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.
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!
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.