Webinar: Get Ready to Plan Strategically!

Strategic planning can be a daunting task for many organizations. Lack of time or resources are frequently cited barriers to planning, yet having no mission-driven direction tied to performance measures is risky. This 90-minute webinar will cut through the mystery and (perceived) misery of planning to introduce participants to the process and language of strategic planning.

In “Get Ready to Plan Strategically!” guest speaker Anne Ackerson will discuss the important preparations necessary for meaningful and productive strategic planning. She will also present models for strategic plan formats, address community input and visioning.

This AASLH webinar is part of the StEPs Lab webinar series offered to both StEPs participants and all others interested in the topic of strategic planning. Applying what you learn in a StEPs Lab to your policies and practices helps your organization make meaningful progress. Learn more about StEPs, AASLH’s self-study, self-paced assessment program designed specifically for small- to mid-sized history organizations, including volunteer-run institutions.

This is StEPs Lab 18.


DATE: June 25, 2019

TIME: 3:00 - 4:30 pm EASTERN (Remember to adjust for your time zone)

COST: $40 Members / $65 Nonmembers / $15 discount for StEPs participants with promo code found on StEPs Community website

Closed captioning available upon advanced notice. Please contact flammia@aaslh.org for more information.


Participant Outcomes:

After taking part in this webinar, participants will:

  • Understand the difference between strategic and long range planning;
  • Learn other planning definitions like vision, goals, objectives, and tasks and understand the importance of being unified and consistent in the terms your planning group will use;
  • Learn what needs to be done before board, staff, and others gather for the first strategic planning session;
  • Understand that there are a variety of strategic plan formats and your organization should choose one that meets its needs, and
  • Be inspired to trust in the strategic planning process, see it through to the completion of the plan, and use it!



Anne Ackerson is co-author with Joan H. Baldwin of the publications Women in the Museum: Lessons from the Workplace and Leadership Matters: Conversations with History Museum Leaders. Ackerson is also a co-founder of the Gender Equity in Museums Movement (GEMM).

A Tale of Two Strategic Plans: Setting Realistic Goals at the Chemung County Historical Society

Once again, the Chemung County Historical Society (CCHS) has begun a strategic planning process. Having been through this several times in my career, I was determined to make sure that this one was different.

Despite all the time and effort, the last version that was supposed to be our guiding document sat on the shelf and was rarely, if ever, used.

First of all, it was difficult to “own” this document. The board was already in the middle of the process when they hired me, so I had provided little input. The final plan reflected the previous director’s priorities, (not that these were wrong) rather than mine.

The CCHS was also getting re-accredited by AAM during this transitional period, so they granted us an extension to complete that plan. Although we finished that document to receive accreditation, the plan itself was of little value.


Main exhibit hall at the CCHS
Main exhibit hall at the CCHS


The “Great Recession” also worked against the previous strategic plan. Much of its focus was on starting a capital campaign. The capital work identified was needed then, and still needed now, but this campaign completely ignored the nation’s and this region’s new economic realities.

Although this plan gathered dust, the CCHS was still moving forward, just not exactly in the ways the plan anticipated. Our growth wasn’t physical, it was in our structure and in our programming. The curator’s position went from 20-hours a week to full-time. Our education program has exploded to the point that my one educator needs an assistant.

Finally, an unexpected gift also changed the equation. Like most museums, we have more stuff than storage space. Given that some of this stuff includes fire trucks, storage has been a really big problem. But that changed when a long-time supporter gave us a building. We rent out two-thirds to generate some income; the remaining one-third now houses parts of our collection, including our fire trucks. This change also saved us considerable money because renovating another building we owned (we’ll call it Building A), as initially planned, would have cost three times as much.

Not long ago, our local economic development council acquired several properties next to Building A. We are now investigating some sort of public/private investment partnership to develop this building into an income producing property.

Another part of our Strategic Plan’s problem was the downsized economy. This area of New York is on the eastern edge of the Rust Belt. Most of that old industrial base is now gone.

As a result, this situation has hampered CCHS’ attempts to raise large sums of money. The community was generally supportive, but understandably hesitant, about the few small steps we had taken. Financial portfolios had taken a hit, and reluctant donors didn’t want to commit themselves to unexciting plans and ideas.

We originally planned to turn Building A into a museum-quality storage space and then work our way through the main CCHS building, starting on the third floor and working down to the first. This plan made sense from a construction order sequence, but not in terms of fundraising. Renovating Building A had been the largest single part of the project, but it had the least appeal to new donors.

shelfpicGrowth in programming has now re-directed our capital needs. We’re doing more outreach and going to more places than ever before. We’re also seeing more visitors to the museum, thanks to new programming, a more robust exhibit schedule, and hosting joint events with prospective partners. All of this places additional pressure on our public spaces and on staff time.

