Where I’ve Been and Where I’ll Be

This has been another summer of travel, mostly museum related, and there’s more travel ahead.  Part of me has grand dreams of writing some thoughtful posts about some of these trips, but the practical side of me is starting to dump items off of the to do list.  It seems like my only hope of keeping afloat.

So, here’s a brief account of where I’ve been and where I’ll be.

In July, I had the opportunity to make a return Peer Review visit (a program with the American Alliance of Museums) to the Renton History Museum. They’re a great local history museum, just outside of Seattle.  It’s always a pleasure to return to a museum, and it’s rewarding to see if the report I submitted had any impact.  One of the highlights was seeing their fabulous photo booth that went with their “Furry Friends” exhibit–further proof that delightful exhibit moments don’t always cost a lot of money.

In August, I headed to a tiny town outside of Pittsburgh to do a first Peer Review visit to the West Overton Museums.  They have about 18 buildings on their original sites.  It’s a wonderfully rich site, with lots of great industrial history.  It’s also the birthplace of future robber baron, Henry Clay Frick.  Lots of good ideas floating around, but my job was to help them focus a bit.

During that trip, I also crossed something off the Historic Site Bucket List: Fallingwater.  Wish there were fewer people on the tour, but I know that this home is on a lot of people’s bucket lists.  Even with the crowds, it was a magical experience to be in the house.  And the visitor’s center was one of the best I’ve ever seen.

I also spent some time at the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh.  I’m always inspired by a good children’s museum and firmly believe that history museums could learn all sorts of things about exhibit designs from children’s museums.  The official reason of that trip was to chat with Chris Seifert, Deputy Director, about their Charm Bracelet Project–a unique community/neighborhood development project.  I was hoping he would inspire some thoughts about what’s ahead of DHV and our neighbors in the Cedars.  And he did!  Lots of good ideas to ponder.  I also stopped by the Mattress Factory, Carnegie Museums, and of course, the Heinz History Center.  A good friend gave me an after hours tour of the Fort Pitt Museum.  I also really enjoyed the Phipps Conservancy–so many pretty plants!

Last weekend, I headed to East Texas with the family for a 50th Wedding Anniversary party of one of dad’s cousins.  Hearing about the family history is fun, and we even did a driving tour of Timpson, where a few generations of Prycers farmed.  Of course, I didn’t love seeing the “old Prycer place” in such disrepair, but I am very tempted to go back and exploring it further.

Next weekend, I’m heading to Fayetteville for a mini-reunion of the college gang.  I’m also hoping to make a quick trip to Crystal Bridges.  I’ve been there before, but I really want to see their progress on rebuilding a Frank Lloyd Wright house.

And then on Tuesday, I head to Louisville for AASLH.  I’m doing two presentations–one on unique partnerships and one on advocacy.  The advocacy session will also be a part of the online conference–which means I’m going from never having presented at a national conference to three presentations. I love conferences, but I’m also anticipating being very, very tired (and possibly “all museum-ed out”) by Friday.

Finally, on October 1, I’ll be speaking at the Stone Fort Museum in Nacogdoches.  They’re opening up a new exhibit on 19th century diseases–and I’ll be talking about the literary portrayal of consumption.  It’s a talk based on an article that was published several years ago.  I’m really looking forward to wearing my historian hat too.

So, it’s not like I’m anticipating my life calming dramatically in October, but at least I’ll be home a bit more.

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End of an Era?

Like all snarky liberals, I stayed up late on Thursday night to watch the end of an era–Jon Stewart’s last episode of The Daily Show.  I’m sad that he’s leaving for many reasons, and Trevor Noah has some awfully big shoes to fill.  I know that it won’t be the same, but I sincerely hope that Noah likes historians half as much as Stewart.  As one of my friends said on facebook “What I love about Jon Stewart is that he is as (or more) excited about his historians as guests as his entertainment friends.”

