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.
About a year ago, I sat at a Minnesota Historical Society workshop in Northfield to learn about web design standards from Shana Crosson, trying to create a website for our little city historical society with little time, almost no money and no web design skills.
It took almost a year, but we finally launched our web site in January 2010. If you're in the same spot we were last spring, perhaps you can learn from (and improve on) our experience.
First some background: the Edina Historical Society has about 300 members, an operating budget of less than $50,000 and a half-time director (me). We have more than 20 active volunteers but no one with any web design skills. (In fact, most do not use a computer.)
CITY WEB SITE
Prior to this year, the City of Edina generously provided a couple of pages on its website for our organization and for our programs that we operate in two city parks. However, we seldom changed the pages because we had little control: we had to submit changes to city staff, who updated our content as they had time (sometimes weeks later). The city also had a number of format and technical restrictions, such as no links to outside sites, that limited what we could do.
About two years ago, we wanted more content to promote our programs, particularly our school field trip programs at a historic one-room schoolhouse. Because most of our visitors are schools from out of town, we needed an inexpensive way to reach educators throughout the state without dramatically increasing postage and printing costs.
We asked for more pages and the city agreed - if we paid for the redesign, estimated to be more than $1,200. At that point, we decided to investigate establishing our own site that we could update as often as needed.
In the meantime, because our information was hard to find on the huge city site, we paid for a domain name to put on our marketing materials to get people directly to our pages.
SEARCHING FOR ALTERNATIVES
To find out what might work for us, I did what I usually do when we contemplate a new project: I call my colleagues at city historical societies to see what they're doing.
Richfield is lucky enough to have Joe Hoover, a web designer for the Minnesota Historical Society, as a board member and volunteer. He designs and maintains the site using more complicated software than I could handle, but he offered all sorts of free advice on what simpler software was out there, including WordPress that has been discussed in this blog.
My first reaction, to be honest, was to find some great volunteer like Joe to create the site for us. (Unfortunately, Joe wouldn't defect to join EHS.) My board members were sure that some talented high school kid could design a site in a few hours. Despite some volunteer recruiting efforts in the community and with the Minneapolis College of Art and Design, we didn't find anyone.
St. Louis Park and Bloomington each contracted different web designers to create a site for them. The cost was rather modest, but with a budget of $0, we didn't have that option.
So, I tried designing our site with WordPress, which I know many of you know and love but I had a hard time creating the site I wanted. Perhaps the problem had more to do with me than with WordPress. With just 20 hours a week to do everything from exhibit development to PastPerfect data entry to vacuuming, I didn't have much time to spare to develop new skills.
Through a Google search of recommended free web services, I found Weebly. It was named one of the "Top 50 Sites" by Time Magazine in 2007 and had earned all sorts of praise about its ease of use from several other publications.
For you non-techies who don't know your HTML from your CSS (like me), Weebly is very simple. The WYSIWYG (what you see is what you get) features make creating a web site as easy as creating a newsletter in Word or Publisher. Pick a template you like. Then simply click a button to create a page and drag and drop elements (photo, title, paragraph, etc.) onto the page. Moving pages around, adding pages, changing menus is just as simple.
Weebly continually offers new features based on feedback from users. For example, captions and alt-tags for photos weren't available when I first started designing, but were added soon after. Free features include a blog, photo galleries, reader polls, Google maps, Flickr slides shows, and many other features that I have only begun to explore.
For those of you with technical skills, there's a HTML/CSS interface to fine tune the template. I'm not in that group, but I have used a simple little feature that lets me insert HTML code for widgets such as "Follow us on Twitter" and other "share" buttons. (I found the code through a quick Google search).
Check out the Weebly site for the list of free features: www.weebly.com. For a small additional fee ($71.80 for two years), you get tech support, plus the ability to embed documents, add audio files, video player, password protected pages, up to 10 websites and detailed web stats.
GOALS AND RESULTS
Once I found Weebly, creating the site went relatively quickly. I had worked with a committee to plan our web content more than a year before when we thought we could expand our content with the city. The driving force behind creating a new site was to build our field trip programs, the biggest source of our income. We also wanted to market new programs (history-themed birthday parties, summer day camp) for parents searching online for something fun to do with their children.
In addition, we operate a museum, with exhibits and a research library that is open to the public just two mornings a week. A web site now gives the public around the clock access. We have finished entering our photo catalog in our PastPerfect database; our next step is provide an online catalog. Weebly has the ability to handle that additional content.
Most of my time has been spent marketing our site, through links on other sites, newspaper articles, Facebook links, postings on alumni web sites, etc. I update the front page every week with news. I also write a blog that I update about three times a week. I write about history resources, new items in the collections, history of stuff that is making news, etc. From time to time, I also feature a "history mystery" in response to questions from readers about puzzling Edina landmarks, such as the bridge to nowhere or the rumored haunted mansion.
