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.
Many historical organizations rightfully consider themselves as value added amenities that supplement the quality of society. However, like the value the popcorn adds to a night out at the movies, at times people may opt to do without local history and may label it superfluous.
Local history advocates may stake a claim that local history is an essential part of society, but without clear need and rationale these kinds of statements are rather hollow because they are usually not substantiated. Merely asserting that something is true does not make it true.
The three are, in a “tied-for-first” alphabetical order: Integration, Public Good, and Responsiveness.
Elders often tell the youth to make themselves indispensable when taking a first job. Local history has to do the same by integrating more closely with our communities.
Integration means that the local historical organization must enhance and support the quality of life in a measurable way. That may mean following the example of the Carver County Historical Society that plays an integral role in Carver County’s required comprehensive plan. A similar example is that of the Finland Minnesota Historical Society’s role in the Crystal Bay Township comprehensive plan.
Beyond the obvious ways that local historical organizations might integrate with local government, local history also has the opportunity to integrate with major local projects. Many local historical organizations have actively assisted in public infrastructure projects. Far fewer have been integral to fostering for-profit ventures, such as the Carlton County Historical Society’s efforts to support the Lindholm Service Station, the only gas station designed by Frank Lloyd Wright.
In the mind of the public, local historical organizations have an almost magical status in the community. At times local history can appear part of government, and at others quite independent. Depending on circumstances there are advantages to either end of those positions that inspires confidence in the public that local history can, indeed, “do something.”
Integration takes a lot of work to develop nuanced relationships whereby local history can become part of the societal machine. Again, however, just asserting that local history should be part of an overall public strategy is insufficient. As a group local history needs to take a careful look at efficiencies and outcomes achieved when local history is integrated with public policy makers and for-profit ventures.
Public Good is an economic term that means that whatever it is, a public good is both nonrival and non-excludable. ‘Nonrival’ means that just because one person enjoys it, the resource is not diminished for others to use. ‘Non-excludable’ means that no one can be effectively kept from using it. Local historical organizations must be for the public good.
What local historical organizations do better than any other entity is improve cultural legibility. Cultural legibility is a public good because when one person can read the built environment, cultural landscape, and other overlays, no one is harmed by that ability. And, since the clues are all present around us, local historical organizations really can’t exclude anyone from learning about them. Using the clues in aggregate as they often exist in our collections can broaden the ability to be able to read our surroundings. That can be measured.
Local historical organizations might use their ability to broaden public good, and thereby further integrate with their community. For example, in some portions of Minnesota depopulation is taking a toll on communities. By increasing community legibility in the youth that live in these rural areas, local historical organizations might be able to contribute to stemming the ‘brain-drain’ by showing the youth the quality of their own community and how to make a good life there. Although it will take years to measure retention, after a couple decades local history organizations might be able to show how they have slowed or maybe even reversed out-migration.
Another skill that local historical organizations can do very well is to provide a neutral place of healing for the public good. The Anoka County Historical Society did that with their exhibit a few years ago, “Vietnam: The Veterans' Experience.” Not only did the exhibit have boxes of facial tissue and a notebook in which to write memories available, but ACHS also partnered with the Veteran’s Administration. The VA was able to provide a hotline, training for staff and volunteers, and counselors that would be present at major events (opening, closing, etc.) The outcome? Veterans who were entitled to services received the services they were due.
In order to integrate and be a force for public good, local historical organizations need to be responsive to ever-changing conditions. Local history in Minnesota was built for that because local history organizations are supposed to pay attention to current events so that each might be recorded as it happens.
Responsiveness means that exhibits, programs, and publications should not shy away from current events. Flooding seems like it is a near-constant rite of spring, why not prepare items for consumption that relate to what is happening right now? Or, as in the case of the Wadena County Historical Society, after the June 17 direct hit tornado last year, WCHS undertook an oral history project with Wadena residents. The oral history not only captured history that future researchers will need and public policymakers will use, but by offering this service WCHS fostered a public good by becoming a place of public healing.
Helping people heal can be measured and tracked. Using those kinds of numbers will establish the compelling reasons that supporting local history will make sense to the broadest number of people.
Finally, responsiveness means paying attention to public capacity to support our missions. Even if local history does all as stated above, money and space that money might buy are finite resources.
A number of years ago local history services staff helped plan a new storage building for one organization. That building was designed to meet the needs of the organization for another ten years. Approximately six months after opening, the president of that organization beamed with pride and said, “You know how we thought it would take ten years to fill that building? We did it in just three months!”
