Babel: Sifting through the noise

Right now, some theater kids in Dallas are doing some of the most amazing historical work I’ve ever seen.  Cry Havoc Theater Company is a young organization, formed in 2014 , full of active and involved young people. I first heard of them when they opened their play, Shots Fired, a play about the July 2016 police shooting in downtown Dallas. What intrigued me wasn’t so much that they were doing a play about recent events–it was that they had interviewed so many people directly connected to those events.

I missed the first run of the show, but a museum colleague and I attended when they brought it back in July 2017. Both of us were incredibly moved, and at the same time, our museum educator brains were working overtime. Here were these kids, taking documentary evidence about a very complex subject, and turning it into a compelling narrative. They were historians! They’re also pretty great actors, and at times, I completely forgot how young they are.

We chatted with Mara, the founder, after the performance. The informal education community in Dallas is pretty tight-knit, so we already knew each other and were able to openly rave about what we had just seen. It was then that she mentioned the origins of their most recent production, Babel. They were going to tackle one of the most contentious issues of our day, gun violence, and they were heading to Sandy Hook, Washington D. C., and the NRA Convention (conveniently held in Dallas last May) to talk to as many people as possible. There has been amazing media coverage through our local NPR affiliate of their journey to create this play.

The idea of documentary or devised theater was new to me, and I remain incredibly intrigued about the possibilities of blending these techniques with museum programs. After all, it’s not totally unlike what we’ve done with some of projects through our own Junior Historian program at DHV. Mara wrote in the program notes for A History of Everything (from January 2018):

Devising theater isn’t for the faint of heart. Each sixty seconds the audience sees onstage in the final performance takes roughly sixty minutes to create. In devised theatre, a lot of really great ideas get worked and reworked only to be discarded hours or days later. The process is tedious and time-consuming. It takes herculean self-discipline and a willingness to leave ego at the door. For this reason, very few adult, professional theatre companies devise theatre. And there are only a handful of youth theatre companies in the United States that solely produce devised works. We are one of them.

I saw Babel about 10 days ago, this time with another museum colleague and her family. It’s a long, sprawling play that hits every nuance in this debate. It was as emotional and gut-wrenching as expected. What I didn’t expect (and should have known better since I’ve worked with a few teens over the years) were the injections of humor and sarcasm and the occasional f-bomb into the show. You can read some more great coverage of the performances, now over, here and here and here.

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Another powerful note–the set was surrounding by shoes–one pair for each death due to gun violence since January. It was over 7,000 pairs.

But why talk about a teen theater company on a blog ostensibly about museums? Besides the obvious of “finding inspiration everywhere” or my usual soapbox of believing that teens are capable of far more than we give them credit for, I believe this is an incredible example of historic relevancy. In this field, we spend a lot of time moaning about how to connect with young people. Or current events. Or whether we should even talk about current events. And at the same time, we often make it out like history is this magical, mysterious thing that only certain people are allowed to create. We, as a field, neglect to show the process of DOING history, and with that neglect, we’ve helped create a world that is incapable of collecting a variety of sources, analyzing them, and forming some sort of narrative to share with others.

But the teens of Cry Havoc show that it can be done, even with incredibly difficult subjects. Did some people walk out during intermission? Yep. On the other hand, did almost everyone in the theater after the two-and-a-half-hour show stay to talk about it some more? Also yes. These kids are on to something, and there are lessons in there for all of us that work to teach the public something.

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Finding balance in the archives

I abhor a mess. But for most of the last month, my dining room table has looked like this.

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As an executive director, I do an enormous amount of writing–grants, emails, newsletter articles, and blogs. But I had almost forgotten how historical writing stretches your brain in entirely different directions. It was almost like my brain was out of shape–but eventually, muscle memory took over. And it felt so good to be doing that kind of work again.

 

So, how did I get back into doing that sort of thing again? Several months ago, a friend asked if I would be willing to do a talk at her organization about the local suffrage movement. Though I continue to do extensive reading in the area of women’s history, I hadn’t done any real historical research or writing in almost a decade. My last big research project had been about Dallas clubwomen and their involvement in World War I. I knew there would be some overlap between that work and the suffrage movement–and I had always been curious about the local movement. Plus, she’s a good friend, and the anniversary of the federal amendment is approaching, so I figured it was manageable. And I had plenty of time.

Well, we all know about the lies we tell ourselves. Like “It won’t take that long,” and “I have plenty of time.” I might have been wrapping up my powerpoint the day before my presentation. And I did get a little stressed about finishing up. But I had such fun!

