This week our C2C staff is in Louisville Kentucky for the AASLH conference. We’ll be discussing one of the big pushes of the CREST grant project—producing fire recovery workshops across the state. We hope to encourage those involved in coordinating professional development workshops in other states to consider whether hands-on fire recovery workshops would be useful to the groups they serve. This type of workshop is fairly unique in that we have partnered with a different fire station or training center to stage a controlled burn of a mock museum that we set up for each one. We’ve done 6 of these and covered the state fairly well geographically. They have all been different in terms of levels of damage to materials and the firefighting staff and procedures involved in each controlled burn. We’ve learned many lessons about working with the first responders, as well as the way materials react to fire, and recovery methods. We want to guide others from around the country to R&D—rip off and duplicate—what we’ve accomplished here in NC.
We’ll be sharing with those who join us the handouts we’ve developed for our participants as well as a supply list for the workshop and pointers for setting up the controlled burn. We’ve also identified some pros and cons for producing this type of workshop to help generate discussion for each attendee (and our blog readers) about whether this would be a viable training in their own areas.
- Pro: Fire recovery workshops have been a useful hook into increasing disaster preparedness. The off-site, hands-on element is a more exciting topic than disaster planning and appeals to a wider range of participants. These workshops have also functioned as recruiting tools for both regional and statewide response teams here in NC.
- Con: They’re a lot of work! Controlled burns require regular rounds of accumulating and storing “expendifacts.” We don’t just stockpile junk but rather try to amass a range of materials (and proportions of them) found in typical historical museum collections. Multiples of the same thing are especially useful to test the protective qualities of various storage materials. Tagging and creating storage mounts, as well as taking photos of each object for an inventory, are labor intensive processes. In the final stages of preparation, the heavy lifting kicks in with loading, unloading, and reloading the cargo van.
- Pro: The workshops have built bridges to emergency responders. By meeting the firefighter in charge of the controlled burn during the workshop, each participant has a contact in their regions. The firefighters we worked with first taught us about pre-plans and we’ve been able to spread the word about this key preparedness step as we travel around the state. Additionally, the triage tags we use for artifact recovery are modeled after FEMA’s Community Emergency Response Team triage tags for human victims. By using a similar system, we’ve allowed the firefighters to gain a quick understanding of our goals.
- Con: Preparations for these workshops requires a great deal of staff time. You need months (and quite a bit of storage space) to accumulate the stuff you’ll burn. If an inventory is part of the workshop (and it has been for ours), the documentation takes roughly a week of full-time work. Another week is necessary for creating storage mounts, packing boxes, loading, and set-up.
- Pro: These workshops have been a useful deaccessioning outlet for institutions around the state (and even beyond, in one case). 7 museums/ libraries have given us items to burn that could not be sold at auction.
- Con: The controlled burns require regular buying and wasting of supplies. In addition to buying expendifacts from thrift stores and yard sales, storage supplies get used up regularly. Metal shelving has been the toughest supply to replenish cheaply. Tyvek and muslin garment covers and padded hangers need to be re-created before each burn.
- Pro: Ultimately, these workshops have been effective as active learning events. Participants have worked with key concepts such as the Incident Command System, practiced triage and fire recovery steps for a variety of materials, and witnessed the reactions of various storage materials to fire.
Do you think it would be worth trying one of these workshops in your own area? Please get in touch, if you’d like more information. We’re happy to share!
If you skipped the AASLH conference this year and you don’t follow the Engaging Places blog, you may have missed the “Active Collections Manifesto.” It’s a strong stance on promoting quality over quantity in collections and argues for a discriminating approach to resource expenditures. The Manifesto’s writers have an impressive record of professional accomplishments in the museum field and their ideas are worth considering and debating.