Through Google Analytics (another free service partnered with Weebly), I can track traffic sources, popularity of pages, number of visitors, number of visits and much more. In the first three months, we have had more than 850 unique visitors to the site. Site usage has doubled from about 250 visitors in February to almost 500 in March.
We do not have a form to ask visitors how they heard about us, but we do know that we have booked almost three full weeks of summer day camp this year, after struggling to fill one week during our inaugural year last summer, with little additional marketing beyond our website.
Many of our museum visitors tell us that they found out about us through the website. What's more these visitors seem to be much younger than our usual retirees. A 22-year-old reader brought in her mother to research their neighborhood. An Eagle Scout came in to work on a project. A new resident came in to buy history books about her new hometown. Several people have brought in donations for an upcoming exhibit.
I spend about five hours of my 20 hours a week on the website, and have created more work for myself with donations to accession, researchers to assist and program requests to fill. It's a good problem to have, and we hope additional contacts will translate into additional membership dollars.
To see what we've done (so far -- more content is coming) see www.edinahistoricalsociety.org. I'm happy to answer any questions and welcome free advice.
Edina Historical Society
Over the years, mission statements have gotten more succinct and the growing detail of the work has migrated to other media, often books and online resources. There is much debate as to length and content of modern mission statements. Some experts liken a mission statement to an "elevator speech," something that is memorable, rich in powerful content, and can be delivered during a short elevator ride. Others suggest that mission statements should be long enough to say specifically what an organization does, but short enough to be easily remembered. In other words, more than just an advertising tagline.
In Defining Keys for Success we noted that the mission statement's audience really is the governing authority of the organization. As Wendy Petersen-Biorn pointed out, mission statements keep boards and staff on track. And yet, keeping boards and staff on track needs to also be flexible enough to keep pace with societal change. So, a mission statement might look similar to: The [History Entity] improves people’s quality of life by preserving the present and the past.
Since historical organizations exist for the public good, boards and staff could ask themselves if a new program or project will improve anyone's quality of life, and if so, how, all the while maintaining flexibility to evolve with society. Mission statements, while suggesting a focus and fending off distractions to the overall goal, might also be used to keep an organization from becoming irrelevant by extending the focus to remaining a public good.
Another reason for succinct, flexible mission statements is that these often appear online. Writing for the web requires brevity and scannability so that a virtual visitor can quickly make a decision about whether the site relates to them and their interests. If you develop a longer mission statement, or continue to use one that says "collect, preserve, and interpret," consider using bullet points to improve scannability.
The bottom line for mission statements really is that they should be aspirational, guide decision makers of the organization, and work for the organization, its people and clientele. When evaluating your mission statement against these guides, what can you observe?
For those that are revising mission statements, or recently have done so, what considerations are guiding your work?
Local History Services Office at the Minnesota Historical Society has received several calls in the last couple of months about whether museums should switch over to LED lighting, as suggested by energy and lighting consultants. This question was put to the Society's own museum lighting designer, Rich Rummel, who has studied LED lighting for museums. His response is printed below, and local historical organizations considering their lighting needs should feel free to consult with Rich, as many local historical organizations have successfully done.
Please be cautious about LED (Light Emitting Diode) lighting, and here are some reasons:
First, LED is not an established technology, and therefore not sustainable. The units bought today will be obsolete as quickly as PCs were in the late 1980s. Museums typically have limited resources, so don't be too eager to spend scarce money to help someone else develop this technology.
Second, a standard 60-watt lightbulb, as simple as it seems, must meet a number of performance standards- measurements for light output, life, and color temperature, which are all defined by government-approved, industry-wide standards. There are no standards for LED lighting systems. While standards for LED are currently being developed, it will likely be a number of years before any are implemented.
Third, LED lights are very expensive and the payback (energy costs saved vs. product cost) usually extends past the claimed life. In other words, the amount you save in energy will not pay for the unit you buy.
Finally, there is not a white LED available that has the color temperature and color rendering ability required for museum lighting.
The most energy- and artifact-conserving option is to use energy-efficient quartz halogen lamps, and where appropriate fluorescent tubes, controlled by occupancy sensors so that lights remain off unless there is a visitor in the gallery.
Richard Rummel, LC
Minnesota Historical Society
Politics aside, the remark prompted a parallel thought, replacing "government" with "historical society" and "marketplace" with "user."
Some kinds of cultural institutions will have less trouble adapting to changes and expectations. One can easily see how children's museums in particular can allow individuals to be in charge of robust choices in real time. Historical organizations also will easily adapt to the expectation of less emphasis on physical location through the addition of digital content and being able to share history outside of its bricks-and-mortar location, though the storage of documentation has to happen somewhere.
