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.
A lot of ink has been used to detail how little needed another museum - especially a historic house museum - actually is. Carol Kammen in her "On Doing Local History" column in the Summer 2009 issue of History News reports on a 1936 AASLH census of history related organizations that showed 583 in the United States that year. She notes the count probably was less than complete. Today estimates put that number around17,500, with most having been established in the last 40 years. Over-organization is a concern when there is a finite number of resources (time, money, people) to support each organization.
Kammen briefly touches on the sacrifices made to establish organizational presence in its community. Many unseen volunteer hours went into organizing, collecting, indexing, and making accessible the history preserved by the organization that often the community takes for granted the history without acknowledging the serious effort applied by organizers. Often efforts to establish organizations require sacrifices, but these resources can wear thin in time leaving the organization undercapitalized at its core. While some experts may say it is number of organizations and rate of creation, the real concern more likely is the unsustainable undercapitalization of core functions.
In working with well-intentioned citizens who wish to organize to preserve history, these arguments about over and under really do not concern the enthusiast. The response often is that where others have failed, they are sure to succeed. How could they not? They can see the passion, excitement, and energy around them at least in the short term, that they hope to build for the long term. But building on emotion is problematic at best and betting on the outcome is almost a near-certainty for both the enthusiasts and observers (but with two totally different expected results). The field needs to develop a menu of measures from which enthusiasts may choose in order to better evaluate their long term chances of success.
Local history organizations face these same challenges within their communities. How do you awaken enthusiasts to the hard realities of successful organizing to accomplish what they think they want to do?
Will stories like this encourage small history nonprofits to neglect their constituents and seek "white knight" support from others? What might be the proper role for Social Media in a fundraising campaign? Are there any examples of a historical organization using Social Media to fundraise?
First, a bit of history. The Morrison County Historical Society first went online with a website in 2002. I had learned enough html to build the text portion of each page, plus I decided how the site would be structured. At the time, I didn't know much about coding web pages, so I couldn't figure out how to insert tables or images, which meant I didn't know how to make the page attractive. We had help on this from Eric Swanson, our Web Guru, who formerly did work on the early Minnesota Historical Society website.
In 2006, we released the second version of our website. By this time I had learned enough to create the entire thing in html, including all the pretty stuff. While the first site had quite a bit of historical content, the second site had even more - at least 100 history-related articles. Since the beginning of our web presence, when someone reviewed our earliest version of the site and asked, "Where's the history?", we've been conscious of the fact that people want more than just information about our organization. Our website had to contain history, too.
On August 9, 2007, we started a blog called "Skimming the Cream." The original intent of the blog was to have a space where we could easily notify our members and friends about MCHS news and upcoming events. Ideally, I wanted to have our current blog posts appear on our Home Page, but I couldn't figure out how to accomplish that, so instead, we linked to the blog from our Home Page.
As staff got used to the routine of blogging, we evolved away from strictly news and upcoming events and started posting about collections items. We also developed a series called Morrison County Influentials, examining 150 influential people related to the history of the county.
We used WordPress as our blogging platform, having installed it onto our server so that our domain name would be attached to the blog. The fact that our blog did not appear as part of our Home Page still niggled at me. Would people link over to the blog to get the current posts, or would they skip it because it was too much bother?
Around about late 2008, early 2009, I began thinking that our website needed freshening up. I also wanted to overcome the problem of having to recode every single html page in order to change the website's look. With around 200 pages, that was more work than I really wanted.
There were several potential solutions to this problem, one of them being to create an external Cascading Style Sheet (CSS). An external CSS is basically a page of web coding that sits outside (hence, "external") the rest of your web pages and tells them how they are going to look. Your regular web pages, the ones with the content, contain a piece of code that references the external CSS and grabs the instructions for dressing the page. The beauty of external CSS is that if you want to change the appearance of your website, you merely change the code in this one CSS document and all of the other pages will grab the new code and change automatically.
While I know a little bit about external CSS, I don't know enough to be comfortable creating an entire site based on it. Plus, there was still the problem of the blog not appearing on the front page of the website. In addition, I wanted other staff to be able to create web pages without having to wait for me to do it.
I sought another solution. It was suggested that I find a Content Management System (CMS), which is basically a program that helps to create a structure for the content of your website. There are various CMS programs available - Drupal, Joomla!, Mambo, etc. - and each one has its own learning curve. I wasn't keen on having to learn another program (some of them are quite complicated) in order to rebuild the website.
