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Webinar: History Relevance Coffee Break with Detroit Historical Society

Take a coffee break to think about the relevance of history with Kalisha Davis of Detroit Historical Society and Max van Balgooy of Engaging Places, LLC and the History Relevance Initiative. During this thirty minute interview and Q&A session, Kalisha and Max will discuss Detroit Historical Society's ongoing project Detroit '67: Looking Back to Move ForwardThey will focus in particular on how to build and sustain relationships with individuals and institutions in your community.

This webinar is part of the History Relevance Coffee Break webinar series. Each webinar in this short-form series showcases projects by history organizations that are making history relevant to their communities in meaningful, measurable, and replicable ways. Webinar participants will glean practical tips for how organizations can connect issues of the past to issues of the present and meet their relevance goals.


DATE: May 9, 2019

TIME: 3:00 – 3:30 pm EASTERN (Remember to adjust for your time zone!)

COST: Free AASLH Members / $5 Non-members

Closed captioning available upon advanced notice. Please contact for more information.


Description and Outcomes:

Participant Outcomes:

  • Learn how Detroit Historical Society makes history relevant in measurable and replicable ways
  • Feel motivated to think creatively about how they can make history relevant through projects at their own institution
  • Learn practical tips for how organizations can connect issues of the past to issues of the present


  • Kalisha Davis, Director of Community Outreach & Engagement, Detroit Historical Society
  • Max van Balgooy, Principal, Engaging Places, LLC; Steering Committee Member, History Relevance

28 AASLH Members Receive Over $9 Million in NEH Grants

The National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) announced that it will award $79 million in grants for 290 humanities projects and programs this summer. “NEH grants help bring humanities experiences to Americans across the country,” said Chairman William D. Adams. “Our funding supports museums, libraries and cultural institutions, and the local state councils that create and sustain humanities programs in their communities. Through films, original research, and new intellectual insights, our grants strengthen the nation’s cultural fabric and identity.”

Institutions, scholars, and humanities organizations in all 50 states, the District of Columbia, and U.S. territories will receive NEH support. Twenty-eight AASLH members were among the grant winners, and their total grants amount to over $9 million dollars. We congratulate them all on the hard work that led to these awards, and look forward to seeing the results of their endeavors.

Brooklyn Historical Society (members since 1999)
Brooklyn, NY

Colorado Historical Society/History Colorado (members since 1994)
Denver, CO

Connecticut Humanities Council (members since 2006)
Middletown, CT

Delaware Historical Society (members since 1941)
Wilmington, DE

Georgia Humanities Council (members since 2000)
Atlanta, GA

Georgia Historical Society (members since 1979)
Savannah, GA

Detroit Historical Society (members since 2000)
Detroit, MI

Great Smoky Mountain Heritage Center, Inc. (members since 2006)
Townsend, TN

The Henry Ford (members since 1989)
Dearborn, MI

Historic Hudson Valley (members since 1979)
Pocantico Hills, NY

Humanities Tennessee (members since 1996)
Nashville, TN

Indianapolis Museum of Art (members since 2001)
Indianapolis, IN

Kentucky Humanities Council, Inc. (members since 2015)
Lexington, KY

Levine Museum of the New South (members since 2000)
Charlotte, NC

Maine State Library (members since 2002)
Augusta, ME

Makah Cultural and Research Center (members since 2002)
Neah Bay, WA

Minnesota Historical Society (members since 1941)
St. Paul, MN

Missouri Humanities Council (members since 2000)
St. Louis, MO

Montana Historical Society (members since 1979)
Helena, MT

National Museum of American Jewish History (members since 1998)
Philadelphia, PA

Newberry Library (members since 1941)
Chicago, IL

Ohio Historical Society/Ohio History Connection (members since 1941)
Columbus, OH

Pocumtuck Valley Memorial Association (members since 1995)
Deerfield, MA

State Historical Society of Iowa (members since 1941)
Des Moines, IA

Virginia Foundation for the Humanities (members since 2016)
Charlottesville, VA

West Baton Rouge Museum (members since 1979)
Port Allen, LA

West Virginia Humanities Council (members since 2000)
Charleston, WV

Wyandotte County Historical Society and Museum (members since 2010)
Bonner Springs, KS

Meet a Member: Detroit Historical Society

We are excited to launch a new biweekly blog series called “Meet a Member.” AASLH has 5,500 fascinating members working hard for the field of history, and we want to show them off. We will feature one organization and one individual each month.


Detroit Historical Society:  AASLH member since 2000


Tell us about the organization; what role does it play in the community?