However, historical organizations may have more difficulty in letting go control of the facts of history and how the story is presented. Or will it be?
In what ways have you begun to adapt to more modern expectations? Specifically how have you attempted to stay ahead of this rapidly changing set of expectations? In what ways might historical organizations stuck in a "1940s industrial model"?
A room full of experts would likely come up with as many definitions for each statement as there are people in the room. After nearly 20 years of working with local history organizations in Minnesota, what each of these means to me is as follows:
Answers the question, “Why are we doing this?”
Primary Audience: Organization’s governance
Length: One short sentence
Answers the question, “Where are we going?”
Primary Audience: Organization’s workers
Length: 2-3 paragraphs
Answers the question, “How are we going about our work?”
Primary Audience: Organization’s supporters
Length: 4-6 words with explanations
The theft of collections is an issue for many local historical organizations. There are other security risks that can be addressed in a more formal risk assessment from a variety of local resources. However, here are some considerations that may reduce your risk of loss:
1) You can’t stop a determined thief, so most measures really only serve to keep the honest people honest. Due diligence is to be expected in the matter of security.
2) The institution has an obligation to consider security: both to ensure that future generations have access to history, and to ensure that volunteers, staff, and visitors all have a safe experience.
3) Think about the collections as two groups: those that are truly irreplaceable with great associated stories and those things that are simply old without much provenance. Expend more energy on the security of the truly irreplaceable.
4) Eight Low-Tech, Mostly Low-Cost, Anti-Theft Security Strategies:
a) Two or More: have two or more people working/volunteering at the same time to provide a support network.
b) Symbols of authority: for volunteers and staff onsite, wear a uniform item (like a polo shirt, jacket, ball cap, etc.) with other visible symbols (like a badge, key on a lanyard, a walkie-talkie on a belt, etc.) Honest people have respect for authority, and an authority figure nearby will inspire continued honesty and a sense of safety (i.e., the visitor knows who to contact/trust if something happens). All who work onsite should have training in what to do, and where to go for help.
c) Intuition: look all of your visitors in the eye, befriend them, and observe body language. Not only is it polite to ask people about themselves, where they come from, and how they heard of your museum, all of these things are clues should something happen (not to mention this should help with the museum’s marketing plan, too). If you are uncomfortable, there’s probably a reason. Don’t panic, but do keep an eye on the situation and know where the nearest help is.
d) Positive message: educate visitors on why security is in place, should they ask, without leveling accusation or giving away your security secrets. Basic goal here is to inspire confidence in the visitor that the facility says safety for collections and people is Job #1.
e) Amenities: have a designated secure place for coats and bags, and insist your visitors make use of this amenity.
f) Exhibit furniture: Small things that fit in pockets should not be left out in the open. Using platforms, reading rails, and other exhibit furniture can often be used to deter the otherwise honest because they create boundaries.
g) Lighting: motion activated switches in exhibit galleries not only save energy and prolong the life of objects, they also give a sense to people that their movements are noted. Spotlights also create a sense of boundaries. Grants are often available to improve lighting, such as from power companies.
h) Décor: nicer finishes in truly public areas should contrast with more utilitarian finishes in nonpublic areas. When someone inadvertently wanders into a secure area, the décor will cause a certain level of self-consciousness in honest people.
5) Think about a response protocols: which law enforcement agency will you call and what is their number? List out everything that should be done when a security risk arises, who should do that task, and how to document the event.
6) Never go it alone when a situation arises: call for help.
7) Never admit fault when the event happens: hindsight will help determine what went wrong.
8) If something is stolen, file a police report. While this may seem like bad press, without a report, securing the return of the item becomes more difficult should it surface. And, by filing a report the institution demonstrates to the public that it takes its responsibility for collections seriously, and therefore potential donations should also be safe.
Writing key statements (mission, vision, values) is a delicate business, and there is much - often differing - advice online. The views expressed in this series are informed by the broad and specific experience of Minnesota's historical organizations, and may not necessarily match every organization.
Done well, mission statements communicate succinctly and clearly the organization’s purpose. Unimaginative or out-of-date mission statements can cause confusion, or worse can suggest that the organization is irrelevant on account of perceived passivity. Many modern historical society mission statements often create additional challenges by imposing unnecessary limitations through expressions of what, how or for whom.
How did we arrive at unimaginative, out-of-date, or limiting mission statements? Why don’t many historical organizations have vision or values statements?