The Manifesto calls for prioritizing collections into different levels and providing a corresponding tiered standard of care. In many ways, collections stewards already do this by default. The objects relating to research requests are usually documented more thoroughly and stored in positions of greater accessibility. In other ways the differing values placed on collection items are more deliberate. Our workshops always promote selecting 5-10 priority artifacts that are crucial for the institution’s mission or community identity as a disaster preparedness measure. Sorting collections into tiers of significance and/ or stakeholder interest and concentrating documentation efforts and scare preservation resources on the upper tiers could have multiple benefits beyond disaster preparedness. Would a field for priority codes in systems like Past Perfect be useful? Prioritizing collections is something those in the library/ archives field already do deliberately and it makes a lot of sense for museums to take a tiered approach to collections too.
Here are two additional great ideas the Manifesto promotes:
- emotion-provocation as a criterion in assigning an object to a tier
- a deaccession special task force: As we’ve seen with assessment programs, outside experts can be convincing for boards and stir up the stagnation that is all too often a dominating force.
As a former curator for a state history museum, I do have some concerns with mass-scale deaccessioning, however, and I’ll share a story from my previous position to explain. As the Manifesto mentions, audiences’ needs evolve and the stories stakeholders want to tell change over time. Some lower-tier artifacts may jump to a higher tier, depending on the story, so in my experience, mass deaccessioning projects need to be undertaken with great care.
One part of my job was managing a historic row house, and I researched those who lived in the house during one decade—the 1850s. That had never been done before because heads of household were tenants, rather than owners, and had been overlooked in earlier interpretations. (This new research approach also uncovered a lot of great information on slaves, but that’s another story.) Anyway, imagine my surprise and delight when I did collections database searches on all the tenants’ names and discovered a pair of shoes that had once belonged to the final tenant of that decade! The pair had probably never left a storage box since its donation in the 1920s, and in a tiered approach it would have been placed on a low level. Once a new interpretive direction came to the fore, the shoes launched into a higher tier.
Similarly, masses of WWI stuff that seemed fairly low priority 20 years ago are undergoing a dramatic shift in significance now in collections across the country as institutions commemorate the centennial.
Professional standards in preservation have risen to such great heights in the last few decades that very few history museums can keep up. A tiered approach to management could really help by considering those standards only for the higher priority level(s). Thanks to Rainey Tisdale, Trevor Jones, and Elee Wood for their bold decree and for supplying more food for thought on collection topics.
—Adrienne Berney, C2C Collection Care Trainer
The Standards and Excellence Program (StEPs) is a self-assessment curriculum and certificate program designed by American Association for State and Local History (AASLH) experts. There is a modest cost ($175) to enroll and buy the StEPs workbook, but it can serve as an informative and lasting resource for small museums. As staff members work through each of the sections at their own pace, they can register their self-determined progress with AASLH and receive bronze, silver, or gold certificates. These levels reflect institutional accomplishments in “basic,” “good,” or “better” categories, respectively.
The point of the program is to help small museums, many of which rely on unpaid staff, understand national standards in museum administration, collections care, and other essential topics and guide them toward making the improvements they can with available resources. Many of the smallest cultural heritage institutions do not qualify for other national assessment programs, such as MAP or CAP, since these require institutions to be open to the public at least 90 days each year. Learn more about the StEPs program in this free hour-long webinar, “What is StEPS?”
Recently, AASLH put out a list of all institutions that had earned certificates in the program. No North Carolina institutions are included, although we know of two—The High Point Museum and the Mountain Heritage Center at Western Carolina University—that have begun the program. In fact, watch the short informational video, “Why Enroll in StEPs?” to spot a fun photo of the Mountain Heritage Center staff, including Anne Lane and Pam Meister.
