The Stories We Could Tell. . . If We Paid the Interns

Picture it: Spring 1998, my freshman year of college. My mom says to me “You really need to get a job this summer.” I had spent my high school years babysitting and working in a doctor’s office. I really didn’t want the “typical” summer college job of food service or retail. But mom had seen something in the paper about an internship program, sponsored by ExxonMobil for undergraduate students to work at Dallas nonprofits. And that’s how I wound up in the basement of the Hall of State, randomly running across letters signed by Sam Houston.

Here’s the simple truth: I wouldn’t be in the museum field if it wasn’t for a string of paid summer internships during my college years. But this origin story is rapidly becoming extinct.

I went to a private liberal arts college that was a bit of a stretch financially for my family. The money I earned during the summer went towards the next year’s tuition bills. ExxonMobil’s Community Summer Jobs Program gave grants to about 75 Dallas area non-profits of all types, including museums and cultural organizations. (The program still exists, but it’s much, much smaller now.) I applied to exactly one–the Dallas Historical Society–to write curriculum using primary sources. At the time, I thought my future career was as a high school English teacher. Though we spent part of just about every vacation at a historic house–and though I was the youngest docent at my local historic house museum by about 50 years–I had never considered working in a museum. Until I spent the summer going through the Dallas Historical Society’s vast collection, uncovering all sorts of treasures. I also helped create a “virtual tour” (remember, this is 1998, so very cutting edge!) of various Bonnie and Clyde sites. We had to hop a fence to get a picture of Clyde’s grave, and this seemed like the very height of danger and adventure. At least for a history museum.

When I got back to campus, I switched my major from English to history. And that summer established a pattern for the rest of my college summers. While some friends spent their summers in exotic places, I just went home. Luckily, my parents lived in a suburb, so I could get internships at major museums and not have to pay for lodging. I was jealous of them exploring new cities–they were jealous of me not having to find lodging!

In the summer of 1999, I worked at the Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza. It was my most boring internship–cataloging books for their research library. But it was an interesting summer. That summer, they launched a live web feed of Dealey Plaza–and got in a bit of trouble. JFK Jr. died, and I worked late one night, searching for pictures of the memorials to his father that were left on the grassy knoll. The rights to the Zapruder film were determined. The museum was on the national news three times that summer, and I started learning about rapid response to current events.

That summer, I also did a bit of research on the history of a building at Fair Park that was the future home of the Women’s Museum. In the summer of 2000, I worked there, helping to process loans as they got ready to open in September. I held Edith Head’s Oscar and Eleanor Roosevelt’s knitting needles. I learned a lot about management styles and the politics around women’s history. I can tell many, many stories about that summer, and it wasn’t a huge surprise when the museum ultimately closed in 2011.

The Registrar, the other two interns, and me at the Women’s Museum.

Because of all this, I entered grad school with a wealth of practical experience. I started my first “real” job with tons of prior experience that helped me move up the ladder quickly. And though I’ve worked at the same institution for 16 years, these experiences still inform my work. However, there’s no way I could have accepted any of these extraordinary opportunities without a paycheck.

At Dallas Heritage Village, I’ve long taken the attitude that it’s better to not have an intern than to have an unpaid intern. The last time we had paid interns was the summer of 2008–right before the bottom dropped out. We had four that year, which was perhaps too many. But it was amazing! In the last decade, there hasn’t been room in budget, but we have had a few unpaid interns. But nothing about that is equitable for the field. They’re self-selected–we certainly don’t advertise for them–and we’ve worked out some sort of benefit to them (usually course credit). We write glowing recommendations. Sometimes we even manage to stay in touch as they enter the field. But I feel terrible every time we do it. Because this isn’t how we build a more diverse field. This isn’t how we make sure museum professionals make equitable wages at every stage of our careers. This isn’t how we remind the public and our boards that our work has value.

