as I could of the 11 authors represented on my two panels. I made it through 12 books in about 3 weeks. I don’t think I’ve read that obsessively since grad school, but the reading list was a lot more fun! It’s been a very stressful month, especially with the work and worries surrounding the pending closure of Tent City and the impact that might have on the museum. But I wouldn’t have missed this for the world. The energy was incredible. And as a lifelong book lover, it was amazing to “go behind the curtain” and just hang out with the authors during lunch. I tried to keep my cool. Maybe I succeeded.
Sometimes, as Executive Directors we have to do battle. It may be for our institutions. But it may also be to protect our personal time. It is so easy to get carried away in work, but I know I’m a better person and a better director if I make sure to make time for Jazzercise and book club and a few other things I love.
P. S. Ruta Sepetys–get to know her. Some of the best historical fiction I’ve ever read. But have tissues nearby.
The black clouds are all around us, and sometimes it seems that the history museum world is doomed. Historic house museums are dying. Major debt looms. Buildings are crumbling. Audiences are aging. Staff are running away as fast as they can. Government support is yanked. And here I sit, just over 2 years into leading a history museum. While there are plenty of days where my outlook is partly cloudy, I also know that we need to make some significant changes to ensure we make it another 50 years. There are days when that seems absolutely daunting.
After reading article after article on history museums in peril, it was positively delightful to run across two separate articles of success stories–history museums that seem to changed their course for the better.
I’ve been following the Atlanta History Center for quite some time. They’ve been doing some interesting things programming-wise, and during my educator days, that was what I cared about. A few years ago, my former boss Gary happened to sit next to AHC’s brand new director at a conference. I remember Gary saying “It’s the strangest thing–they’ve made a board member ED. That never turns out well.” A few years later, Gary was heading to Atlanta to check them out as a possible model for his big Summerlee report. This article, “How the Atlanta History Museum is Changing the Future” talks about some of the changes, as well as some very extraordinary fundraising (which is what I care about now.) I’m thinking I need to visit Atlanta.
I first visited The Mount about 10 years ago. I have a thing for literary historic sites, so Edith Wharton’s home was a must-see when I was in the area. I remember being intrigued that they were doing an interior designer showcase (a lot of people don’t know that Wharton also published on interior design and landscape design). I also remember taking an illegal photo out of her bedroom window. Wharton did almost all of her writing in bed, so I felt like it was important to capture that amazing view. Of course, photos were illegal in the home.
But I’m thinking that if I visited today, I might be able to get away with a few more photos. Shortly after this, a lot of the major historic house museums were faltering. The Mark Twain House in Connecticut was facing bankruptcy. The Mount had gone into major debt to acquire Wharton’s personal library. A lot of people were beginning to wonder: if famous people’s homes can’t be sustainable, what hope does the small not-at-all famous historic house museum have? This Q&A with ED Susan Wissler is a fascinating look at what it took to turn her organization around–and pay off a pretty massive debt.
Both of these stories have a few common themes. AHC relaxed some of their rules, started asking visitors questions, and began to have a bit of fun with history. I adored this quote from ED Sheffield Hale: “You know, history’s gossip just dressed up, if you think about it. I mean, it’s just what happens to people and it’s inherently interesting. It’s unexpected because people do the darnedest things, right? You can’t make it up. It’s there. Let’s just go find it.” At The Mount, they took down the velvet ropes. They’re reaching out to the community–half of their visitors come from their home county. They expanded programming options–and started having fun with history. One great quote from Wissler: “One of our greatest strengths as an organization has been the ability to quickly evaluate what is in front of us and make decisions in the moment. I don’t mean to suggest that a strategic plan is not a valuable planning tool, but having the dexterity to course-correct in real time is critical to a small institution. This agility is what allowed us to pivot past obstacles and, if necessary, reverse course and redirect resources with minimal internal disruption or loss of opportunity.” I feel much better about our own two page strategic plan now!