One of the unexpected joys of this project was learning more about a very familiar name. As a longtime staff member at Dallas Heritage Village, I definitely knew the name Barry Miller and that he was active in state politics. He and his wife, Minnie, were the second generation to live in Millermore, which today is the signature building at Dallas Heritage Village. When Minnie’s parents died in 1899, she and her family moved back to Millermore (and yes, a Miller married a Miller. It’s not confusing at all.) She ran the farm while Barry drove the five miles into town to continue his law practice. Evelyn, their youngest child, wrote a sketch about her parents, sharing the following about her father’s political career:

Papa became increasingly active in politics. Most often, he campaigned for friends or causes in which he believed, but occasionally for himself. He served in the Texas State Senate from 1899-1901, received a gubernatorial appointment to a district judgeship in Dallas in 1911, and served in the Texas House of Representatives in 1917-1922, and as Lieutenant Governor of Texas, 1925-1930. At first mamma HATED politics, and never came to like having her husband a candidate. (“Portrait Sketch of Mamma: Minnie K. Miller” by Evelyn Miller Crowell)

Among his early political accomplishments was authoring the legislation that made the bluebonnet the state flower of Texas in 1901. Apparently, the wife of the lawyer he apprenticed with when he first came to Texas always loved the flower—and he did it to honor her.

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Barry Miller

Barry Miller certainly didn’t change his opinion through conversations at home. Evelyn writes: “Mamma had NOT wanted the vote, but when she got it, she took it very seriously.”  The Dallas Equal Suffrage Association used recent war work efforts as an opening. Clubwomen in Dallas were raising funds for the Women’s Oversea Hospital Unit, and Barry Miller contributed. “Dallas suffragists take this as a hopeful sign and hope that Judge Miller may yet be counted among the friends of equal suffrage.” (Dallas Morning News; March 5, 1918) Judge Miller, ever the politician, set before the suffragists a challenge to gather 5,000 signatures, though no legislation was currently pending. Two days later, the News reported that 1,000 names had already been collected. “These signatures are necessary,’ said Mrs. Nonie B. Mahoney, vice president of the Equal Suffrage Association, ‘in order to persuade one man, Barry Miller, that there is a silent sentiment in favor of suffrage in Dallas County. We are going to win. There is no chance for us to fail.” (Dallas Morning News; March 7, 1918) In addition to canvassing the women in their immediate circles, they also made special efforts to reach out to working women, visiting such local businesses as Sanger Brothers, Neiman Marcus, Butler Brothers, Brown Cracker and Candy Company, and the Wilson Building. In a March 9 article, announcing that they expected to go over the 5,000 mark that day, Mrs. Mahoney stated “The interest in this petition is not confined to any one class. The women of Highland Park and the mill districts are equally interested and equally anxious to sign.” Anecdotes about the signing efforts include a mother who had five daughters working in the factories who believed that their working conditions would improve with suffrage. Another women, ages 70, brought in a petition with over 200 signatures—and apologized. “I would have got a good many more, but I happened upon so many of my old friends that I just had to stop and chat with them a while.” (Dallas Morning News; March 9, 1918)

By March 10, they had reached 8,000 signatures. Upon their success, Mrs. Mahoney declared “The suffragists of Texas welcome the support of Mr. Miller. The suffragists accepted Barry Miller’s challenge and have shown what they are capable of doing, but they refuse to accept any more such challenges to unproductive labor. They can not spare any more time from war work.” (Dallas Morning News; March 19, 1918)

On March 15, just a few days after Mrs. Mahoney delivered 10,000 signatures to Rep. Barry Miller’s office, the House voted 84 to 34 to give women the right to vote in primary elections. Within a year, Barry became chairman of the Men’s League of the Dallas Equal Suffrage Association and was campaigning throughout the state, advocating for the federal suffrage amendment.

Over the last several years, there just hasn’t been time to do this kind of deep dive into history, even the history at our own site. And though deep historical research has never been an official part of my job, it is certainly why I got into this field in the first place. We have so many hidden stories at the Village, and with the changes in scholarship and the digitization of important resources, there are wonderful opportunities to discover those deeper and more complex stories. In the next year, we plan to embark on a new interpretative plan and will be diving much more deeply—as a team—into all the history the buildings at DHV contain.

In the meantime, I was also reminded of how important work balance can be. We talk a lot in this field about work/life balance. But as we mid-career professionals move up the ladder, we often have to leave behind whatever passion we had that got us into this business in the first place. I remember talking to a friend a few months ago who was incredibly frustrated with his current position: “I just miss doing history.” And I’ve felt that frustration too—for example, when I was knee deep in the homeless encampment crisis, it felt like an absolute relief to get back to doing more typical history museum work.

These last few months have reminded me that I need to continue to make space for history in my work life. You would think that would be obvious, after 14 years at a history museum, but my work priorities have changed so much over the years. I’m so very grateful for the nudge to do history again—and I’m not planning to wait 10 years before diving into the Hollinger boxes again.

