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!

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.

It’s not just about us

Somehow, two big projects I’ve been working on for eons landed at City Hall for big votes on the same day. In truth, I found this highly annoying. Seriously, what are the odds? And who wants to spend all morning at City Hall?

Spoiler alert: both projects passed unanimously. And though on the surface, the two projects are very different, their origins are rooted in the exact same question: are there needs in the neighborhood that we can meet through our existing assets?

The story begins in late 2014, several months after I became ED. Some conflicting ideas came up about how to use certain museum spaces, so I gathered key staff together for a series of meetings. We sat down and discussed each and every one of our buildings. The public spaces. The office spaces. The storage spaces. We asked ourselves a series of questions: what is the highest and best use for this building? What needs to happen to get this space to reach its highest and best use use? We saved the most challenging building for last–the Park Avenue House.

Back in 2004, my first office was located in this house. It’s one of two homes on their original locations, facing the historic City Park land. Past master plans had called for that building’s demolition. But the 2006 master plan was sitting on a shelf, and meanwhile, the building was starting to really fall apart. With the rapid gentrification of the Cedars, we knew that original Cedars homes are rare and becoming more rare every day. These two homes tell an important story of what the neighborhood used to be, and there’s no one better to tell that story.

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So, we made the decision that we needed to figure out a way to save that house. But it was going to cost a lot of money. It was currently being used for storage of items that didn’t need super-great environmental conditions–so exhibit cases, stanchions, signs, things like that. Even with my non-expert eyes, I knew renovation would be six figures–and who is going to give us money for storage? With our current staff size, we didn’t need additional office space. So, what is a purpose for that building that might attract funding? Was there an opportunity for us to provide some stability in a neighborhood where all rents were skyrocketing? And could that opportunity also result in some revenue for us?

 

Looking back in the file, my first email about this idea was sent to the Office of Cultural Affairs at the City of Dallas (they own all DHV buildings) in spring 2015.

Around the same time, we started looking at updating our master plan. The neighborhood was changing–and our former plan, with a visitor’s center facing east, no longer made sense. With major properties being purchased to our west and south, we realized that we couldn’t have a back side. The master plan had to reflect the new reality of the Cedars.

We formed a committee and started exploring options. We have about 26 acres under our control. The core of the museum experience is on about 13 acres. The parcels that were undeveloped currently serve as overflow parking. But with the changing neighborhood, what was the highest and best use of that land? We don’t need more historic buildings to maintain. We only need that land for parking a few times a year. Our biggest need is a Visitors Center–and we just didn’t need all of that land to make that happen. But there was something the neighborhood desperately needed–a public park. The Cedars has no public park. They once had the only park in the city, but now it’s a ticketed museum. So, what if we turned some of our land back to the neighborhood and created a public park?

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We first shared the new master plan with the public at our annual meeting in September 2017. Though there were some questions–what about Candlelight parking? Will we ever be able to take down fences?–the general feeling was (and still is!) excitement. This is something different.

Around the same time, I became aware there was about $800,000 available for a district wide project. Could some of that money be directed to DHV?

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So, I began to put together a proposal for the Park Avenue House. The city wasn’t used to a non-developer asking for TIF funds. They had to create a new application for us. Lots of back and forth. Lots of meetings. We developed a heck of a plan–and a different way of thinking about possibilities for these funds.

Last Thursday, my architect, Craig Melde, and I presented the master plan to the Park Board for approval. It passed unanimously. And then, I headed to the Cedars TIF Board to request $650,000 to renovate the Park Avenue House and turn it into leased office space for other nonprofits. It also passed unanimously.

These projects are far from over. The Master Plan represents the beginning of a capital campaign that will probably be in the $25 million range. To receive the $650,000, we have to raise another $550,000. This money will be used to fix the house next door, take care of pretty things like landscaping and furniture, and establish a maintenance endowment for both buildings.

Though both projects will certainly benefit DHV, the ideas that are being applauded came from us looking not at what we need, but what our community needs. How many museums do you think are asking those kinds of questions? How much more sustainable would museums be if they looked at both internal and external needs before coming up with big ideas?

So, yes, it was annoying that both votes landed on the same day. But I wouldn’t have it any other way. We are inextricably linked to our neighborhood, and it’s making us a better museum. How many other museums can say the same thing?

The joys of data

It’s nice to be proven right.

