Best year ever?

Last night, while catching up with a fellow nonprofit friend, she said to me: “All that shit you’ve gone through over the last few years is turning into manure!” Now, she works for a garden, so these kind of metaphors are natural for her. But I do love it, and it may be a new mantra.

Our annual meeting was a few weeks ago. By some metrics, this has been a pretty terrible year. But we’ve also had some incredible wins, many of them years in the making. Though this has been shared on the DHV blog, I thought it might be fun to share the year in review here, with all of you. With a few bonus links, just in case you want to know more about a few of these things.

2019–The Year in Review

At this time last year, Dallas Heritage Village was facing some pretty big challenges. We didn’t know what would happen with our city funding. Our budget was up in the air. Key staff were departing, and it was unclear when we would be able to replace them. There was turmoil and uncertainty, to say the least.

And it’s not as if things instantly got better. We did receive a $70,000 cut in our city funding, after all sorts of political twists and turns. The weather has generally been terrible for just about every event, and Candlelight had its lowest attendance in years. We had more staff turnover. Our longtime curator, Evelyn Montgomery, discovered greener pastures and left in January. Also in January, Tuck, one of our beloved donkeys died. The Ambassador Hotel burned to the ground. And to top it all off, we spent most of last spring dealing with sewer line issues, complete with porta-pottys for months and a $40,000 price tag. Sometimes, we do feel that there must be a black cloud hanging over DHV.

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But as I reflect on the past year, I think it’s also safe to say that this has been one of our best years yet. In February, we welcomed Joe McGill and friends to Texas. Joe is the mastermind behind the Slave Dwelling Project, a national effort to bring the story of slavery forward. We had some great partners, including the City of Irving and the Dallas Truth, Racial Healing and Transformation Project. We offered multiple programs, and in spite of the miserable weather, people came and had difficult conversations about our complicated past. And people are still talking. We plan to bring Joe back next May.

This project was also a chance for one of our new staff members, Lisa Lopez to shine. She joined us in mid-November, which meant she had to dive straight into Candlelight. She also managed the logistics of the Slave Dwelling Project and did a fabulous job. As Director of Visitor Experience, she also manages our frontline staff and our school tour program. Her job is very big, but we’ll be able to hire her some help very soon.

A few months ago, we were chosen to participate in the American Alliance of Museums Facing Change: Advancing Board Diversity learning cohort—a group of 50 museums nationwide. This program is working to address issues surrounding board diversity and inclusion. The Texas cohort includes some familiar names for you: the Perot Museum, the Witte Museum, Fort Worth Museum of Science and History, and more. We’re looking forward to truly getting started on this work later this fall.

For the past year, we’ve been working hard on reinterpreting Millermore. And maybe reinterpreting isn’t the right word. Expanding might be better. For most of our history, we’ve focused on William Brown Miller and decorative arts. But as we began to dive into our files and primary sources, we realized there are many more stories to tell—and lots more people to talk about. We began this work last fall—and then right in the middle, our curator up and left. And then there was another opportunity for a staff member to shine. Elizabeth Qualia had joined our staff as part time curatorial assistant in Fall 2017. We promoted her to full time Curator of Collections and Interpretation—and then handed her this giant project. We have radically changed how we talk about Millermore—we start in the cabin and talk about slavery. We end in the sitting room with walls full of family trees of both the black and white Millers. In between, we tell the story of Barry Miller, local politician, and his daughter Evelyn, a writer. And so much more. Even more exciting for some–almost all of the barriers are down. The new tour format launched last week, and I invite you to join us soon for a very different conversation.

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Other new faces at DHV include Wolf Landrum. He also joined us in Fall 2017 as  a handyman—though we’ve known him for a very long time. He’s a longtime volunteer, and most importantly, his husband has been our St. Nicholas at Candlelight for a decade. When Evelyn left, we made him our full time Buildings and Grounds Conservator. It has been years since we’ve been able to dedicate an entire staff position to the care of our grounds. He has a lot of work to do, but I hope you can see some progress.

Aidan Wright joined us in February as Membership and Marketing Manager. He was also a familiar face—having worked as a history host a few years ago. He’s doing some great stuff on social media, and I hope you’re enjoying the “What the Artifact?” series!

