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Leadership and Administration for History Organizations

An AASLH Small Museum Pro! Online Course

Course Description

History museum leadership is more complex and demanding than ever before, requiring updated and innovative ways to meet mission and keep organizations healthy. Thoughtful, intentional museum administration and leadership matters, regardless of the size or focus of your organization.

During the eight weeks of this course, modules addressing governance and administrative structures, nonprofit status and the public trust, mission and vision, the relationship between board and staff, including their roles and responsibilities; strategic planning, human resource development and management, and leadership will be covered.

The course is divided into eight weekly segments and includes a combination of topical reading assignments and related weekly assignments and online chats. A final course assignment is due the last week of class.

  • Week 1: Course overview; an inside look at nonprofits, public trust and governance
  • Week 2: Museum Boards, Their Roles, Responsibilities, Expectations, and Their Relationship to Museum Staff
  • Week 3: The Importance of Museum Vision and Mission
  • Week 4:  Administrative and Management Responsibilities, Relationships, Structures, Systems and Networks
  • Week 5:  Human Resource Management – Building Effective Teams and Mentoring
  • Week 6:  Why Leadership Matters, At All Levels
  • Week 7:  Charting Your Museum’s Future and Measuring Effectiveness
  • Week 8:  Putting It All Together: Where the Field is Heading and How You Fit In


COURSE DATES: March 2 - April 26, 2020

COST: $195 AASLH Members / $295 Nonmembers

OPEN REGISTRATION: November 1, 2019 - February 23, 2020; 20 participant limit


Course Logistics

FORMAT: Online, instructor-led, weekly-paced course

LENGTH: 8 weeks

PARTICIPATION STYLE: Weekly one-hour online chats (schedule to be determined based on student availability); weekly assignments; final course assignment. Students should expect to spend 3-4 hours per week on the course.

MATERIALS: Two required texts: Leadership Matters: Leading Museums in an Age of Discord, Second Edition, Anne W. Ackerson and Joan H. Baldwin, 2019 and Museum Administration 2.0, Hugh H. Genoways and Lynne M. Irleland, Revised by Cinnamon Catlin-Legutko, 2016. (Texts are NOT INCLUDED with your registration. You must order the book separately from the book seller of your choice.)

CREDIT: Successful completion of this course (80% or higher) will earn one credit toward the Small Museum Pro! certificate from AASLH.

Participant Outcomes

After completing this course, participants will understand principles and best practices of Leadership and Administration including the following:

  • the public trust role and governance structure of most nonprofit museums;
  • the importance of museum mission, vision, change, and strategic planning;
  • the major administrative and leadership roles and responsibilities of the board and staff;
  • the key issues in human resource management, including building effective teams
  • why leadership matters at all levels;
  • charting your museum’s future and measuring effectiveness; and
  • where the museum field is heading in the future.

Who Should Take This Course

Successful participants will be individuals in institutional leadership positions at the staff, board, and volunteer levels (where volunteers supervise others), who have significant decision-making responsibilities and who have the ability to affect positive, substantive change within their organizations.  This course is not appropriate for students, interns, or volunteers who do not have managerial responsibilities. We recommend that only one person per institution take this course at a time. To read about a participant’s experience, take a look at this blog post by a Leadership and Administration student: Leadership Matters At Every Level.


In a career spanning three decades, Anne Ackerson has served as director of several historic house museums and historical societies in central and eastern New York, the director of the Museum Association of New York, and now currently serves as the executive director of the National Council of State Archivists.

In 1997 Anne began an independent consulting practice focusing on organizational development issues for the smaller nonprofit cultural institution. She writes regularly about management and leadership issues for cultural institutions in her blog, Leading by Design. She is a frequent workshop/webinar presenter on issues of museum ethics, executive leadership, financial management, and board roles and responsibilities. In addition to teaching this course, she developed curriculum materials and a webinar on strategic planning for the American Association of State and Local History’s StEPS program, a national standards program for history museums.

