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!

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?

Sometimes, the answer is “not great”

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

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

“How are things going at work?”

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

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

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Millermore, completed in 1862

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I might say “interesting.”

I might say “challenging.”

I might say “not good.”

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

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

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

Balancing Act: Organizational Structure

A few weeks ago, a friend texted me: “Did you have staff turnover?” Honestly, I’ve been waiting for that question. We all know how much gossip there is in the museum world–and we all notice when organizations start posting lots of openings. We have been posting a lot of job openings over the last six months–and we’re not done yet. It’s been a combination of planned restructuring and people just deciding to move on. It’s meant things have been crazier than usual, and some staff are temporarily taking on work loads that are heavier than I’d like. So, what exactly are we up to?

Last summer, I sat down with a small team to start thinking about our budget. Like most organizations, personnel is the largest chunk to consider. Were we spending that money in the best, most efficient way? Were we getting the job done with the positions we had? We know we need to grow our staff (and suspect that growth is coming with our changing neighborhood), but we also know that can’t happen right away. But was there a way to position ourselves in such a way to make that growth smoother?

As a smaller, cash-strapped organization, sometimes our job descriptions just don’t make sense. The best example of this is probably our Administrative Assistant. When she was hired, her primary job duties were to take care of field trip reservations and provide some light admin help to our Director of Sales. We quickly figured out that she was awfully good at social media, and so we bumped up her hours a bit and gave that task to her. She’s doing a great job at both, but when she moves on, how will we find someone that can do both?

Thinking about this particular position got us to thinking about all of our positions. So, we made a giant list of all of the key functions that have to happen in order to keep the museum running. And instead of grouping them by the people currently doing the jobs, we grouped them by the actual function. Should our curator with a shiny PhD be spending time calling plumbers?

As we began re-crafting job descriptions, I began to also think more about the actual organizational structure. We had a very flat structure–a long line of people without much below them. There had been several issues over the last few years where some staff weren’t chatting with their colleagues before making key decisions. Though we are small, it seemed like we weren’t talking to each other enough. I wanted some sort of symbol that better indicated how we were all working together towards the common good–the visitor.

What I ultimately came up with is far from perfect, but it’s closer to the way I think we need to function. Instead of several departments of one or two, we have three departments: Engagement, Advancement and Operations. The chart is set up like a Venn diagram, with myself and the board at the center. We still have a reporting structure in place, but there’s also a team leader for each department that may or may not be the person everyone reports to on that team. (A good example of this is Engagement–the Educator is the team leader, but both she and the Curator report to me.) I also added some other teams that aren’t on the chart, but still need to meet regularly: Exhibits and Facilities.

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A few DHV staff members and our city council rep at the moving of the Blue House last week.

None of this is fully implemented, because we’re not fully staffed yet. And we’re taking our time to hire these new positions–we can only train so many folks at a time. We’ve rolled this out in two phases, so we were able to stagger the announcement of new positions. Essentially, we took one FT position, split it into two part-time positions. And then we took two other PT positions and reshuffled them. So, same number of people, but balanced in a different way. As we rolled out these changes, we talked first with impacted staff and told them they could apply for the new position, but their position would no longer exist after a certain point. By the end of this year, we’ll have more new faces than we’ve had in quite some time.

A few weeks ago, we hired one of those brand new positions–Membership and Marketing Manager. She comes with a broad nonprofit background and already seems to be fitting in well. And on Monday morning, we’re having a meeting because she has four pages of ideas and it’s time to chat about them. Which is exactly why we’ve made all these changes–new brains. new ideas as we continue to move the past forward.

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.

Inside Out

Often, when a new director begins, change becomes the word of the day.  When I assumed the title in March 2014, our external world was changing rapidly.  Much of my time and energy was spent in keeping up with real estate transactions and learning how to speak developer.  That’s not to say I didn’t know that some things probably needed to change internally as well.  But some changes had begun a year before, and we first needed to let the dust settle.  In addition, we had some infrastructure changes to complete, including a new website and switching our accounting to QuickBooks.

