Mimicry for Professional Capacity

Minnesota Local History Blog.

Minnesota Local History Blog.

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The Minnesota Historical Society’s Local History Services helps Minnesotans preserve and share their history. This blog is a resource of best practices on the wide variety of museum, preservation, conservation, funding, and non-profit management topics. We’re here to help.

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Mimicry for Professional Capacity

By: grabitsdm | October 13, 2010
In their book, "Connected: The Surprising Power of Our Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives," Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler examine a number of behaviors exhibited by networks. Local historical organizations in Minnesota, and really across the country, are an example of a network. Those who volunteer and work in the field tend to know and associate with one another - just look at all of the local historical organizations on social media sites like Facebook to see just how connected local history museums are.

Many well-meaning museum professionals have expressed concern over the capacity of smaller museums to address emerging standards. That sentiment is perhaps unfounded in general, if it is valid for isolated cases. The reason is the network of small local history museums.

Networks of people are fairly organic, the authors show. The way individuals are connected are varied, with some being more central and others being more peripheral. There are pros and cons to every position as things work their way across the network. The way things move is often through mimicry, and local historical organizations as much as individuals are hardwired to mimic what others do. This can easily be seen in new organizations that take a look at what's going on with their neighbors, which often leads to adopting strategies wholesale. Historical organizations are often exhorted not to "reinvent the wheel." That may or may not be for the best.

Those located more centrally in a network often run across things more quickly than those that are located more on the periphery. This is why isolated examples of lack of capability may occur, or why some adopt bar-raising tools more readily. However, as the authors show, adopting positive traits is higher probability than adopting negative behavior.

For those concerned about capacity to address standards, one only need to look at the quick adoption of PastPerfect Museum Software. In the past ten years in Minnesota, the number of users has gone from about 3 to about 100 of the roughly 500 local historical organizations. The software is raising the capacity of local historical organizations to manage documentary collections in order to preserve and make accessible local history.

Another bar-raising tool that may be at the point of PastPerfect a decade ago is the new Standards and Excellence Program for History Organizations (StEPs) from the American Association for State and Local History. Launched last year and already six organizations in Minnesota are using it, more are considering it, and possibly because six other organizations piloted the StEPs program in 2007-2008. Historical organizations mimic one another when it comes to adopting positive behaviors that lead to professional practices.

Critics who worry about local capacity, though, may point out that local historical organizations mimic counterproductive behavior, too. That's true, and we all can probably remember something we picked up along the way that turned out not to be such a good idea after all. Negative experiences help us learn, too.

Other than the Minnesota Historical Society, to which organizations do you turn when you need advice about history work? Why? What is it about their work that impresses you?