But I want to talk a little bit more about Sydney Abdo, our brand new Rentals Manager. We have literally watched Sydney grow up at DHV. She was one of my summer camp kids, hanging out in my dearly departed Pages from the Past camp with Terri Brown’s daughter Isabel. She became a Junior Historian and worked on the Doctor’s Office exhibit. A few years ago, she joined our staff as History Host. When Stephanie made the decision to accept a full time position, she told Preston and I that we really needed to think about Sydney as her possible successor. And here she is.

That story encapsulates some of what makes this museum so special. Though we have plenty of visitors that we see once for a few hours, we also have many people that have made this museum an important part of their lives. People like Barbara Brockett, Queen of the Clothespin Doll, who recently passed her crown to Angie Gamez, longtime history host. Lynn Vogt, whose grandmother got this whole thing started and became a Life Trustee at last week’s Annual Meeting. Jorge Esteban, a brand new board member, who will be getting married at DHV next month.

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There’s a lot to be proud of. A lot to be grateful for. Many, many people to thank. And though there are many things about this past year I would not like to repeat, I’m incredibly proud of all that the staff and board has accomplished. Even as we have waded through literal poop.

 

During the Annual Meeting, we also announced two record-breaking gifts to DHV.

In June, we received $165,000 to fund a full-time Early Childhood Educator position that will be shared with our friends and neighbors at Vogel Alcove. This is a direct result of the 3 year IMLS grant we’re just now wrapping up, along with work that I began as educator many years ago. This new staff member started last week, and we are thrilled! It’s the largest gift from an individual donor in years, and she’s someone I’ve been building a relationship with ever since a thank you phone call where she said “Tell me more about Vogel Alcove. I’ve never thought about homeless children before.”

In September, we received $500,000 over 5 years to fund our animal program and restore various animal areas throughout the Village. One of my friends joked: Does this mean the donkeys are going to be expecting Evian water now? This gift was from the Joe and Doris Dealey Foundation and is the largest foundation gift in our history. We’ve been in conversation about this project for years as well.

More big gifts are in the pipeline as well. All that manure is definitely turning into some beautiful fruit!

Preparing for the hard stuff

Over the past few weeks, I’ve been thinking a lot about intimacy at the workplace. No, not THAT kind of intimacy, but rather emotional intimacy. Think about it: these are people that you spend a very large chunk of your life with. But have you ever been emotionally vulnerable in front of your colleagues? Have you ever talked about the bigger, life issues, beyond the day to day work of running a museum?

I first experienced one of those moments of intimacy back in 2012, when a coworker that had been at the museum for 20 years, died of cancer. Though she had been fighting cancer for years, her final decline was very rapid. At her funeral, probably half the crowd had some connection with DHV–whether they were volunteers, board members, donors or fellow coworkers. It was a very traditional Episcopal service, and I remember thinking how strange it felt to be participating in that ceremony with colleagues. We had never really discussed religion beyond the surface level. After all, that’s not something you do at work. And yet, there we were.

Just last month, we made the incredibly difficult decision to put down one of our beloved donkeys, Tuck.

He had retired from active wagon-pulling duties a few years ago due to arthritis, and we had been treating him with medication. But eventually the arthritis got to a point where the medication wasn’t doing much, and he was in a lot of pain. We were lucky enough to be able to plan his last days. We made sure key people knew that it was time to say goodbye and gave them the option of being notified of when the end would come. When that day came, staff gathered around him. He had many, many treats and nose scratches. Some staff left, but some of us stayed until the very end. There were many, many tears–that donkey had quite a hold on our hearts! But we cried together and shared kleenex and hugs. We went to lunch as a group and toasted Tuck–some of us with Moscow Mules (because why not?). As hard as that day was, it really couldn’t have been better.

This weekend, we’ll be sharing a very different type of intimacy. Joe McGill of the Slave Dwelling Project arrives tomorrow. On Friday night, many of us will be spending the night at the Miller Log House, built as a pioneer home but given to Arch and Charlotte, (two of the people William Brown Miller enslaved), once Millermore was complete. After Friday night, we’ll know who snores and talks in their sleep. Everyone will know how weird my hair can look in the morning.