Earlier this summer, we accepted an unpaid collections intern, set to start in January. She needs it for course credit and, due to the pandemic, was having difficulty in finding any internships, period. And then, last month, we had a few unexpected staff departures which gave us a chance to re-examine the personnel budget.

The first thing I did was make that internship a paid internship. And telling her that it was now paid was the most fun I’ve had at work in a long time.

There is so much work ahead of us to make the museum field more equitable and diverse for both staff and our communities. In order for the external work to have any longevity, we have to get the internal work done first. Paid internships aren’t a quick fix for our field. It will not save us today, but it may save us tomorrow. We have to start building a new workforce today, and we must not assume that our future colleagues can afford to work just for the experience.

One of my dreams is to create a yearly post-grad curatorial fellowship at the Village. Trying to find funding for this has been on the backburner, but my hope is that next year’s internship might provide a great template for future funding. Finally, we’re starting to see some major gifts going to support paid internships–but only for art museums. Imagine the stories we could tell if similar gifts were made in the history museum field!

Me and Lady Mary

A few weeks ago, I joined a friend to see an eagerly anticipated movie–Downton Abbey. It was exactly what I thought it would be–a soapy drama with fabulous clothes and British accents. But there was this one moment that caught me totally off guard, and it had me stifling back sobs and wanting to cheer at the same time. If you run a museum, you may know what scene I’m talking about.

It’s right before the King and Queen’s visit, and Anna is Lady Mary’s room helping her get dressed. Here’s my rough memory of the conversation:

Lady Mary: “Sometimes I wonder if it’s worth carrying on.”

Anna: “You mean Downton Abbey?”

Lady Mary: “Yes. When I was out in the rain moving chairs. And then planning this party. And worrying about the roof. Is this how I want to spend my life? It’s just all so difficult.”

Anna: “But Downton is the heart of the community. We’d be lost without you.”

Sound familiar, fellow museum people?

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It had been a rough weekend. Earlier in the month, we had made the decision to close one of our signature houses, the Blum House, due to ongoing deferred maintenance issues. It had been at the top of our priority list for years, but our fundraising efforts just weren’t going anywhere. With it’s fancy metal-shingle roof and elaborate gingerbread, the costs were staggering. It wasn’t an easy decision, but we also needed to bring attention to the immense deferred maintenance needs both at DHV, as well as at all city-owned cultural facilities. We believe in transparency, so after the board voted, we sent out the announcement in a very systematic way: first to staff, then the full board and city partners, then e-newsletter subscribers, and then social media. All of those groups responded the way we anticipated–sadness and concern. Except social media. We were getting a beating. Some very vocal folks couldn’t believe the estimate we put out there–$650,000. Some blamed us for not taking care of this city-owned structure, but didn’t really fault the city. Others thought we shouldn’t be asking for help, since their tax dollars already took care of everything. I could go on. It was a very long weekend.

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So it was under that weight that I went to see Downton Abbey. It was a relief to turn off my phone for a few hours and not think about roofs and rotting wood. But then Mary started talking about roofs and the enormous task of keeping a place like Downton functioning, and it came flooding back. Suddenly, I understood Mary in a very different way. Perhaps we’re more alike than I realized, though I have yet to find any sort of wealthy suitor, much less husband.

Of course, throughout all of the online drama about the Blum House, things were happening behind the scenes. There were those that spoke up in our defense. There were two reporters that reached out to us to get the full story. Their articles are here and here. I spent over an hour on the phone with one reporter, and the result was an article with the headline: DHV Executive Director: “Maintenance is not Sexy.” Always fun to see something I’ve been casually saying for years in a headline! A few old friends reached out and asked how they could help. We’re getting to know a few new friends. Meetings and conversations are happening, not just about restoring the Blum House but how to get more support to DHV.

As Lady Mary also knows so well, old buildings are expensive to maintain. They were built and established when ways of funding them were far different. After all, the entire show is about how to adapt the business model in rapidly changing times to keep the estate going. And you can say the same about my museum career.