In discussing the problem with Eric Swanson, he suggested I look into using WordPress as a CMS. While WordPress is first and foremost a blogging platform, because it allows users to build static pages, it can easily be repurposed as a CMS. I have extensive experience with WordPress through my personal blog and the museum blog, so this didn't seem too much a stretch. WordPress allows for quickly and easily changing the look of a website through a variety of templates that can be uploaded to a server with little trouble. No need to fuss with external CSS or coding individual web pages. And, best of all, our staff had experience with WordPress through posting to our blog, so it wouldn't take much to show them how to add new static pages to the website. Woohoo!
Before tackling a website redesign, I solicited feedback from users as to how the site should be changed. One of our members kindly took the time to give me specific advice. What I learned from her was a shock. She followed our blog exclusively and didn't realize we had an entire static website packed with info available online (even though the blog had a link to the Home Page of the main site). That cemented it. We HAD to get our blog onto the front page of our website. WordPress would solve that.
There are gazillions of potential ways to structure a website. With the 200 pages we had on our website, I had to decide how I wanted to rearrange them. They roughly fell into two broad categories: organizational information and history. Within the history section, we had a number of articles related to museum life and preservation methods, plus some genealogical forms. These appeared to be getting lost in the history section, so I decided I would move them into the organizational info section of the new website.
After sorting out the pages for each section and looking at the number of History pages I needed, I decided to upload 2 installations of WordPress onto our server. I did this for two reasons. I didn’t want to load the organizational info section with history articles and thus risk confusing or overwhelming users. I also knew that I was going to be building the site while it was live. If I built the History portion first, I could do this quietly, without disturbing the old Home Page.
The History section was installed in its own directory: morrisoncountyhistory.org/history/. Before getting down to the business of building pages, I had to pick a WordPress template. I chose Atahualpa, which is highly customizable, and arranged it to suit our needs. I then spent a couple of weeks creating pages of history articles, merely copying and pasting from our existing html site.
After the History section was finished, I held my breath and ripped down the Home Page of our old site. I quickly installed WordPress in the main directory of our server and madly built the new site. Remember, I was doing this while the site was live and available online. That meant that anyone who came looking for morrisoncountyhistory.org was going to be seeing the work in progress, finished or not. I wanted to make sure I completed the majority of the site in a very short time, which I did within 2-3 days. Part of the process was to export all of the content from our Skimming the Cream blog and import it into our new Home Page. WordPress makes this process simple. A few button clicks later and the blog was now part of our new Home Page.
The Main section of our new website contains our organizational information, plus what I hope is an obvious link to the History section of our website. The History section also links back to our Main section. I used the same theme to build both portions, but created subtle differences between the two. Our Main section is green; our History section is blue. The banner pictures on the Main section feature various views of the museum and grounds; whereas the banner pictures on the History section are historic pictures from our collections.
Those are the basics behind our website redesign. There’s more to it than that, of course, such as fixing broken links elsewhere on the internet (i.e. Wikipedia), creating a customized error message page to redirect people, waiting for the search engines to pick up on our changes, and playing with various WordPress plugins (note the Twitter feed on our Home Page).
You can see our new site at http://www.morrisoncountyhistory.org. If you have technical questions, drop me a line at contactstaff (at) morrisoncountyhistory (dot) org.
Bryan Eisenberg posted on this subject as it relates to the for-profit sector in 2001. Essentially he said to effectively market a business, one must identify brand uniqueness, identify what your prospects want most, identify what your competition will have the most difficulty copying, and what message will resonate with your prospects.
That seems like sound advice, but needs to be adapted for nonprofit historical organizations. Stephen Weil in his book "Making Museums Matter" (Smithsonian, 2002) has several important encouragements. So, using Weil to modify Eisenberg, let me suggest the following considerations to address prior to launching a membership campaign for local history museums:
- What is unique about the history you preserve and make accessible?
- Which of these factors are "most" important to potential members?
- Which of these factors are impossible to recreate anywhere else?
- How might you best communicate that you are "for" the people who made the history you preserve, and not just "about" the history you preserve?
Several recent articles have suggested the answer to Number 2 is that people most want to be able to "do history," whatever that is. This is why Local History News changed the Local History Events title to "Do History Here." But is the ability to do history what your public wants?
Number 4 reminds me of a statement Treebeard makes in J.R.R. Tolkien's "The Lord of the Rings." When asked whose side he is on, Treebeard responds that he is on no one's side because "no one is on my side." Historians have often remarked that history takes no sides, but who is speaking up for people with no more voice than what is preserved in records and objects?
