Minnesota Local History

Minnesota Local History Blog.

Minnesota Local History Blog.

Advice and help with building history capacity.

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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Identity is a key message

By: grabitsdm | December 4, 2009
An article from Thursday December 3, 2009 in BusinessNorth highlights potential one reason for the sudden closure of Minnesota Discovery Center (formerly Ironworld) in Chisholm just before Thanksgiving. That reason is a lack of identity for the organization: is it a historical repository or an amusement park?

Having a strong sense of what it is that an organization does is important. So important that the new Form 990 places prominent emphasis on mission like it has not done before: it is on the first page! Indentity helps the public quickly understand purpose and grants access to the benefits of the organization.

Minnesota Discovery Center is not alone in this struggle. Many nonprofit organizations suffer "mission drift" due to the misplaced enthusiasm of well-intentioned people or by chasing after perceived available money. To be successful, organizations like the people of which they are composed need to stay focused.

Another organization with which I've worked is a classic example. Dedicated staff over the years have wanted the institution to be a historical repository to facilitate education, while most board members simply desired it to be a tourist destination and one founder wanted it to be a Hall of Fame. It is not that these are completely incompatible, and there may be a way to synthesize these ambitions into a single clear direction. However, with so many competing visions this institution confuses potential donors and grantmakers. The challenge for nonprofit historical organizations is to be clear with the public about what we do specifically, how we do that (standards), and why is this so important. In the case of this organization, it will have to consider what the legacy of each vision will mean for the future of the organization.

From news sources about the Discovery Center's closure, the message from Ironworld Development Corporation's board recognizes this need for clear identity. That's the first step in the right direction. Now the hard work begins in formulating that identity and communicating it to supporters and the public who might only now remember that "Minnesota Discovery Center closed."

Can you share how your organization has dealt with issues of organizational identity? How were you able to bring closure to those questions and move forward with clarity? What lasting impacts to your organizational reputation continue to need attention?

Collecting Christmas letters

By: grabitsdm | December 2, 2009
The Pope County Historical Society's November newsletter arrived on Monday. In it was an appeal for county families that create Christmas letters for family and friends to send a copy to the Pope County Museum for inclusion in their family history files. I have to admit that I and my family for a great many years have created Christmas letters, but this is the first time I've considered sending a copy to the county historical society. This seems like a terrific idea as it would generate a gold mine for future genealogists wondering what our lives were like.

How many of your organizations collect family Christmas letters? How long have you collected them? What kind of evidence do you have to know that they are used? Any downside to collecting family Christmas letters?

Vertically integrated all along

By: grabitsdm | Information Technology | December 2, 2009
For decades business leaders have suggested that governments and nonprofits would do well to follow the example of business by becoming more specialized, flatter organizations. A recent Wall Street Journal blog talks about how some businesses are now reversing their decades old pursuit of specialization in favor of vertical integration: controlling raw materials, manufacturing, and distribution. What will this trend mean for nonprofit historical organizations?

In a sense nonprofit historical organizations have always been vertically oriented. Even though many have tried to specialize and play to certain strengths, they also control the raw materials (archives and collections), manufacturing (reference libraries, exhibits, historic markers, etc.) and distribution (interpretation, digitization, public programs, etc.) Nonprofit historical organizations continue to have an unfragmented supply chain to deliver experiences demanded by the public. Perhaps this "new" business trend will not have much impact on how nonprofit historical organizations work, but the blog suggests one thing that might bear watching: the speed of communications which has created a flatter world around us will demand greater swiftness in responding to changing consumer needs.

Give to the Max for History

By: grabitsdm | November 19, 2009
Many Minnesota historical organizations participated in an online/social media-fueled fundraising event dubbed "Give to the Max" through GiveMN.org on Tuesday November 17, 2009, which raised approximately $14 million for charities across the state. The St. Paul Pioneer Press reports on Washington County Historical Society, which then prompts the question of how well did others do? Any new donors? Any big surprises? What did you and your organization learn from participating in the event? If you did not participate, can you share your reasons?

Relocating Museums

By: grabitsdm | November 17, 2009
The November-December issue of Museum from American Association of Museums carries an interesting article about how some museums are moving from their roots to "greener pastures" of larger populations, better buildings, fresh start, etc. In August 2008 this blog community briefly looked putting ourselves where people are bound to be (see: Getting in the way). That's still an important consideration, but actually moving a facility to another place takes the discussion to another level.

Although the article does not mention any museums in Minnesota that have moved, the article does talk about the Mount Horeb (WI) Mustard Museum moving to the wealthy Madison WI suburb of Middleton and renaming itself the "National Mustard Museum." The museum is doing so to place its organization on better financial footing and provide more access to people. However, the author, Joelle Seligson, states that the "public love for museums is tied to their sameness, the sense that they will preserve and protect what they hold and remain in place for posterity." The Mustard Museum will no longer be in the same place anymore.

In Minnesota there are examples of moves, too. For example Fort Belmont in Jackson was originally established in 1958 to take advantage of the traffic on US Route 71 south of town. When I-90 was built in 1974, much of the tourist traffic seemed to disappear. Fort Belmont completed a relocation to a site visible from I-90 a couple years ago. Neither the original attraction nor this one are on the actual site of the historic Fort Belmont. But, this is an example of an institution that is placing its facility where people are anyway.