It’s funny what happens when you’re able to look at your financials a bit differently.  We were in the midst of revising our Strategic Plan, where we put the visitor experience as one of our three priorities.  In a conversation with Claudia, our business manager, she very gracefully pointed out how little we were spending on our frontline staff.  Our budget didn’t match our strategic plan.  With a few other changes to our finances, we were able to move our money around.  How could we make the most of our frontline staff?

At the same time, there have been long simmering issues with our frontline staff that have bothered me almost the entire time I’ve worked at DHV.  Some ticket office rarely left the ticket office.  Some history educators didn’t feel comfortable touching the computer, even to clock themselves in.  Administrative staff and frontline staff rarely interacted.

Scheduling was also a real challenge.  The way our history educator staff were scheduled and budgeted was based on building.  So, if our farmstead history educator was out for a week, there wasn’t anyone that could step in and work at that post.  Turnover in the ticket office positions was high, and part of me wondered if they just got bored.  All of these issues collided last summer, and we decided to completely restructure our frontline staff.  Here’s what we did (after many meetings and conversations and a bit of hand wringing.  Change can be scary.)

  • Abolished the “Ticket Office Staff” and “History Educator” positions.  We created one position: “History Host.”  We also standardized the hourly rate so that everyone is making the same amount.
  • Abolish seasonal staffing (previously, history educators weren’t scheduled in February, July or September due to low attendance).  Instead, staff are scheduled based on visitor attendance history.  For example, after looking at numbers, we realized that July was a decent month for attendance–and very few people were on site to help those visitors.
  • All History Host staff are required to be “certified” to work in at least two posts.  For new hires, one post must be the Ticket Office.
  • All administrative staff (including myself) are required to spend at least 5% of their time in direct visitor service beginning on February 1.
  • All staff must be able to give tours of our two signature homes, Millermore and Sullivan.

We began implementing the changes in the Fall.  We held a series of training sessions in various building posts.  In January, we did an all staff training of Millermore and Sullivan.  And last week, we held an all staff retreat to talk more about customer service and how to share all this knowledge everyone now possessed.  We used a few points from The Anarchist’s Guide to Historic House Museums to guide our conversation.  But the main purpose was to learn from each other some of the key skills needed to best serve our visitors.  A few volunteers joined us as well, and we’ll likely do a volunteer retreat later this spring.

So, how is all this working?  Well, I’m the boss, so they sure don’t tell me everything.  But I do hear a few things through the grapevine.  Our frontline staff that have made the transition with us are enjoying the variety.  Not every day is exactly the same.  Even though administrative staff weren’t required to head out to the grounds until this month, several worked on the grounds during busy school tour days last fall.  Staff now have more flexibility in their hours–if they’re able to work more, we will probably schedule them for additional hours.  Generally, things seem to be going pretty well.

It’s too soon to tell what kind of impact all of this might have on visitors.  Like many small museums, we just don’t do enough evaluation.  I’m hoping that we’ll be able to afford AASLH’s Visitors Count program in the next year or so, and then we’ll begin to have some data.

I completed my first shift in Millermore a few weeks ago.  It has been ages since I’ve spent that much time talking to visitors, and after 12 years of working at DHV, this was my first standard docent shift.  It was a fairly busy Sunday, and I had an absolutely delightful time talking to visitors.  It was fun to figure out different ways to tell the story (I might have started my tour upstairs), as well as see what trends emerged during the day.

Millermore

Long term, I think this could be transformative for the museum.  If we’re all interacting with visitors, we all might have some great ideas.  And by leveling things a bit, those ideas are more likely to move across the lines that are inherent in any organization with multiple staff members.  I’m feeling pretty good about these changes.  But you might need to ask me again after my first 700 school kid day. . .