History is a winnowing process – not everything that is old must or even should be saved. Those things that possess historic significance and integrity must meet a high threshold for that rare honor of being preserved in perpetuity. To be successful in the future, local history organizations need to reduce the pace of space consumption.
The pace of space consumption can and should be tracked nationally so that local organizations can use those statistics as a measuring stick. We must be careful not to use that to prompt a race for the fewest accessions in a year, but rather to determine what an appropriate pace might be. Hopefully over the course of time the annual fluctuation in accessions will relate closely to the benchmark.
What will make local history worthy of support is when it can prove how integral to the community local history can be, demonstrate the force for public good local history really is, and measure the stewardship of the community and its finite resources. If local history continues to rely only on altruistic assertions, it will continue to experience the adverse conditions and frustrations often voiced. Being able to do one or more of the above won't make life a bed of roses for local history organizations, but it should lessen frustrations by a significant degree.
For more on measuring what we do, see Data for Dollars, Alignment for Dollars, and Hanging Chads of Performance Measurement.
His blog post calls to mind the admonition that so go public libraries, so also go museums. Historical organizations most often operate research libraries, which have some similarities to public libraries, but important differences.
There are some important differences, too, in the data. Whereas he estimates 9,000 public libraries in the United States, the American Association of Museums estimates approximately 17,000 museums. Whereas public libraries circulate most of their warehoused collection, museums generally do not circulate their collections - library, archives, or three-dimensional. Whereas public libraries generally facilitate access to a very broad spectrum of knowledge, historical research libraries are often highly focused.
However, with the advent of iPad, Xoom, Kindle, and other means of electronic reading, it is not hard to see public demand for access to historical collections through download. Digitization costs something, as does maintaining the digital files created. With historical research libraries often supported far more minimally than public libraries, how the cost of digitization might be absorbed is hard to imagine. It's probably unlikely that the going rate of 99 cents per downloaded book will cover costs.
What Torrone points out, however, is not only applicable to historical organizations operating museums and research libraries, but it is what successful organizations have long been doing. Namely, people want to be able to do something at the organization. This is why the Local History News e-newsletter has a permanent feature called "Do History Here," highlighting events at local historical organizations. People want to be participants - so what kinds of things will local historical organizations have to offer in the future?
The future is an undiscovered country. Certainly public libraries are forging a path into that wilderness ahead of historical organizations. That's fine, just so long as historical organizations pay attention to lessons learned.
So, do you think the warehouses of historical evidence will become obsolete? How might historical organizations ensure relevance of their collections?
Being located next to a light rail station, close by the Mall of America would be a considered an enviable location for many organizations and businesses, however the NWA History Centre deals with the challenge of being tucked away in the basement of a nondescript 1980's office building with little to no signage, which makes it a challenge to find.
Still, for airline and airplane buffs, as only one of three museums in the U.S. dedicated to a commercial airline and the only airline museum started and maintained by the airline's own employees, it is worth the time to seek out. It is a great place to stop and spend some time for those on layover at the near by Minneapolis-Saint Paul International Airport.
NWA History Centre built most of it's collection through the donations of Northwest Airlines employees and a donated of material by Delta after the NWA merger.
NWA History Centre
8101 34th Avenue South
Bloomington, MN 55425-1642
Minnesota has 87 counties, and there is a county historical society in each one of them. This statement is significant, but often might be said without really acknowledging how important that is.
Goodhue County Historical Society dates itself to 1869, but could also trace its ancestry to the Red Wing Historical Society in 1857. Others trace their ancestry to a county old settler’s association (to be a member, one had to become a permanent resident by a certain date). While all heraldic old settlers’ associations reached a point where death severely eroded membership and capacity, some of the old settler’s associations changed their organization to become the county historical society – such as the Cottonwood County Historical Societyin Windom.
Sorting out the origin of the concept to establish history entities by county is murky. It seems that as historians and governments organized history work that a deliberate choice was made to use the relatively stable county structure. After all, the last change to the number of counties in Minnesota was in 1922 when the legislature created Lake of the Woods County. More work should be done to determine the origin, however.
As the Great War ended, the Minnesota Commission of Public Safety had begun to organize the records of soldiers from Minnesota, as early as 1917. The Minnesota Legislature recognizing that the state had sent four times the number of men into World War I as it had into the American Civil War, knew it needed to make those records publicly accessible. Thus it passed the War Records Commission Act of 1919, which required a war records commission for every county. Based on that framework the Minnesota Historical Society embarked on a 60-year campaign to assist citizens in every county in establishing a countywide historical organization.