Still, relocating an entire facility is a costly and extraordinary endeavor. In considering a move, how might an organization balance the "public love for museums ... that they will ... remain in place" with the public's feet? If traffic has migrated from its historical location, must also the historical organization also migrate in order to be where people are? How should a historical organization balance financial considerations against mission which is so often tied to place? (History Where It Happened)

Going for Social Media

By: grabitsdm | Information Technology | November 16, 2009

Alison Circle, a librarian who writes the "Bubble Room" blog for Library Journal, recently had a posting on "Top Ten Things for Marketers to Try."  Number 5 is Learn a New Technology: "Last Friday I had a conversation with a friend about social media. I loved what she had to say: the people who are successful in this arena just jumped in feet first into the deep end. They didn't worry about how, or who, or metrics, or audience. They just went for it. So if you don't have a Facebook page or a Twitter account, open one today."


Do you agree or disagree that jumping right in the deep end is the best way to get started with social media?


~Kathie Otto

Validating What We Do

By: grabitsdm | October 13, 2009


The conversation about credentialing local history workers tends to be periodic. It often revolves around momentary needs to assure employers, the public and funders of the legitimacy of local history work. American Association of Museums' Emerging Museum Professional Survey provides a glimpse of new museum worker needs, which could inform the discussion as credentials not only need to help the public understand what we do but also serve the worker.


The purpose of credentials really is to build trust in a knowledge base; in other words, credentials establish legitimacy. While some credentials require a degree from an accredited educational institution, in many fields these often come from a variety of sources that demonstrate the integrity of the worker's skills and knowledge.


How might the local history community in Minnesota certify its trustworthy workers? Would local history workers benefit from a credential? Here are a few (mostly) do-it-yourself credentials that spring to mind, with both pros and cons:


Awards Programs: Minnesota Alliance of Local History Museums, American Association for State and Local HistoryPreservation Alliance of Minnesota, and Friends of Minnesota Barns all offer awards programs. These are free to enter, but remember only the work that truly represents the best of the field gets recognized. Projects and functions that do not go above and beyond a routine generally do not receive recognition. However, sometimes it is the discipline of routine that needs recognition most.


Small Museum Pro!promises certification for workers in small and rural museums throughout the country by focusing on practical museum training.  All-online courses cover Museum Administration, Collections Management, Collections Care, Exhibitions, and Museum Education and Outreach. Small Museum Pro! program should affordably fill gaps in professional training common to among small, emerging and rural museum workers. Courses cost $195 each.  To receive Small Museum Pro! certification, participants must complete all five courses.  


Continuing Education: A survey conducted at the Minnesota Local History Workshops this past spring revealed the preference among survey respondents statewide that, to stay current, local history workers should be accomplishing 15 hours of continuing education annually. That means reading trade publications, attending workshops and classes, participating in conferences, teaching classes, being active in other meetings (such as serving on the board of the Minnesota Alliance of Local History Museums, on a Minnesota Association of Museums committee, etc.). Keeping track of time spent improving skills could inspire trust in potential funders. Doubters may, however, dismiss your records as not measuring to a common standard.


Let's continue the conversation. While time is a limited resource, it is necessary to spend time validating what we do in the eyes of the public and funders. How do you do that? Would it be useful to have some organization set a common standard? If so, should that organization be broad (e.g. a museum or nonprofit association) or focused (e.g. a history organization)? National, or statewide? How might credentials matter to your board, the public or funders?

Offsite Data Storage

By: grabitsdm | Information Technology | September 29, 2009
McLeod County Historical Society uses Past Perfect Museum Software on its network computer system, like many small historical museums. In the last three years we have been adding a tremendous amount of digital media, i.e. photos and recordings, to the system. This has created some storage and backup problems for us. My board would like to explore the option of offsite memory storage, and was wondering if any other organizations have done this or have looked into it. 

Lori Pickell-Stangel
Executive Director

Museums Using Social Media Benchmark

By: grabitsdm | Information Technology | September 25, 2009
Dear Colleagues:


I’m interested in learning how other museums and cultural institutions are engaging their communities through social media technologies.   Are you?    Help me gather benchmark data by completing this survey about what types of social media are being used by museums, how much time is spent on it and who in the organization manages this engagement.

This survey should take less than 15 minutes to complete.

If you are interested in receiving a copy of the survey results, please provide your email address.

Thank you!

Rose Sherman
Director of Enterprise Technology
Minnesota Historical Society


Counting Web Users

By: grabitsdm | Information Technology | September 23, 2009

Like many museums, we receive copies of newsletters and mailing from a goodly number of our fellow historical organizations.  I will admit that I don’t always have time to digest everything that is printed.  But on occasion, an item will get my attention.


A copy that recently crossed my desk contained an intriguing statistic.  In a breakdown of their 2008 attendance figures, this organization included web site visits, which amounted to nearly 2/3 of their total attendance for the annum.  It got me to ponder again the question of whether or not we should include web site hits in our attendance figures. 


We have never counted web hits and have no plan to do so any time soon.  Why? For one, we do not use a pay counter service so out stats are not as thorough as others might have.  (We use the free feature of StatCounter dot com.)  Differentiating from actual “human” contact versus machine or spider contacts could be time-consuming. As a result, I have been somewhat suspicious of institutions that have rather large web site hit figures and use those to bolster attendance numbers.


Is there a better way to handle this issue?  Have any of you found a good way to parse those hits to determine a reliable number?  Should grants applications from foundations and other agencies even be asking institutions for those figures as a requisite for funding?

Mike Worcester

Cokato Historical Society