How Do You Work Before Your Work: Office Space and Museum Tour Prep

My office was recently found itself in a discussion about office layouts for an organization. Specifically the old debate over an open plan office (or cubicles) vs. individual offices and what would fit our institution the best. Currently we have a mixture of these two approaches. On one floor of our building the education staff have an open office space that we share, while administration and many curators have individual offices on another floor, and some of the other curators work in either an open office space or a specially designed communal work area with special equipment for preservation or study of particular artifact. There is talk of changing this situation to an open office format with all employees and supervisors in one large area (think Office Space). The idea of this change has everyone thinking of the ways that this could be beneficial along with possible issues that could arise. You can do a quick search online and find any number of articles that will give you a list of the advantages and disadvantages of every possible office layout. There really is no shortage of them.  modern-office-cubicle-9.18.15-6

So why am I talking about office layout in an educational blog? During the conversation we began to talk about the things that make our department different from the others in the museum. Every department whether it is administration, curatorial, or education has its own personality.  Those of you that work in front of children on a regular basis know that you have to maintain a certain amount of energy and enthusiasm to effectively keep them engaged and to spark a, hopefully, lifelong curiosity about your topic. We all have a certain "stage presence" that we use. That energy is easy to keep up once you get the kids excited because you can feed off of their energy, but you have to set that tone from the beginning.

During the course of our discussion we came to realize that our department has some unofficial routines that we use to get out energy up and prepare for our groups. About 10 or 15 minutes before our groups begin to show up we usually all gather around one person's desk and talk, share stories, and-most importantly-joke with each other.  This gets us all in a good mood and sends us out smiling and laughing ready to do our jobs.  This routine developed very naturally between the staff that we have in our office.  Each one of us adds something different and complimentary to the office personality, and this mixture has created an atmosphere that makes us glad to be a work. After our groups leave for the day, we like to wind down in pretty much the same way. We will talk about how great our group of kids were, share stories about funny questions or answers we got from the kids, and joke about how we talked longer than we meant to because the students were so into our program.

Startup Stock Photos

Obviously, this not only affects our job satisfaction on a day-to-day basis, but I believe that we are able to give our visitors the best possible experience because of the way we work together as a team. Teachers and parents routinely complement our interpreters on not only their knowledge and professionalism, but their attitude and ability to connect with the kids. Maybe we will have to meet in a classroom, meeting room, or even a supply closet to keep from disrupting all the other people working diligently in the cubicles next to us, but we will find a way to keep our routines that make us a an effective team.

What are some of the things that your staff do to mentally prepare for your audience?  Are they on purpose like a huddle before a game or is it something more subtle like ours?

Want to Improve Society? Take a Look Around the Office

Our work in the not-for-profit sector focuses on making society better. We strive to improve the lives of those in our communities. But how often do we look internally to think about how we can improve the lives of people who report to us?

If you are a manager, one of the most significant opportunities you have to improve lives and make your community stronger is the impact you have on your direct reports. Consider times when you have had a miserable boss. Has your daily life suffered? Has it affected those you love? For most people, the answer would be yes to both questions.

Startup Stock Photos

If you have full-time employees reporting to you, you have more than 2,000 hours per year to motivate and inspire. Wouldn’t we love to have that much time with the audiences we serve through our programs? Consider the positive effect you could have through your interactions with your direct reports. If they have challenging, satisfying work, then their happiness touches the lives of hundreds of people with whom they interact.

So being a good manager matters. A lot. The tough part is that being a good manager is an art that needs attention and practice. My colleague and Developing History Leaders @SHA classmate Trevor Jones and I are constantly trying to be better managers ourselves and are dedicated to sharing our experiences with the AASLH community. Consider joining us for our Museum Management Tune-Up webinar on April 20 as we present the popular session we have led at recent AASLH meetings. We’ll offer a practical webinar geared toward history professionals that will help you learn new skills in employee assessment and review, communication, time management, and work relationships.

Whether you join us or not, remember that reaching your goal of improving society might be closer to the office than you ever imagined.