The Mountain Heritage Center began working through StEPs in an effort to gauge the institution’s readiness for AAM accreditation. Staff had gone through a MAP in collections stewardship and felt that a comprehensive review of additonal institutional functions would be useful preparation for the more intensive accreditation process. Meister, the interim director, established a StEPs working group that met weekly and consisted of staff, WCU faculty, public history graduate students, and community members. The group was effective and found the StEPs workbook to be a terrific educational tool that helped them focus on making necessary decisions for institutional progress. The process also sparked deeper examinations into key issues about interpretation and audience. Another plus about the StEPs assessment is that it is self-paced. After earning some certificates, staff put the StEPs project on hold when they learned that the Museum will have to move out of its current building and eventually relocate to a new campus visitor center. They plan to reconvene the working group eventually, but in the meantime, the StEPs work they did accomplish will serve them during the important planning stages as the new facility takes shape.
StEPs is versatile enough to be useful for the smallest museums as well those with more staff and institutional resources, like the Mountain Heritage Center. Their example shows how StEPs can dovetail with established AAM programs and keep staff and other stakeholders focusing on institutional progress. Also, don’t forget that the North Carolina Museums Council offers a free on-site consultation service for all museums, regardless of numbers of open days or full-time staff. This, as well as the services our C2C team can provide, means that no North Carolina institution should feel isolated or unsupported. Understanding national standards is worthwhile, as is being part of a nationwide community of practice. Consider StEPs as means to both ends.
Thanks to Pam Meister for her contributions to this post.
Last month, North Carolina’s Department of Cultural Resources Education & Outreach Branch, which includes our C2C team, hosted a meeting for history field service agents across the country. Members of the Field Services Alliance, an affinity group of AASLH (American Association of State and Local History), do what we do in their respective states and regions. They reach out to staff (both paid and volunteer) at state and local history organizations with training opportunities, technical assistance, and other support services. This year’s meeting focused on online collaborations to support our work. Because the nature of field services involves travel time, which in turn costs money, our group was eager to learn about ways that online interactions could help us serve our constituents.
Have you ever signed onto a webinar with a particular question in mind? Did you have to wait long for an answer, if you were ever able to ask in the first place? Webinars are usually one-to-many presentations with limited opportunities for audience participation. We’ve experienced webinars that scheduled brief question & answer sessions at the very end, when most participants were beginning to sign off. Learning from other participants’ questions and responses can be the best part of group training, but the typical webinar format often limits this potential enrichment.
Several of our cohorts in other states offer training sessions for the non-profit boards that govern history organizations. What would be the best way to engage these constituents online, to encourage collaboration? We need something easy and, in most cases, free or low-cost. Other field services offices have important statewide networks that need to meet regularly for planning and updates, like CREST here in NC. A feasible online solution would be a welcome alternative to conference calls, where everyone who is able to join live tends to stare at the spider-looking thing in the center of the conference table, and speakers have to lean in and talk loudly to be heard.
Two guest speakers at the meeting discussed online collaboration options, including state-of-the-art budget-busters and a great learning platform (though not always collaborative), developed by UNC, Learn NC. The solution with the most promise for our field service applications, however, is one which some FSA members are already using. Google Hangout is free for up to 20 users and has $19/ month fees for up to 100. Newly developed applications even allow Hangouts to incorporate slide share, whiteboard, and scoot&doodle.
To participate in a Google Hangout, you need a computer (or mobile phone) with a webcam and speakers, and you have to set up a (free) Google+ account. The executive director of Learn NC warned us during our meeting that online collaborations can never replace the value of face-to-face interactions. But these methods have promise to assist in building professional learning communities more effectively and efficiently. Does Google Hangout sound like a group communication method that would be helpful to you, either as a way to participate in professional training or networking or as a way to engage interest groups for your own site?
March marks the time to join colleagues around the state in professional organizations committed to preserving North Carolina artifacts and history institutions. The three we recommend are our partner organizations: North Carolina Museums Council (NCMC), Federation of NC Historical Societies, and North Carolina Preservation Consortium (NCPC)
Here are the membership costs and primary benefits of each one:
- NCMC: $20 allows you to attend the low-cost annual conference (coming up March 23-24), which brings together not only those working in history museums but also allows sharing between various types of museums, such as children’s, science, and art. Regular email and newsletter updates help you become familiar with institutions around the state.