Yep, Mary, it’s exhausting and often thankless work. But in the end, it’s worth it. Most days.

Credit where it’s due

This past summer, I was asked to join a City of Dallas Office of Cultural Affairs task force regarding contextualizing the Confederate symbols scattered around Fair Park. We would also be discussing a memorial to Allan Brooks, victim of Dallas’ most notorious lynching. And then I went into panic mode.

Like any good public historian, I had been following the many conversations regarding Confederate memorials over the past several years. Of course, I closely followed the conversation here in Dallas, though we didn’t take part in that conversation in any official capacity. Mostly, we were just grateful that the memorial erected in City Park in the 1890s had been moved off of park land when Interstate 30 was built. I tried to keep up with how other communities were handling the conversation and taking action. But let’s be honest: that’s a lot of news articles to keep up with. It’s a really big story, as it should be. However, research gives me great comfort, and so with that invitation, I knew I was going to have to pay a lot more attention to what my colleagues were doing in other cities.

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Some postcards of the Confederate Memorial that used to be at City Park, but was moved to Pioneer Cemetery in the early 1960s

Shortly after that call, I got notice of a new publication from AASLHControversial Monuments and Memorials: A Guide for Community Leaders. I ordered it immediately. But I didn’t read it immediately, as suddenly there were a few other things on the front burner for me.

Luckily, the first meeting of the task force wasn’t until mid-December. And I’ll admit that I was a little nervous about that first meeting, especially after an article like this appeared. It’s never good when people start talking about task forces before you even have a first meeting.

One of my goals for the holiday break was to finally read Controversial Monuments and Memorials. I’m so glad this book was waiting for me–I feel almost caught up! In one place are all the big stories of the last few years of how communities are reckoning with their complex past. There’s a concise chapter about the historiography of Confederate memorials. There’s an examination of international approaches as well. It helped me synthesize my own thoughts, both about the task force and some ongoing reinterpretation work we’re doing at DHV regarding our signature house, Millermore. This should be on every public historian’s desk (not shelf, desk, so it’s close at hand). Whether your site has any connections to the Confederacy or not, there’s probably something in your site’s history that has to be examined through new lenses. This book will help you do that.

We have our second meeting tomorrow, and I feel so much more prepared. It’s almost impossible to keep up with all the professional literature out there. And usually, it takes a while for books to catch up with current events. But kudos to AASLH and editor David B. Allison for getting this out in such a timely manner. And I’m glad I finally found the time to read it.

Reading this book was also an excellent reminder of how important it is to keep up with professional literature. And so, my new year’s resolution for 2019 is to take one day a month to work at home, focusing on catching up with professional literature and maybe even a bit of writing. Friday was the first day I did this, though I was only moderately successful with the “only reading” part of the day. What’s in your pile of things you’ve been meaning to get to?

Museum Surprises in Houston

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Museum Surprises in Philadelphia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Love these labels and these stories.

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

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

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

Dramatic Inspiration: Innovative theater and museums

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.

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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?

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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.

The Long Game: Early Childhood Learning at Museums

Sometimes, we forget that museum education is a long game. Next month, I’ll celebrate my 13th anniversary at DHV–and I’m still working on something that I first thought about on Day 2.

When I started in March 2004, I was able to shadow my predecessor for a few days. I remember asking her “Have you ever tried a preschool storytime?” Her response: “Oh no! My mom is a preschool teacher, and I really don’t like working with kids that age.” About a year later, I launched Barnyard Buddies, a program still going strong. It wasn’t an unusual concept–a book, a spot at DHV that connects to the book, an activity, maybe a song, and a craft.We had a blast, and the program grew, and it caused me to think a little bit differently about how to use DHV to teach.

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From a 2006 Barnyard Buddies program

But I also remember the reaction of some of my colleagues at other museums. I vividly remember a late night at the state museum conference, where we were having some tasty beverages in someone’s hotel room. Somehow, Barnyard Buddies came up and one man said “Why on earth would you let anyone younger than 4th grade into your museum? Young kids can’t understand HISTORY.” I was dumbfounded. Yes, these kids didn’t understand the origins of the Civil War, but they sure understand that life was very different a long time ago. And that’s enough to start.