Leadership Matters at Every Level

I wasn’t the typical student in the most recent Leadership and Administration in History Organizations online course through AASLH. I’m not a director of a museum. I’m not a vice-president. I’m not even a manager. My museum doesn’t remotely qualify as small, nor is does it deal solely in history content. But my status as an educator at a mid-size natural history museum only encouraged a more engaged and active participation in the course, and offered me a unique takeaway. The Leadership and Administration in History Organizations (LAHO) course drew directors and leaders from history organizations across the country, all who wanted to learn more about the inner workings of their own organizations and how to better serve their boards, staff, volunteers, and communities.

31phccinM9L._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_We gathered online nine weeks ago, guided by experienced museum leader Anne W. Ackerson. Anne guided us through online discussions, weekly assignments, and a final project that allowed us to investigate our organizations’ foundations, examine internal policies, and understand the importance of our roles as leaders. The course was structured to lead us through administrative processes from the ground up; we began with foundational documents, defining non-profit status and goals, slowly moved through board development, governance, guiding mission statements and ended by planning for the future with strategic plan thinking.

I was thrilled to be a part of this course and learning alongside museum professionals in different stages in their careers, in different types of organizations, and all facing similar challenges. This course allowed all participants to learn from each other’s experiences and to share successes and failures. The weekly online chats with my course mates helped me understand the unique positions that so many museums find themselves in and reinforced to me that museum professionals are some of the most willing to share. Because of my position within my museum, I didn’t realize the scope and depth of many of our organizational and governing policies. During the LAHO course, I was empowered to get up close and personal to the foundational principles of my museum. This course equipped me with the tools to interrogate our mission statement, identifying ways we excel at fulfilling it and places where we can uphold it more. But possibly the most important takeaway I got from the eight weeks of Anne’s guidance was the role I play within my organization. No, I am not a director, vice president, or manager, but I can lead from where I am. And I can encourage my peers to do the same.

F7OLW2SG0C (1)No matter your position within an organization, no matter if you are in a large natural history museum, or a small history museum, give yourself the opportunity to take this, or a similar, course. You may be like me and not see the immediate necessity of staff and board relations or human resources policies, but I guarantee that you’ll leave the course better equipped to understand your museum and the field we all work in. You’ll change your thinking to reflect bigger, more long-term impacts of programming, and find ways to challenge past practices. No matter your experience you’ll leave this course empowered to be a better professional.


Leadership and Administration in History Organizations was part of the AASLH Continuing Education Series, a roster of unique and recurring webinars, online courses, and onsite workshops designed for history professionals. Our next Leadership and Administration online course will be held from Jan. 9- Mar 6. 2017. Registration is now open. is Project Management for History Professionals. Visit our Event Calendar for a full list of upcoming continuing education opportunities.

Using Data to Allocate Time: How Visitor Research Maximizes Resources

If you work at a museum or historic site, you undoubtedly have a never-ending to-do list. With so many important projects vying for your attention, the best you can do is tackle the ones that seem most important and hope nothing critical falls by the wayside…right? Well, not quite.

The key to prioritizing your time and money is to know exactly which of your museum’s attributes can predict a positive visitor experience. You and other staff may see all of the things that need improvement, but if you were to know what visitors really want, you could focus on the tasks that promise the most ROI (return on investment).

We call these predictors Key Drivers. Key Drivers are those aspects of your museum or historic site that make the biggest difference between an excellent, average, or a not so good experience. They can be anything from customer service to way finding signage or whether visitors felt a personal connection to an exhibit or program.

"St. Jerome Writing"....his to do list by Hans Springinklee
"St. Jerome Writing" [his to-do list] by Hans Springinklee
Key Drivers vary from museum to museum. As you can imagine, what determines a positive experience for a visitor to a large, urban history museum may be very different than a rural living history site or a memorial museum. Not only that, but the list of Key Drivers for local visitors to a museum or site is frequently different than for people coming from farther away. In other words, different things “matter most” to different audiences.

Not only do Key Drivers help you decide which areas need the most improvement, they also identify what it is about your site that visitors really like so you can emphasize those strengths in marketing, fundraising, and other areas. All in all, whether it is strengths or opportunities for improvement, knowing your institution’s unique Key Drivers empowers you to make informed decisions so you don’t throw money, time, or staff at things that don’t matter to visitors.