During his final stretch, historians continued to be featured.  Doris Kearns Goodwin, David McCullough and Sarah Vowell all made appearances.  Of course, it might make sense that a snarky historian like Vowell would be a regular on The Daily Show.  And McCullough and Goodwin are some of the most widely read historians today.  These aren’t exactly obscure folks Stewart is interviewing.  But let’s face it–shouldn’t we ecstatic any time a historian sits in the same chair as a Hollywood celebrity?  I can’t think of another popular medium where historians and their books are regularly featured, honored, and promoted.  This is public history at its finest.

But if you dig deeper into Comedy Central’s schedule, you’ll find there’s a greater love of history there than well, maybe some other network that calls itself the History Channel.  I never really got into Drunk History, but they’re doing a heck of a job of skewering both well known stories and those that are hiding in the shadows. I hate that I love Another Period, but it cracks me up on a routine basis.  It pokes at so many different angles of the early 20th century–and there are plenty of jokes that will fly right over non-history nerd’s heads, which is awesome.  How often do history nerds get the “insider” jokes?

None of these things are “serious history” but I’ve long believed that part of our problem as historians is that we often take ourselves too seriously.  History is the story of humanity, and people can be awfully funny.

I know The Daily Show will change with Trevor Noah as host (and honestly, it should feel different).  But I sincerely hope that I’ll continue to delight in interviews with some of my favorite historians–and they’ll get exposure to a broader audience.  And maybe one day, there will be more than one place in this world where historians are treated the same as Hollywood celebrities.

Wardrobe Conundrums

Back in grad school, I talked myself into buying a totally useless (but very pretty!) dress by telling myself “But I might need a fancy dress like this for exhibit openings or fundraisers.”  Even though I had never previously worked at a museum that had lots of fancy dress occasions, I just assumed that my future career path would lead me to glamorous parties that required beautifully appropriate clothing.

I thought of this today when I climbed a ladder to check out some roof repairs.  I didn’t know I would be climbing a ladder when I got dressed this morning, so I was quite grateful to be wearing flats and pants.  And, of course, this isn’t the first time I’ve had this kind of thought during my career at DHV.

Fashion decisions can be really hard at a place like DHV.  We have a lot of land, a lot of buildings, and some extreme weather conditions.  Over the years, I’m not sure how many shoes I’ve bought that felt comfortable in the store but spectacularly failed the DHV test.  I get super excited if I find a skirt or dress with pockets.  I refuse to buy pants that don’t have pockets.  There’s an entire section of my closet devoted to the necessary layers for Candlelight.

Since becoming ED, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about clothing, and I’ve never been that kind of girl before.  Part of it is the struggle to strike the right balance–some days, I need to look professional but still be comfortable enough to move a table.  And then there are those unpredictable emergencies when you don’t exactly have time to change. Example: we had a flash flood in June, and I waded into knee deep water to clear a drain.  I was wearing a dress.  In fact, of the 7 staff members that responded to the emergency, 4 of us were wearing dresses.  The dress survived, but my shoes didn’t.

The other struggle is to make sure I look like I know what I’m doing.  When I took the job, I knew I was young for the position (34 when I became ED–36 as of tomorrow).  What  I didn’t realize until later was just how much younger I was–it didn’t matter if I was in a room of other arts leaders, non profit leaders, or museum leaders, I was typically the youngest by at least a decade and usually more like 20 years.  Now, I knew I wasn’t going to stop dying my hair and start showing off my gray hair, so I just thought harder about what to wear at certain meetings.  And I started to carry nicer purses.  Dallas can be a very label conscious city, and I refuse to spend big money of clothing (see above flood incident).  But purses will probably not be in a flood situation, and I can get a lot more bang for my buck.  Plus, they’re really pretty and make me happy.

