Whither Public History? It’s Lonely At The Top

Recent senior hirings at prominent history-related museums and sites have raised some intriguing questions in my mind about the very scope and nature of “Public History”, as I plow through the prep for my Summer course on the subject at Hopkins.  It’s made me think long and hard about what we, as educators in graduate programs in Museum Studies or Public History, should do to prepare our students to compete for fulfilling, sustainable jobs when top positions are frequently going to people with virtually no — or actually zero — Public History or Museum Studies backgrounds.  I have recently met far, far too many young, talented, inspiring, and increasingly disillusioned students and EMPs (Emerging Museum Professionals), with far, far too much to offer the field, to not at least explore those questions, particularly to see whether it’s an emerging trend, standard fare, or something else altogether. So, when I have an intellectual itch to scratch, and a new study all set up for it, I spent this morning doing what I usually do when that happens (especially when a different kind of doctor tells me to stay home and be very still), which is to gather data, crunch numbers, and see what falls out.

My methodology was this: Identify the sites in the field that I think are notable for their size, their promise, or their struggles, and see who has been hired for the key public history areas, as well as at the very top.  I picked 34, all listed below.  And then I cross-referenced them with LinkedIn (I apologize now for some of the recent connection invites) and Charity Navigator’s analysis to see how those sites financially perform (19, just over half, of my selections are rated).  It is, admittedly, a highly selective and subjective process, but I tried to gather large and small sites and attempted a broad geographic scope.  I mean, it’s not my fault that most American history sites are located in the east, is it?

Here is what I found.  Of the 34 sites that I examined, with 82 executives and relevant senior staff for whom I could find data, very few of them — 13, less than 16% — were held by staff with any graduate training in Public History or Museum Studies, and only one of the executives has a degree at any level in Public History or Museum Studies.  Take a look for yourself at this list, which represents a sizable proportion of the heritage tourism market (and which I’ll likely expand and refine and correct as a sort of working document, with your help), ranked by the Charity Navigator financial rating where available (IMHO, transparency ratings artificially inflate the money numbers that really count, so I tend to leave them out):

New Bedford Whaling Museum (93.69) — Amanda D. McMullen, President, B.A. from Syracuse University; Christina Connett, Curator of Exhibitions and Collections, Ph.D. in Art History from the University of Valencia; Michael P. Dyer, Curator of Maritime History, M.A. in American Studies from Pennsylvania State University-Capitol.

Fort Ticonderoga Association (93.45) — Beth L. Hill, President, M.A. in History from American University.

George Washington’s Mount Vernon (92.44) — Douglas Bradburn, President, Ph.D. in History from the University of Chicago; Rob Shenk, Senior Vice President for Visitor Engagement, M.A. in National Security Studies from Georgetown University; Roy Young, Vice President for Guest Experience, M.A. in Art and Visual Culture Education from the University of Arizona.

The Baltimore & Ohio Railroad Museum (91.57) — Courtney Wilson, Executive Director, M.A. in History (African American) from Morgan State University.

The Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum (91.30) — Kristen Greenaway, President, M.A. in Liberal Studies from Duke University; Pete Lesher, Chief Curator, M.A. in History from Columbia University; Jill Ferris, Director of Education, M.A. in History Museum Studies from SUNY-Oneonta.

The Valentine Richmond History Center (91.15) — William J. Martin, President, M.A. in Public Administration from Virginia Tech; Liz Reilly-Brown, Director of Public Programs, M.A. in Art History and Museum Studies from Virginia Commonwealth University; David Voelkel, Curator of General Collections, M.A. in Museum Studies from the University of Leicester.

Strawbery Banke Museum (91.07) — Lawrence Yerdon, President, M.B.A. from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and M.A. in History from Northeastern University; Elizabeth Farish, Chief Curator, M.A. in Historic Preservation from the Savannah College of Art and Design; Amanda Santoriello, Assistant Curator, M.A. in Museum Studies from Tufts University; Bekki Coppola, Director of Education, M.A. in Museum Education from Tufts University. [Thanks, Alix, for the contribution of the information. — TS]

Historic Deerfield (88.95) — Philip Zea, President, M.A. in Early American Culture from the University of Delaware (Winterthur).

The National World War II Museum (86.66) — Stephen Watson, President, M.B.A. from Nicholls State University; Peter Crean, Vice President for Education and Access, M.A. in Strategic Studies from the U.S. Army War College; Owen Glendening, Associate Vice President for Education and Access, M.A. in History from Columbia University.

Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello (86.15) — Leslie Greene Bowman, President, M.A. in Early American Culture from the University of Delaware (Winterthur); Susan Stein, Chief Curator and Vice President for Museum Programs, M.A. in Art History from the University of Chicago; Gary Sandling, Vice President for Visitor Programs and Service, M.A. in History from Yale University.

National Constitution Center (85.99) — Jeffrey Rosen, President, J.D. from Yale Law School; Kerry Sautner, Vice President of Visitor Experience and Education, Ph.D. in Education from Drexel University.

James Madison’s Montpelier (81.94) — Kat Imhoff, President, M.S. in Urban and Environmental Planning from the University of Virginia; Elizabeth Chew, Vice President of Museum Programs, Ph.D. in Art History from the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill; Christian Cotz, Director of Education and Visitor Engagement, M.A. in Teaching from James Madison University.

The International Tennis Hall of Fame (81.24) — Douglas Stark, Museum Director, M.A. in History from New York University; Nicole Markham, Curator of Collections, M.M.St. (Masters in Museum Studies) from the University of Toronto.

Robert E. Lee Memorial Foundation (Stratford Hall) (79.03) — John S. Bacon, President, J.D. from the University of Virginia School of Law; Abigail Newkirk, Director of Interpretation, M.A. in Museum Studies from Newcastle University; Gretchen Pendleton, Curator, M.A. in Museum Studies from George Washington University.

The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation (78.96) — Mitchell Reiss, President, D. Phil. from Oxford University; Ghislain d’Humières, Executive Director and Senior Vice President for Core Operations, DEA (former French equivalent of an M.A.) in History from the University of Paris I (the Sorbonne).

The Mark Twain House and Museum (78.42) — Pieter Roos, Executive Director, M.A. in History Museum Studies from SUNY-Cooperstown; Tracy Brindle, Chief Curator, M.A. in History (Public History) at Northern Illinois University; James Golden, Director of Education, Ph.D. in History from the University of Oxford.

Thomas Jefferson’s Poplar Forest (76.37) — Jeffrey Nichols, President; Wayne Gannaway, Director of Programs, Marketing, and Grants, M.A. in Historic Preservation from Western Kentucky University; Mary Massie, Manager of Programs and Education, M.A. in Museum Studies from the Johns Hopkins University (AAP).

Mystic Seaport (74.55) — Steve White, President, B.A. in English from Hardwick College; Nicholas R. Bell, Senior Vice President for Curatorial Affairs, M.A. in Early American Culture from the University of Delaware (Winterthur); Erik Ingmundson, Director of Interpretation, M.A. in History (Public History) from the University of Massachusetts-Amherst.

Chicago History Museum (69.94) — Gary T. Johnson, President, J.D. from Harvard Law School; Russell Lewis, Executive Vice President and Chief Historian, M.A. in American Culture from the University of Michigan; John Russick, Vice President for Interpretation and Education, M.S. in Architectural Studies from the University of Texas.

James Monroe’s Highland (NR) — Sara Bon-Harper, Executive Director, Ph.D. in Anthropology from the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill.

The Museum of the American Revolution (NR) — Michael Quinn, President, M.A. in Art History from Yale University; Scott Stephenson, Vice President of Collections, Exhibitions, and Programming, Ph.D. in History from the University of Virginia; Philip Mead, Director of Curatorial Affairs and Chief Historian, Ph.D. in History from Harvard University.

The Bostonian Society (NR) — Nathaniel Sheidley, Executive Director, Ph.D. in History from Princeton; Kathleen Mulvaney, Director of Education and Exhibitions, M.A. in History Museum Studies from SUNY-Oneonta; Daud Alzayer, Revolutionary Characters Manager, M.M. in Vocal Performance from the Boston Conservancy.

Historic Bethlehem (NR) — Charlene Donchez Mowers, President, NL; Kristen Walsh, Director of Visitor Experience and Community Outreach, M.A. in Museum Studies from the Johns Hopkins University (AAP).

The National Baseball Hall of Fame (NR) — Jeffrey Idelson, President, B.A. in International Economics from Connecticut College; Erik Strohl, Vice President of Exhibitions and Collections, M.A. in History Museum Studies from SUNY-Oneonta; John Odell, Curator of History and Research, M.A. in Museum Studies from George Washington University.

Tryon Palace (NR) — William J. McRea, Executive Director, M.A. in Architectural History and Historic Preservation from the University of Virginia; Nancy Packer, Chief Curator, M.A. in Early American Culture from the University of Delaware (Winterthur); Amber Satterthwaite, Director of Education, M.A. in Museum Studies from the Johns Hopkins University (AAP).

Historic Hudson Valley (NR) — Waddell Stillman, President, M.B.A. from Harvard Business School; Michael A. Lord, Director of Content Development, B.A. in History from Amherst College.

Historic London Town and Gardens (NR) — Rod Cofield, Executive Director, M.A. in Liberal Arts and Sciences from St. John’s College; Kristen Butler, Director of Public Programs, M.A. in History (Public History) from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

Historic St. Mary’s City (NR) — Regina Faden, Executive Director, Ph.D. in American Studies from St. Louis University*.

Preservation Society of Newport County (NR) — Trudy Coxe, Executive Director, NL; Lise Dube-Scherr, Director of Museum Affairs, M.A. in Art Education from Concordia College; John Rodman, Director of the Museum Experience, M.P.A. from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.

Conner Prairie (NR) — Norman Burns, President, M.A. in History from Middle Tennessee State University; Catherine Hughes, Director of Interpretation, Ph.D. in Theatre Education from The Ohio State University.