 

It’s time to talk about toxic loyalty

“I’m miserable in my job, but I can’t leave until I finish this major project in two years.”

“I keep thinking that my next boss will be better.”

“I feel terrible about leaving my staff behind in this terrible situation.”

We probably all have a friend that has said something like this. And for those that aren’t in the museum field, the answer often seems so obvious: the job or institution doesn’t love you back. Take care of yourself first. Just leave. And yet, so often, museum colleagues hang on to jobs, not because they can’t find something else. Not because they need to stay in that area for family or financial or other reasons. They stay because they feel some sort of deep loyalty to an institution. They stay because of a passion for the field or the subject or the work. Sometimes that loyalty is rewarded, but often it just becomes a trap. In a recent conversation about this big issue, a friend and I hit on another way to describe this situation that occurs far too often in our field: toxic loyalty.

Think about it. That loyalty keeps you tied to a place. It keeps you from thinking objectively about your situation—or if things at the institution can ever become better. It paints you into the corner of thinking that even though you’re absolutely miserable, you are the right and only person that can hold that job. It’s another way to layer on guilt as issues and concerns pile up.

In the meantime, you’re not considering other options. You’re not polishing your resume. You’re not looking for the kind of place that will appreciate you and your talents and your skills.

Lately, I’ve had this conversation with far too many colleagues. But each time I say the words “toxic loyalty” they pause. They get this look on their face. And they realize that they’re slowly poisoning themselves with this mindset. Loyalty is supposed to be this wonderful attribute–a thing that you want in your staff. But what if it isn’t always a good thing?

So, let’s bring this phrase into the museum lexicon. Is your loyalty to your institution helping you as an individual? Or is it hurting you? Is that loyalty the warm, fuzzy feeling it should be? Or something else entirely? Do you have a friend or colleague that needs to hear these words to shift their thinking?

We spend a lot of time thinking about how to make workplaces better, but I believe we also need to remember that it’s okay to say “There’s not a darn thing I can do to make this any better, and I need to move on for my own health and sanity. And the institution will probably carry on as it has before, with or without me.” Sometimes, we have to put ourselves first.

Four Years

Today is the fourth anniversary of the board vote. You know, that board vote. The one where I was no longer Interim Executive Director and became President and Executive Director of Dallas Heritage Village.

Here’s how I shared that news on facebook:

This afternoon, I’m having a lot of fun deleting the word “interim” from various places. More official announcements to come, but today I was named President/Executive Director at DHV. Never dreamed of this when I began work here almost exactly 10 years ago.

And in some ways, it’s still hard to believe that I’m the boss. . . and I’m actually pretty good at this whole executive director thing. On the way home tonight, I got a little choked up, thinking about how things have changed and how I’ve grown into this position. And maybe I wouldn’t be so nostalgic on this anniversary if it hadn’t been a rather unusual day to begin with.

Once a year, my friend Jenn Landry and I head to Waco, Texas to speak to the Baylor University Museum Studies students. This whole thing began when my predecessor, Gary Smith, asked Jenn and I to come talk to his capstone class as a “here’s what life looks like halfway through your career.” Jenn and I first met during the infamous SHA and she moved to Texas in 2014. So, I’m thinking that our first visit to Baylor for our song and dance was in 2015.

What’s so great about this particular experience is that a large part of the three hour seminar is us just telling our career path story. At this point, it might be fun for me to tell Jenn’s story and for her to tell mine–because I’m pretty sure we can do that. We’re a great team, because we come at leadership from slightly different angles (her from collections/archives, me from education), and she’s had to balance a husband and a kid, while I’m footloose and fancy free. Sorta.

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Jenn and I at a play last summer about another strong Texas woman, Ann Richards. And a perk of her new job!

When Gary stopped teaching the class, we were super lucky that a fellow SHA alumni, Kim McCray, took it over. And she decided that we were still a pretty good piece of the class. The past two years, the class has been early in the morning, so Jenn and I drive down the day before. This gives us time to also catch up with colleagues at the Dr Pepper Museum and stare in awe at how Waco has changed after Chip and JoJo.

Though this has become routine, it’s also pretty special. As museum professionals, we don’t often take the time to stop and reflect. Last year at this time, Jenn was in a pretty dark place professionally. And now, she has a job that she is perfect for and has the opportunity to do some really cool things. About halfway through the class, I realized that today was the 4th anniversary of being named ED. And it was just one of those moments where I paused. And in my head, I just thought WOW. So much has happened in the last four years, and yet it doesn’t seem possible that much time has passed.

Later in the class, I said something that is hard for a lot of us women in leadership to say (and of course, because I am female, I later explained that this is tough to say): There could not be a better leader for DHV at this particular moment in time than me.

