The Endangered “Lecture Series”

When it was founded in 1922, the Detroit Historical Society had two missions: first, to help the Detroit Public Library collect historical documents for preservation, and second, to host a regular lecture series on Detroit history topics.

Third Annual Ignition Meeting, Champion Spark Plug Company, Sept. 3-5, 1947. From the Detroit Historical Society Collection
Third Annual Ignition Meeting, Champion Spark Plug Company, Sept. 3-5, 1947, Detroit, MI. From the Detroit Historical Society Collection

Nearly 100 years later, we now run our own museum and collect our own historical documents, but the lecture series remains virtually unchanged. Each month we invite a historian or author to share his or her scholarship as an evening lecture to a crowd of . . . twelve. On nights that we feature a pop culture topic –historic department stores, the history of Vernors’ Ginger Ale – we have been known to get a whopping 30 people in our 120 seat auditorium.

Until yesterday, we hadn’t really given it much thought. I mean, lecture series are just what you DO as a museum, right? They’re like PB & J, cookies and milk. They are such a part of our collective institutional history that, if you’re like us, we’ve never stopped to question why we do it.

We are in the process of planning our public programs for the next fiscal year, which for us starts on July 1. Like many (all?) of you, we find ourselves with more opportunities (and expectations) for programs than our staff of three realistically can handle. As a manager, I find myself saying “We need to do a cost/benefit analysis on our programs!” and “We need to find ways to free up capacity for new projects!” But as an educator, I feel a bit like a kid who has been told that I can only get a new toy if I give up an old one. In essence, in order to make room in our toy box, we have to make some choices.

We haven’t decided if we will end the lecture series yet, but here are a few factors we are taking into account:

  • The lecture series helps keep us connected to the scholars who are researching and documenting our region’s history.
  • The lectures provide a great value to a small group of dedicated members.
  • We rarely break even on the lecture series, making it necessary to reallocate funds from other programs to cover the costs. And this does not take into account staff time, utilities and other indirect costs.
  • We just aren’t getting the attendance. There are a lot of reasons for this, but our member surveys suggest that the lecture series key demographic – older, Caucasian men and women –aren’t comfortable in attending nighttime events in Detroit.

What would you do? I am curious to hear all your ideas and suggestions.

I’d also be interested in taking this topic to a whole ‘nother level: Are lecture series antiquated? Are they a sustainable program for any museum? Why, why not?

Chime in below with your comments, please!