Finally, there are the random parties and invitations that can cause all kinds of angst.  Last fall, I was invited to an evening dinner fundraiser.  Now, I had my set outfit for luncheon fundraisers, but shouldn’t evening be different?  When I asked the friend that invited me, she said “it’s a real mix of cocktail and business attire.”  What the heck does that even mean?  I spent more time than I should admit agonizing over that one night, and probably tried on 4 different outfits that day. (For the record, I went with a gray dress and rhinestone jewelry.)

Right before our 2014 History with a Twist event. Notice the flip flops, which I kept on as long as possible. Even said in a Facebook comment: “The best thing about that dress is that it looks fabulous and allowed me to do things like haul giant palms.” At the 2015 Twist event, I wore 4 different pairs of shoes that day and my feet were still killing me. The struggle is real.

There were two things I did shortly after being named ED for my own sanity levels.  I hired a maid to come twice a month.  And I joined Stitch Fix, with the instructions that I needed to upgrade my wardrobe for my new position.  Because the other fashion conundrum: I don’t have a lot of free time to shop, and I realized I had a lot of gaps in my wardrobe.  My feminist side constantly tells me: “Stop worrying so much about what you wear!  No one cares!”  But I also know that I’m representing DHV at these various events and meetings, and that just makes it more complicated.  I have joked often with Gary (my predecessor) about how much easier he had it, only having to decide tie or no tie, jacket or no jacket.

So, about that fabulous purple dress I bought in grad school?  After moving it from North Carolina to Texas, from my parent’s house to two apartments and to my own house, I finally gave it to Goodwill several years ago.  I never wore it.  Not once.  But I do now have a fabulous collection of random Western attire that fit in perfectly with DHV’s former gala theme of Gone to Texas.  Which is no longer needed since we’re now doing a 1920s theme. The wardrobe conundrums will never end.

A different kind of community anchor

A couple of years ago, I was sitting in a professional development workshop, taking a quiz about how connected we were with the community.  The quiz deeply frustrated me—Dallas Heritage Village is located in one of the largest metropolitan areas in the country.  Major institutions in the city routinely have close to a million annual visitors.  Our annual budget isn’t even a million dollars.  The second most visited history institution in Texas (behind the Alamo) is a few minutes’ drive away.  And this quiz was asking me if the mayor had ever visited my museum?  And how often other city officials attended events? I asked the facilitator: “If you’re a small organization in a big city, how can you begin to make those kinds of connections?”  They stared at me blankly.  Part of me wondered if perhaps there were some other ways to measure community engagement.

Museum people spend a lot of time talking about becoming engaged with their community, and I think most of us acknowledge that this is a key to future sustainability.  For many museums, this may mean program partnerships, collaborations, and efforts to get your audience demographics closer to your community’s demographics.  This is incredibly important work, but for me, the definition of a community anchor has become infinitely more complex—and infinitely messier.

Dallas Heritage Village is located on the edge of Downtown Dallas, separated by a major interstate.  We are also in the middle of a redeveloping neighborhood known as the Cedars. This redevelopment has been a long time coming, but it’s also been incredibly rapid.  Eighteen months ago, DHV was a virtual island; today, we’re working with 6 new partners within walking distance.  When all of this began, I knew that we had to make sure we were a part of the conversations.  New eyes were turning to the Cedars, and I wanted to make sure that everyone knew who we are, what we do, and that we had been here all along.

City Park, 1880--future site of Dallas Heritage Village
City Park, 1880–future site of Dallas Heritage Village

And I suppose this is where my thoughts about museums and community really began to change.  Internal strategic planning was put on hold, because external factors were changing too rapidly.  And I started to have meetings with people that history museum directors usually don’t interact with.

First, it was the real estate developers.  They saw our land (27 acres in all) and said “Oh, look! A park!” And I said “Not exactly.  A nationally accredited history museum in a parklike setting.”  Then they said “Oh look! Parking!”  And after multiple meetings drawing up a parking lease, we had to say “No, we can’t lease park land to a private developer.”  Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine that I would create a folder called “Parking Issues,” but that folder is resting happily in my files because the issue will likely come up again.