We are a private, non-profit historical society that operates two museums: the Detroit Historical Museum in Midtown Detroit and the Dossin Great Lakes Museum on Belle Isle, an island park in the Detroit River. Our mission is to tell Detroit’s stories and why they matter. The Society serves our community by being the only institution in the city devoted exclusively to interpreting Detroit and the region’s history.

Detroit Historical Museum


When and why was the organization established?

The Detroit Historical Society was created in 1921 to preserve the region’s history and material culture. The Society spent its early years collecting historical objects, hosting lecture series, and raising money for the construction of a historical museum. In 1946, the Society donated its collection of nearly 15,000 artifacts and $250,000 in building construction funds to the City of Detroit. For the next sixty years, the Detroit Historical Society and the City of Detroit operated in tandem to preserve and portray the region’s history. For more details on the Society’s early history as the highest museum in the world, see this blog post.


Tell us about your staff and volunteers.

The Society has a staff of about 50 people (25 full time, 25 part time). The Society is led by Robert Bury, our President and CEO. The executive team is made up of Kate Baker, Managing Director and Tobi Voigt, Chief Curatorial Officer. Ms. Baker oversees the Society’s finance, marketing, development/fundraising and operations. Ms. Voigt oversees the Society’s curatorial, exhibitions, collections, education and programs.

The Society relies on a strong, dedicated core of about 25 volunteer docents to lead all our museum tours for schools and other groups.  Additionally, the Society has another 75 or so volunteers that help with administrative tasks, off-site tours and programs, collections activities, and other needs.


Gallery of Innovation at the Detroit Historical Museum


What does an AASLH membership mean for your organization? How has the organization benefited from AASLH membership?

It is important that the Detroit Historical Society is an institutional member of AASLH for a couple of key reasons. First, the resources AASLH provides, including webinars, technical leaflets, and workshops, are very helpful for keeping our staff up to date with museum standards and best practices.  One of the best decisions we made was to enroll in the StEPs program. We want to work towards accreditation, and StEPs is a great way to check our current status on issues such as collections care, mission and governance, and work towards improvement.  We also support AASLH because we like to support the organization that assists our field with general advocacy efforts. The History Relevance Campaign has helped us frame our mission and our work in new ways that help our community leaders understand our importance.


What is happening or upcoming at your organization?

The Detroit Historical Society has just begun a multi-year, multi-faceted community engagement project called Detroit 1967: Looking Back to Move Forward, which provides new scholarship and new perspectives on the causes, effects and impacts of the civil unrest of July 1967. Developed in conjunction with over eighty community partners, the project is exploring Detroit’s long history with race and intolerance as a means to move the city toward a more inclusive future.

Detroit Historical Society Dossin Great Lakes Museum Exterior


Is there anything else you would like to share about your organization?

The Society has won four AASLH Awards of Merit in the last three years:


These answers were edited for length and clarity. Want to be featured? Email Hannah Hethmon to learn more. Click here to read about more featured members. 


Detroit Historical Society's Beginnings as "Highest Museum in the World"

2015 marks AASLH's 75th Anniversary Year. For the occasion, AASLH has created a blog series for members to share their unique history and memories. Contributions were based around AASLH’s founding year, 1940, but members also shared other wonderful moments in local history. The celebration is not just about AASLH's history, but about the collective history of AASLH members, both individual and institutional, and the work we do for the field of state and local history.

Detroit Historical Society_Barlum Tower
Detroit’s Barlum Tower housed the first Detroit Historical Museum on its 23rd floor between 1928 and 1944.

By 1940, the nineteen-year-old Detroit Historical Society had outgrown its humble beginnings as a volunteer organization that hosted monthly lecture series and collected historical artifacts. Gracie Krum, the Society’s first Secretary, noted, “Furniture and household effects as well as personal belongings … were being destroyed or turned over to antique dealers." In short, Detroit needed a historical museum.

The Society’s first museum opened in November 1928 in a large room on the 23rd floor of the Barlum Tower. They often called their home “The ‘Highest’ Museum in the World.” In 1940, the Society noted that “the Twelfth Anniversary of the Museum was given no celebration other than an informative article prepared by Mr. Hampton for newspaper publicity.” It wasn’t that they were nonplussed by the anniversary; they had bigger plans that occupied their attention.

The Society’s Museum and Building Committees were working tirelessly to secure funding to construct a new museum building. The early 1940s saw modest success, and the Society’s first significant individual, corporate, and foundation funding.

Meanwhile, the Society’s Program Committee provided robust series of events, including “Reminiscence Meetings,” museum talks, and annual “Hobbies Days.”

The reminiscence meetings included a presentation by a historian, but also devoted time for attendees to share their memories. Topics included remembering nineteenth century political and business leaders, city landmarks and neighborhoods.