Those of you that know me know these are things I passionately believe in–community involvement, creative programming, and accessibility. Though we have a long way to go to completely right the financial ship at DHV, these stories make me feel a bit better about the direction we’re heading. My gut instinct has been that if we make some of these internal changes (like focusing more closely on the visitor experience), the money will follow. And these stories show that it can indeed follow. Perhaps the sun is beginning to break through the clouds.
When I joined the staff here in 2004, our name was Old City Park. Consequently, I spent a lot of time on the phone explaining to people the following:
No, you can’t bring your frisbee.
No, we don’t have a swimming pool available for your birthday party.
Yes, you do have to pay admission even though you’re a Dallas taxpayer.
The “museum” is all around you, as soon as you walk through our gates.
In 2006, we changed our name to Dallas Heritage Village at Old City Park. Of course, name changes are never easy, and we still get asked all the time why we changed our name. My short (somewhat snarky) answer has always been: “Why would anyone want to go to an old city park?” And then people generally get it. Changing our name has solved many, many problems. We don’t get the above questions any more. But, of course, there are other challenges.
Changing vocabulary is hard. There are still lots and lots of people out there that still use our old name or just say “the park.” I never correct many of our long time supporters (after all, some of them have supported this organization longer than I’ve been alive. They can call us whatever they want), but if you got to know us post-2006, you better be not be calling us a park. As we began working with our new developer friends, I had to have a conversation about how they referred to us, emphasizing “history museum in park-like setting.” Over the years, I’ve learned the hard way that people that primarily think of us as a park aren’t going to respect our mission of preservation and education. For years, I’ve been working to eradicate the word park from our DHV vocabulary. But now I’m starting to have some second thoughts.
Yesterday was the 3rd Annual Dallas Jazz Age Sunday Social. This 1920s themed lawn party uses our grounds to their full potential. It’s certainly a day when we’re more park than museum. Thirteen hundred people showed up yesterday, the largest non-Candlelight event attendance we’ve had in 5 years. Though most people explored the museum, the prime attraction was sitting on our lawn, enjoying the first real spring day in Dallas. We closed at 5. At 6, we had to kick people off their picnic blankets. It was glorious. Matt, our partner for the event, uses the word park all the time–and he certainly used it from the stage yesterday. Sometimes I inwardly flinch, but I’m trying to get over it. Because he brought us 13oo visitors yesterday.
As the neighborhood around us changes, we’re going to have to rethink museum access. Today, 9,000 people live in the urban core, and 45,000 people live in one of the surrounding neighborhoods. More stunning, there are 5,500 new units under construction right now. Before I ever joined the staff, we offered a neighborhood membership option giving people after-hours access to our grounds. We are the largest green space in downtown, and we’re fenced–this is something worth paying for. In the coming months, we’re gong to be pushing the neighborhood membership option hard, in a way we never have before.
As I continue to ponder our options for long-term sustainability, I’m beginning to think that our land might be our greatest asset. We will always be a history museum, first and foremost, but I’m becoming more accepting of the word park. We’re not going to tear down our fences. We won’t become downtown’s largest dog park. As we ponder ways to increase access, we still have to protect our buildings. (as fabulous as Klyde Warren Park is, that can’t be our future. Our sweet wooden buildings would die.) But the word park is an important part of our history, and it’s an important part of our future as well.
I’m still conflicted about the word park. We are so much more than just a park. But, our historic land, so close to our urban core, certainly makes us special.
As a member of the Small Museums Committee for the American Association for State and Local History, I write quarterly blog posts for our blog. One just posted, and it’s already getting some attention. In it, I share some stories of friends and their recent experiences surrounding their maternity leave. It’s some frustrating stuff, and I hope it sparks some conversations and people to take a second look at their personal leave policies.
It’s a toss up on what I post here and what I’ll save for over there. Generally, things that are Dallas or DHV specific will probably land here. More general things I may save for AASLH. Or it may just depend on my mood. Or if I have a deadline for AASLH. But I will try to remember to cross-post.
