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!

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Afterglow: Reflections on Candlelight

Any time you welcome thousands of people to your museum over the course of 2 days, there will be stories. Candlelight is our biggest event of the year–and our longest running. This year, we celebrated its 45th anniversary–and it was my 13th as a staff member. At the end of each night, staff gather and share some of the stories, usually with some sort of alcoholic beverage. We call it Afterglow.

I will admit that we spend a lot of time complaining and venting. Crazy things happen at Candlelight, often involving parking. One of my favorite stories of all time was when someone tried to get in the VIP lot and was denied. Man in fancy car shouted “My father is the curator! He’ll hear about this!” Max responded “Actually, my mother is the curator and she’ll be just fine.” This year, we had a volunteer refuse to serve because he had to park in a field. We also once had a truck get stuck in cistern that magically opened up. Somewhere, there’s a wonderful picture of several men staring at the hole, trying to engineer their way out of that situation.

But as I was driving home on Sunday night, I wasn’t thinking about all the annoyances and stresses of Candlelight–but how this event bring so many people together. It’s a touchstone in so many lives.

So, here’s to:

  • Ruth Ann, one of our founders, who came this year. It’s difficult for her to get around now, but she remains one of our most constant and faithful supporters.  Pretty sure she was at the first one all those years ago. (At the first Candlelight, there was an ice storm. It’s amazing they decided to try again!)

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    On the front porch of the Blum House
  • Wrene, one of our mighty Guild volunteers (the Guild does a bake sale that raises thousands. Also, there are delicious cookies!). She and her husband moved to Corpus Christi a few years ago, but she comes back every year for a week to help bake and then volunteer both days at Candlelight. And her husband plays piano in the Saloon. Now, that’s dedication.
  • Banner, almost 5, who checked with his mom last week to make sure they would still see the Green Santa.

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    Banner’s sister isn’t quite as thrilled with the “Green Santa”
  • Drew, who has been “Green Santa” for many, many years. I actually had a bit of time to watch him interact with some little ones, and he’s just absolutely amazing with them.
  • Margaret, who came to Candlelight on a first date. And then she brought that same boy back as her husband. And then this year, she brought their month old daughter. Margaret is also a fellow Hendrix alum, which makes it all even neater.
  • Gary, my predecessor, who was finally able to enjoy Candlelight as a visitor–and brought almost his entire family with him!
  • Gail, who started out cooking in the Blum House kitchen with her Junior Historian daughter. But Grace couldn’t make it home from college in time this year–and Gail still came. This year, younger daughter Sophie spent Candlelight assisting with Nip and Tuck. Love seeing entire families get involved at DHV! (Dad Steve is also Chair-Elect.)
  • Ron, who started setting up his childhood trains in the Depot several years ago–and was featured on tv last week. It’s a lovely story.
  • Drew, one of our volunteer photographers, who came both days of Candlelight, plus on Friday afternoon to capture this amazing shot. All of our volunteer photographers do amazing work, but Drew gets a gold star this year.(He took most of the photos in this post. He also gets a gold star because he texts me the good ones while I’m laying on my couch, unwinding.)

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    We moved this carriage for a special photo op–and had to get a few funny photos! 
  • Cedars neighbors, who showed up in force. I’m sure it’s just a coincidence that I ran into so many of them in the Member’s Lounge, which also happened to be the only place at DHV where you could get an alcoholic beverage. . .

I could go on and on. This is an event that takes many hands, but is so important to so many. Shortly after I took over, we worked on a new vision statement and eventually landed on “a place to make history.” We wanted this vision to be both about being active participants in the past, but also acknowledge how this museum fits into many people’s lives. Though Candlelight may not be one of those events where people learn a lot of history, a lot of history is certainly made each year. And that’s an awfully important role that a museum can play.

Milestones: The Consequences of a Successful Junior Historian Program

On this rainy Friday before a holiday weekend, I’m wrapping up one of my favorite annual tasks: creating a photo collage of our graduating Junior Historians.  For many years, figuring out a way to honor graduating Seniors wasn’t an issue, because the kids never stuck around that long.  But now, it’s an absolutely wonderful problem to have.  All graduates get a brick on our walkway with their name and the years they were part of the program.  Most also get a photo collage of their time at DHV.

I’ve written many times before about our revitalized Junior Historian program, including this article for AASLH’s History News.  But this spring, there have been a few moments when I’ve realized anew what the long term impact this program can have on both the kids, my museum and me.  And also what it means to stay at a museum for 10+ years and watch these kids grow up.  These moments are the kind that make me choke up a little and realize how much museums matter to our world.

A few highlights:

  • A former JH attended our big fundraiser, History with a Twist, with her mom (now a board member).  Kaitlin is now old enough to legally enjoy the cocktails, which blows my mind.  And she’s about to start med school.
  • I made a surprise visit to a JH during her freshman year of college.  Grace will be spending her summer working as a History Host and getting paid.  Plus, she’ll be doing some development work as an unpaid intern.

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    Grace and me at Amy’s Ice Cream in Austin. I delivered some treats from her folks and her dad bought us ice cream.
  • I got a Save the Date card for a JH wedding this fall, which will be held at DHV.
  • And then there’s Isabel, our senior.  I first met her 10 years ago when she was a camp kid at my beloved (but long defunct) Pages from the Past camp.  And now she’s all grown up!
  • A kid who was a regular at Barnyard Buddies (preschool story time) will soon be an official Junior Historian.
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At a memorial service for a coworker. Christian is now a Marine, Evelyn is engaged (set to marry at DHV this fall), and Isabel is about to graduate.

We don’t always have the data to prove our impact and relevance, but all of this certainly gives me a pretty confident gut feeling that our institution has had a profound impact on these kids’ lives.  Someone did have the data to do some work on this, and I’m so grateful they shared that study with the world.  After all, it helps prove that my gut isn’t always wrong.

When I became Executive Director, I couldn’t leave these kids behind. Obviously, I’m no longer as involved, but I still work on the fun stuff with them, including this video.

 

This year, I’ll be out of town for most of JH camp. It makes me a little sad, but I also know that Mandy is fully capable of teaching these kids as well as I did–and caring for them as much as I do.  In a sign of the continued evolution of our neighborhood: for the first time ever, we have a neighborhood kid joining us.  We finally have neighbors with kids that want to hang out at a history museum!

Community involvement isn’t just about being involved with your neighborhood; it’s also about creating a community through your museum.  We have some great examples of this at DHV, but the Junior Historian program will always be my favorite.

 

 

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. . .