- Federation : An institutional membership is $25; there is no individual level. Membership connects you to a network of historical organizations that are often mostly volunteer-run and supports high school history day, building bridges to community youth through local history. In addition to an informative quarterly newsletter, interest-free loans to support your organization’s publications and events are available as another benefit of membership.
- NCPC: This group focuses on artifact preservation and the $25 membership fee supports a network of professionals across museums, libraries, and conservation firms. NCPC has scheduled a particularly robust slate of workshops this spring, so joining now will entitle you to register for any day-long workshop at the rate of $50.00 The other great thing about NCPC is that it has long been the only statewide source for grants to fund conservation projects or upgrades to storage environments and systems.
Ideally, the institutions for which we work would all join these organizations, and we as individual employees would be able to reap the benefits of membership without having to pay dues out of our own wallets. The reality, however, is that most cultural heritage institutions are strapped for cash and often have to discontinue any expense that does not relate directly to keeping the doors open, lights on, and toilets flushing. There are many history/ museum causes that compete for your attention and dollars, and in a field that usually provides modest compensation at best, individuals need to conduct careful cost-benefit analyses before selecting those to support.
Why consider supporting statewide organizations over regional or even national ones?
- Lower cost: individual membership in the Southeastern Museums Conference (SEMC) costs $45.00 . Joining the American Association of State and Local History (AASLH) costs $70.00 . Individual membership in the American Alliance of Museums costs $90.00. In addition, statewide organizations’ events involve less travel time and money and the fees for in-person workshops and conferences are much lower.
- Networking: Statewide organizations make regular efforts to schedule events in various regions of the state. The result of the combined geographic convenience and lower cost is that you are much more likely to collaborate with folks having similar interests and/or institutions from your own region. In addition to increased camaraderie, local networking events can lead to building a readily accessible support system for supplies and skills sharing and/or disaster recovery.
- Requirements: Several programs at the national level require that institutions be open to the public for 180 days/ year to qualify for participation. Statewide programs, such as NCMC’s free on-site consultation service or NCPC’s preservation mini-grants are more accessible for smaller institutions.
- Quality: Committed and knowledgeable professionals are behind each of these recommended statewide organizations and can steer you in the right direction as you navigate professional standards.
- Shared Mission: These organizations exist to promote North Carolina history and artifact preservation. Isn’t that what you’re working for everyday too?
Don’t forget to connect with our C2C team at NCMC in New Bern next week!
Most readers realize that AAM has changed its name from the American Association of Museums to the American Alliance of Museums. Along with the name change and new graphic design, AAM has promised changes for members, and several of these open access to the organization’s services. Here are some of the most important changes for small museums:
- Institutional membership: There are now 3 levels of membership, with “Tier 1” incorporating a “pay what you can” philosophy. Upper levels of membership are either $125 or $150 for the smallest museums, so the Tier 1 option can make a significant difference.
- Pledge of Excellence: Member institutions can take this pledge and receive a certificate, as a public statement of the organization’s commitment to following professional standards. The pledge is a much more accessible option than accreditation, although pledging institutions include accredited museums. In North Carolina there are 22 accredited museums. An additional 11 institutions have taken the pledge. (To view list, click here and see pp. 40-42.)
The Mount Airy Museum of Regional History is one of the institutions that has taken AAM’s Pledge of Excellence but is a ways off from the accreditation process. Executive Director, Matt Edwards (left), was inspired to take the pledge while attending the Southeastern Museums Conference Jekyll Island Management Institute. “I fully believe in our responsibility to be the best museum we can be…I have a long-range plan for my institution that includes starting to pursue the accreditation process in the next 3-5 years, and [the pledge] publicly acknowledges that first step.”