In 1922 the Minnesota Historical Society produced a standard template mission statement for historical organizations:
The objects of the _________ Society shall be the discovery, preservation, and dissemination of knowledge about the history of ________ County and the State of Minnesota, more particularly its objects shall be:
Sec. 1: To discover and collect any material which may help establish or illustrate the history the county or state, their exploration, settlement, development and activities in peace and war and their progress in population, wealth, education, arts, science, agriculture, manufactures, trade and transportation, printed material such as histories, genealogies, biographies, descriptions, gazetteers, directories, newspapers, pamphlets, catalogues, circulars, handbills, programs and posters; manuscript material such as letters, diaries, journals, memoranda, reminiscences, rosters, service records, account books; and museum material such as pictures, photographs, paintings, portraits, scenes, aboriginal relics and material objects illustrative of life, conditions, events and activities in the past or present.
Sec. 2: To provide for the preservation of such material and for its accessibility, as far as may be feasible, to all who wish to examine or study it; to cooperate with officials in insuring the preservation and accessibility of the records and archives of the county and its towns, villages and institutions; and to bring about the preservation of historic buildings, monuments, and markers.
Sec. 3: To disseminate historical information and arouse interest in the past by publishing historical information and material in the newspapers or otherwise; by holding meetings and addresses, lectures, papers and discussion; and by marking historical buildings, sites, and trails.
Solon Buck wrote this standard mission statement to help those that wanted to know more about the important work of history. Many organizations in Minnesota to this day are still using this historic 1922 mission statement or one of the several updates to it, all of which contain some vision and values. Modern mission statements, however, are more about the motivating purpose than “what, how, or for whom” of our work, and vision and values state the public use of and define the approach to the mission.
At the Spring 2009 Local History Workshops we were encouraged to rethink our key statements to meet the needs of the twenty-first century. Some organizations have reported how hard it is to convince funders of their worth when they are pitted against social organizations. One even stated that an elected official asked why he should support the historical organization when the requested allocation could help put another K-9 police unit on the street or expand services for a battered woman’s shelter. All three are actually very important to the public’s quality of life.
Local historical organizations are worth every penny and more. In order to demonstrate that worth, historical organizations need to mature their mission-vision-values statements to meet the twenty-first century.
What would stronger key statements look like? Each organization should have statements that reflect local conditions, but I might suggest as a place to start this discussion, the following:
Mission: The [History Entity] improves people’s quality of life by preserving the present and the past.
Vision: Specifically, this organization:
1. Informs sound public policy through the direct experience of the past.
2. Provides a neutral healing environment for people to address the affects of events on their lives.
3. Empowers people to make solid civic and environmental choices.
4. Enables understanding of today.
The organization will faithfully and patiently coach the public to incorporate history as an equal value in its consideration of important civic and environmental issues.
The organization will constantly capture and preserve history as it happens in order to provide accurate, complete, honest, and publicly accessible information for future users.
The organization will strive to meet, adapt, and apply professional guidance in every aspect of its work.
The organization will strategically apply its limited resources to leverage its vision.
In the coming weeks we’ll take a look at the nature of mission, vision and values statements. Then we’ll discuss the four suggested vision statements, which are meant to be outcomes, and that are based on some excellent examples from Minnesota historical organizations. And finally we’ll discuss the values that underpin our intent and likewise come from the collective experience of Minnesota historical organizations.
Feel free to post your mission, vision, or values statements here. Also, it would be good to hear from those that have recently updated their key statements on specific challenges faced in the process.
With changes in usership at local organizations, people demonstrate that they want to get beyond filters down to the raw history that our organizations preserve. More and more people want to assemble the raw data in new ways that are relevant to them, almost like individually tailored books, exhibits, or public programs. What Schlatter is getting at in the article is that such users are curators of what they assemble.
How is this trend shaping what you do? How far do you let users go in assembling content for which your organization is responsible?
I wrote a grant to cover the costs and an employee at our chamber updated our website. Jim Marushin (MCHS Curator) had the primary responsibility of the overall creation/design, which was based upon a review of many museum websites in MN. No particular audience was in mind although we were keeping the older audience in mind, just an update and more user friendly if possible. We also became a member of TechSoup which is a real cost savings for purchasing software. I'm sure it's not perfect and we will probably find ongoing things we can correct, we can do that now with the programs that we received from TechSoup, but it is a major improvement from our previous website, which was in dire need of updating.
We made additional improvements to our updated website. We made the background darker so the print is easier to read and we made the pictures for the museum tour larger. We will probably make others as we see the need, but these improved it for now.
The winner of the best tagline in for Arts & Culture was the Montana Historical Society with "Big Sky. Big Land. Big History."
Other examples of history organization taglines can be found beginning on page 37 of the report: Stevens County Historical Society in Morris represented Minnesota's local history community on this list.
Do you use a tagline for your history organization? Why or why not? How effective do you think your tagline is? Of the many local historical organizations in Minnesota, which do you think have compelling taglines?