Over the years, I started collecting examples of great programs and great spaces for young children. And I started collecting examples for my Hall of Shame as well. Too often, I was seeing the “children’s area” tucked into a corner, separate from the other exhibits. Too often, I was seeing very little thought put into these spaces. If we’re to stop the decline of museum attendance, shouldn’t we be doing everything in our power to attract young children and their families?

In 2010, we developed a new strategic plan for DHV that included setting aside one building for a preschool play space. The building, formerly a Law Office exhibit, needed some serious repair work. A leaking roof had to be fixed first, before we ever explored other repairs and our ideas for the space. We also began to integrate more hands-on areas in other buildings, most dramatically in our General Store.

In Summer 2013, we learned that Vogel Alcove (a non-profit providing childcare for homeless children up to age 5) was moving into the recently vacated City Park Elementary School–located directly across the street. I reached out to Karen, their ED, and we began to work together. They moved to their renovated building in March 2014, and by that summer, their kids had started visiting us regularly. And we realized that the Law Office project needed to head to the top of our priority list because we had kids itching to have a space just for them.

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Vogel Alcove uses our museum in so many different ways!

In 2015, we managed to get the roof fixed. We started talking to the donors who funded the initial Law Office exhibit project. And we submitted a Community Anchors grant to the Institute of Museum and Library Services. We wanted assistance to complete the playspace, but most importantly, we wanted the money to do a long-term evaluation of early childhood learning at DHV. Because my list of shining examples of early childhood spaces and programs at museums hadn’t grown much. And there definitely weren’t too many history museums on that list.

In September 2016, we got word that we had gotten the grant. I was in the middle of a luncheon at the AASLH conference, and all I wanted to do was dance and shout with joy. I restrained myself. Barely. I definitely can’t tell you what the speaker said that afternoon. And now the real fun has begun.

Last week, my educator, Mandy, and I did a two-hour “baseline” interview with our evaluators. We were forced to really think deeply about our educational philosophy, how we approach early childhood learning, and what our goals are for the 3 year grant period. In a way, I was also reflecting on my career at DHV.

When the succession plan was first announced, I had colleagues tell me that I needed to think twice about becoming director at DHV: “You don’t want to wake up one day and realize you’ve spent your entire career there.” I nodded and smiled, but inside I thought to myself “If I spend another 5 years at DHV as director, I’ll only be 40.” But today I started thinking about the value of that continuity–though my job has changed dramatically over the years, we’ve been able to strengthen and grow our programs in a profound way. We now have kids that were first Barnyard Buddies and are now Junior Historians. Through this program, we’ve gotten to know families. We know that our museum is an important part of their lives. How much harder is that to do at other museums where the average tenure of an educator is 2 years?

The kids that joined me at Barnyard Buddies in 2005 are now in junior high or high school. With this grant, sometimes I feel like our work is just getting started. And sometimes I feel that it’s the logical climax to the work that I began all those years ago. I truly believe that this grant will be transformative, and one result of this IMLS grant will be a new chapter in DHV’s history. We’re finally putting into words and collecting the data on all of our ideas about ways to teach history, and we plan to share it with the wider museum community.

There are so many things that energize me at work right now–whether it’s neighborhood development, fundraising, or this project. Every now and then, I get the question: so, where will you head to next? And when are you going to start thinking about that? And the simple answer is: I have no idea. I’m having too much fun right now. It’s a long game, but it’s a game that’s worth playing.

Lessons from Fair Park

It seems everyone in Dallas is talking about Fair Park right now. And it’s not just the usual fried food anticipation that comes with every State Fair season. A few weeks ago, an old friend asked me on Facebook “Will you explain the Fair Park issue to me like I’m five years old? I don’t really understand what’s going on.” My response: “The Powers That Be want to fix something and are surprised that other people also have thoughts.”