- Cooperation with StEPs program: The American Association of State and Local History’s Standards and Excellence Program for history organizations is a self-study designed to help small and mid-sized institutions achieve best practices incrementally. Many of these smaller museums have not been eligible in the past for AAM accreditation, and while that achievement may still be a long way off, at least now a path is open. The work that institutions do toward StEPs will allow them to engage in a more streamlined approach for AAM’s MAP program as well as accreditation.
How does your institution navigate all the professional services available to it and decide which to work with (i.e. AAM, AASLH, SEMC, NCMC, C2C, NCPC, The Federation, etc.)? Do membership dues and program fees inhibit your organization’s participation? Will any of the above AAM changes make the services it offers more accessible for you?
Have you ever collected data to calculate the economic impact of your institution in the local or regional community? Now, with three figures—annual budget, population, and attendance, you have a tool to justify continuing or additional support. Americans for the Arts have built a free, simple-to-use online calculator that can help you with both internal and external discussions of the critical role your institution plays. Economic impact arguments are important to convince donors, community leaders, grantors, and legislators that the funding they provide makes a significant and positive difference for the community your institution serves.
This kind of analysis dovetails well with Museum Advocacy Day, coming up soon on February 25-26. The American Association for State and Local History has published some important suggestions for ways to participate in the event and advocate for cultural heritage. Even if you can not attend the Washington, D.C. event and even if you are not a member of AASLH or the American Alliance of Museums, you can still help out by contributing data about your institution and working to convince legislators and other local leaders about museums’ economic impact. Highlights from AAM’s “Economic Impact Statement” include:
- Cultural tourism comprises one of the most popular and significant segments of the travel industry, accounting for over 23% of all domestic trips. Moreover, visitors to historic sites and cultural attractions, including museums, stay 53% longer and spend 36% more money than other kinds of tourists.
- According to research cited by the U.S. Conference of Mayors, “the nonprofit arts and culture industry generates over $166 billion in economic activity annually, supports over 5.7 million full time jobs, and returns over $12 billion in federal income taxes annually. Governments which support the arts on average see a return on investment of over $7 in taxes for every $1 that the government appropriates.”
AASLH’s “Educational Impact Statement” (download at #10 here) is another site for contributing useful data from your institution. The organization argues forcefully that “museums are essential partners in education.” A few selections:
- Museums receive more than 90 million visits each year from students in school groups and provide more than 18 million instructional hours for educational programs (IMLS study).
- Museums tailor educational programs to a wide range of instructional topics, often in coordination with state and local curriculum standards (IMLS study).
- Teachers, students, and researchers benefit from access to trustworthy information through online collections and exhibits, although most museums need more help in developing their digital collections to meet this need.
- Americans view museums as one of the most important resources for educating our children and as one of the most trustworthy sources of objective information. According to a study by Indiana University, museums are considered a more reliable source of historical information than books, teachers, or even personal accounts by grandparents or other relatives.
What arguments work in your community to gain or continue support for your institution? Please share!
Looking for a new way to engage your museum’s participants with its collections? An exhibit called “Controversy” at the Ohio History Center is a model that most history museums could R&D—rip-off and duplicate. Curators displayed objects with little physical or interpretative background. Rather than use a didactic approach to presenting the objects, the exhibit encouraged visitors to the museum to imagine each artifact’s significance, to raise questions, and to share ideas with other participants. Visitors loved the experimental, exploratory tenor of the project. In fact, the show was so successful in its first incarnation, that OHC staff (who recently presented about this exhibit at the AASLH conference) created a sequel, “Controversy 2.”
Most curators and collections managers know of intriguing artifacts that raise more questions than the limited documentation accompanying them can answer. Rather than keeping them locked away in storage because they do not fit neatly into the stories that our institutions have told or want to tell, they can be displayed as conversation starters.