Way back in 2010, back when I was the Director of Education and Gary was still running things, Dallas Heritage Village went through a strategic planning process. The recession was crushing us, and we knew we needed to make some dramatic changes. We made a few key decisions that have really shaped our work over the past several years:

  • Focus on customer service and visitor experience. Unlike some museums, we have actual people on the grounds that can talk with visitors and get those personal interactions that Colleen Dilenschneider has talked about as being so key to visitor satisfaction. (though we made this decision a long time before she had a blog).
  • Start making some changes to our exhibit buildings. More interactive opportunities. More information.
  • Focus on being family friendly. This idea seems to terrify most history museums, but we felt we had the right mix of facility and staff to make this work.

When I took over in spring 2014, participating in Visitor Counts was high on my project list. I knew some of the things we were doing at DHV were special, but I hadn’t realized how special until after attending SHA. Things that had become second nature to us were met with looks of surprise from my colleagues. But how to share that with the staff and board? Many still had the mindset of “poor little DHV.” After all, when you have facilities like the Perot Museum of Nature and Science as your neighbor, we do pale in comparison. But what if we stopped comparing ourselves to other Dallas cultural institutions that had budgets 10 times larger? What if we had comparisons that made sense and actually told us something?

Visitor Counts, an AASLH program, provides a standard survey, data analysis and benchmarking against other participating museums. Though it’s pretty affordable in the scheme of things, the $5,000 price tag was steep for us. After careful planning, we applied for a grant from the Carl B. and Florence E. King Foundation. The grant was for visitor experience overall–increased frontline staff, supplies, salary support for the manager–and the Visitor Counts survey.

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We started our survey in Spring 2017 and got the report in November. I talk more about our results on DHV’s blog. Some quick highlights:

  • Survey respondents love our staff and volunteers.
  • They want more details and more history. And the buildings where we’ve made dramatic changes (the General Store) are cited as one of the top “better than expected” items.
  • Our visitors are significantly younger than at other participating museums–and more likely to have children with them.

Though we have no “before 2010” data, I can’t help but think about what our rankings would have been before we started making those institutional shifts. We still have a lot of work to do (yep, visitors definitely see the deferred maintenance issues), but it really does appear that we’re heading in the right direction–a direction initially set several years ago.

As I was sitting in an ugly hotel conference room in Nashville, learning how to really analyze and understand our report, I had a moment where I thought to myself: “In a few years, we could look back at this project and realize it was another pivotal moment for this institution.”

But first, we have some more work to do. Onwards and upwards, but now with data!

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.

A short lesson on bonds

Usually, bond packages aren’t the spark of lively internet conversations. But a few things on the proposed November bond package (namely Fair Park) are causing quite a stir. Without weighing in too heavily on one side or the other of the Great Fair Park Debate (I feel like I’ve done that here and here), I thought I’d tell you a story about one very tiny, like 0.0002 per cent, piece of the puzzle.

Dallas Heritage Village has been in a management agreement with the City of Dallas for over 40 years. The Park Department owns the land (we were the very first city park) and takes care of basic grounds care and trash. The Office of Cultural Affairs (OCA) owns all of our buildings and provides modest operating support, to the tune of about 20% of our annual operating expenses. They also pay all of our utilities.

In return, the Dallas County Heritage Society (or DCHS–our legal name) interprets the buildings and provides educational programming. We also must raise, through a variety of means, the rest of our operational expenses. Our budget hovers around $1 million annually. We are not City of Dallas employees, but employees of DCHS. The museum is governed by a Board of Trustees, and they’re the ones that hired me as Executive Director.

One challenge that has been growing over the years is deferred maintenance. If you’ve been to DHV, you know that some of our buildings are in much better shape than others. Though the city does provide funds for maintenance, it’s only about $50,000 annually. For over 30 historic structures. That bear the wear and tear of 20,000 school kids annually, plus all of our other visitors. These funds essentially cover emergency repairs to plumbing and HVAC, porch repair, pest control, and maybe one or two larger projects annually. Quite simply, it is not enough.

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The building currently keeping me up at nights–price tag for full restoration? $650,000.

OCA has been chronically underfunded for years. It was the last line item in the City’s budget to be restored to pre-recession levels–and yet, before the recession the Arts District wasn’t complete. Therefore, the same amount of money is being spread among more organizations. And meanwhile, the deferred maintenance bill grows–not just at our organization, but at city owned cultural facilities everywhere.

According to our management agreement, it is the city’s responsibility to maintain and care for their buildings. A promise was made when all these buildings were moved to DHV that the City would care for them, so endowment funds weren’t raised. For years now, we’ve actively raised funds so that we can tackle some of the big projects–to make sure none of these historic buildings are lost after being saved all those years ago. In fact, over the last 5 years, we’ve spent over $700,000 on various deferred maintenance projects. Of those funds, only $164,500, or 24%, are City of Dallas funds.  Sometimes I wonder what we might be able to accomplish as an organization if we didn’t have to devote so many resources (both time and money) to caring for these city-owned buildings.