It already looks as if the new strategic plan holds a lot more hope and promise than the last one. For starters, the staff and I can honestly say that we’ll “own” it because we’ve all been here long enough to gain and offer a realistic, long-term perspective. We know what we want and what this community will support. Our board of trustees is also seriously looking at their role in this process and in its operation.

Our consultant also understands my thinking on Strategic Planning. The document we’re putting together is not a detailed step-by-step tome. It’s a set of clearly-defined goals, guided by our revised mission and vision. We’ll also retain considerable flexibility to achieve those goals. We’ll be able to adjust our programming and procedures without sacrificing our goals, no matter what unexpected outside shock, good or bad, comes our way.

As the Director, I finally feel that this plan is “my” plan. We’re soliciting input from a wide array of stakeholders, so it will strongly reflect the long-term and short-term ambitions we all share. At this point, we’re about half-way through in completing this plan, but the board and staff are more excited than ever before. Once we’re up and running and everything’s in place, I’ll let you how know how all of this works out for us.

Book Review: Leading the Historical Enterprise: Strategic Creativity, Planning, and Advocacy for the Digital Age

Professor Bruce W. Dearstyne, long an articulate and passionate voice on behalf of what he describes in his newest book as the “historical enterprise” in New York State and beyond, has produced a concise yet powerful manual that holds much value to those in the field. Dearstyne defines the historical enterprise as including “historical societies, history museums, historic houses, state historical agencies, archives and similar programs.” Though noting that the work of these institutions is of “immense consequence,” Dearstyne does not shy away from the very real and daunting challenges that face this field.

Dearstyne outlines these challenges in Chapter One by noting that the historical enterprise is at a crossroads and that the very future of history in the United States is at stake. Correctly, Dearstyne refers to the chronic short shrift that history (and the humanities in general) receives in the modern school system as helping to lead to plummeting attendance and support for history-based institutions.

Without delving too deeply into what came first; a lack of public interest in history resulting from a lack of history being prioritized by the nation’s STEM-based school technocracy, or the lack of history being prioritized in school curriculums as a result of a lack of public interest in history, Dearstyne outlines the reality that business as usual is no longer an option for the historical enterprise and he does not shy away from this reality.

Nor does he shy away from big and controversial realities such as the lack of diversity of all kinds, not only within the historical enterprise itself but also within the institutional histories of many of the organizations within the field. Noting that a typical historical society or historical house museum was most likely started by a prominent (white) person, family or group to house a collection of predominately locally important artifacts and often did not have a clear sustainable plan for the inevitably changing future, Dearstyne rightly describes the challenge of remaining relevant in an increasingly diverse United States.

Recently, First Lady Michelle Obama spoke at the opening of the new Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City and described her own feelings of alienation from the museum world growing up as a young black woman. Obama was speaking about major art institutions like the Whitney, but she could easily have been talking about the majority of historical societies and historic house museums in this country. This is something all entities within the historical enterprise must confront to ensure future relevance and sustainability.

Dearstyne provides us with a roadmap for meeting these momentous challenges. He correctly describes the need for true creative and visionary leadership within the historical enterprise and what such leaders should do to meet the challenges outlined in his first chapter. While I agree wholeheartedly that this type of visionary leader is essential for historical entities to succeed, I do note that Dearstyne seems to omit a particular challenge in this regard: for the type of creative, dynamic and visionary leadership described by Dearstyne to exist in the historical enterprise, there must be somewhere for them to be properly trained, motivated and, perhaps above all, paid at the level the demands of the positions require. For too long the historical enterprise, and indeed the entire museum field, has almost exclusively relied on a person’s passion for the work to offset the fact that wages in the field are extremely low when based upon the educational requirements and experience needed to perform the jobs.

Passion is great and indeed vital to do any work well, but it does not put food on the table. In the historical enterprise specifically, budgets are often so small that paying the type of wage that the visionary leaders in the field deserve is nearly impossible. And rarely does a student at a graduate level Museum Studies or Public History program—possibly in debt to the tune of tens of thousands of dollars upon graduation—envision themselves working at the local historical society for $25,000 a year with no benefits. Again, this is a challenge to the field’s long-term sustainability.