More importantly, we’re going to be having some really tough conversations about slavery, racism today, interpretation and the weight of history. We’re going to be faced with our biases–both those that we have as individuals and those we have as an institution. It will be an emotionally exhausting weekend.

This is the kind of thing that could be an absolute disaster for some teams. But I know we can handle it. We’ve been preparing for this weekend for months. There are the obvious things–diving into the primary sources, making sure all staff knows as much as possible about the 13 enslaved African Americans at Millermore, having tough, honest conversations about all this history–and preparing for the variations in visitor reactions to this history. But there are the little things we’ve been doing too–regular staff meetings for the entire staff. Cooking lunch on property. Making sure there are always cookies at meetings–and making sure our gluten-free staff can enjoy them too. In general, just caring for each other as people, not just colleagues.

It has been an incredibly difficult year for us, with lots of challenges and staff transitions. And yet, we’re in a better place than we’ve ever been. I realized how far we had come as we worked through Tuck’s death together. I’m convinced that this weekend will transform DHV on many levels–from how we tell history to how we help each other through the next hard thing, whatever it might be.

Sometimes, the answer is “not great”

Next week should be one of my favorite weeks of the year–the annual meeting of the American Association of State and Local History. It’s a time to start growing new ideas, catch up with old friends, and make connections. But if I’m being perfectly honest with myself, I’m actually really dreading it.

At a professional conference, what is usually the very first question someone asks you?

“How are things going at work?”

And if I was to be perfectly honest, my answer right now would be “Not great.”

In mid-July, shortly after returning from a wonderful MAP (Museum Assessment Program) review in Montgomery, I got a phone call from the Office of Cultural Affairs at the City of Dallas. You know, the department where we get 20% of our funding? We hadn’t done well at all at our bi-annual panel review–and our city funding was at risk. Though there are nuances to the scoring, it really boils down to diversity and inclusion issues.

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Millermore, completed in 1862

The next several weeks were full of meetings and tough conversations–with the staff, the board, and the city. As an organization, we have never fully faced the truth: we were founded to save the home (Millermore) of a prominent local slaveholder. And we are in a city that is ranked as one of the most racially divided cities in the nation. You’ve seen the headlines about Confederate Memorials and Botham Jean. Long before the call from the city, we began taking steps to start facing all this. We were exploring options for cultural awareness training. We planned to begin a deep dive for all staff into the primary sources for Millermore so we can tell the stories of everyone who lived and worked there–enslaved and free, men and women, first and second generations, children. And we were already in talks to bring Joe McGill of the Slave Dwelling Project to Dallas, in what would be just his second visit to Texas.

But in a situation like this, words and plans don’t really matter. Only actions do. So, I made the decision that we are closing Millermore for reinterpretation while we do this work. We have some that are upset by this decision, but they’re not saying anything directly to me. In the end, I’m actually grateful to the city for giving me this very powerful tool. These are plans and projects I’ve been pushing for a long time and getting resistance at various levels. It’s much harder to argue when inaction could result in the demise of the organization. So, we carry on with these plans and wait for word from the city on how deep the budget cut will be.

At the same time, we’ve been struggling with our fundraiser, History with a Twist. About a year ago, I suggested to board leadership that we not continue this event and outlined a plan to make up that revenue. They decided to carry on–and we invested in a top-notch event planner, found an off-site location (no more weather worries!), and secured a great honorary chair. We moved the event from spring to September. It will be a great party. But sponsorships and ticket sales never really came in, and though we probably won’t lose money, we’re not going to make much either. More money woes.

On the bright side, there was very little discussion at the board meeting about making this the last Twist. And I have a pretty fun dress to wear.

In early August, my Director of Education, who has been with us for 5 years, announced that she was heading to the classroom to teach PreK for Dallas ISD. All of our work with Vogel Alcove and early childhood education made her realize that her passion is with the little ones. It is absolutely the right decision for her, but oh! The timing for DHV!

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Also, in the middle of all this, I had a birthday. I almost cancelled our weekend plans (mini-road trip) so I could be a hermit. So glad I didn’t do that! These friends help a lot.

In the middle of all this, I left for a two week trip to Europe in mid-August and removed the work email app from my phone. It was glorious. With everything going on, maybe the timing of the trip wasn’t the best. On the other hand, with everything going on, I desperately needed the break. I only had a few nightmarish dreams about work while I was away.