Are you ready to invest in discovering your Key Drivers? The best way to do that is through Visitor’s Count, AASLH’s comprehensive visitor research program.

Once you register for Visitors Count, AASLH works with you to create your custom research survey that focuses on issues specific to your museum. We provide an online orientation session and program handbook along with personal service and guidance throughout the project. Once your survey is ready, you distribute the questionnaires to people who visit your facility with the goal of collecting up to 100 completed surveys in each season (200 total). After data entry, processing and analysis by our partner agency, the Center for Nonprofit Management of Nashville, your final report is delivered electronically. An optional but highly recommended one-day meeting is held the following week in Nashville to help you understand your results, benchmarks, key drivers, and priorities for digging deeper. For more information, contact Cherie Cook, Senior Program Manager at AASLH (573-893-5164).

Learn more about Visitors Count

See Case Studies for Visitors Count

See Rates for Visitor’s Count

Art & Tractors: Creating an Environment of Excellence

Deere & Company is fortunate to have a robust art collection. Though the company has owned some art for most of its history, William Hewitt, President and CEO, purchased the bulk of the collection between 1955 and 1982.

Hewitt had two purposes for collecting art. In 1964, the company built a new headquarters building that needed some decoration to liven up the interior. Hewitt chose to collect fine art from around the world. He said, “I believe people are more likely to achieve excellence in an environment of excellence.” Hewitt used fine art to create that environment. His second purpose was to use art created by a variety of different cultures and in cutting-edge styles as a tool to introduce company employees to new cultures and new

Boy Driving Tractor by Walter Haskell Hinton
Boy Driving Tractor by Walter Haskell Hinton

ideas. Hewitt generally collected abstract expressionist and mannerist art, the leading art styles of his day. Therefore, the art collection was an employee engagement project that promoted cultural diversity long before either of those terms became common.

As a collection of physical objects, the art collection fits nicely into the Deere & Company Archives department. Archival collections are very similar to art collections. Deere & Company’s archival collection tells the story of the company’s history and character, and the art collection tells the stories that artists convey through their art, and how and why the company came to own each piece.

Today, we continue to follow Hewitt’s original goals for the art collection. We use it to engage employees by providing them with an environment of excellence that encourages creative thinking. Many of the most important pieces in the collection hang in the entrance hallway of our world headquarters building. This hallway is the main thoroughfare and physical center of the building, and therefore in many ways the center of the company. As employees and visitors enter this hallway, the first painting they see is an illustration by Walter Haskell Hinton of a teenage boy driving a John Deere tractor, exactly the type of art one would expect to see in the headquarters of a company famous for its tractors.



The main hallway at Deere & Co. World Headquarters
The main hallway at Deere & Co. World Headquarters

However, as they progress down the hallway, the art gradually changes from figurative and agriculturally--themed to abstract, and from American to international. In the center of the hallway are two very large abstract paintings, one by Columbian artist Alejandro Obregon and the other by Italian artist Danilo Prete. Both demand attention due to their size and the boldness of their imagery. Some employees and guests love them, some do not. Either reaction accomplishes the goals of engagement and inspiring creative thinking, as viewers tend to express their opinions, which leads to conversation, discussion, and ultimately, new understanding.

Managing Interpreters: Expectations and Feedback


I’d wager that anyone reading this blog post appreciates a few things from an employer: clear expectations, good tools for completing the job, and feedback on performance. A manager who provides these things for his or her staff is quite an asset. Good employees thrive with clear expectations, good tools, and feedback.
When managing front-line interpreters—whether volunteer or paid—it is vital to keep the same model: expectations, tools, feedback. When managing interpreters specifically, there are some important considerations to bear in mind:

Interpreters fill a unique skill-set. They must be good at processing complex ideas. They must be excellent communicators. They must have good customer service skills.

Interpretation jobs are relatively fluid. Most of these jobs do not pay well—even by museum standards. As a result, it is often a transitional job, attracting college students, job seekers, retired individuals, etc. Consequently, many museums experience a high rate of turnover with interpreters.

