Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Book Review-New Solutions for House Museums

“New Solutions for House Museums: Ensuring the Long-Term Preservation of America's Historic Houses,” by Donna Ann Harris

In “New Solutions for House Museums,” Harris encourages those involved with the operation of house museums to embrace change and plan strategically for the future. Museum work requires a lot of dedication, especially from volunteers who are juggling day-to-day life with the responsibility of running a museum. Those who work in smaller museums may start to feel trapped by their establishment, as if the walls are closing in on them as new problems arise. Harris encourages those in small museums to look past this and start looking at the bigger picture. She realizes that moving in a new direction can sometimes feel both daunting and worrisome for those who only see house museums as a historic representation of the past. Harris encourages readers to look beyond this representation in an attempt to explore other possibilities:

Image Courtesy of: Amazon
"Part of the clear appeal of house museums to the public is that they do not change. They are beacons of the past that provide stability in communities that often are reeling from change. These buildings, because they are fixed at their location, are easy landmarks, whether in one’s memory of the place, or as a symbol of all that has come before.
As much as we would like the historic site and landmark to be permanent, perhaps the organizations that manage them are not permanent, and must change so that they can better suit the building for the coming generation. Nonprofit organizations after all are human creations, made up of caring people committed to a cause and an ideal. All organizations go through predictable life cycles as they serve their mission. For most, organizational change is inevitable. Boards that embrace change are able to prepare for the unexpected and deal positively with life’s upheavals. " (41-42)

Throughout the text, Harris delivers insightful case-studies, which guide the reader through different scenarios that house museums deal with daily. Let us dive into a few of those examples now.

She introduces Black's Castle as a site struggling with marketing and visitation: "Despite the real efforts being made by Black's Castle board and staff to market and interpret their site, they are frustrated that their visitation is dwindling" (32). It can be of great concern when visitation drops and sometimes the reason(s) is unclear. Harris suggests gathering statistics to better understand the shift in the community. It is important to gather information about current visitors to gain knowledge about current variables. Like many other house museums:

"The Black's Castle staff has collected statistics that indicate that their audience is changing, which provides a good start to begin to explain the revenue downfall. However, the organization needs more detailed information about their current visitors. These data can be garnered through a formal survey process by brief questionnaires, surveys on their website, or through telephone interviews. Once the organization understands what these new visitors want, they must refashion their programming to meet their needs ... Another strategy would be to develop joint marketing campaigns or partnerships with neighboring sites or attractions. At a minimum, they should share visitor statistics formally or informally so that the decline in attendance at Black's Castle can be judged against others." (Harris, 33)

In this example, Harris describes a common problem in house museums. It is important to note that no matter the size of the establishment, house museums can make a difference. A decline in visitation does not necessarily mean a loss in popularity, instead, it can be a sign that things are changing in the community. If a decrease in foot traffic is a growing concern in your museum, I encourage you to take Harris' advice. There is no better time than the present to start gathering statistics from multiple sources (surveys, online, telephone, etc.) and review them with a fine tooth comb. You may think you know your audience but do you know who visits today? Ask yourself, "When was the last time statistics were reviewed for my museum?"

Harris provides another great case study that deals with building maintenance and lack of funds. Harris discusses the board's role in fund development and the need for change at Orange House. She encourages board members to evaluate strengths and weaknesses within its operational structure of the board, the board's current pool of donors, and the need to search for new revenue streams. Orange House is dealing with a common problem, a need for a new roof when funds are dwindling. For smaller institutions, sometimes funding museum operations and building maintenance becomes a juggling act. Again, Harris encourages readers to embrace change and take a hard look at funding opportunities:

"For the Orange House board to solve their deferred maintenance problem they will need to fundamentally change their efforts to raise funds ... Broadening their donor base and seeking larger gifts and donations for specific restoration projects ... They should also seek grants from governmental entities, private foundations, and direct appropriations from city, country, and state government." (30)

Harris provides great insight on where to look for funding opportunities in this case study. She also encourages small museums to look at productivity in-house: "the board should make a several-year good-faith effort to raise the necessary funds, including staff realignments (if necessary), and adding new fundraising board members" (30). Realignments are a natural progression of change. Evaluating staffing needs and performance will help museums better understand what movements are necessary. Performance reviews for staff and board members are healthy! Example: A staff or board member may be able to contribute better in a different role-a performance review will most likely highlight this fact. Performance reviews also keep team members motivated and focused.