The day I got back to the office, my brand new part-time educator (started in July) told me she was taking a full time job at another museum in town. The good news about these education departures–they’re both working part-time for a little while to help with the transition. The bad news: with all of our budget question marks, it’s impossible to finalize a plan for the future of our education department. Not that I’ve had time to think much about it.

So, here we are, ten days from the end of our fiscal year. We have no budget for the next fiscal year. No real idea on how bad the operating deficit will end up being this year. No idea on who will carry on the work of the education department–or how that will be possible. And we have to make sure every step we take is perfectly placed, because all eyes at the city are on us.

This isn’t to say there aren’t some remarkable bright spots. The wonderful thing about a crisis is that there is an opportunity to really see what people are made of. Staff are stepping up. Board members are stepping up. And as always, our neighborhood has our back. And there are other signs. A surprise $25,000 gift from a long time donor who had never given more than a few hundred at a time. The news that one of the premier food and wine events in Dallas is moving to DHV in early November. My appointment to an AAM task force on museum education standards. The Board Engagement Committee (that I’ve been asking about for over a year) has finally formed–and is doing things.

Last Sunday, the sermon at church was about the gap between what you have and what you need–and how sometimes that is absolutely the best thing. That gap can force us to grow. So many parallels for where DHV is right now! I’m taking courage from Andrew’s word as we continue to step into the gap. All of these recent challenges are a powerful reminder of how precarious our financial situation is. Some days, I think we’re in the middle of what will be a remarkable turn-around stories. Other days, I’m not so sure–and feel completely inadequate for the work ahead.

I know I’ll enjoy my time in Kansas City (once I get through Twist and finalize those session powerpoints!). I know it will be refreshing and that I’ll come home with some new tools and idea to face these very big issues.

But I also know that when colleagues ask “How are things going at work?” I’m not going to say my usual “Great!”

I might say “interesting.”

I might say “challenging.”

I might say “not good.”

And I encourage you to be honest also–because we’re not always honest about the challenges we face in this work. Or the emotions. I can now say that I have cried at a staff meeting. I cried at our Annual Meeting. I have cursed a fair amount. And I’m not always sleeping well–I’m finishing up the rough draft of this at 12:30 a.m.

So yes, I’m heading into AASLH absolutely emotionally exhausted. I’m writing this post partly so I don’t have to explain everything quite so many times. I’m happy to talk more about any of this, though I may also say “I don’t really want to talk about it.” And it won’t be because I suddenly no longer believe in transparency. It will be because I am tired.

However, I will gladly accept hugs. Let’s face it: after the year we’ve had, we could probably all use a hug or three.

I don’t know where to start

 

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

They include:

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

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

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

Variations on a Theme: African American History at 3 Museums

About 30 minutes into the tour, my parents started giving me the side eye. That look that says “Why on earth did you think this would be a good idea?” and “How much longer must we suffer?” I avoided their gaze. I wasn’t too thrilled either.

We were at the Whitney Plantation, just outside of New Orleans. It was the last day of our trip, and the Whitney had been on my list of “must-dos” I had read the articles about how the Whitney was putting the story of the enslaved front and center. I had read the articles about how the Whitney was becoming a leader in the history museum field as we struggle to share and interpret the history of slavery. As a director and a historian, I felt like I really needed to check this all out.

In a way, it was fitting that I visited the Whitney this year. In February, I had the distinct privilege of visiting the brand new National Museum of African American History and Culture in DC. In some ways, it wasn’t a great museum experience. After all, it was wall to wall people! I got hit twice in the ankles by a wheelchair. It was hard to see everything just because of the crowds. But I couldn’t be upset. After all, it was clear that the people I was surrounded by were reading, learning, connecting—and probably hadn’t spent a lot of time in museums. The narrative put the African American experience at the center. It wasn’t just about slavery and oppression, but identity and stretching boundaries. There was a huge range of artifacts, and the curators didn’t shy away from anything.

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A slave cabin in the center of a gallery. One of my DHV coworkers helped dissemble it before it was moved to DC.