Old Salem (NR) — Franklin Vagnone, President, M.A. in Architecture from Columbia University.

Gunston Hall (NR) — Scott Stroh, Executive Director, M.A. in History from Middle Tennessee State University; Rebecca Martin, Director of Education and Guest Experiences, M.A. in History (Museum Studies) from the University of Delaware; Samantha Dorsey, Curator of Collections, M.A. in Early American Culture from the University of Delaware (Winterthur).

Plimoth Plantation (NR) — Ellie Donovan, Executive Director, NL; Richard Pickering, Deputy Executive Director, M.A. in American Studies at the College of William & Mary; Jessica Rudden-Dube, Deputy Director for Public Engagement, M.A. in Education from Mercy College.

Old Sturbridge Village (NR) — James Donahue, President, NL in Economics from Colby College; Deb Friedman, Vice President of Public Programs, NL; Rhys Simmons, Director of Interpretation, NL.

What does all this mean? The demographics reveal some items of interest, not the least of which is the almost total absence of racial diversity.  And it does confirm the views of many that, while women dominate the curatorial and education positions, most executive jobs still go to white men.  And you can judge for yourself any correlation between the high performing sites and the struggling ones.

In any case, the overall impression is striking, begging more than a few questions, chief among which might be this: If, in a sense, anyone can be a Public Historian, and profess to lead the field’s practice at the most senior levels, what exactly is the graduate education of Public History today for? And why aren’t Public History Ph.D.’s being given any real value outside of the academy? I am deeply invested in helping to shape a field for my students that can fulfill its massive economic promise for people on both sides of its economy, as producers and consumers, so I tend to make sure my students are ready for the reality of practice, as a pre-professional program more like my law school experience than my doctoral years. Why, for example, don’t we set up public history clinics to give our students more hands-on experience with low-resource sites that need it?

I have no answers to these questions.  And I’m sure there are more and greater implications that I haven’t considered.  Moreover, I have written elsewhere that I think experience in Public History practice matters more than graduate education beyond the M.A. level.  But I do think this is the foundation for a conversation that’s long overdue.

*Dr. Faden also holds an M.A. in Museum Studies from the University of Missouri-St. Louis, making her the sole executive of any site on this list with an advanced degree in the field.

NL = Not listed

NR = Not rated on Charity Navigator


Not Dead Yet: Massachusetts History Museums Visitation Was Up 9.2% In 2016?

The Boston Business Journal has some surprising news for heritage pros about the life that is showing up in heritage tourism in the Bay State. But, as I always advise, these numbers are to be read carefully.  Nevertheless, there is a lot of good, solid information here that bears reflection.
International Tourism is UP?  As the New York Times reported last month, it appears that international tourism in America is down in 2017.  There are many obvious reasons for this and, without getting into politics, let’s just say that uncertainty regarding travel is near the top of the causality list.  Places such as Newport have felt that hit (The bridge work, though, has not helped).  The Biz Journal, though, relying on numbers provided by tourism agencies, have followed the money and looked at where it really counts — spending — and found, at least for 2016, that international tourism in Massachusetts was up 3.8%.
Like so much information in the heritage business space, apples are compared with oranges All. The. Time.  The number of foreign travelers this year does not equal money spent on tourism activities last year, so the Biz Journal‘s lede that Massachusetts is “bucking the national trend” might be true, but these numbers don’t necessarily tell that story.  The important thing isn’t the comparative value (Boston is not trying to compete with Orlando) but facts behind the increase suggest reconsideration of an orthodox heritage tourism belief: closing for the winter.
Seasonal hours are one thing, particularly for small museums that find it hard enough to be open consistently during high-traffic summer months.  And I understand the budgetary considerations involved.  But, given shifting visitation patterns that find more tourists traveling during the late autumn and winter, shuttering one’s institution entirely, like a summer cottage after the U.S. Open finals, is quite another.  They’re just not the same kind of guests that visit during the summer (More locals than distance travelers; more couples and retirees than families, except during holiday breaks), so accordingly adapt programming — and that doesn’t mean paying an entertainment company to fashion an off-mission Halloween or Christmas event that will cost as much revenue as it generates (Historic Hudson Valley’s famous “Pumpkin Blaze” is a cautionary tale in this area).  In addition, many of those foreign tourist dollars happen to be Canadian (You know, that other country founded by colonial Americans?) tourists, who are increasingly interested in our common heritage — and New England in December can be balmy compared to Ontario.  So brush up on your loyalist interpretation, dust off the in-door programming (community discussions, lectures, immersive activities, behind-the-scenes and special-themed tours), and remember the bottom line: the only way to guarantee that you won’t sell a ticket or secure a donation is for someone to show up at your door and find it locked.
Massachusetts Museum Visitation is UP?  The other new Biz Journal report (Which is behind a paywall. Sorry.) is related to foreign tourism spending and perhaps more interesting: The release of the list of the “largest” museums in Massachusetts and their 2016 visitation numbers.  Before we dive into them, it’s critical to note that this list is highly selective — important places such as Historic DeerfieldPlimoth Plantation, Orchard House, and the House of the Seven Gables, large sites with strong numbers, and the Trustees of Reservations, a composite institution with weak numbers, are not on it.  The list, and others like it, depend on institutions that self-report, which means that those museums that did not send their numbers to the editors did not make it onto the list.  And most of those that did are in Boston, so it’s a highly metropolitan list.  Moreover, some of the institutions, such as Historic New England, like the Trustees, represent a wide collection of sites, rather than a single location or set of them.  So we need to read these figures with a critical eye.
That being said, the data on the list is instructive.  11 of the 25 institutions can be carved out as either solely or primarily heritage sites — the others are art museums (the MFA, deCordova), science museums, a zoo, an aquarium, or are more diffusively focused cultural institutions (PEM, Heritage Museums and Gardens).  As a whole — and oddly — the increase in visitation for these 25 museums was precisely that of the 2016 foreign tourism spending in Massachusetts: 3.8%.  But looking at just the heritage sites, the year-over-year increase was a striking 9.2% (2,880,831 over 2,666,536).  Figure the absent institutions into the list and that number would only get stronger.  In fact, only two heritage sites on the list suffered losses, with the largest decline hitting Old Sturbridge Village.  As doomsayers in other parts of the country decry heritage tourism as a dying endeavor, sites such as the Old North Church, the Old State House, the Paul Revere House, the USS Constitution, the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, the New Bedford Whaling Museum, and the Salem Witch House all experienced increases in visitation in 2016.  One could argue that the sites benefit from being in the Boston halo.  In fact, the biggest gainers — the Constitution, the Revere House, the Old North Church, and the Old State House — sit right on the heritage bonanza that is the Freedom Trail, but New Bedford and Salem are at least a day trip from Boston and Dorchester is hardly around the corner from the Common.  Cost might also appear to be an issue, as the gainer sites average an admission price of $10 (including two sites that are Pay What You Will), while the loser sites’ average ticket price is almost twice as much, $19.
The heritage sites on the list (ranked by 2016 attendance) are:
1. Old North Church (@OldNorth1723) — high gainer
2. USS Constitution Museum (@USSConstitution) — high gainer
3. Salem Witch Museum (@SalemWitchMuse) — gainer
4. Paul Revere House and Museum (@PaulRevereHouse) — high gainer
5. Old Sturbridge Village (@OldSturbridge) — high loser
6. Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame (@Hoophall) — slight gainer
7. John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum (@JFKLibrary) — gainer
8. Historic New England (@HistoricNE) — slight gainer
9. The Hall at Patriot Place (@TheHall) — loser
10. Old State House (@BostonianSoc) — high gainer
11. New Bedford Whaling Museum (@WhalingMuseum) — gainer
Leaving cost and location aside, there are other lessons to be drawn from this data, especially for other sites along the Freedom Trail, and because I’ve visited nine of the 11 heritage sites on the list within the last year, each time with an eye towards solid public history practice principles.  The gainer sites have a great deal in common, while the loser sites (“loser” is just a convenient term based on the numbers, not a judgment call) also share some issues.  On the external side, the gainers were all especially visitor-friendly, by which I mean that their admissions are at a manageable price point, the sites are easy to find and well-marked, they have clear, smartphone-optimized websites and social media with the information a potential guest needs, and, for the most part, their staffs look to helpfully engage visitors.  On the internal side, they were, with one notable exception, actively engaged in creating mission-appropriate experiences for guests, relative to their budget — in other words, they know what pays for the party and they creatively stick to it. For example, the Old North Church’s charming guides will engage you in a conversation at whatever level you want about the building and its Revolutionary history, with add-on tours that can take you deeper (and higher) into the building (it’s a real bonus that the terrific Printing Office of Edes & Gill is literally around the corner).  If it’s immersion that you’re looking for, then the Old State House is for you, with engaging and provocative programming that will put you in the middle of the events that shaped Revolutionary Boston.  If you want some of the most knowledgeable interpreters in the business, then run to the USS Constitution.  And the New Bedford Whaling Museum does a graceful, intelligent job of telling the story of New England’s whaling past, and connecting it with our conservation present, in ways that are both interactive and surprising.
While some of the gainer sites could do even more, what none of them do is make guests confused about why they exist in the first place.  They have not made change for the sake of change.  To the extent they have altered their approach to public history, it’s to blend more public with more history to shape programming that furthers the mission, and their leadership seems to have a clear vision of how to accomplish their goals.
It’s tough to say the same things about the two loser sites.  The issues at Old Sturbridge have been covered elsewhere.  I’d call much of the programming off-mission, but that would require a discernible mission.  Either way, the interpretive staff is some of the best in the business, so they deserve better.  On a more interesting note, The Hall at Patriot Place is actually a nifty place with issues that are easy to diagnose and, therefore, fix.  Unless you’re a Patriots’ fan and have actually been to Gillette Stadium, then I doubt you’d know that it even existed.  Consequently, much of its visitation depends on the fan base.  But, as I have said before in support of the International Tennis Hall of Fame in Newport, which has its own problems, sports history is cultural history, so it counts, and the Patriots’ Hall is not an exception to that rule.  The Hall covers the basics of the team’s history, even the history of football in New England, in its exhibits — and has an arresting introductory film that might have guests leaving as fans, even if they didn’t enter as one (C’mon, the film uses THOREAU for its through lines).  It also has, as one might expect, some terrific interactive experiences.  There are some layout problems that confuse guests and the place is often closed to the public for other purposes, such as team events, so the hours are not reliable.  But, like I said, those are all issues that are easily fixed.
In Other News.  In the last few weeks, other sites have either reported gains or made considerable leaps forward.  The Newport Historical Society, at its annual “Culinary Adventure” (this year with the Victorian-era story of Ida Lewis and Ulysses Grant), reported a 2017 summer visitation year-over-year increase from 5,000 to 30,000.  The Golden Ball Tavern — with its new “Tory Ties and Patriot Spies” focus — celebrated the single most effective fundraising event in its history this year and a visitation increase of 40% over last year.  In good news for anyone interested in material culture, Charity Navigator just upgraded Historic Deerfield’s rating from three stars to four (out of four).  And Mystic Seaport might be doing the impossible — turning the Titanic from the iceberg.   Its latest I-990 shows that, besides perhaps the most attractive new building in the New England museum world, its leadership has delivered a $4 million turnaround from 2014, when it had a deficit of $2 million.  The programming along the waterfront remains strong and, again, it has a staff of engaging interpreters who know what they’re about (although things get ishy away from the waterfront).  Mystic also does the hard, and expensive, work of restoring historic ships like the Mayflower II.  Keep your eyes on Mystic.
This is all to say that heritage tourism, done by investing in more and better history, seems to be alive and well in New England.  If you’re interested in the business of public history, watch this space and, more to the point, watch this place.
FULL DISCLOSURE: I’m a member and/or an adviser to several sites in this piece (but none on the list) — Plimoth, the Newport Historical Society, Orchard House, the Tennis Hall of Fame, and the Golden Ball Tavern. And I remain a fan of the Baltimore Colts.