 

 

Mapping the future

Highway design usually isn’t a thing that museum directors have to think about, but when your northern border is an interstate, it comes up.  In my very first post here, I talked a bit about my surprising meeting with TXDoT officials as part of the CityMAP project.  Since that meeting back in July, there have been several articles about the project, as well as a few public listening sessions.

There are so many remarkable things about this project.  It apparently began with Commissioner Vandergriff in Austin noticing that Dallas has been having a lot of disagreements about highway projects (namely, whether the Trinity Toll Road should be built and whether I-345 should be torn down.  For the record, I’m against the toll road and undecided on I-345).  So, he realized that maybe there should be a series of conversations about what the community’s priorities are, so that when highway funding became available, he would know how to direct those funds.

Let’s pause for a moment with our collective gasp.  A Texas politician is looking for wide, broad based community input?  According to their one sheet guide “the goal of this effort is to develop a set of transportation, urban design, and adjacent development scenarios with associated investment considerations for the major urban interstate corridors identified.”

As I was waiting for the last of these listening sessions to begin about 10 days ago, I couldn’t help but think how shocking this whole process would be to those who planned I-30 over 50 years ago.  Though I haven’t done the historical research, I’m pretty sure they didn’t do a single community listening session.  Today, people are clamoring for more parks, green space and walkability.  Fifty-plus years ago, they thought nothing of taking half of the land of the city’s first park.  They thought very little of destroying homes and neighborhoods.  For 5o years, the Cedars has been fighting to overcome the damage that highway caused.  Only recently has real development begun, at least in our corner of the Cedars.  And now, there are a chorus of voices asking for solutions to bridge I-30 and reconnect the Cedars, Dallas’ first residential neighborhood, with downtown.

During the meet and greet, I ran into one of the architects that had been at my meeting.  He said two things to me that I found pretty amazing.  First, he said “You know, I keep talking about our meeting.”  Though I can’t know for sure, I’m wondering if that day back in July was truly the first time they had looked at the historic aerials and realized the damage I-30 caused to traffic flow in and around downtown.  That comment sure supports that suspicion (and also causes me to do a bit of a fist bump for history!).  And then he said: “One of my personal goals for this project is to make sure DHV is easy to find for anyone.”  I, of course, thanked him profusely.  And later, I thanked him again for being an advocate for the Village.

I did my duty and followed the rotation to each station, all highlighting a different area around downtown.  And then I got to our map.  I was with a friend who happens to live in the Cedars, so together we jumped right in.  “This, deck it.  Link DHV and Farmer’s Market.”   And we just went from there.  I think the moderators were a little surprised at our passion!

During the summary portion, the Cedars moderators stated at the very beginning “Every group mentioned the need to link DHV and Farmer’s Market.”  (well, actually they called us Dallas Heritage Park, but I suppose I can get over that.  Maybe.)  And then, the very next day, Willis Winters, the director of Parks, was interviewed on NPR.  He stated that he had 3 priorities for deck parks–and DHV and Farmer’s Market was #2.  So, it was a pretty good 24 hour period.

Why does all this make me so happy, especially when the optimistic side of me knows it will probably be 15 years before any of this happens?  Well, for years, this has been an idea DHV has been advocating, but we always felt kinda lonely.  We’re not alone anymore–there are lots of people that also believe that healing the rift caused by the construction of I-30 is something that can and should be done.

We have a proposed strategic plan under review by the board right now, and one of the main focuses is community involvement.  One of the supporting parts of this is the need to be active and engaged in conversations about the future of our city.  During one of the conversations with the board, a trustee asked “But where’s the money in this?”  I had a pretty good answer for her, with actual dollars, but the real reason why it’s in the strategic plan right now is this: The conversations happening in this city right now will shape the city for the next 50 years.  Dallas is at a turning point.  And if we don’t want to be left behind, we have to be at the table.  The visitors will come, and the money will come.  But right now, we have to attend a lot of meetings, participate in a lot of conversations, and plant a lot of seeds.  And in the meantime, I’m learning an awful lot about urban design and highway planning.