Often, when a new director begins, change becomes the word of the day. When I assumed the title in March 2014, our external world was changing rapidly. Much of my time and energy was spent in keeping up with real estate transactions and learning how to speak developer. That’s not to say I didn’t know that some things probably needed to change internally as well. But some changes had begun a year before, and we first needed to let the dust settle. In addition, we had some infrastructure changes to complete, including a new website and switching our accounting to QuickBooks.
It’s funny what happens when you’re able to look at your financials a bit differently. We were in the midst of revising our Strategic Plan, where we put the visitor experience as one of our three priorities. In a conversation with Claudia, our business manager, she very gracefully pointed out how little we were spending on our frontline staff. Our budget didn’t match our strategic plan. With a few other changes to our finances, we were able to move our money around. How could we make the most of our frontline staff?
At the same time, there have been long simmering issues with our frontline staff that have bothered me almost the entire time I’ve worked at DHV. Some ticket office rarely left the ticket office. Some history educators didn’t feel comfortable touching the computer, even to clock themselves in. Administrative staff and frontline staff rarely interacted.
Scheduling was also a real challenge. The way our history educator staff were scheduled and budgeted was based on building. So, if our farmstead history educator was out for a week, there wasn’t anyone that could step in and work at that post. Turnover in the ticket office positions was high, and part of me wondered if they just got bored. All of these issues collided last summer, and we decided to completely restructure our frontline staff. Here’s what we did (after many meetings and conversations and a bit of hand wringing. Change can be scary.)
Abolished the “Ticket Office Staff” and “History Educator” positions. We created one position: “History Host.” We also standardized the hourly rate so that everyone is making the same amount.
Abolish seasonal staffing (previously, history educators weren’t scheduled in February, July or September due to low attendance). Instead, staff are scheduled based on visitor attendance history. For example, after looking at numbers, we realized that July was a decent month for attendance–and very few people were on site to help those visitors.
All History Host staff are required to be “certified” to work in at least two posts. For new hires, one post must be the Ticket Office.
All administrative staff (including myself) are required to spend at least 5% of their time in direct visitor service beginning on February 1.
All staff must be able to give tours of our two signature homes, Millermore and Sullivan.
We began implementing the changes in the Fall. We held a series of training sessions in various building posts. In January, we did an all staff training of Millermore and Sullivan. And last week, we held an all staff retreat to talk more about customer service and how to share all this knowledge everyone now possessed. We used a few points from The Anarchist’s Guide to Historic House Museums to guide our conversation. But the main purpose was to learn from each other some of the key skills needed to best serve our visitors. A few volunteers joined us as well, and we’ll likely do a volunteer retreat later this spring.
So, how is all this working? Well, I’m the boss, so they sure don’t tell me everything. But I do hear a few things through the grapevine. Our frontline staff that have made the transition with us are enjoying the variety. Not every day is exactly the same. Even though administrative staff weren’t required to head out to the grounds until this month, several worked on the grounds during busy school tour days last fall. Staff now have more flexibility in their hours–if they’re able to work more, we will probably schedule them for additional hours. Generally, things seem to be going pretty well.
It’s too soon to tell what kind of impact all of this might have on visitors. Like many small museums, we just don’t do enough evaluation. I’m hoping that we’ll be able to afford AASLH’s Visitors Count program in the next year or so, and then we’ll begin to have some data.
I completed my first shift in Millermore a few weeks ago. It has been ages since I’ve spent that much time talking to visitors, and after 12 years of working at DHV, this was my first standard docent shift. It was a fairly busy Sunday, and I had an absolutely delightful time talking to visitors. It was fun to figure out different ways to tell the story (I might have started my tour upstairs), as well as see what trends emerged during the day.
Long term, I think this could be transformative for the museum. If we’re all interacting with visitors, we all might have some great ideas. And by leveling things a bit, those ideas are more likely to move across the lines that are inherent in any organization with multiple staff members. I’m feeling pretty good about these changes. But you might need to ask me again after my first 700 school kid day. . .