Building Public History: Aggy’s Fight for Freedom

In the course of writing a public history textbook, advising museums (and, occasionally, a fictional mouse), putting together syllabi for next year, and all-too-often railing against the demise of a venerable institution, it can become an occupational hazard to lose an appreciation of the humanity of the people of the past who are at the heart of it all, whom we are supposed to work to remember, to attempt to understand, and from whose experiences glean some lessons that matter in the present.  Too often curatorial enthusiasm or interpretative malpractice can remove the living and breathing spirit of those who gave meaning to objects and ideas, until they because matters of cloistered connoisseurship or, worse, empty entertainment.  And while we public historians, inevitably caught up in the bewildering inanity of our post-factual modern world — such as the daily madness of a president who doesn’t seem to have read the Constitution, much less respect it, or the indecorous implosion of once-vaunted heritage organizations, or constructing academic conference papers on abstruse topics that only a handful of other people will ever read — try to find new, effective ways, through efforts such as History Space, to project and protect that past, the men and women, free and enslaved, who made it, and who inspired many of us to spend a career in pursuit of their worlds in the first place, can quickly and easily become nothing more than content for exhibits, tours, costumed history programs, or daily Tweets.  In the end, instead, the stories that once captivated us become twisted into shades of what they really were, and our work has done more harm than good to their memory, thereby violating our implicit vocational charge.

How many of us have that unruly file of notes that contains all of the stories we promise ourselves that we’ll get to just as soon as this evaluation, or chapter, or article, or recommendation is done?  How many times have we heard our friends and colleagues tell us “You MUST write that!” after a few pints at the local loosen our tongues enough for us to switch from debating tired paradigms to telling timeless tales, ones made all the more powerful because their facts are not alternative?  And why does that file constantly invite us to leaf through its pages when another committee appointment or donor meeting makes us wonder just what those years in graduate school were for because, mostly, those stories speak to us in ways that we find difficult to explain, although we revel — and are renewed — in the telling?

For me, that has always been the best part of being a public historian, as an educator and as a practitioner.  If, as Denise Meringolo has trenchantly pointed out, to be a public historian is to be a builder, especially of a relationship among educators, practitioners, and, of course, audiences, than the product of that relationship lies in the nexus of scholarship, interpretation, and imagination, and which begets further inquiry.  Whenever I think of the stories in my file, I think of that relationship, of how best to tell those stories in ways that maintain our unwritten contract of authenticity and accuracy (not necessarily the same things), while ensuring a level of engagement with others.  It represents, in my view, the best of the work I’ve done at every public history stop on my C.V., from Monticello and Colonial Williamsburg, to running Historic Huguenot Street, to advising Newport, the Golden Ball Tavern, and Plimoth Plantation–the programs that result from the relationships of teams of skilled people in the present trying to tell powerful, even instructive stories about people in the past, about those who cannot speak for themselves.

Top in my folder is the story of Ryland Randolph and Aggy, a tale at least as compelling as that of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings, but one largely unknown and still mysterious.  It all started while I was writing my dissertation on Virginia loyalists, which revolves around that “great cousinry,” the Randolph clan (of which, only incidentally, I am one).  Many of them joined the patriot movement, but more of them did not, choosing to fight to remain British or to stay out of the contest until it was all over and the smoke cleared.  Much of my argument to explain the choices they made, or left unmade, during the crisis period centers on political culture, and a dominant shift from sense to sensibility.  That required a level of prosopographical analysis that bordered, it must be said, on the manic, as I (quite literally) mapped out the relevant individuals and traced their social relationships and cultural influences.

That led me to Ryland.

Ryland Randolph, the master of the family seat of Turkey Island on the James River, was an eccentric member of an eccentric family.  Almost nothing but the barest of genealogical facts was known of him (Thanks, Gerald Cowden).  Born about 1734, the son of Richard Randolph and Jane Bolling, and therefore a descendant of Rebecca Rolfe (the story of Ryland’s portrait of “Pocahontas,” which hung in the main hall at Turkey Island, is another one in my file), he, like many of his brothers and cousins, went to school in England, attended Trinity Hall at Cambridge and Middle Temple in the 1750s, went on a tour of the American northeast and Canada in the 1760s, traveled back to England, and then returned to Virginia in 1770 to live, seemingly alone amongst his enslaved community, on his vast plantation.  He was described by a contemporary as “a fine classical scholar, a master of the French and Italian languages, an eloquent speaker and most accomplished gentleman.”  He died, legally unmarried, in 1784.  As far as the history books are concerned, that was pretty much all there is to Ryland Randolph, and all that remains above ground of him, given that the house at Turkey Island is today nothing but lumps and bumps in the landscape near the family graveyard, is an obelisk that he erected to mark the environmental disaster that was “The Great Fresh” of 1771 and honor his parents, but even that monument is now eroding, buried in the middle of a forest that the Virginia Tidewater’s tick population defends like their last bastion.  It’s a fitting metaphor for Ryland — only the quite serious need venture closer to the core.  In the end, his story for most of the last 200 years was just another one of those tired, ubiquitous tales of the Virginia privileged class who only existed to enjoy their privileges.

But there was one book that had a tantalizing mention of him that suggested his story was something else.  Phil Morgan’s Slave Counterpoint, the seminal work on the lived experience of enslaved men and women in the Chesapeake and Carolinas, suggested in a footnote that an enslaved woman named Aggy might have lived in the manor house at Turkey Island as Ryland’s wife, along with their two children, Sylvia and Philip Alexander, and were set free by Ryland in his will, with provision that they leave Virginia for England, where funds were deposited for their welfare.  But the will was challenged by his brother and, it seemed, the provisions not enforced.

Of course, that begged the situation of Jefferson and Sally Hemings, and the other “open and notorious” interracial associations that were obvious to observers throughout late colonial Virginia.  As “no uncommon spectacle,” in the words of the Rev. Thomas Gwatkin, a member of that society, such relationships were, quite literally, unremarkable.  Yet Ryland appeared to have taken the extra steps, given Virginia’s strict legal and economic constraints to manumission, to ensure the security and liberty of his family, unlike so many of his contemporaries.  Ryland, then, at least to me, deserved a closer look.

And, as every historian worth her or his salt knows, you start seeing things just when you begin to look for them, and not a moment before.  Ryland was not just Jefferson’s cousin, he was his close friend.  It was with Ryland whom Jefferson would often stay on his trips between Charlottesville and Williamsburg.  It was Ryland whom Jefferson consulted about architecture and landscaping.  It was Ryland from whom Jefferson borrowed books and ideas, and suggested that others do the same.  It was Ryland whom Jefferson asked to draft the first rendering of the Virginia State Capitol (a document now in the collection of the Massachusetts Historical Society).  As for Ryland himself, he rebuilt the main house at Turkey Island in a style that gave it the nickname “The Bird Cage.”  He reveled in his library and, perhaps tellingly, his own mixed-race descent from Pocahontas.  And he adopted as his motto, Fari Quae Sentiet  — “To Say What One Feels” (from Horace).  And he did, indeed, do just that in his will in 1785, when he not only gave Aggy and her children their freedom, but also left her all of his “household furniture of every kind including gold and silver” and arranged for their transport to England, along with a trust fund of £3000 (the modern equivalent of almost $500,000), to be administered for them by close friends in London (one of them a senior member of the British Treasury).

His brother, Richard, however, strongly opposed the will.  He encouraged its executors to refuse to serve and he challenged it in court.  Richard claimed that the generosity to Aggy showed that Ryland was not of sound mind and, something closer to the Henrico County Court justices’ hearts and minds, Ryland owed money to Richard that must be accounted for before any bequests were allowed.  Of course, Richard had no proof of those debts, but the justices would certainly take his word for it, as a matter among gentlemen, wouldn’t they?  Of course, they did, declaring the will void and granting administration of Ryland’s estate to Richard.

