Friday, November 5, 2010

Changing history organizations in response to the changes around us

We followed Eric Sandweiss’ introductory presentation with three more on Monday afternoon and Tuesday, all continuing with the broad themes of institutional change and turning from an internal to an external focus. Spencer Crew, former director of the Freedom Center in Cincinnati, and before that the National Museum of American History, and now teaching at George Mason University, gave us three types of museum to consider: Essential – focusing on the traditional internal functions of collecting, preserving, researching and display; Adaptive – focusing outward and adapting to a changing society and challenging entrenched values; and Ideological – supporting the current power structure and using the museum to bring the unwashed into the value system of the mainstream. The difference between adaptive and ideological was at the center of our discussion: should we challenge our staffs, boards, and audiences to consider alternate interpretations of the past, or should we play it safe? Should we be temples or forums? Should we help our communities confront the tough issues? One big challenge is funding, which is often difficult to raise for exhibits that can be incendiary.

On Tuesday morning we shifted our attention to how to change our organizations to become more externally focused and adaptive to changes on the outside. Barbara Franco, who leads the state owned museums and historic sites in Pennsylvania, and Laura Roberts, who has been working with history organizations for decades, presented several models and strategies for managing organizational change. The class as a whole is ready for change in their respective institutions; the challenge is figuring out their role as emerging leaders, who often lack the authority to make things happen.

James Chung from Reach Advisors presented Tuesday afternoon on the major demographic, economic and cultural changes that will likely occur in America over the next decade. Some interesting findings that may impact history organizations:
  • ·      As they age, boomers are participating in arts and culture at a lower rate than previous generations. They may not be the boon to museums that we’ve thought.
  • ·      Kids today are growing up in a world where 40% of their friends are minorities.
  • ·      Currently minorities make up only 9% of museum core visitors, contrasted with 34% of the total population. Over the next decade income for whites during their peak earning years of age 25 to 54 will decline by 7%, but for nonwhites it will increase.

      Perhaps the most significant finding for history organizations from James’ most recent research is this: As we know, moms tend to make the decision about bringing kids or a family to a museum. Digging deeper, there are “ultra-moms” who do this on a regular basis. Most ultra-moms do this for the sake of the kids, and are motivated by their desire that their children have fun, family time, and learn something. Most ultra-moms are not interested in history. However, there is a subset: 9% are described as “ultra-curious-moms” and they bring their children to all types of museums, including history, because they themselves are interested. This appears to be a promising audience for history organizations. Significantly, these moms report that their interest in history was sparked by an encounter with an object or artifact when they were young, usually around the age of seven.

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