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.

20170630_120622_resized

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?

1720_Dallas Heritage Village - NEW PLAN OVERALL w title

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?

4340

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?

Advertisements

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.

19511298_10155278084731832_564416817430808951_n
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!

38248794_10214158935260991_5723072736855588864_o
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.

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.

Ensemble_Shoes2
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.

Finding balance in the archives

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

20180612_153908

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.

Barry_Miller
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.

19621124_10211064947673235_1708623805535646110_o
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!