In short, museums must recruit and train a skilled team that is often very transient. This makes the expectations, tools, and feedback model all the more important with interpreters. It helps with training efficiently, coaching effectively, and delivering better experiences for guests.

Setting Expectations
At the start of employment, it’s important that front-line interpreters learn what will make them successful. This ranges from basic policies to honing presentation skills. If your site uses a standardized coaching sheet for providing feedback, this is the time to introduce it. If your site DOES NOT use a coaching sheet… consider using one. A coaching sheet is a useful tool for setting expectations and providing consistent feedback.

Tools for Success
A few useful tools for frontline interpreters include:

1. Good mentors. Never underestimate the power of a good example. Identify interpreters who do the job well. Make sure new interpreters shadow them. A good example is often more effective than even the very best training manuals. Conversely, be wary of bad examples. NOTHING will sour a good interpreter like a bad mentor.

2. Good content. Content training manuals must be engaging, well-written, and relevant. Like a well-planned thesis, primary messages should be clear and easy to find. Supporting ideas should relate clearly to primary messages.

3. Manager support. Interpreters are important. Your presence as a supervisor will help them know that they are valued.

Giving Consistent Feedback
Some feedback is better than no feedback; however… you can do better! Feedback should be consistent in format. Remember that coaching sheet? Use it. Feedback should be frequent. Each front-line interpreter should expect to get a set of coaching notes at least once a quarter. An interpreter’s coaching notes will ultimately inform his or her year-end evaluation.

If your organization uses front-line interpreters, how do you provide expectations, tools, and feedback?

The Ideal Director?

For AASLH’s online course on Leadership and Administration, I was required to review sample job descriptions for directors in history organizations. I was not looking so much at the details of the job descriptions, rather the overall “feeling” of what the institutions seem to be seeking from a new Museum Director. I discovered several trends that I thought were important to share with the field about museum leadership.

Virin #060531-N-6177R-001

Aside, of course, from all the normal prerequisite requirements, there seemed to be the overall impression that organizations are looking primarily for someone who has vision and can act as a spokesperson. The word “dynamic” came up a few times as a descriptor. Fundraising ability was also a common thread. It seems that what is desired of a new Museum Director is someone who is going to be able to breathe new life into the organization.

It seems to me that perhaps the organizations have fallen into a period of stagnation or a “rut.” Or perhaps they feel that way due to the dwindling finances and attendance that many museums find are their reality today and have been. I would describe it as that they are looking for a leader that will take them on the right track, at the same time invigorate the organization, the staff, the volunteers, fundraisers so that the museum is flush with cash, and be a Master of Ceremonies as well as a fantastic administrator. Basically, the superhero sent to answer their prayers.


The three most important qualifications that I would personally look for in a director are:

1) Personability. Someone that can get along easily with most everyone. This is a galvanizing trait and is oh, so important when dealing with everyone from the Board President to the parking attendant.

2) Integrity. This is extremely important in the museum field. If people know that they are dealing with someone with integrity and moral standards it tends to influence them to do so as well.

3) Humility. I think that a good leader should always be open to the possibility that they might be wrong, or at least be aware that there might be alternative ways that something can be viewed. Be cognizant that you can always learn something new from anyone. First and foremost, remain open to dialogue and differing points of view and always listen to advice given. You don’t have to follow it, but just listen. It just might be worth it. And don’t tell anyone to do something that you wouldn’t be willing to do yourself.

On a personal note and with the Oscar buzz this week, I have had the good fortune of having worked extremely closely with the majority of the Motion Picture Industry’s best and some of the worst directors, from Robert De Niro to Oliver Stone (no implied correlation with “from best to worst"). The best film directors exhibit these three traits also. They made you enjoy your work and want to go above and beyond for them, and you have loyalty to them. How can you bring these traits to your organization and inspire your staff (both paid and unpaid)?

Erik Miles is the Executive Director of the St. Thomas Historical Trust in St. Thomas, Virgin Islands.