In January, there was a meeting called by city staff to discuss the formation of a task force for our neighborhood.  But somehow, despite the fact that we are the largest landowner in the neighborhood and the fact that we are on city land, with city owned buildings and city funding, my invitation never arrived.  A close relationship with our councilman and a neighborhood activist got me a seat at that very large, round table.  Looking around, I was astonished to realize I was the only female at the table.  And I was even more astonished when a developer (whom I had not yet met) said “No matter what our plans end up being, Dallas Heritage Village will always be the showpiece of the neighborhood.”  And thus, my annoyance about not being invited in the beginning was tempered by the fact that I didn’t have to explain how valuable we are to the development plans.

Then it was the traffic and transportation people.  In the winter, I got an invitation to a meeting to discuss updating a strategic plan regarding transportation issues for downtown.  My first thought: this must be a mistake.  My second thought: Even if it is, I’m going to show up.  So, I did my homework, pulled up the existing transportation plan, and discovered that there was a proposed streetcar line through the middle of our property.  On a street that had been grass for several years at the time this plan was released.  And with that, I had no problem fitting that meeting into my schedule.

A few weeks ago, I got a call from the Texas Department of Transportation.  They are currently doing a massive study and plan for all of the highways around downtown Dallas.  I arrived to a meeting at a downtown high rise to be greeted by traffic engineers, urban planners and architects.  Though I had been sent an official set of questions, we never got to them.  They said “How does Interstate 30 affect you?” and I was off and running.  I’m not sure they were expecting me to be able to talk about those bigger issues, but in the last several months, urban planning has become a lot more interesting to me.  This meeting was supposed to be an hour; it lasted almost two hours, the day before a holiday weekend.  But the most surprising aspect of this meeting is the way they kept asking “What did I-30 do to the neighborhood?” The last 30 minutes of the meeting were spent looking at aerial pictures of downtown pre-I-30 and talking about the damage that interstate did.  (In my head, I was cheering “History at work!”) At one point, I made a comment to the traffic engineer “I hate to place all the blame on your predecessors,” and he said “Oh no.  I don’t see any reason why they did what they did.  This makes no sense.”  In some way, that comforted me.

Aerial shot 1975
City Park, post construction of I-30. 1975.

But it’s not all urban planning and real estate developers and traffic engineers.  Last week, I had two meetings about the growing issue of homeless encampments along our perimeter.  Our north border is the interstate, and there is a median between us and the access road.  Just over a year ago, TxDoT rescinded the Criminal Trespass Affidavit it had with the Dallas Police Department.  Now, the only way DPD can clear those camps is if they witness an active criminal act.  Because it’s not our property, our hands are tied, but it’s deeply affecting us.  Homelessness is an incredibly complex issue, and there aren’t a lot of answers for the service resistant.  And yet, our historic buildings, our staff, and our visitors are at incredible risk.  So, in one day, I had meetings with a VP of public safety for downtown, city attorneys, the office of our state representative, and the head of crisis intervention with the DPD.  There aren’t a lot of answers, but at least I now have the assurance that we’re all working together for the same goal—finding the best solution for these individuals and the neighborhood.

As a former educator, my heart will always lean towards the warm and fuzzy stories of community engagement.  But from a practical standpoint, community engagement means so much more.  It means getting involved in local politics—not just making sure the local politicians are invited to your events, but making sure you’re being included in the important conversations shaping your city. Sometimes it means showing up at meetings that may only have a peripheral connection to your organization.  Most importantly, it means educating yourself on the issues, whether it’s urban planning, homelessness, or traffic flow.  My job has changed in profound ways as a result of these efforts, and it’s also changing my museum.  We’re becoming more externally focused, more flexible, and more creative.  We’re becoming a community anchor, not just for the Cedars, but for all of Dallas.

This blog will help me chronicle that story and hopefully provide some guidance for those that may be facing similar issues.  Won’t you join me?