That’s where things stood when I got to Colonial Williamsburg and told the story to my partner in program development, Bill Weldon, one night at our favorite watering hole (I should have had my mail delivered to Second Street).  I was hired by then-Vice President Jim Horn to ensure sound scholarship as the foundation of public programming, and it was his charge to Bill, as creative director, and me to develop new programming, and refine existing programs, that would push our guests’ boundaries and challenge conventional notions of the Revolutionary generation that made America.  So one of my first thoughts was of Ryland and Aggy, and its interpretative potential gripped Bill’s imagination as much as it did mine.  But how could we effectively tell that story?

As with the very best in public history programming, success begins and ends with human capital.  At the time, Bill and I were reconfiguring the entire “Revolutionary Community” to more accurately reflect, in the people whom our interpreters portrayed, those who were actually there during the years of the Revolution, and more authentic social and racial demographics.  Out went figures such as Robert Carter Nicholas, who left Williamsburg in 1776, and composite personas, and in came James Madison, Martha Jefferson, Martin Hemings, and Barber Caesar.  And in a remarkably gifted young interpreter — Mary Hardy Carter — we had someone with the capacity and interest to properly build Ryland’s Aggy.  It did not matter to us that not much was known about many of these individuals (NOT characters.  We refused to use that term to describe people who once lived.  Cinderella is a character.  Aggy was a person).  What did matter was that we knew their relevance, and the power of the stories they could tell, which would generate new scholarship from the research and creative work needed to authentically explore and represent their lives, as a product of that relationship among public history educator, practitioner, and audiences.  Through that process, we could recover the historical Aggy on her own terms, and learn more about her world.

We were also fortunate to have at that time embarked on a new partnership with Karin Wulf at the College of William & Mary (when CW was still an Omohundro Institute partner), in a project that she and I developed to examine gender in Early America through an explicit connection between American Studies students and CW Actor-Interpreters.  Students were charged with working with our interpreters to develop the history and historiography around the historical figures we wanted to portray.  So we had teams of graduate and undergraduate students “adopt” an interpreter and her portrayal as their major class project.  And one of those groups had Mary and Aggy.

It was a tremendously exciting moment for us all, as public and academic historians, to watch those students help Aggy emerge from the historical ether.  That was largely due to the indefatigable research of Alex Finley, a talented — and inspired — William & Mary graduate student, who discovered documents long hidden in Virginia court records.  The work of her and her team, combined with my own continued research (and that of my splendid intern, Jenna Simpson), painted a new picture — or, rather, restored a lost portrait — of Aggy that not only led to an effective individual portrayal, but a powerful program, “His Natural Wife,” to tell the story of a remarkable woman.

Through that work, we developed new scholarship on both Aggy and on the nature of interracial relationships in early America.  At the beginning of the process, the story ended as one expected it might, with the Virginia gentry preserving their ancient hegemony over those who would rebel against it.  At the end, and ongoing, we see a much different Virginia, one in which a woman could fight for her rights — and win.  That’s a Virginia much more complicated, much more contingent, and much more interesting and diverse than you’ll get out of most books and historical sites.

Aggy did not let Richard’s challenge against Ryland’s will stand.  She fought back, partnering with a neighbor, lawyer (and prominent Quaker) Robert Pleasants, to claim her rights under Ryland’s will and demand that Richard produce evidence of Ryland’s supposed debts to him.  Richard countered, offering to grant her and her children freedom in his own will if they did not make any claims under Ryland’s, but Aggy refused.  She petitioned the various Virginia courts, suing Richard and his successors for unlawful imprisonment by Richard and his family, as she was oppressed by them “in more than a common degree” as she possessed an “absolute right to freedom.”  It took 16 years after the death of Ryland, but Richard never provided the evidence of debts and Aggy’s tenacity won out: On 18 August 1801, Aggy, “who obtained her freedom by suit,” appeared before the clerk of the Henrico County Court and obtained her legal liberty.

That, however, is where the story ends — for now.  What happened to her and her children is, as yet, unknown.  There is evidence that Ryland succeeded in establishing the trust for them in London, but not what became of it.  Nevertheless, through the synergy created by the relationships at the heart of public history, we know more about the period and its people.  And we have new questions.  For example, chief on my mind, did Aggy’s difficulties with Richard influence Jefferson’s choices about what how to legally treat Sally Hemings and their children? Jefferson was well aware of the fight over Ryland’s will, which might have impacted his own plans for the Hemings. [UPDATE: I’ve since discovered what happened to Aggy, the two children, and the trust Ryland established for them.]

This is one of the stories in my file.  It’s also a reminder of the power of public history as a partnership of the sort that History Space is trying to teach, grow, and show.  I’m also looking forward to building the process into my forthcoming Public History: A Field Guide (Rowman & Littlefield for the AASLH) and my public history courses at Johns Hopkins.  But, on some days, like today’s rainy one in Providence, some stories just need to be told.  And Aggy’s would wait no more.








Damn Lies and Statistics: Why Colonial Williamsburg’s Collapse Isn’t Part of a Trend in Public History Sites

Many well-meaning journalists covering Colonial Williamsburg’s latest troubles have bought into CEO Mitchell Reiss’s narrative that “history is dead,” therefore — so his reasoning goes — CW’s problems are part of a general trend among museums (from art to living history) that he must heroically combat, rather than ones of its, or his and his board’s, own making.  In the absence of other readily available data, the journalists have tended to rely on 2014 articles and 2012 reports as proof of a field in trouble (see NPR’s Sarah McCammon’s otherwise fine piece as an example). Of those commentators without a financial stake in the current establishment, only Peter Galuzska in the Washington Post has gotten it completely wrong (I’m not sure how cutting African American programs but adding a shooting range, a skating rink, an inflatable octopus, and craft beer tastings are opening CW “up to a more diverse America”– the Wall Street Journal nailed this one). But we in the field know that things have changed in the last three years, given the efforts of many practitioners to better understand the business of public history, religiously reading “Know Your Own Bone” (check out Colleen’s terrific new resource website) and following along with Ruth Taylor (Newport Historical Society), Frank Vagnone (Old Salem), Richard Pickering (Plimoth Plantation), Gary Sandling (Monticello), and Kat Imhoff (Montpelier) as they move their institutions, and the field, forward.  And, more to the point, the data actually is there, if you know where to look.

So it’s more instructive and useful to examine the matter in terms of metrics, rather than empty — and largely unprovable — assertions about motivations behind visitation numbers and donation levels. Let’s look at how CW compares with similarly situated institutions based solely on the data, and what it really means. To me, as I prepare students to work in public history and advise major donors (and solicit them), a most useful figure is fundraising efficiency. It’s a nicely simple indicator, and terrific as a diagnostic measure: How much money does it cost an institution to convince a donor to give them $1? The implications are clear, and accurate. Institutions that donors do not know or, worse, in which they do not have much trust, take more convincing, which costs money. Or, when donors have given up on your institution, you have to find new donors, which also costs money.  Institutions that have a clear mission and an institutional culture that projects it, build donor confidence, along with a solid brand, thereby making the donation pitch much less expensive, all things considered. Based on its most recent IRS I-990, how does CW stack up against its peers and the field as a whole?

The average for museums across the country is 14 cents to raise every $1. It costs Mount Vernon 17 cents, Monticello 9 cents, Montpelier 9 cents, Strawberry Banke 8 cents, Plimoth Plantation 7 cents, and the American Civil War Center at Tredegar just 2 cents.

It costs CW 24 cents to raise every $1. Among American museums, only Mystic Seaport‘s 25 cents is higher. That also means that a quarter of every dollar donated to CW goes to raise the next dollar, not to programming or anything else.

It’s directly a measure of what we call donor confidence, a precious commodity. Once gained, it’s something to defend at almost any cost. Once lost, it’s almost impossible to get back, and, sorry Reiss, doing things like siphoning tens of millions of dollars from the non-profit endowment to mask for-profit losses isn’t going to help much with that.  Keep in mind, the massive financial losses in the hotels, golf courses, and other for-profit properties have little to nothing to do with the work on the Foundation side, even if the Foundation is bearing the brunt of covering those losses (they even fired the director of conservation and effectively shuttered the research library — pretty tough to run a history site without those folks, although a current staffer tweeted that those cuts were merely “unfortunate.” One suspects he enjoys continuing to collect a paycheck.).  For example, the Foundation had to rent the Kimball Theater, essentially from itself, for all programs (and without a discount from the normal rate).  That’s one way to use non-profit money to underwrite a for-profit venture.  Again, look at the data — the Foundation, strictly speaking, has always been able to cover its own costs.  The eye-popping deficits have been caused by the for-profit ventures.  But mix them together and, suddenly, it’s an issue for the entire museum field?  Um, no.  The problem is less that CW’s historical audience stopped going, it’s that the ones who were going stopped sleeping in its expensive hotels.

That leads us to look at CW’s “Working Capital” number. That’s how long, based on existing assets and current trends, a museum can last. CW’s number is now 6.6 years (less than the eight that’s been reported).  Several years ago it was twice that.

How does CW stack up against the sector in other categories? Take a look for yourself by digging through Charity Navigator.

The problem is not general. It is not the public history or museum field. It is just CW — and its leaders.

Letting Go: Decommissioning with Dignity?

The threat facing the Queen Mary is a serious issue with which, ultimately, every museum or other site with major physical resources has to grapple. Maritime museums of all sorts — from the Queen Mary to Fall River’s Battleship Cove or Mystic Seaport — are like zoos in that way: the first responsibility is to the care and preservation of the reason(s) they exist at all (check out the AASLH’s guide to Interpreting Naval History at Museums and Historic Sites). That alone is a tremendously expensive effort, and while certain things can be deferred, they cannot be avoided and will only become more expensive to fix. As someone who once ran a site with a few dozen historic buildings, some dating to the 1600s, maintaining them (to the point of spending winter mornings shoveling snow off 18th-century roofs), let alone interpreting them, was a daunting task. How can you completely fulfill every site’s implicit core mission — not just to protect, but to project — when you can’t let anyone experience the space because it’s dangerous to the structure and to the guests, and you simply don’t have the money?