It is important to be honest and open-minded when discussing funding options, marking and revenue streams, and building maintenance and upkeep. Harris outlines possible ownership and reuse solutions with supporting real-life examples from museums across North America who made these transitions. These solutions are meant to aid house museums that have exhausted all other possibilities. You will find these examples outlined in Chapter 7 to Chapter 15.

In Chapter 6, Harris lists the eight solutions:

1. Creation of a Study House with Limited Visitation, House Museum Use
2. Reprogram the Site for a Mission-based, Non-house Museum Use
3. Enter into a Formal Co-Stewardship, Cooperative Relationship, or Lease with Another House Museum Organization to Manage the Property as a House Museum
4. Formal Merger with Another House Museum Organization
5. Long-Term or Short-Term Lease to a For-Profit Entity for an Adaptive Use
6. Sale to a Private Owner with Easements
7. Sale to Another Nonprofit Stewardship Organization with Easements
8. Donation of the Property to a Governmental or Other Nonprofit Entity

A few important notes from Harris in this chapter:

  • When considering ways to increase funding the "organization may be motivated to enter into a cooperative or co-stewardship agreement because the property would become part of the larger entity that could draw more financial support" (86).
  • When considering a formal merger with another house museum organization it is important to note that a "merger is unlikely to create a better organization if two small, struggling nonprofits with limited resources are merging. A merger will not work for historic sites that insist on autonomy" (89).

  • Harris stresses the importance of keeping the community informed when making decisions about offering a long-term lease to a for-profit entity for an adaptive use: "the board should consult and involve the community and other preservation partners in the area. Community involvement in decision making will help tremendously in preventing adverse publicity" (92-93).
  • When considering sale to a private owner "[i]t is recommended that any sale be subject to easement restrictions ... to permanently protect the property from demolition and insensitive alteration" (94).
  • When discussing donating a property in poor condition to a governmental or other nonprofit entity, Harris recommends that an "elected official ... serve as the champion for this [type of] proposal" (99).

There is great value in reviewing all of these options if your house museum is struggling with day-to-day operations and maintenance. There is also great comfort in knowing that options are available. Although these may seem extreme, unfortunately, this sometimes becomes the harsh reality for those who avoid change and do not plan for the future. It is important to take these case studies with a grain of salt. Many of you may already find yourselves working for a house museum that is quite successful. You may just be on the lookout for relative examples. Much like Harris, I encourage you and your team to work collectively towards the same vision, openly discuss strengths and weaknesses, and be creative with your marketing, funding, and programming. Believe in developing not only your collections but also your business. And most importantly, continue making connections with the public and communicating information along the way. Building this type of relationship provides stability and reassurance between the museum and community.

I will leave you with an example from the Emily Carr House, which at the time of Harris' research was managed by Jan and Michael Ross. During an interview, Jan Ross said that she considered "other uses of the house to build the business ... [she] work[ed] with an MBA candidate at a local business school to develop a business plan to host small meetings and conferences at the Carr House and other sites in the Victoria area. The idea ... [was to] develop the site for small meetings, especially on the off-season, and market the facility to book clubs, board meetings, showers, teas, and the like" (Harris, 170). Due to a shift in government there was budgetary cutbacks within the Heritage Branch (British Columbia) starting in the year 2000. The Emily Carr House was managed by the Heritage Branch at that time. The Heritage Branch was then a part of the British Columbia Ministry of Community, Aboriginal and Women's Services and is now located in the Local Government Department (Harris, 155-156). Ross thought about alternative revenue streams during this period of change. Like Ross, it is important to stay positive and proactive during times of change in order to keep moving forward in museum work. I encourage you to explore this text further, Harris provides a great number of tangible tips for house museums.

Sandi Stewart

Advisory Assistant

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