I have grown into this position in a way that I think only one person would have fully predicted: my predecessor, Gary Smith. And so when I got home tonight, I told him that. Because sometimes I think we forget to thank the people that believed in us before we believed in ourselves.

This evening, we had a happy hour for a departing staff member that we really hate to see go. But he’s ready to try a new adventure and is heading to Denver tomorrow morning. We had such a good time, laughing, telling stories about odd visitors and odder former staff.

This has been a pretty stressful few months, with lots of changes and big projects pending (and not moving at the pace I would prefer.) But today was a day that I was reminded how lucky I am–to be in a job that I love, with amazing opportunities around every corner, and a team that cannot be beat.

So yes, I got a little teary on my drive home. Because it’s been four wonderful, long, complicated, full years. And I still can’t believe how my life and my museum have changed. Some days, I still have imposter syndrome, where I’m convinced that the real boss is going to come around the corner and tell me what to do. But those days are fewer and fewer.

So thanks, Gary, for saying “What if you take over running this museum in a few years?” And thanks to the family I gained through SHA. They understood why I broke down sobbing on that last day, convinced that I would need to start looking for a new job when I got back home. But I think they also knew that things were going to be okay. And thanks to those board allies who also knew I was the right person for the job and pushed that appointment through. It’s been four years, and I’m finally starting to feel like I know what I’m doing.

Except when it comes to llamas.

 

 

(don’t worry. I’ll explain that at some point!)

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.

DHV St Patricks Day 2013

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.

Of Beer and Neighbors: Welcoming Four Corners Brewing to the Cedars

On Friday, I had the most meaningful beer I’ve ever had.

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Most of you know what’s happening in the Cedars. Back in 2014, a lot of major buildings on Ervay (one of DHV’s borders) changed hands–with significant redevelopment plans. Promises were made with projected opening dates of 2016. All of those buildings remain quiet for a variety of complicated reasons.

Months after that initial flurry, Four Corners Brewing announced they were moving from their original location in Trinity Groves (West Dallas) to the Cedars. This was a different kind of development plan–an established business expanding–and though the last announced, they’re the first to open.

I don’t remember exactly when I first met Greg, one of the co-owners, but I remember how I approached that first meeting. Meeting new potential partners can be a little like dating–the main purpose is to get to know each other. You don’t want to reveal everything on that first date. What if your special brand of crazy shows too early? My goals for that first meeting were pretty simple–I really just wanted them to know who we are, that we like beer, and determine their timeline. Of course, I had lots and lots of other ideas. After all, I love craft beer almost as much as I love museums. But it seemed a little too forward to put all that out there on the first meeting.

But then Greg and I got to talking. I learned that he had volunteered at DHV as a kid back in the 1980s. I learned that he was already thinking about ways we could partner. So, I pretty much shared all of my ideas at the first meeting. And I don’t think I scared him too much, since we’ve kept talking.

Of course, with any construction project, there are delays. Their original opening date was supposed to be in March. But when the tap room opened for the first time on Friday, I was there. And I had a beer. And it was delicious.

But it’s not just about the beer. The completion of this project is such a clear articulation of the vision so many of us have for the future of the Cedars. They took an overlooked, historic building (it was originally the stables for the Ambassador Hotel across the street), beautifully updated it, and created a new community gathering space.

Last night, we hosted a DHV members happy hour. Many familiar faces were there, but by far, the most important person there was Ruth Ann. She’s one of our founders and has been involved with us for over 50 years. Ruth Ann graciously declined a beer, but she just had to see what our new neighbors had done with the building. She ended up chatting at length with Greg, both about the business and the neighborhood.

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Greg, one of the co-owners, chatting with Ruth Ann. Past chair Don is also listening in.

As we were chatting, she said to me “I’m so amazed at what you’re doing. You’re just one of the most clever people I’ve ever met.” And I turned to her and said “I don’t know, Ruth Ann. You’re pretty smart too. You saw what the museum and this neighborhood could be all those years ago, when there was absolutely nothing.” I guess our mutual admiration society continues.

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Trying to ride the wave of all this neighborhood redevelopment is exhausting. Sometimes it is frustrating. It certainly requires a lot of patience! But the last few days have reminded me why we keep going. If the presence of Ruth Ann at a brewery on a Tuesday night doesn’t speak volumes to the faith and loyalty our supporters have in both the museum and the neighborhood, then I don’t know what will.

And it continues. Tonight, I had drinks with another neighborhood partner, also giving new life to a fabulous historical building. It will be an unprecedented partnership, one I can’t talk about quite yet. But it’s yet another reminder of how naturally collaboration comes to our organization. The difference now is geography. Finally having neighbors–and our mutual desire to work together–will transform the museum in ways that were beyond my wildest dreams when I took the Executive Director title 3.5 years ago. I think we can all drink to that.