As funding sources decline, and schemes to find more become more wild and ineffectual in their desperation, when does the answer become “let it go”? More and more sites will face the question that the Queen Mary — a unique, immersive site that has a special place in my heart and where my Disney connection began — now must answer. Communities have done, and are doing to do, what they can, but the need is quickly outstripping their capacity. The differences among Long Beach to Fall River to smaller towns are in degree, not in kind. In the end, while we talk a great deal about succession plans in museum and public history leadership, and sustainability of programming and human capital, must we now include a new discussion about decommissioning with dignity, responsibly and thoughtfully turning experience into memory and history?

And, keep in mind, this has already begun. Does anyone remember Johnsonville, an Old Sturbridge-type (meaning totally fictional but with period buildings shipped in from other areas) Victorian “living history” village in Connecticut that closed more than 15 years ago? They have already been decommissioned, the site is abandoned, and its caretakers are selling historic resources to anyone with cash. Other sites are taking different tacks, but are no less transformational. Old Sturbridge itself, for a site that is losing $1 million a year per its last 990, is shifting its scarce resources to creating a charter school. Colonial Williamsburg, now hemorrhaging guests, has dropped all pretensions to the history education vision that created the place, and inspired Walt Disney himself, to embrace “theme-based interpretation” that promotes, as the Wall Street Journal just promoted, hotels, golf, fine dining, and craft beer (the new motto, according to the WSJ, should be “Give me luxury or give me death!”): Its idea of a Women’s History Month program is a group of patriot men, talking about women, which basically happens every day ending in a “y”. As for many of the rest, the unique stories they can tell are being buried underneath an increasingly anodyne and banal series of cookie-cutter programming. Bold, original programming, except at places like Plimoth Plantation, appears to have largely evaporated. Perhaps, as has been suggested elsewhere, it is simply that an era in the history of heritage tourism — that of the large-scale living history museum — is over, a relic of post-World War II prosperity, highways, and a love-affair with car trips. At least some places, such as Historic Deerfield, seem to be resolutely holding on to their integrity, keeping within their financial compass to focus intently on mission-related efforts, to their credit. But for many others, is there a pandemic of the same sort of “mission rot” that the Queen Mary more seriously and directly faces in its hull deterioration, but leads, nevertheless, to the same metaphorical end: a sinking ship that can never sail again?

In any case, it’s a situation that’s certainly calls for a new chapter for my upcoming book, and might require a serious re-read of The Anarchists’ Guide.

The Past is Never Dead, Only Deadly Boring: A View of the Field from the Newport ‘Radicals’

Several weeks ago, a group of admittedly self-proclaimed radical public historians, led by NHS Executive Director Ruth Taylor,  descended upon the Colony House in Newport to dispel a rumor that is growing like a pernicious weed through certain quarters of the field: History is dead and the heritage sites that depend on it are dying.  It’s a rationale being deployed by some of the largest and oldest living history sites in America to justify dramatic changes in their programming to chase revenue from other, hopefully younger, sources, such as the coveted, yet elusive, Millennials whom, the thinking goes, are searching high and low for the next unique background for a strikingly similar, and similarly anodyne, series of ghost tours, craft beer tastings, modern art installations, and weddings (lots and lots of weddings).  Millennials want leisure experiences, they say, like spa treatments and wine pairings, not challenging engagement with the people, events, and ideas that continue to shape our collective lives.  They want resolution, not conflict.  History is dead, these wishful trailblazers declare, and the only way to save heritage spaces is to kill them and their archaic missions.

It’s a topic that our panel of radicals — Old Salem’s Frank Vagnone (co-author of The Anarchists’ Guide to Historic House Museums), the American Association of State and Local History’s Bob Beatty, the Rhode Island Historical Society’s Morgan Grefe, History Communicator extraordinaire Kevin Levin, and myself, with a special appearance by Plimoth Plantation’s Tom Begley — were eager to tackle, perhaps because, for all of our claims to radicalism, and record of causing trouble in the museum world in several time zones, we were uniform, even resolute, in response: to channel Faulkner’s fictional attorney Gavin Stevens in Requiem for a Nun, “The past is never dead. It isn’t even past.”  In other words, history — especially a public history that actively seeks to connect the past to the present in ways that shape the future, and a preservation ethos that rehabilitates stories as much as buildings — is alive and well, even amongst Millennials.  As one of the panelists pointed out, just follow the money.  Lin-Manuel Miranda and his Hamilton: The Musical wouldn’t have reached their current astronomical heights of popularity if history is dead.  “Hidden Figures” and “Hacksaw Ridge” wouldn’t have been nominated for Best Picture Academy Awards, and grossed a combined $219 million at the box office, if history is dead.

More to the point is the evidence provided by the institutions that appear to be at greatest risk if history was headed to the morgue.  Closer to home, the mansions managed by the Preservation Society of Newport County reported welcoming an astonishing one million guests last year.  Plimoth Plantation — a prime candidate for extreme unction if there was one, with its dozens of costumed interpreters, a complex narrative that blends religion, Native Americans, and a core of Protestant extremists, and a 90-minute drive from the nearest metro area — is not only holding onto its historical audiences, it’s growing new ones, while maintaining a respectable balance sheet for donors and trustees.

So what’s the deal? Why are some sites losing guests and dollars, jettisoning boatloads of human capital in the process, while seemingly similarly situated ones are looking forward to a sustainable future?  In the end, we concluded that the issue isn’t about history being dead, it’s about history being deadly boring.  From Hamilton to Plimoth, success clearly appears to lie in a consistently strong yet diverse helping of mission-driven historical programming designed to educate and entertain, connecting audiences — even Millennials — in ways that are natural, that taste and feel real because they are.  But that requires a level of deep immersion in a historical past that draws heavily on academic resources of all kinds in order to get the details right, even the ones guests don’t see.  The important thing is the scope and nature of a 360-degree guest experience, one that’s not bland or artificial, and than can carry the serious ideas and conflicts that are going on in the heads of Americans and other visitors, regardless of marketing demographic, if for no other reason than because that is the only way through them. Immersive public history doesn’t work unless the past we present gets at the big stuff.  As my experience from Disney to Colonial Williamsburg consistently reminds me, engagement doesn’t work unless it gets at the core of a human condition that wrestles with the challenges we continue to face, whether over race, religion, gender identity, or other distinctions that artificially divide history into one that’s yours and one that’s mine.

But it can’t be fantasy.  That line can’t be crossed, even if, in the end, all we are really trying to do is tell a story and draw others into its pages.  Do that and, as we radicals discussed during and beyond the panel, your site will not just lose money, it will lose much more — it will lose credibility, which, for a heritage site, is the ball game.  Entertaining, provocative programming will convince your guests to come back to your site, but your reputation is what will get them there in the first place.

So Faulkner’s over-quoted phrase can continue to have real meaning for us as public historians, who see the past as vibrant and alive, with an important role to play in our daily lives, as it swirls all around us.  Because, in the final analysis of the Newport radicals, people don’t hate history, they just hate history done badly by people who don’t seem to care much about it.

Dr. Taylor Stoermer, Visiting Curator of Public History at the Newport Historical Society, Faculty Fellow and Adjunct Professor at Roger Williams University, and author of the forthcoming Public History: A Field Guide (Rowman and Littlefield).

Battleships and Bordens: Questions about the Power of Space (Guest Post)

This is a guest post by journalist Brian Hubert (follow him on Twitter @briguyhubert), an avocational specialist in transportation history, who just visited southern New England to look into the different ways in which public history is practiced here.  This is his impression of a visit to several sites in Fall River, Massachusetts, offering military, technological, social, and dark history, in places that use the power of space in strikingly different, but similarly influential ways, when it comes to understanding the elements of a successful guest experience.

A recent trip to Fall River, Massachusetts shows the power of space in historic sites.