For me, the most moving moment was as I was waiting in line to see Emmett Till’s casket. There’s a small room in front of the room containing the casket, where news footage of the funeral is played. Standing in that anteroom were two women, who I presumed to be mother and daughter. They were leaning on each other, watching the video, softly crying. It was a moment that wouldn’t have been possible without the museum.

In May, I flew into Memphis for a work trip and headed straight to the National Civil Rights Museum. I had first visited back in 1997 as part of a college orientation trip. That was long before the new building and the inclusion of the boarding house where the shots that killed Martin Luther King Jr were fired. I don’t have many firm memories of that visit, but I remember liking it.

I know they just went through a massive reinterpretation, but I’m not sure exactly what all was new. Again, they did a fabulous job of putting the African American experience front and center. They also had some powerful artifacts, including a bombed out bus that moved me to tears.

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Powerful artifacts, mixed with lots and lots of individual voices from those that were active in the Movement.

So, heading to the Whitney felt like a natural next stop on this year’s tour of African American history museums. And there were aspects of it that were very good. But I have difficulty recommending it.

Perhaps I should start with what I liked? The tour did start out well. The first stop was an African American church, built after Emancipation, and moved to the Whitney Plantation a few years ago. Inside, were a collection of statues of children, representing the hundreds of children born into slavery at the Whitney. There was a nice introductory video and a discussion of the WPA slave narratives. The docent discussed how those narratives captured the voices of slaves, but is almost exclusively memories of a childhood in slavery.

We proceeded next to a memorial, listing all of the known names of the people brought to the Whitney during the slave trade years. And this is where the tour began to fall apart. We spent over 20 minutes at one side of the monument. And then he said “now let’s go to the other side of the monument.” Another 20 minutes talking about all of the known names of people born into slavery on the plantation. Then 20 minutes at the next memorial. Ten at the next. And then we finally got to see another building.

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The entire tour was 2 hours—and about half of it was spent at the memorials. These memorials are important, but do we really need to spend that much time at them? Especially in the New Orleans heat? On the day we were there, we had intermittent rain. They provided umbrellas, but the docent also made no moves to hurry the tour along or make any adjustments due to the weather. In the heat, this would be almost unbearable. Definitely not something to inspire a good visitor experience that would allow minds to be opened for learning.

And then there was the tour guide himself. He was passionate. He certainly knew his history. But he was also incredibly repetitive. He did a good job of pointing out that slavery is as much an economic system as a racist system, but he said it over and over and over again. An hour into a tour, I think everyone more than understood.

But the thing that bothered me the most is that even as they gave names to the enslaved, they didn’t give them much else. There were no stories of life on the plantation. No stories of how those that were enslaved struggled to live their lives within such harsh boundaries—how they made families and traditions in spite of their enslavement. There was no mention of any personal agency.  All of the complexities surrounding slavery were obscured by an overwhelming agenda.

As we all know, tour guides can make or break a museum visit. I don’t know if a different tour guide would have been less repetitive. However, he was certainly working within parameters set by the institution. The memorials are important, but a quick explanation of them and then allowing people to return after the tour would be far more effective. No guided tour, especially outside, and especially with few spots to sit, should be much more than an hour. Attention spans waver. Feet get tired. With my mom’s knee issues, she can’t stand for too long in one place—and there was a lot of standing in one place. It was an incredibly disappointing and frustrating experience.

For those that do want to explore the complex relationships on a plantation between enslaved and slaveowner, I would highly recommend the Laura Plantation. It was our first tourist stop when we arrived in New Orleans, chosen because it had been managed by four generations of women. They did an amazing job of describing slave life and pointing out all the complexities. They gave us time to pause and reflect, but also kept us moving. Our tour guide had passion, but never let that passion overtake the pace of the tour. All three of us (parents and myself) loved the tour, felt like we learned something, and were challenged by some of that information.

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Laura Plantation
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One of the several extant slave cabins at the Laura Plantation. As was true at many plantations in southern Louisiana, these cabins were lived in through the 1970s by workers. Most of whom were descendants of those that were enslaved on the same land.

African American history is a complex subject that has long been ignored by major museums. There is some stellar interpretation out there, but we have to continue to question it just like we do any other interpretation. In this age where nuance and complexity are getting bulldozed by loud voices shouting, I commend those organizations that are holding fast to telling the complete, messy history of our past.