One question for historic sites

I have been thinking about how a question can open up new avenues for exploration and sometimes launch us into unchartered territory. Sometimes, it is better to ask museum leadership meaningful, thoughtful questions rather than blurting out "what we oughta do" as we try to persuade folks to think about issues in a new way. As a mentor once said to me, along this same vein, "if you just want advice ask for money with no context, if you want to truly engage a donor, and secure their financial support and commitment to a project or initiative ask for advice first, sincerely..."

So, I'm going to be a bit bold here, for the sake of stirring up the pot. Of course, many many other questions can lead to great conversations. But I think this one question can rock us to our core and spark a new level of awareness, especially amongst historic site leadership. Ask this question at a Board meeting or one-on-one over lunch. Of course, you will be the best to know if it's timely or applicable depending on your site's current situation.

If we didn't have a building would we still have a mission? [or insert collections]

Years ago, I heard from a community member at an unnamed historic site in an unnamed state, "well I suppose if this place tragically burned down we would just pack everything up." I'm not faulting this person. What they said was logical and came from a genuine sense of love for the historic building. But at its core, this comment speaks volumes about how the general community connects, or does not connect to our historic building or site. Does the "preserve" crowd out the "interpret" in how our mission plays out. Or, beyond this, does "educate" and "interpret" need expansion?

The best sites convey mission with big ideas and life-impacting programs. The building is a backdrop, the raw canvas upon which the colorful paint is applied. A follow up exercise/question might be; If our answer to the above is "yes! we think so!"...then, in what colorful way are we bringing life to our mission and our community? On the whole, historic site missions are in desperate need of originality in the 21st century. Though they should not change with every whim, fad, or fleeting idea. Yet, their monolithic nature would do well with a splash of strategic color, spontaneity and creativity from the communities where they sit.

Again, try this question out at a meeting or retreat. If the conversation begins to gravitate to the building or its collections, ask it again, and see what happens :)

Thanks for rambling with me.


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