One of those sites is Battleship Cove, which features the destroyer the USS Joseph P. Kennedy, Jr., the battleship USS Massachusetts, and the submarine USS Lionfish, along with a ship built for East Germany, the Hiddensee, which was part of USSR’s “Eastern Bloc” during the Cold War. The ships are docked under a tall bridge that carries Interstate 195 towards Providence.  After passing through a small building that houses a gift shop, guests can make a left and venture into a large building that houses two “PT” (Patrol Torpedo) boats, along with a number of signs and a video that tell the story of the famous craft, including the events of August 1943, which would help to make future U.S. President John F. Kennedy famous.
Guests start their tour of the big ships by boarding the USS Joseph P. Kennedy, Jr., and seeing the ship just as it was when it was decommissioned in the 1970s. They are free to tour as much or as little the of ship they want to at their own pace in whatever order they want.  Most hatches are open and no one is there to yell “don’t touch that” at guests. A small ship’s store has a calendar turned to February 1972, and the shelves are even stocked with Ritz crackers, Sunmaid raisins along with Lucky Strike, Camel and Marlboro cigarettes and Colgate shaving cream. On the counter is an old cash register stuck on $.01 and a sign hangs from it stating the store’s hours in military time.
The mess hall is another interesting space with a retro Coca Cola vending machine along with tables, and a stainless steel water fountain much like one found in a high school hallway.  Shelves hold dozens of napkin dispensers like those found in a traditional diner. The cafeteria-like space contrasts greatly with a dining room where higher ranking members of the crew enjoyed their meals on a table with a tablecloth and fine china. The placement and presence of these items give the ship a lived-in feel and it breaks down barriers to imagining what day-to-day life was for members of the crew and how the day-to-day routine varied for crew members based on rank.
A self-guided tour seemed to be the best way to take everything in. It lets the guest focus on what they think is most interesting, and it avoids a situation where a guide focuses on only one or two things they’re interested in.
Maritime technology abounds in the Joseph P. Kennedy, Jr. as well, ranging from early computer and radio equipment to the large steam turbines that propelled the ship. Above deck, the ship retains many of its original guns, allowing guests to get an idea of just how big some of them really were in a way that could only happen on board such a vessel.  Visitors can peer through glass at the ship’s bridge, and a video plays on a loop in which former crew members who served on the ship, even in those rooms, share their experiences.
What better way to offer living history than by featuring those who actually lived it?
Nearby a fully intact radar room is lit by red lights that made the large radar screen easier to read for crew members.
A platform then can take visitors to the USS Lionfish, a WWII submarine that used a diesel-electric and battery propulsion system that was a precursor to today’s nuclear subs. This limited the time Lionfish could spend below water, and the deck is equipped with several guns to help protect the sub when it needed to breach the surface and run its diesel engines to charge the batteries. When guests head below deck, they immediately encounter the equipment used to launch torpedos, several of which sat ready to go in case of enemy attack. Hammocks above the torpedoes provided cramped sleeping quarters that allowed the crew to wake up and fire them off at any moment.
As one takes in the surroundings it’s easy to suspend disbelief and imagine what it was like to serve on Lionfish even with a lack of expensive and gimmicky technology, or even an interpreter or docent. After passing through a doorway so short it requires guests to bend down to pass through, guests pass several officers’ quarters before they arrive at the center of the sub.
In this space, the ping-ping of Lionfish‘s sounding equipment can still be heard. Adventurous visitors can climb a ladder to peer into the bridge. In an adjacent, space, behind plastic, are the handles that were used by the crew to let in or discharge water allowing the sub to dive below the service or come back up. Passing through another doorway, guests enter the engine room and come face to face with four large Fairbanks Morse diesel engines that generated electricity to charge the large batteries that drove the electric motors that propelled Lionfish when it was below water.  Similar engines would find use in Fairbanks Morse’s unsuccessful foray into the diesel-electric locomotive market after the war. It was a time when railroads across the U.S. and Canada were rapidly replacing steam locomotives with new diesel-electric locomotives. A nearby GE electrical cabinet allowed the crew to change between the diesel engines, which could only be run above water and the batteries used when the sub was below water. A couple of the levers can even be pulled, providing a very small, but tangible, connection to when Lionfish was in service.
Once back on the deck another platform takes visitors over to the Hiddensee, a much more modern Soviet-era missile cruiser that belonged to the East German Navy before reunification in the 1990s.  Following reunification, Hiddensee was transferred to the German Federal Navy and later to the U.S. Navy (to which it still belongs). Once aboard it’s hard to miss one of the giant missile batteries, with what looks like missiles still inside. Much of the labels and signage aboard is still in Russian (Cyrillic), while some English labels were added at later date. Unlike the Joseph P. Kennedy, Jr., and the Lionfish, access to the bridge is unfettered and visitors can get up close to and even touch some of the equipment. Below deck, a shower stall is frozen in the 90s with Suave shampoo and bar soap ready to use.
The last, and biggest, ship at Battleship Cove is the USS Massachusetts, a WWII battleship that launched in 1941. The first thing visitors notice is three massive guns above deck, and their size can only be appreciated in person. While the tour below deck was cut short by the museum closing for the night, one of the most best spaces down there was the mess hall, which resembled a large cafeteria. Large trays hold faux food and counters still survive. Nearby was a machine shop stocked with everything from light bulbs to a large assortment of tools ready to be used to repair just about anything while Massachusetts was at sea.
One of the most tangible experiences on Massachusetts is found here on the dozens of hammocks where members of the crew that staffed the mess hall slept. Guests are free to climb up in the hammocks and see how they felt. They actually were more comfortable than they looked. One could even take a nap if one wanted to.
What better way to connect with the past than closing your eyes for a few seconds and laying down in hammocks just like those the ship’s crew would’ve slept in?
Perhaps the biggest disappointment, though, with Battleship Cove was not being told that admission tickets could also be used for a nearby maritime museum that appeared to have a bit of an identity crisis. On its website, this museum, which features exhibits and artifacts that help to tell the story sea history and its connection to Fall River, is referred to as a maritime museum. But strangely enough, a large sign in front refers to it as the Marine Museum. It would’ve been nice to know Battleship Cove tickets are also valid at this museum, making the $18 ticket price seem like a better value.
The lack of talk of this museum at the ticket counter, contrasts greatly with New England’s largest theme park, a Six Flags in Agawam, Massachusetts where nearly all the park’s marketing and promotional efforts note how admission tickets and season passes include admission to the theme park and a large adjacent waterpark named Hurricane Harbor.  Both the theme and water park are accessible through one gate.
If Six Flags can tout “two parks for the price of one” why can’t Battleship Cove promote “two museums, each offering different experiences, for the price of one?”
Space also plays a key role at the nearby Lizzie Borden Bed & Breakfast, where Borden lived when her father and stepmother who were murdered in 1892 by bring struck with a hatchet multiple times each. The circumstance surrounding their deaths became a national sensation almost overnight thanks to the press who spread the story rapidly. In 1893 a jury found Lizzie not guilty on all charges, which is highlighted on the front page of a copy of a major New York City daily that hangs in the gift shop.
Unlike many other historic house museums, the Borden house has no velvet ropes or glass barriers restricting visitors’ access. Guests are welcome to sit down on the period furnishings that fill the rooms. Unlike many other HHM’s, the furnishings are not the focus of the tour, which instead focuses on Borden’s life, with a special focus on the day of the murder. A good deal of background is provided about the lives of her parents, her sister Emma and the family’s Irish maid, Bridget.
Just being able to sit on the furniture and roam freely in the rooms, creates a different dynamic and a more relaxed atmosphere. The tour had a more conversational feel than the usual material-culture driven lecture of a typical HHM tour. Each room, including those where Mr. and Mrs. Borden were killed, features graphic, but discretely placed, crime scene photos, which were a new innovation in police investigations at the time.  They help connect guests back to the day when the Bordens were killed.
The Borden home is a popular “dark tourism” site. Dark tourism is a kind of tourism based on going to places where death or other tragedies occurred. They have become big business, and their own segment of the heritage tourism sector.  Over the years, the Borden house has become the subject of countless ghost legends, and upstairs in Mr. Borden’s bedroom, and in an upstairs space where Bridget slept, our guide shared several ghosts stories related to the house. The stories, like one involving toys making sounds, and rolling up a pitched floor in the third-floor room, are told in a way that leaves it up to the guest to decide rather they want to believe in the ghost story or not.
This acknowledges the ghost legends and stories connected with the site without resorting to gimmicks like Colonial Williamsburg’s fictional  “Haunting on DoG Street.” While off-mission programming is touted by CW leaders and marketing staff  as a cure for dwindling attendance and financial issues, this hypothesis was proven wrong at the Old Colony and Fall River Railway Museum, next to Battleship Cove, which closed in October 2016.  The defunct museum held a “Haunted Railyard” event for several years but it did little to stave off declining attendance that led to the site’s demise. Now its small yard, flanked by rail sidings to use store freight train cars that extend to the docks, sits padlocked, with its future very much up in the air.
The closing could be construed as a positive for the museum’s New Haven Railroad self-propelled Railway Diesel Car. After years as a static display at the museum, the RDC will head to the Berkshire’s Hoosac Valley Train operation in North Adams, Massachusetts, where it will be restored to operate with a sister RDC that already runs between North Adams, and Adams on a four-mile section of old New York Central Railroad branchline that ran between North Adams and the railroad’s mainline between Boston and Albany at Pittsfield.
As for the rest of the rolling stock and artifacts at the museum, which include an old New Haven Railroad 40 -foot boxcar from the mid-20th century, a caboose and a riveted steel heavyweight coach, the future is less certain.
This museum’s demise after years of plummeting attendance serves to offer a cautionary tale about how off-mission programming is no magic silver bullet solution for struggling sites.
But despite this, back across the street at Battleship Cove, signs hang promoting a mermaid “princess party” event that features a picture that bears more than a passing resemblance to Ariel from the Disney animated hit film “The Little Mermaid.” It seems strange  to hold this kind of program at a site that focuses on battleships. How does it relate to the mission of a site that already offers a big slate of children’s programming, including sleepovers on the ships?
So the question is why?  Why create a space for fictional mermaids in one that was already given meaning by heroes?  For space to have power, doesn’t it require an understanding of who and why that power was created in the first place?
— Brian Hubert

Walt Disney and Public History

A career in public history can lead one down some unexpected paths.  Unlike a traditional academic career, focused so intently on classrooms and publications, public history is, indeed, everywhere, and can assume almost any creative or intellectual form. It has taken me from Colonial Williamsburg to C-SPAN to the Hudson Valley and on to Harvard, the Kennedy Institute, and Newport.  It has also put me on a plane to Orlando, on my way to, of all places, Walt Disney World, and all it has to offer for the practicing public historian, which, as it turns out, is quite a bit.

This particular adventure started when the editor of my forthcoming textbook on the practice of public history — Public History: A Field Guide (Rowman & Littlefield for the AASLH) — strongly suggested, in a way that only editors seem to be able to carry off, that I include more in my book about the history of public history. I was pointedly planning to avoid the topic, except for some broad historical commentary on public historians of the 18th and 19th centuries, and escape any emphasis on theory — given the little interest and less patience I have with that particular topic. But a textbook worth the time and money of any student or practitioner, I was reminded, however focused on the practical dimensions of the field,  should tell the whole story of that field, which includes such essential backstories.  So added to my research and writing schedule were two new chapters, starting with the history of public history.  And who would I run into as I began it but the man behind the mouse: Walt Disney.

It’s not that he, or his specter, at least, wasn’t inevitably lurking in the background of that history.  Disneyfication” has long been a pejorative in the field, meaning essentially the commodification, simplification, and even misdirection of cultural heritage for profit.  It had a particularly negative resonance among veteran staff at Colonial Williamsburg, who sneered at what appeared to be the Walt Disney Company’s overt rejection of any responsibility for authenticity and accuracy in pursuit of whatever sentimental or narrative entertainment value that might earn a buck for the multimedia behemoth.  The recent past has given us attempts by the Disney Company, under Michael Eisner’s guidance, to establish a Civil War theme park in Northern Virginia and a cringeworthy twist on the tale of Pocahontas in the eponymous animated feature.  Throw in movies and television adaptions such as the stories of Esther Forbes’ fictional, but beloved, Johnny Tremain and an all-too unhistorical take on the very real Davy Crockett (a broadcast that nevertheless generated a massive nationwide phenomenon that makes the current “Hamilton” fad look like the merest blip on America’s cultural radar screen), and Disney’s reputation for being the enemy of public history, of doing more harm than good, appears to be well-deserved. So what, you may well ask, am I doing on this plane? 