Dearstyne provides a potential answer to this budgetary reality in the form of his chapter on advocacy.  Providing important pointers on the need to integrate advocacy into the development plan of any organization, Dearstyne illustrates the vital role a well formulated advocacy strategy can play in the success of a historical enterprise. However, far too often, organizations come to the advocacy table only after funding or some other kind of support has been cut or eliminated altogether. This type of “action by emergency” cannot be the model; advocacy must me the continual effort of building and maintaining relationships with policy makers at every level, not something that happens only when the cutting begins.

And, I would argue from my years spent  working for the New York State Assembly that advocacy should begin and end locally; once-a-year visits to Capitols have limited and marginal value. Instead, an organization must develop the relationship with their elected officials in the community. It should be a part of community building and community building is the essential part of sustaining the historical enterprise into the future. An organization, no matter its size, that is actively and positively engaged with its local community on several levels will not perish. The community simply will not allow it.  Conversely, an organization that has become aloof and stagnant while the community around it changes and evolves is almost certain to suffer.

Professor Dearstyne’s book, like all great books, leaves us with much to ponder and much to discuss. I heartedly recommend it to anyone working directly or indirectly within the historical enterprise and to all others who love their shared history. And I ask that those who read it carefully apply the insightful suggestions Dearstyne outlines within their own organizations to help ensure that our history has a future.

Teamwork and Internal Collaboration

Recently, staff at the White House Historical Association were asked to complete a job description questionnaire, which asked everyone to provide a list of key internal relationships. While I interact with many co-workers on a regular basis, this led me to think about the most important ongoing relationships within the organization--the people I depend on and who depend on me.

I understand all too well how easy it can be for each department to focus on individual projects without a lot of communication with other departments. Our new President started in June and one of his goals has been to find new ways to encourage teamwork and internal collaboration.

In order to begin collaborating more effectively, there were a series of editorial planning meetings amongst all of the managers of each department. The purpose of these meetings was to go through each calendar month for the next 3-5 years and create a list of all of the upcoming projects, programs, and anniversaries or commemorations so we could find common themes and connections between departments. This has helped to provide a greater awareness of what others are planning and create opportunities for collaboration.

The exercise of listing key internal relationships will not only help our President look at the overall organizational structure but it emphasizes the important role that internal relationships and communication have on our day-to-day work. For instance, we hosted an open house in December that was a collaborative effort across multiple departments. While the education staff facilitated the overall program and activities, staff from the communications and marketing department helped with promotional materials, publicity, and signage. The publications department helped with printed materials. The research department assisted with historic images and background research for various materials. The facilities department assisted with the set up and clean up and the sales department kept the gift shop open special hours for the duration of the event. With everyone’s contributions, it was truly a successful collaborative event.

Taking full advantage of your internal resources will help to strengthen your organization and empower staff to contribute and work as a team.  Not every project will require collaboration across departments but communication is paramount. Even if someone is not directly involved with your project, they can still serve as an advocate or provide inspiration. They may even find a connection with their work that will further fulfill your organization’s mission.

  • How do you encourage internal communication at your site?
  • How are you utilizing key internal relationships?
  • Are co-workers in other departments aware of your projects and day-to-day work?
  • Are there further opportunities for collaboration that exist internally at your site?

AASLH Offering Two Programming Workshops in April

AASLH will offer two workshops in April, both on public programming.

Focusing On Visitors:
Public Programming & Exhibits At History Institutions

April 3-4, 2014
Governor John Langdon House, Historic New England,
Portsmouth, NH

This workshop provides a broad overview of public programming and exhibits focusing on active learning at different kinds of history organizations. Seasoned educators direct conversations about museum education and what it is museum educators do. Participants will leave the workshop with information and materials they can take back to their organizations to adapt and use!

  • Cost: $270 members/$345 nonmembers
  • $40 discount if fee is received by February 27
Register Now

Connecting Your Collections To Teachers And Students
April 10-11, 2014
Ohio Historical Society, Columbus, OH
Sponsored by: The Creative Learning Factory

Through a combination of presentations, discussions, hands-on activities, and take-home materials, this workshop addresses the various elements of museum education and program planning needed to create an engaging, educational, and successful program with a focus on collections-based programming. Topics include learning styles, presentation strategies, audience types, planning strategies and program assessment, using research, training staff, and crafting programming that is meaningful to the education community.

  • Cost: $270 members/$345 nonmembers
  • $40 discount if fee is received by March 6
 Register Now


Registration Open for the 2014 Building Museums Symposium

Building Symposium 2014
An annual symposium on the mysteries, pitfalls, and rewards of planning and managing museum building projects.