Detroit Historical Society_1880s volunteer 1940
A Society volunteer dons 1880s fashion as part of an event at the Detroit Historical Museum, c. 1940.

Museum talks combined celebrations, family programs, and demonstrations, including the January 27th “Indian Day,” during which there was a “presentation to winners from four schools of cash prizes offered by Aboriginal Research Club in [an] essay contest on Indian Chiefs.” They also included, at least twice a year, a spinning and weaving day, which boasted a “demonstration of carding and spinning by Miss. Catherine A. MacKinnon.”

Perhaps the most interactive of the Society’s programs was its annual Hobbies Days. In 1940, the event’s press release stated, “See the Museum’s completely furnished, electric lighted, six room 50-year-old doll house and our dolls. All hobbyists are asked to exhibit their collections and sell, buy or swap.”

The Society was also working to build its reputation in the museum field. It joined the American Association of Museums in 1940, after the organization held its 35th Annual Meeting at the Detroit Institute of Arts. Also, in the June 17, 1941 Society minutes, this brief notation appeared:

“The American Association for State and Local History invited the Detroit Historical Society to send information for inclusion in its forthcoming Handbook of Historical Societies and Agencies of the United States and Canada.”

It is the first record of the Society’s involvement with AASLH.

The remaining decade saw dramatic changes to the Society. In July 1944, it entered a partnership with the City of Detroit, specifically the Detroit Board of Education and its Wayne University. Together, the two groups moved the museum to a historic home on campus and increased student access to the collection.

Detroit Historical Society_Detroit Historical Museum 1940
A view of the first Detroit Historical Museum and its permanent exhibition, c. 1940

In August 1945, the Society resolved to transfer its funding and collection to the city. It required that the city create a Historical Commission to take over ownership and responsibility of the 15,000 item collection, and use $250,000 that the Society had raised to construct a new museum. It also required the city to provide free office space for the Detroit Historical Society in the new museum.

By 1946, the transition was complete. For the next 60 years, the Society and the City worked together to build the Detroit Historical Museum in 1951 and the Dossin Great Lakes Museum in 1960 – creating the modern museums that the Society manages today.

Help! How Do You Manage Affinity Groups?

This blog post isn’t so much a sharing of a best practice, but a request for a discussion on best practices. At the Detroit Historical Society, we are blessed to have some very active and passionate auxiliary groups. We have five, to be exact, and most have been around for 30+ years.  They help us preserve and present different stories in Detroit history, and we are so happy that they put on amazing exhibits and programs both at our museums and in the community at large.

But here’s the thing: the “governance” structure is completely different for each group. One is connected to membership, one is the old-fashioned (and dwindling) “guild” model, one is a newly created “young professionals” networking group.  So, frankly, there is no “one fits all” management for these groups.  For the last many years, our staff liaison has been our public relations director, who has engaged several other staff members to support them.  Frankly, they have all been working overtime to give the groups support and get the work done.

The chair of the Detroit Historical Society's Black Historic Sites Committee (BSHC) with Rev. Jesse Jackson at an event that BHSC helped organize the at the Detroit Historical Museum in February 2013.

Recently, I’ve been thinking that the disparity between these different groups, plus the ineffective way we support and manage them, is just not working.  And it turns out our development department was thinking the same thing.  We all got together – development, marketing, education and programs – to discuss what changes we need to incorporate to do two things:  1) better support and enable these groups to do their noble work in harmony with the Society’s strategic plan and goals, and 2) find a more efficient and productive way to manage them.

So, where are we at with this?  Well, we are early on in this process.  We are in the “information gathering” phase.  Our early findings suggest that art museums rock this type of volunteer group engagement.  Almost all the top art museums have wonderful affinity group programs that, ideally, work to raise money for acquisitions for art pieces.

I think history museums are different.  What we desire is small committees focused on clearly defined content/audiences – African American history, maritime history, young professionals, etc. – to help us develop programs to engage those core audiences.

So, my whole point of this process is to ask for help.  Do you work for a history museum that has volunteer affinity/auxiliary groups?  If so, please answer these questions in the comment section.  If you do, I promise to share the results in a future post.

  • What role do affinity groups play in your organization?
  • What is the primary function of these groups for your organization? Friend/fundraising? Program development?  Exhibition development?
  • Who in your organization is responsible for managing these groups?  Development?  Marketing?  Education?  And why?

As an educator, I see the potential of these groups to supplement our programming.  I want to find a structure where these groups can help our organization reach new audiences with events, tours, and other fun stuff.  Development wants to find a way to turn these folks into donors. Marketing sees it as a way to reach new audiences.  So, what are your thoughts on affinity groups, and the best way to manage them?