Some began a county historical society to take on the work of preserving the war records, such as the Wilkin County Historical Societyin Breckinridge. In other counties like Stevens, the war records commission later became the county historical society. As the War Records Commission Act wound down in 1925, it wasn’t long before the New Deal programs of the 1930s infused new money into organizing permanent county historical societies, such as the Stearns County Historical Society in 1936, now the Stearns History Museum accredited by the American Association of Museums.
People have asked why the Minnesota Historical Society would create what appears to be competition for itself. In the first decades of the twentieth century the reason generally was to popularize history and in so doing strengthen the discipline. That network now is critical support for a healthy state historical society.
How many states, like Minnesota, have a county historical organization in each and every county? This question was posed in February 2011 to those who work with local historical organizations across the country. Here is a chart of the responses:
|State||Counties||County history organization*||Percentage|
Some states, like Texas, actually have county historical commissions – formal functions of the county government. In the case of Texas, that’s a requirement and hence all counties have an entity responsible for that county’s history. Indiana, and other states, has a requirement of a county historian for every county. While the emphasis is not on organizations, most county historians are part of a countywide historical society. While there is no requirement to have a countywide agency in Minnesota, clearly the people of the state in each county decided that there would be such an organization.
Minnesota is not alone in having a county historical organization for every county. Of the 1,491 counties represented, approximately 1,220 have a countywide historical organization. That over 80 percent of these counties emphasize the need to coordinate the preservation of history and access to it at this level shows not only the commonality of the practice, but also the importance of the practice.
This thumbnail study is perhaps an urgent call to recommit to intentional, organized local history work. The heavy lifting of establishing many of these organizations came amid the agricultural depression of the 1920s and the Great Depression of the 1930s. During this recent so-called “Great Recession” of the 2000s, some leaders have questioned the need to continue to support history when there are so many other urgent needs. After all, so goes the logic, there is only a certain amount of money. True, but if our forebears found sufficient reason to start under much rougher times, then today’s stewards have even less reason not to continue the momentum.
Volunteers show and describe objects in the Minnesota Air National Guard Museum's collection. Made during a site visit to the museum February 18th.
Unfortunately due to a user malfunction the video footage of the exterior the hanger or of their collections of planes outside did not turn out.
The museum is currently underway in its efforts to relocate to a new facility close by but just outside of the military compound so visitors will no longer need to go through security clearance before coming to the museum.
Building 670, The Cold War Alert Hangar
670 General Miller Drive
St. Paul, MN 55111-4114
In the first interview, with Tom Fischer from the University of Minnesota, the prediction is that the state will experience significant growth in the future. The reasons are many, but message for local historical organizations is that they need to be ready to record rapid change.
The second interviewis with Lars Leafblad, whom Minnesota Business magazine named the "Most Networked Man in the Twin Cities." Leafblad noted the age and disconnection of Minnesota's image. The state's image to the world of Gov. Wendell Anderson holding a fish on Time Magazine was created before many other things that have brought the state attention. And, although the state's businesses are admired and desired, very few are on short lists for industries likely to be significant in the future.
Since historical organizations are all about recording history as it happens, what is your sense of the state's future? What's happening now that you think will be significant in the future? Any suggestions for a new image for the state?
One of the advantages of this job is being able to get out to museums less traveled and in the case of the Saint Peter State Hospital Museum which dwells within the grounds of a maximum security psychiatric hospital - reservations are required. However, that day, the volunteers and staff were holding an open house to show off all the work done on the historic building to get the history museum ready for the public.
St. Peter State Hospital Museum
100 Freeman Drive
St. Peter, MN 56082
BTW: this is Minnesota Local History's first podcast which I hope will be the first of many as we travel to different museums and historic sites around the state. One of the reasons for doing the podcast is to test and demonstrate ways to create media in variety of ways both on a shoestring budget and with Cadillac video and audio equipment.
As I do this, I hope folks will give advice and feed back on what they have done, what equipment they use and share tips for me and others out there.
On February 8, 2011, state demographer Tom Gillaspy released the report Minnesota Milestones, which looks at 60 indicators of the state's progress. One of those was average wage, which showed an average of $21.85/hour (Weekly Wage/40 hours) for 2009.