Number 3 drills further into the answers you might provide for Number 1, and each will vary by organization.
How might you make membership matter more to more people?
To advance civilization must we use advanced technology? Is digitization the only way to make history accessible now? Is there still a use for analog media such as paper or microfilm? What are local historical organizations experiencing in terms of consumer demand for local history content?
What goals have you specifically planned to accomplish through your budget? Is there any success that seems to work without the organization having to cultivate the activity?
Why? Mr. Birnbaum demonstrated that most nonprofits are undercapitalized in their core services. In other words, the cost of administering nonprofits is often artificially low because of a desire to infuse as many of the organization's limited resources into its programming. How often has an organization continued to utilize an out-of-date computer, which slows other operations, just to avoid the expense of a new one? The practice of funneling maximum resources to programming then colors aspirations for cost savings in new alliances. His message seemed to be when considering partnering or merging that the two organizations should challenge assumptions about how the new joint venture will actually function.
Whether or not an organization considers a joint venture, challenging operational assumptions is a healthy exercise. In what specific ways do you feel your organization might be "undercapitalized"?
It seems to me that several local history organizations in Minnesota also actively seek that same kind of integration in their communities as distinctive enhancements. Although there are more to name, let me highlight just two. Anoka County Historical Society in the metro area has a strong track record of work with both the City of Anoka and around the county. ACHS assisted the City of Anoka with the creation of historic markers along a popular walking trail beside the Rum River. While people may not necessarily go for the history, the several times that I have randomly visited it there have always been people looking at the markers. In this way ACHS blends in with its host community to amplify a positive experience for residents and tourists alike by portraying the city for what it is: a place important to people.
Morrison County Historical Society in Little Falls a number of years ago likewise had the opportunity to work with its host city, but this time on a curriculum. Through what is taught in school, hopefully young residents will discover compelling reasons to stay in the community when they grow up. Many communities, even states as a whole, grapple with how to keep its young people.
There are many other strategies for integrating history, a history ethic, and clues to the support role that historical organizations have in enhancing the attractiveness of a community profile. How do you or your organization show that grass is just as green and lush locally? I don't mean what do you tell people, but what specific projects have you accomplished that are now part of the community's identity?
The Cokato Museum & Historical Society debuted its web site in the late summer of 1997. At the time, and to the best of our knowledge, only three other museums in the state had a presence on the web. A culmination of what seemed like months of planning, this event was met with little fanfare, other than a small article in the museum’s quarterly newsletter. The local newspaper did not even provide coverage. During our discussions about creating a web site, I made the comment: “Within ten years, the Internet will be the preferred method of information retrieval for a large chunk of the populace.” Needless to say, I was a little off on that estimate.
Since that humble unveiling, it should come as no surprise that Internet has radically transformed how historical organizations can and should conduct business. For the Cokato Museum, those changes can be seen in numerous ways.
One is in handling genealogy requests. Since we are not the county museum, we were not typically the “first call” people made. But with a presence on the web, genealogists can find us quite easily. With our list of available resources, they can decide if we can assist them, and send an e-mail query. Our research numbers have tripled since 2000, due almost exclusively to the web site.
Another item is providing general historical information about our community. From a simple “Quick Facts” sheet, to our Lost Cokato series, and articles from our newsletter and the local newspaper, interested persons can learn a great deal about Cokato’s history from the comfort of their own home. Those who seek further information can easily contact us.
Membership services are another area of benefit. Early on we utilized email to contact members about upcoming events and other items of interest. Unfortunately, the proliferation of spam forced us to curtail that avenue. Now we encourage members to visit our News & Upcoming Events section of the web site, which is updated weekly or as needed.
A list of available publications, membership forms, and other information helps keep the activities of our organization in full view of not just our membership, but all who choose to view our page.
Social networking sites are quickly becoming another avenue by which museums can further advance name recognition. Pick a network, and you can find organizations which have established a presence there in one form or another.
The negative side, and of course there always is one, can be found in the staff time needed to maintain these digital presences. With so many organizations struggling to maintain current staffing levels, an honest conversation about time management must take place before embarking on these ventures. Setting up that initial presence is easy. Devoting time on a consistent basis for site maintenance can be the difficult part.
The obvious question remains then: what will the future bring for museums as the digital age progresses. Considering how rapidity by which the technology had advanced, one can only guess at the next directions. With barely over a decade having passed since museums made their initial forays into the digital universe, many of us in the field are anxious to see those new directions, and to determine if they will be beneficial to the advancement of our mission.
Cokato Historical Society