The Dreaded Guided Tour. . .

When I arrived at the Detroit Historical Society in October 2010, I learned that the only school program offered was a 90-minute tour of the Detroit Historical Museum.  Since, like the rest of you, I have been taught that the best educational experiences involve hands-on, interactive learning, I was a little mortified.  Moreover, when I shadowed my first school program, my mind started wandering about 45 minutes in.  I couldn’t believe third and fourth graders made it through the whole 90 minutes.

So, of course, I instantly resolved to can the program and create more focused and interactive school workshops.  I wasn’t surprised by the hesitation from staff and the docents, but I admit that the backlash from teachers caught me off guard.  It turns out that teachers LOVE the tour because it hits every single state learning standard they have for local history in one nice package.

I was perplexed.  I decided to keep the tour, but create some new hands-on workshops as a supplement.  They were very successful this school year, but not as much as the tour.

So, what was I going to do?  The dreaded guided tour is clearly here to stay.

I resolved to spend this summer creating some tour enhancements.  Here’s my process:

  1. Get the docents involved.  I am a very blessed museum educator.  Volunteer docents lead all our tours, and they are amazing.  Over the years, they have developed tips and tricks to engage the students.  So, I arranged for monthly “docent chats.”  The first few meetings I had them share their strategies for “classroom management” and tour content.  Now I am hosting brainstorming sessions on how to enhance the tour.  They have some amazing ideas I would never have considered.
  2. Get more hands-on resources into the tour.  I am putting together some “treasure chests” in different exhibits throughout the museum.  They will be locked during regular museum hours, but can be unlocked by docents leading the tours.  Inside are reproductions and touchable artifacts that the docents can use to supplement their words.  For example, in our exhibit on the fur trade, I’ll have beaver pelts and reproduction French trade goods.
  3. Develop more opportunities for interaction.  Years ago, one of the docents developed a tour activity that has the students act out the automobile assembly line.  The students loved pretending to place parts on “cars” (other students) coming down the line.  And they learned!  I am planning for at least one of these activities in each gallery of the tour.
  4. Train the docents on how to work with different age groups.  Our docents do school tours for all grades between K and 12.  I am using some great resources (which I’ll talk about in my next blog post) to teach them how to use museum and developmental learning theories to engage with all audiences.

I know I am putting all this effort into a tour that really isn’t broken.  But it is important to me that each student has a fun learning experience. I am finding that our docents want that too, and they are eagerly absorbing all these new ideas and information.  I’ll let you know at the end of summer how everything turns out.

Reaching the Underserved: Adopt-a-Class

I know I don’t need to launch into a long explanation about hard times and the decline of the school field trip.  Those of us working in museum education know the rhetoric well. I will skip, instead, right to the details of an innovative program the Detroit Historical Society offers to ensure that underserved schools and students benefit from the history and culture we have to offer.

It’s called “Adopt-a-Class,” and it is as simple as it is effective.  The Detroit Historical Society promotes (quite aggressively, I am pleased to say) a unique opportunity to its friends and members that funds field trip experiences for underserved schools.  I will quote directly from our website:

“The Society’s Adopt-a-Class program allows donors to sponsor a class visit – either partially or in full. A $400 contribution to this fund will ensure that one class of approximately 30 students can visit either [the Detroit Historical Museum or the Dossin Great Lakes Museum] at no cost, with a waived admission fee and free transportation and materials.”

At $400 a class, this program appeals to donors who may not have the means (or inclination) to make larger donations or gifts.  In addition, the donations go directly into a special fund that can only be used for school field trips.  When I have asked some of our donors why they give to the Adopt-a-Class program, they say that they like knowing that their donation is making a direct impact on students’ lives.

As for the nitty-gritty of how it works, I give you the following brief summary:

  • Donations to the program go into a separate fund that enables us to always know the balance we have available for school trips.
  • We advertise the availability of the fund to schools that meet our application criteria, which is based on the schools Title I status.  In essence, if 75% or more of students in a school receive free or reduced cost lunches, they qualify for funding.
  • Qualifying schools book a school field trip for which we waive the admission fees.  They secure and pay for their own transportation to and from the museum, and we reimburse them up to $400 for the cost after the program.
  • In order to receive the reimbursement, we ask the schools to complete a program evaluation and submit an invoice.  This way we can keep our accounting straight, but also get valuable feedback.

My favorite part?  The program evaluation includes a teacher survey AND a student survey.  Whenever we get a batch of responses, I love reading the students comments.  Many times they draw pictures and recall in vivid detail the things they loved about the museum.

If you are interested in learning more about Adopt-a-Class, feel free to contact me at or 313-833-0481.