In short, I blame Neal Gabler, a terrific biographer now penning a life of Edward M. Kennedy, about which we have been exchanging thoughts and ideas.  Our discussions led me to his splendid book on Walt Disney and more than a few things I didn’t know about that complicated American visionary.  One was his deep appreciation of America’s past and its importance to our national identity — an issue that has been contested, and condemned, in more than one academic conference session.  More interestingly, however, was his connection to the thrust of my book: the seminal, and reciprocal, role he played in the the modern practice of public history.  When he first considered the potential of  imbedded, immersive experiences, and the business that made it possible, as well as the point of it all, Disney turned first to those sites that were then on the cutting edge, most notably Colonial Williamsburg.  Disney and his wife registered their first visit there in 1944.  As his activity and interest increased, especially when Disneyland was coming to the fore of his efforts in the 1950s, he returned to CW and added Old Sturbridge Village and other sites to his research itinerary, shaping and reshaping his view of the importance of people and place as key elements in telling a story that could transport anyone to another context, whether fictional or historical, leaving their modern views behind to embrace the possibilities inherent in fully engaged interactions with live interpretation and, of course, the built environment.  He refined that with more visits in the 1960s as he moved to expanding that view while he and his “Imagineers” developed Disney World. In 2017, it is likely that more people this year will gain their core understanding of American history and identity from a visit to a Disney theme park, a movie, or another media source than will ever read all of Bernard Bailyn’s books combined.

The favor, if you will, was returned as cultural heritage sites like CW adopted and profited from the practices that Disney developed, for better and worse. So the relationship has definitely become one in dire need of therapy, which is why I’m here — to learn, with the help of the Walt Disney Company, to renew the dialogue, if not stage an intervention.  As a group of my Harvard graduate students taught me with a clever project last year, Walt Disney World is a great public history site, whether we like or not, so here I am (Using Frozen‘s hereditary monarchy model for an extra credit question recently had nothing to do with it. Really.).  It’s sure to be a wild ride, so I hope you come along for it. 

Second historian to the right, and straight on ’til morning.

The Peril and Promise of Pokémon GO for Museums and Heritage Sites

[NOTE: Reposted with minor edits from last month’s Medium]

Museum Hack has covered the basics of the Pokémon GO phenonomen so well for museums and heritage sites that I hardly need to go into it here. There are, of course, the obvious spikes in visitorship and attention from that coveted cohort, Gen Y, going across our square footage, searching high and low for the virtual invaders that have many heritage pros giddy over the fad (“Look, there are YOUNG PEOPLE in our parking lot! And they’re LOOKING. AT. US.”). This is especially true for the legion of small sites and museums that are desperately striving for increased visitation (See for yourself: there seems to be a proportional relationship between budget troubles and Pokémon GO promotion). For those sites, almost any warm (and hopefully entrance-fee-paying) body will do, as guest numbers is the name of many a P & L game. But, as the always-informative Colleen Dilenschneider has reminded us, there is a tremendous difference between fads and trends — and cultural professionals better recognize the distinction. It is not one without a difference. And Pokémon GO fits the perfect definition of a fad.

Some museums quickly took stands against it, most notably the U.S. Holocaust Museum, which made it perfectly clear that playing the game within its walls was a violation of its inarguably important mission.

“Playing the game is not appropriate in the museum, which is a memorial to the victims of Nazism,” Andrew Hollinger, the museum’s communications director, told The Post. “We are trying to find out if we can get the museum excluded from the game.”

Other heritage sites either followed suit or are decorously ignoring Pokémon GO altogether, sticking quietly and resolutely to the pursuit of their missions, which I have applauded. After all, Nintendo, the shares of which are soaring, didn’t ask anyone if they wanted the augmented reality beasties populating their site, any more than it intends to share its profits with them. Other cultural organizations, however, have made a thoughtful calculation that welcoming the players is neither inconsistent with their mission, nor does it get in the way of their current audiences or strategic plan, and it helps boost the bottom line a bit without costing anything, which is what every Trustee likes to hear. Either way, at least they thought about it. To the horror of many a donor, though, other cultural organizations have not been so circumspect, diverting existing resources from mission-oriented activities (if they are so lucky as to be mission-oriented in the first place) to a less dignified grab for the seemingly ubiquitous game players.

Nevertheless, there are lessons to be drawn from the current craze that heritage pros at sites and organizations, large and small, might want to keep in mind.

First, stabilizing existing core audiences and building new ones are the keys to sustainability. And that generally means having a clear, relevant, and distinguishable mission that can be deployed by staff with some flexibility. Add some systems thinking to that, such as integrated marketing and development, and, voila!, you have the basis for a long-term community. Moreover, such missions attract and keep members, who often — or at least should — turn into higher-level donors (it really does work that way). So beware of embracing a fad without thinking of its impact on the audiences you already have and the perception it creates for those you want to build.

Second, what attracts guests to many heritage sites in the first place is not necessarily the same thing that attracts them to zoos or aquariums or even to an art museum. Staring at a battlefield landscape is really not the same thing as staring at a Van Gogh or a snow leopard. For the most part, heritage sites thrive on the powerful “sense of place” conjured in the imagination by standing in the space where something occurred, or where someone ostensibly remarkable lived and worked.  Unless a site’s leadership starts throwing pirates or ghosts into the scene, that sense of place tends to keep heritage visitation numbers relatively steady, depending on whatever else is going on in the global economy (Ever been to the UK? Go. Now.). Heritage sites walk the thinnest of tight ropes, on which they constantly face an exceptionally delicate balance between retaining — or even sentimentally reconstructing —whatever remains of the past in the present, and attempting to creatively communicate it. That authenticity is an imperative form of content that once lost can almost never be regained.

Third, mission and content might get many people to visit a heritage site once, but the quality and nature of their experience is what will bring them back, whether the experience is hands-on or minds-on. And that experience had better be all about guest engagement, with staff or amongst each other, and clearly tied to the mission (so they don’t just go down the street for the same thing next time). The more immersive that experience, and the more relevant its connection to the present, the better, as the more senses one can engage, the greater the opportunity to unleash the lived experiences of the past.

Those things — mission and audience, sense of place, guest experience — provide the foundations of sustainability for a heritage site in the 21st century. Simply put, they drive visitation, donations, and visibility, which allow us to keep doing our work, which is to actively engage the public with the lessons the past has to offer.

But what does that have to do what Pokémon GO? Well, almost nothing. And that’s my point. Responsible heritage pros need to ask some key questions about those foundations when it comes to fads. Core, or historical, audiences are those that regularly visit heritage sites and organizations. Yes, they are aging. But we can’t forget about them, making assumptions that their numbers, however dwindling, won’t just completely disappear. How does something like Pokémon GO impact them and their experience?

Even more cloudy is the impact on the new audiences we hope to build, mostly comprised of Millennials (we Xers are always left out of the equation) and those who are coming after them (who are mostly playing the game). There is no silver bullet for securing their support, any more than there is for any other affinity audience, regardless of age or ethnicity. The argument that one just needs to get them through the door, in any way that “works”, from an augmented reality game to a beer tasting, and the magic of a place will suddenly and immediately be revealed, and they will somehow transform into long-term supporters that your development staff can move up the giving ladder, is a chimera. There is no reliable evidence, whatsoever, to support it. But that doesn’t mean Pokémon GO doesn’t matter. What is your museum or heritage site doing to transition any episodic guest, such as a Pokémon GO player, into one that is actually going to pay any attention to the reason you’re there at all, and transition them into members of your greater community? Is it, perhaps, by turning them on to other ways that you’re already trying use technology to engage guests, ways that actually connect to your content and mission?

Having almost literally run over three Pokémon GO players the other day when I was driving on College Hill, I won’t touch on their impact on the sense of place. That’s pretty obvious. But there will always be wanderers at our heritage sites, many of whom don’t have any more notion of why they’re there than that an adult told them they should go, which will always be a heavy tip on one side of the delicate balance.

That brings me to perhaps the most important question that heritage pros could ask of the Pokémon GO fad, and, therefore, the lessons that can be learned: what does it tell us about the kind of experience that younger guests don’t just want, but expect? Not a lot that’s new, actually. It’s more of a glaring confirmation of how technology is imbedded in their lives. Smart phones, and all the bells and smells they virtually produce, are part of the lived experience of digital natives, almost as much as the Geneva Bible was to the Puritans, so we have to make sure that is factored into the immersive experiences we want to create, and not as simplistic add-ons, but as an organic part of them. So ask yourself how such technology fits into either your overall strategic plan or your tactical toolkit.

Otherwise, Pokémon GO is neither new nor revolutionary for museums and heritage sites. Nor is it permanent. It is more of a wake-up call for us to look around us and ask how it impacts how to make sure our space will still be around when today’s players are looking for places to visit 20 years from now, when they have children enthralled by the latest fad.

Making a Public Historian: False Promises, the Gig Economy, and a Humble Proposal

Now that final grades have been submitted and the 2015-2016 academic year is turning into a happy memory — one full of intelligent students, engaging presenters, a terrific new digital public history initiative (our CNA Project), a “heritage survival” study, rich interactions with dozens of history museums, and a maddening effort to restart an equestrian program — the summer beckons with questions for many Public History and Museum Studies graduates about what’s next for them. Several major themes have emerged in my experience over the last year and far too few of them are discussed in public humanities forums, which tend to focus on subjective questions of interpretative trends and priorities, rather than the more prosaic, yet critical, questions of practice and the business of public-serving heritage organizations. Leaving aside the continuing and bewildering confusion among many academics that attempts to make oneself into a public intellectual do not also make one a public historian, chief among the themes I’ve discovered this term is that Public History and Museum Studies programs, like academic History departments, are preparing students for professional life in a world that no longer exists.