I’ve written about Fair Park here before.  In the 9 months or so since that post, I continue to be deeply concerned about the future of Fair Park. I also continue to be deeply concerned about the lack of understanding in the community about how non-profits work.  But lately, I’ve mostly been fascinated.  This whole mess has more than a few lessons for non-profit leaders.

(For those that aren’t local and want to catch up, I highly recommend checking out the stories by Robert Wilonsky or Jim Schutze.  There are so many nuances to this whole situation, and they have already explained it as well as possible.)

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Lesson #1: If you know that there’s a contentious issue coming up at a board meeting, don’t try to limit the discussion.  Back in July, the Park Board was all set to discuss the management agreement with the foundation. When they arrived that morning, the agenda had been changed at the last minute and limited to just six items. Five Park Board members walked out.  There was no longer a quorum, and the meeting ended.  It was a powerful reminder that boards do in fact have power–and there should be a power balance between the ED/Chair and the rest of the board.

Earlier this summer, I presented something to my board that I was expecting to pass with little discussion. Instead, there was a lengthy discussion, a second discussion a month later, and an email discussion. Ultimately the proposal passed, but certainly not on the timeline I had envisioned.  But you know what?  That’s okay, because it means my board is doing their job. No non-profit leader should ever expect everything to sail through, especially on really big decisions.

Lesson #2: Stop underestimating the power of social media. If this transfer had been attempted even 5 years ago, I think it would have been a smoother road. People just weren’t as active and engaged and informed as they are today–and it’s all through social media. There are twitter accounts solely dedicated to this issue. Hundreds of people have shown up to meetings about Fair Park. By all appearances, this has caught quite a few people completely off-guard.  Back room deals, the bedrock of Dallas politics, just aren’t as easy any more.

Lesson #3: Take every opportunity you can to explain non-profit mechanics–and how you serve the community. There has been a lot of vilification of non-profits on social media over the last several months. Many assume that non-profits aren’t held accountable for their actions. Though there are certainly some accountability issues in the current management agreement, people don’t realize that non-profits are accountable in a thousand different ways–to board members, the public, funders, partners, etc.  And people also don’t realize how many management agreements the city already has with private non-profits. We’ve been in a management agreement with the city since the 1960s.

Lesson #4: If people are accusing you of not being transparent, change your actions. There are many, many things that baffle me about the current situation. The board of the foundation has yet to meet, but they’re presenting to the city a management agreement and a budget. This just seems totally backwards to me.  Board members are fiscally responsible–shouldn’t they have some input?  They should have been meeting for a year before they ever introduced a formal contract to the city. And yet, no changes are being made.  Instead, threats are being tossed around that this must be voted on in September–OR ELSE.  And so people are deeply worried about various shenanagins. As they should be.  It’s just baffling.  Also, here’s the funding chart that was presented to the City.

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If I had presented that to anyone, I would have been laughed out of the room and out of the job.  And perhaps that’s what frustrates me most about this whole situation. It appears that they’re being held to an entirely different standard than other non-profits. And that’s bad for all of us.

The worries continue about Fair Park. But at least it’s another opportunity to learn how to be a better Executive Director. Just do the opposite of the folks trying to take over Fair Park.

 

New England Travels

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.

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Tuck traveled with me, of course.

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.

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The Library at Peace field is swoon-worthy.

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.

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The building is very impressive, even if I didn’t love the exhibits.

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!

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I’ve walked goats in my career, but I’ve never hauled one on to a ship. Such a fun touch!

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.

Time Battles

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.

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“The Research Lab” panel: Libba Bray, Karen Blumenthal, Janet B. Taylor, Ruta Sepetys, Nathan Hale and me.

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“One Story at a Time” Me with Adi Alsaid, Marisa Reichardt, Jennifer Mathieu, Maurene Goo, Ally Condie and Julie Buxbaum

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.