The symposium is organized under three inter-related themes: Vision, Implementation, and Sustainability (or Life after Opening). The content of each day will reflect these themes across a broad range of museum sizes and scales, budgets, scope of building projects, disciplines, and collecting vs. non-collecting institutions.

This symposium is for architects, museum leaders, planners, project managers, technical experts, and all those who plan or implement new construction, renovation, or expansion projects for museums. Whether your institution is a small historic site under renovation, a mid-sized art museum planning an expansion, or a large children’s museum building a new facility, this symposium is for you.

Building Museums® is an annual international symposium created, produced and managed by the Mid-Atlantic Association of Museums [MAAM] but is open to everyone with an interest in this important topic.

Attending the symposium will provide you the opportunity to:

  • Better understand the process of planning, implementing, and surviving new construction, renovation, or expansion projects
  • Examine case studies, current trends, topical issues, and specific projects related to building projects across a broad range of museum sizes and scales, budgets, scope of building projects, diversity of disciplines, and collecting vs. non-collections-holding institutions
  • Actively discuss museum building projects with other museum professionals, architects, planners, project managers, and technical experts to better inform the process of building
  • Access resources for architectural firms, consultants, museum projects, and museum leaders through the Building Museums Resource Guide.

Visit the website for more information and to register. AASLH members can register at the Partner Rater.

The Benefits of Collaboration

The National Steinbeck Center, like many small museums in non-urban communities, often acts as a museum, a cultural center, a conference room, and a community gathering place. In order to effectively serve the community and wear these many hats, we are always collaborating with different organizations of all shapes, sizes, and affiliations.

In the past year, our programs department has partnered, collaborated, joined forces, and teamed up with over 20 different organizations including: local, national, and international museums; aquariums; scientific institutions; government bodies; school districts; local dance and performing arts groups; community groups; libraries; orchestras; after school programs; and affordable housing organizations.

Join Our Team

Working with so many different types of organizations and communities, we’ve come up with a short list of things to keep in mind while developing a successful partnership:

  • Open, honest and consistent communication. When working with one or more groups on a project, communicate with one another frequently and honestly. If you start collaborating in January for a program in September, you may not have a lot of action items the first couple of months. Even so, it is useful to keep everyone linked in and sharing ideas, suggestions, or just confirming their commitment to the project. As we all know, a program can change a lot from conception to implementation, and by keeping everyone involved from the outset it ensures that no one is surprised when things begin to be altered.
  • Develop clearly defined and realistic goals right from the beginning. At the start of your partnership, make sure all participating groups know exactly what they are working towards, and what success would mean for each organization. Perhaps one group is looking for increased participation numbers and the other wants to diversify their audience base. It is fine to have different goals, as long as everyone understands what those are. By keeping those goals front of mind throughout the partnership, it will ensure a healthier working relationship, a clear idea of what success means and avoid potential "mission creep."
  • Be flexible. Even the best-designed plans sometimes can hit a snag. Lack of resources, loss of board support, unexpected illness, flakey volunteers – by working with another group you take on the chance of having any of the above and many more problems present themselves at inconvenient times. Remembering to "roll with the punches" throughout the process will ensure a more productive and respectful working relationship. That being said, if an organization is not holding up its end of the deal, it is important to recognize when it is time to walk away, and move forward on your own.
  • Most importantly, 1+1 has to equal more than 2. By working with this other organization, are you going to end up with a better outcome than if you had gone it alone? Partnerships take a lot of time, energy, and coordination, and so you want to make sure that the sum of two parts is greater than its whole. Be strategic with whom you partner. Make sure they bring something to the table that you don’t already have or that you want to strengthen. You want to walk away feeling that you leveraged the collaboration to its fullest extent and created an outcome that would not have been feasible otherwise.

There are many reasons to collaborate with other organizations, and small museums in particular can really leverage resources by working together. Despite the potential road blocks, when a good partnership is developed, museums can truly broaden their impact and relevancy within their community.

Other useful insights on collaboration:

  • Phillips, Ruth. “Community Collaboration in Exhibitions: Introduction” in Museums and Source Communities: A Routledge Reader. Ed. Laura Peers and Alison K. Brown. (London: Routledge, 2003)

Elizabeth Welden-Smith is the Curator of Education and Public Programs at the National Steinbeck Center in Salinas, CA. Born in Salinas, Elizabeth received her masters in Museum Studies from the Australian National University and her B.A. in European History from Mills College in CA. Elizabeth has returned to her hometown and is working with local and non-local organizations to provide diverse and robust programming for Monterey County communities.