Of course, there is nothing new about handwringing over the fact that there are too many PhDs on the market for the fewer and fewer available academic jobs that candidates covet, and those are not just the comfortable, closely guarded, tenure-track positions at R1 schools, but even contract positions at community colleges (in short, anything that comes with a paycheck and a title that makes all the sturm und drang of graduate school appear to have been worth it). The same is true for Museum Studies and Public History, as students graduating from ostensibly top programs scramble for anything that will give them a crack at a permanent position somewhere near their actual area of interest. As someone trying to build such a program, I firmly believe that the fault for that situation lies largely with the programs themselves: the vast majority of graduate Public History and Museum Studies programs in America are not giving students what they need to actually do the jobs that our space now demands. Instead, courses on theory are almost everywhere privileged over practice — and don’t kid yourself that some sort of externship or internship fits that bill. As an institutional department head, once upon a time, and member of many search committees now, I’ve done a lot of hiring for historic sites over the last seven years, and only once hired the graduate of a Public History or Museum Studies program (SUNY Oneonta’s) for a permanent position in that person’s field. In fact, of the most interesting thought-leaders in our particular space — directors and staff in progressive places like Plimoth Plantation, the Newport Historical Society, the Kennedy Institute for the U.S. Senate, the Bostonian Society, the Center for Reconciliation, and Monticello, and at least one consultant (well, just the one, actually) — only one is the product of such a program (Brown’s in Public Humanities and Cultural Heritage). What they all share, however, is experience in the practice of public history, from interpretative programming to guest services to donor cultivation to marketing to tech developments, which gives them an understanding of how such elements can and must work together to forward a mission despite budget challenges.

Not only are these programs failing the vast majority of students in not providing sufficient preparation for the limited job market, they increasingly insist — entirely against the evidence shown in placement rates or in the backgrounds of current hires at effective institutions — that PhDs are needed to fill those roles, perhaps by bestowing upon someone a sort of magical status that ultimately elevates them into a rarified rank of legitimacy. Donors like the academic window-dressing but otherwise the impact is largely imaginary. Recently, close friends of mine, all of whom hold or held senior positions at major heritage institutions, had encounters with precisely that sort of ignorance. One submitted an NEH grant proposal that was turned down because the readers had a problem with the fact that my friend had the temerity to refer to his uncredentialed interpreters as “public historians” and, moreover, no one at his institution currently holds a PhD in History or a related field. One of the readers expressly pointed out that she possessed such qualifications, as an academic public historian, and, although she had never held a front-line job at a heritage institution, knew that the PhD was necessary to my friend’s effort (piffle, as my grandmother would say — my word for it would be considerably less polite). The other was told, point blank, by a colleague at a partner institution, that she was unqualified for her current position because she doesn’t possess a PhD. On the other hand, another close acquaintance was hired for a major public history job just because he held a PhD in History from a prestigious program, even though he had zero experience in the field. It took him more than a year before he was able to truly add value in his position and develop as a proper public historian, but only because he applied himself to earning enough practical experience to enable him to use his substantive knowledge in a productive way. But, for the institution, that was something of a lost year. In all these cases, the PhD for public history efforts was and is strikingly miscalculated, revealing more ignorance than expertise on the part of the evaluator, such as that august NEH proposal reader. Don’t get me wrong, I clearly appreciate the skills that come with a trained PhD, but I also know better than most people that it goes way beyond what’s necessary for most museum and public history jobs, for which an MA is perfectly sufficient as a terminal degree, as experience counts for more than any piece of paper. Yet colleges and universities continue to recruit candidates for such programs, with empty, or maybe just hopeful, placement promises, and those of us who are part of them continue to hear the rhapsodic call of our administrators: “enrollment and evals…enrollment and evals…enrollment and evals…”.

That part of the professional problem in the field is not as intransigent as it might seem. A broader discussion in career diversity is percolating within institutions, at professional conferences, during #DrinkingAboutMuseums sessions, and online, with folks like Jennifer Polk (@FromPhDtoLife) helping to lead the way. But there is an even bigger issue that is entirely reshaping the practice of public history. Fortunately, it also happens to come with a fairly simple, if not comprehensive, solution.

I’m terrible with metaphors so I’ll skip the neon sign reference and just state clearly that the biggest issue facing the business of museums and public history is not dropping visitation numbers, but a crisis of capacity. Of the organizations with which I’ve worked over the past year, every single one has mentioned it. Most often, they are small institutions that have too few, if any, staff and many don’t know how to get the help they need to accomplish their goals (I get asked most often about training). But the absolute worst of them — annual deficits, abysmal fundraising efficiency, poor mission projection — have one thing in common: too much staff, and of the wrong kind. They’re bloated and top-heavy, which not only leads to the obvious negative budget impact, which can’t be dismissed, but they also tend to be cloistered when it comes to strategic approaches and unresponsive, even listless, on the tactical front. Changes to the status quo, or at least adaptation and accommodation to trends in the field, usually identified by too-few trained and experienced front-line staff, are held hostage to bureaucracies that appear more inclined to rely on high-priced consultants, who often seem to disguise catchy fads as informed innovation, rather than their existing internal expertise. Others have stifling layers of curators, researchers, education directors, marketers, and administrative staff that just aren’t justified by the return on mission or the monthly P&L. More to the point, they also tend to be mind-numbingly boring when it comes to guest engagement. All of that feeds unproductive institutional cultures, even if that institution consists only of a Board of Trustees, two paid employees, and a dozen dedicated volunteers. It’s easy to spot these organizations: behind almost every poor TripAdvisor review or eye-wateringly sad 990 is an institution with an internal culture problem that resorts to schemes for advancement, rather than developing an effective culture through targeted strategies and realistic tactics.

That begs the question about the best organizations that I’ve seen and what they clearly have in common, especially as it relates to the question of capacity. They are those, even among institutions of national reach, that are lean on senior staff, almost to the breaking point. The few folks at the top, with reasonable salaries, supported by healthy, engaged boards, are knowledgeable, secure, and experienced enough to know what they don’t know, and hire and cultivate a core group of young, empowered, wicked smart staff members who can learn all aspects of our trade, especially the critical importance of mission, then, together with front-line providers (whether interpreters or marketers or whatever), implement strategic plans with consistency. Such organizations tend to be exceptionally nimble and willing to take risks, understanding that some tactics won’t work, but the lessons learned from failure are often much more valuable than those gained by success. That’s because the informed connection between leadership and staff often creates a mission-oriented, team-based culture that stretches available resources, boosts donor confidence, and increases program quality, which all lead to positive visibility. Moreover, such organizations generate a sort of frisson that connects with guests — who often like being where history is on the edge.

As important, the leadership at these organizations recognize what is already going on in the broader business world: the “Gig Economy” has arrived and it’s probably here to stay. With 40 percent of the American workforce set to be freelance within the next four years, public history might already be well ahead of that curve, which poses as much promise as peril. The successful organizations that I’ve seen have already embraced that trend, seeing its potential. The best example is a historical society with a tremendous collection and exceptional vision that employs no full-time curator, historian, or education director. The most important long-term bases are covered (registrar, membership coordinator, etc.), but it otherwise reaches out to experts as needed. Need to catalogue a collection of 19th-century landscapes? Hire a guest curator whose expertise is 19th-century landscapes, rather than forcing a full-time curator, whose background might be in 17th-century stoneware, into a role for which he or she is not prepared. Want to put together living history programs to connect with guests about local events during the American Revolution? Bring in an experienced producer of such programs to establish the interpretative ground rules and set up a usable operations template. Want to be rescued from the wretched Past Perfect?  Tap someone with experience in our sector to handle your migration to, oh, Neon and teach you how to use it. Could use a biographical backgrounder on a historical figure for an exhibit? Connect with a historian, even a grad student, who knows the period and sources. And, given platforms like Slack (my current favorite) and Skype, episodic staff does not need to be on-site for many projects or, at least, for most of a project’s term. The result is a leaner, more flexible, and more accountable budget and, more to the mission-oriented point, fresher and more active programming in which the occasional staff can introduce perspectives gleaned from related experience elsewhere. The core full-time staff provide consistency and vision, while freelance experts inject cost-effective knowledge, skills, and insight. Another exceptionally effective organization follows a similar route, bringing in special program providers as needed, rather than increasing the level of FTEs for positions that might not be sustainable. Again, the proof of such an approach is in the clear health of those institutions.

The Gig Economy does have clear drawbacks. People need health insurance, personal and financial stability, and at least a shot at a comfortable retirement. But I’m pretty sure it’s not going away, especially in our space. Many museums and heritage organizations, large and small, are already engaging in it, even though in more limited and less conscious ways. As more of them work smarter to understand it as a long-term trend, and smaller ones that are already understaffed recognize its benefits, the demand will grow. What’s needed is a way to foster the interaction. Groups such as the AAM and NCPH have Job Opportunity listings for varying types of work, from full-time to project-based, but I believe that a dedicated database of experts — think a museum and public history version of Fiverr — would go a long way toward improving gainful employment chances for our students and colleagues. Such a collection would include the nature and scope of one’s expertise, experience, and qualifications, and clearly note rates (even if negotiable) for targeted work. With an organized effort, health and retirement plans can be negotiated. And we all have plenty of stories of just how targeted projects, done well, often lead to full-time, or even just regular, employment.

This concept isn’t new — genealogists have been especially active on this front for decades. A larger and more detailed scope, however, to comprehend the entire field, and a clear commitment to facilitating the connections between curators, historians, preservationists, exhibit developers, etc., and those organizations who need their help, is somewhat novel and, I think, essential for actually giving our students the opportunities we have already promised them for years.