In 2006 Local History Services conducted a survey of salary paid for work at local historical organizations. The average for an executive director was $15.18/hour, curators $12.27/hour, and educators $14.45/hour. Those are the three most common employees. According to the Milestone report, however, the average wage in 2006 was $21.66/hour. Average wages were computed from the Minnesota Department of Employment & Economic Development's Positively Minnesota online database.
It's hard to compare apples to apples between these two datasets. Few of those reporting in the local history salary survey in 2006 had benefits, so one difference in the rate may be that the state average includes fringe benefits. Deducting 20 percent for benefits brings the average weekly down to $17.32. (Sample rates of benefits as a percentage of compensation found online ranged from 10-30 percent.)
Granted, some may argue that satisfaction is part of the remuneration. Perhaps it is, knowing that you preserved something important for the community, made a key connection for a genealogist to piece together elements of their family story, inspiring a child to think more critically and broadly, helping a veteran face hard memories heroically, providing many people comfort in times of great need, etc. The chance to make a difference for people in the work we do is very real, and highly satisfying.
Still, one has to ask if the work of an executive director of a local historical organization in Minnesota is potentially worth 70 to 88 percent of the average worker? A full 64 percent of executive directors have college degrees or higher, and thus are highly trained and skilled. Whereas Minnesotans with college degrees in 2006 was 30.4 percent.
In what ways might boards of local historical organizations use the Minnesota Milestones report to benchmark the progress of their organizations? How crucial is it to address compensation to keep talent in local communities?
One area in specific that can be criticized is the visible products of a history organization. The Minnesota Historical Society is not immune. One person recently wrote that he thought MHS had strayed from its mission by presenting traveling exhibitions like “Baseball as America,” “Vatican Splendors,” “Chocolate,” and opening next week “Discover the Real George Washington.” While such criticism is an important part of the discussion, hopefully those concerned about the vitality of historical organizations can understand the strategy. The MHS mission promises to connect people to history, granting flexibility for blockbuster history exhibits.
Local history organizations also host traveling exhibits from out of their area, be they from the Museum on Main Street program of the Smithsonian Institution, Minnesota Humanities Center and Minnesota Historical Society, or the new Exhibits to Go funded by the Arts & Cultural Heritage Fund. Minnesota's Historic Northwest also collaboratively produces award-winning traveling exhibits that go to all of their member organizations.
Ford Bell, Minnesotan and President of the American Association of Museums, said in Tut brings in loot, and a balancing act (Star Tribune, 2/14/2011) that “The pejorative connotation is that these shows are not in keeping with core missions and have a mercenary purpose to generate ticket sales. That’s unfortunate in many cases, because [blockbuster traveling exhibits] get people in the door who haven’t come before.” Bell goes onto say, “You always get new members out of it, and even if you only keep 5 percent, that’s 5 percent you didn’t have [before].”
Getting people in the door or to our programs has never been more important. Not only to prove to current supporters that our organizations serve people well, but also to claim a stake in the expected transfer of wealth. Nonprofits hope to tap into wealth next door (Star Tribune, 2/12/2011) shows that neighbors in LeRoy and Luverne were ‘shocked’ at $3 million bequests left to their respective communities. Many similar rural areas of Minnesota have often stated that there is not much wealth where they live – it’s all in the Twin Cities. But, there is no reason to believe this, or to be shocked.
Even passive negative thinking then fans the flames of frustration for local nonprofit history organizations with unfulfilled aspirations because money seems scarce, and money is required to accomplish goals. Inducing the kind of giving as seen in LeRoy and Luverne, however, takes time and work.
Since most wealth is bound up in estates, the necessary work is convincing owners to include charitable purposes in their estate planning. Most people simply divide their estates equally among heirs, mostly children, who often have moved away from the community. When the estate is settled, the wealth then leaves the community. What needs to happen for charities is to help owners remember their communities. Perhaps instead of equally dividing among four children, divide the estate equally among four children and the local nonprofit historical organization. The key is to keep at least some of the resources local.
Jeff Yost of the Nebraska Community Foundation noted in the 'tap into wealth' article, “It’s taken a long time for rural communities to get into the plight they’re in. It will take a long time to get out. But, you can … change the conversation from what we don’t have to what we can do.”
While making sure that missions are furthered is very important, making sure our organizations reach the broadest possible audience is perhaps just as urgent. If historical organizations become a venue for history – all history and not just from their geographic region – they can increase the likelihood of someone considering their estate will discover how much they enjoy history, which then might lead to an unsolicited bequest. More likely these exhibits establish relationships, which after a time could lead to a planned gift.