This military helmet (c. 1812-1860), currently on exhibition at the North Carolina Museum of History, offers little interpretive information but suggests many questions. Visitors may ask themselves: What type of hair is it? Why was hair included? Does the form refer to Native American scalping practices in any way or does it follow ancient European traditions? If the exhibition allowed space for feedback methods, then one participant’s questions could provide food for thought for others. Participants could then even generate and share possible answers.
Some especially provocative and emotionally challenging artifacts can also be the most influential and engaging. The strong reactions that some objects elicit can be used as teaching moments. On the Indiana University campus, for instance, in 2002 representatives from the Black Student Union asked the University president to remove one of painter Thomas Hart Benton’s Depression-Era panels from public display. In an assemblage of historical scenes, the painter had included a Klansman with a burning cross to juxtapose Indiana’s past KKK prominence with its recent progress. Some 21st-century students were so upset by the image that they couldn’t concentrate in classes where the panel was on display. Rather than capitulate to demands to move the panel, the university president initiated an interpretive series on the panels for interested students. To read more about that controversy, visit http://www.indiana.edu/~benton/
Could you consider assembling a “Controversy” exhibit at your institution? Which objects would you include?
On May 23rd the Connecting to Collections Online Community hosted a free webinar on collections security. Consultant (and a former police chief) Stevan Layne presented some great advice on protecting collections. Click the online community portal to link to Layne’s PowerPoint presentation on preventing collections loss, as well as a technical leaflet he wrote for AASLH, entitled “An Ounce of Prevention.” Two of the highlights of his presentation included points about developing a “Collections Protection Plan” and a daily closing procedure checklist.
Get all staff, volunteers, and contractors involved in your institution’s collections protection plan. Make sure they are familiar with it and feel comfortable suggesting revisions. All hands on deck need to use their eyes and ears for observing and reporting suspicious activities or potential problems.
- A person funtioning on your institution’s behalf should serve as an initial visible deterrent to theft. The same idea that Walmart perpetuates with its greeters can help your collection become secure.
- Set up physical barriers when possible between the public and collection treasures. These can be elaborate and expensive exhibit cases, simple stantions, or less obtrusive. For instance, monofilament can secure objects to riser blocks or to table tops in historic houses.
- Establish regular and irregular patrols. Eyes and ears working on behalf of your collection should get around as much as possible and as often as possible.
- Consider electronic or solar-operated security devices. Video surveillance in storage areas may be an unattainable ideal for small institutions, but sign-in sheets and limited key access should be achievable.
- Establish reasonable policies and procedures for collection security. Make sure all workers at your institution become familiar with, contribute to, and implement them. The guidelines you set should consider storage and internal theft opportunities as well as securing collections on exhibit.
Because the vast majority of museum thefts are internal and because most theft overall is related to substance abuse, conduct pre-employment screenings and consider annual screenings for all staff members, volunteers, and contractors.
Develop a checklist for closing procedures. A staff member should be responsible for conducting and signing the list each day. Fire outweighs any other threat to cultural institutions and many of these measures can help prevent or mitigate that danger.
- Disconnect small appliances such as coffee pots and space heaters. Humidifiers and de-humidifiers may be helping your collection’s RH needs, but consider unplugging them when staff are absent.
- Close interior doors; check locks on all doors and windows.
- Remove trash; keep exit routes clear of debris and clutter.
- Make sure flammable chemicals such as cleaners are stored properly. A closed metal cabinet works well for this purpose.
- Note the license plate numbers of any potentially suspicious vehicles in parking lots.
Three additional tips:
- Keep artifact moves unpublicized. The fewer people who are aware, the smaller the risk of unwelcome intervention.
- Consider MOAB training for your staff. This program is designed to teach strategies for dealing with aggressive behavior. Problem interactions could stem from visitors to your institution or even from within the staff itself.
- Any time an incident occurs, review policies and procedures and conduct retraining exercises. An unfortunate event will serve as a reminder for all those involved in your institution of the importance of collection security and give them fresh ideas for making improvements.