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This roof had massive hail damage in 2009. In 2015, the city paid for its repair (along with two other roofs damaged in that storm.) Why did it take so long? In cost-saving measures, the city essentially self-insures their buildings. And since we don’t own them, we can insure them ourselves. In the meantime, the leaking roof caused major plaster and ceiling damage. $20,000 later (money we raised), this building is about to reopen as The Parlor, a preschool play space.

Which brings us to the 2017 Bond Package, currently up for debate. In that proposal, we have a line item for $200,000–to primarily go towards roof repair. Roofs and foundations always have to be fixed first or else you’re just going to have to redo repairs again. This rather modest amount represents a huge leap forward for our deferred maintenance list.

Throughout the city, there are many management agreements. It’s important to remember that no matter who is the manager, the city remains the owner. This bond package is an important step forward in making up for years of neglect. Frankly, I know exactly how I’ll be voting in November. And I’m really looking forward to heading to the polls.

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.

Partly Cloudy: Museum Success Stories

The black clouds are all around us, and sometimes it seems that the history museum world is doomed. Historic house museums are dying. Major debt looms. Buildings are crumbling. Audiences are aging. Staff are running away as fast as they can. Government support is yanked. And here I sit, just over 2 years into leading a history museum. While there are plenty of days where my outlook is partly cloudy, I also know that we need to make some significant changes to ensure we make it another 50 years. There are days when that seems absolutely daunting.

After reading article after article on history museums in peril, it was positively delightful to run across two separate articles of success stories–history museums that seem to changed their course for the better.

I’ve been following the Atlanta History Center for quite some time. They’ve been doing some interesting things programming-wise, and during my educator days, that was what I cared about. A few years ago, my former boss Gary happened to sit next to AHC’s brand new director at a conference.  I remember Gary saying “It’s the strangest thing–they’ve made a board member ED.  That never turns out well.”  A few years later, Gary was heading to Atlanta to check them out as a possible model for his big Summerlee report.  This article, “How the Atlanta History Museum is Changing the Future” talks about some of the changes, as well as some very extraordinary fundraising (which is what I care about now.) I’m thinking I need to visit Atlanta.

I first visited The Mount about 10 years ago. I have a thing for literary historic sites, so Edith Wharton’s home was a must-see when I was in the area.  I remember being intrigued that they were doing an interior designer showcase (a lot of people don’t know that Wharton also published on interior design and landscape design). I also remember taking an illegal photo out of her bedroom window.  Wharton did almost all of her writing in bed, so I felt like it was important to capture that amazing view.  Of course, photos were illegal in the home.

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Not a bad view, right?

But I’m thinking that if I visited today, I might be able to get away with a few more photos. Shortly after this, a lot of the major historic house museums were faltering. The Mark Twain House in Connecticut was facing bankruptcy. The Mount had gone into major debt to acquire Wharton’s personal library. A lot of people were beginning to wonder: if famous people’s homes can’t be sustainable, what hope does the small not-at-all famous historic house museum have? This Q&A with ED Susan Wissler is a fascinating look at what it took to turn her organization around–and pay off a pretty massive debt.

Both of these stories have a few common themes. AHC relaxed some of their rules, started asking visitors questions, and began to have a bit of fun with history. I adored this quote from ED Sheffield Hale: “You know, history’s gossip just dressed up, if you think about it. I mean, it’s just what happens to people and it’s inherently interesting. It’s unexpected because people do the darnedest things, right? You can’t make it up. It’s there. Let’s just go find it.”  At The Mount, they took down the velvet ropes.  They’re reaching out to the community–half of their visitors come from their home county. They expanded programming options–and started having fun with history. One great quote from Wissler: “One of our greatest strengths as an organization has been the ability to quickly evaluate what is in front of us and make decisions in the moment. I don’t mean to suggest that a strategic plan is not a valuable planning tool, but having the dexterity to course-correct in real time is critical to a small institution. This agility is what allowed us to pivot past obstacles and, if necessary, reverse course and redirect resources with minimal internal disruption or loss of opportunity.” I feel much better about our own two page strategic plan now!

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A legal photo of The Mount

Those of you that know me know these are things I passionately believe in–community involvement, creative programming, and accessibility. Though we have a long way to go to completely right the financial ship at DHV, these stories make me feel a bit better about the direction we’re heading.  My gut instinct has been that if we make some of these internal changes (like focusing more closely on the visitor experience), the money will follow.  And these stories show that it can indeed follow. Perhaps the sun is beginning to break through the clouds.