One has to be careful, though, to return to mission in order to avoid merely ‘mercenary’ adventures chasing pipedreams. As with nearly everything, historical organizations need to balance the purity of mission with the necessity of inducing financial support. But above all, historical organizations need to “change the conversation from what we don’t have to what we can do.” We can host traveling history exhibitions that draw new audiences that would not consider coming to see their own history, which could lead to surprising relationshipsfor both our patrons and our organizations.
Now it's your turn. What can we do?
Commission on Private Philanthropy and Public Needs
This federal commission conducted its work 1973-1975, and is often better known as the Filer Commission, after its chair John Filer. Its purpose was to investigate nonprofit charitable grantmaking with regard to the Internal Revenue Service’s oversight of taxation. One of the recommendations was for a federal advisory committee on private philanthropy and public needs to oversee nonprofits to make sure that they worked for the public good. Although temporarily begun, this committee was disbanded in 1978.
The Filer Commission authored the landmark report, Giving in America: Toward a Stronger Voluntary Sector (1975). The 248-page report is considered one of the most comprehensive studies of nonprofits, and informs most subsequent investigative initiatives.
The notion of studying nonprofits then sparked the discussion over who should study them. Should it be the government, or nonprofits themselves? Both have their problems. On the one hand, heavy regulation comes at a high cost both in money and flexibility for innovation. On the other, as noted in Data for Dollars, if nonprofits diagnose themselves, how valid, objective, or reliable is that self-study? With the federal advisory committee unsupported, a new nonprofit emerged called Independent Sector.
Independent Sector in the 1970s and 1980s set out to maintain distance between funding and study to avoid the appearance that money bought opinions. The success of their efforts naturally has been debated since. All the same, the research available on its website underscores both the kind of study needed about nonprofits and the sector’s impact.
Integrity and Confusion
This debate over who should collect data about nonprofits and interpret the meaning of the data really has never been settled.
The positive outcome of the debate has kept attention squarely focused the integrity of the data and methods. Transparency is often quite high, and if one spends time consider conclusions drawn, a great deal of clarity can emerge.
However, the negative outcome is that the field constantly receives requests to fill out yet another survey. One report after the next has new recommendations as to what to do, and sometimes distinguishing the value of each report is difficult. Confusion can reign.
Beryl Radin’s 2006 book Challenging the Performance Movement: Accountability, complexity and democratic values, examines the federal government’s use of measureable outcomes in the 1990s. She wrote “Increasingly, citizens both within the United States and across the globe are unwilling to blindly accept the level of work of a range of institutions within their societies. These include not only government institutions but also foundations and organizations in the health sector, education, and other areas.”
And for good reason – how many of us are concerned to read in the media about ‘wasteful’ spending? Thus many 'silver bullet' efforts to quantify performance have been put in place as safeguards, despite the complexity and nuance of programs that is often unquantifiable in any meaningful way.
Radin comments about this paradox, and then further notes four problems with the way performance was measured when she worked for the Department of Health and Human Services.
- First, “the agency officials who had the most difficulty complying with GPRA [Government Performance and Results Act of 1993] requirements were the very people who were most concerned about achieving effective programs.”
- Second, performance measurement “tended to be insensitive to differences.”
- Third, performance measurement “often bypassed the judgments of professional staff members who were essential to program implementation success.”
- And finally, performance measurement “rarely acknowledged the complex goals of public action, and instead, focused only on efficiency outcomes.”
Outcome Based Evaluation
If all things eventually reach a well-intentioned but ultimately unpractical state, then the drive toward performance measurement reached that with Outcome Based Evaluation (OBE). OBE seeks to set performance goals at the beginning, which if not satisfied fully, can have an adverse affect on the program’s priority in the future, which naturally raises certain fears in project managers about what happens if the effort is successful yet just misses the projected target.
The problem with OBE is that OBE seeks to simplify complex solutions and focuses on efficiency. While the finite resources available for nonprofits should never be squandered, determining measurable outcomes should recognize the complexity of what nonprofits seek to achieve and focus on effectiveness.
Two Great Questions
Therefore in terms of measuring the value of nonprofit historical organizations, these two questions remain open for debate.
First, who should collect and interpret the data? Should that be government or another party, or the nonprofit sector itself? No matter who is collecting and interpreting, how will those charged with this task gain appropriate training?
Second, how can nonprofits balance good stewardship for the finite resources available to them with the need for demonstrably effective (rather than purely efficient) programs? In other words, how can nonprofits show donors that their gifts have been responsibly used to positive result?