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Transforming Historical Societies and Museums

Change or Die! That’s the battle cry. This article came as a result of looking at why people are no longer signing up and supporting historical societies across America. It’s a dying institution. But they’re not alone.

No one can deny that Amazon is changing the face of how consumers shop and purchase and the impact that it is having on towns across America. Towns that were once retail meccas, are now showing signs of the “Amazon effect” with storefront vacancies. So I got to thinking, what about Historical Societies and museums? Today more than ever, Historical Societies and Museums are at a crossroads. While the internet is changing how people research, travel, and create experiences,  these organizations are going to have to change with the times or face extinction.

Do You Know Your Customer?

Think like an owner for a minute. How does any business raise visitation, deepen engagement, and improve investment outcomes? It doesn’t matter whether you’re a non-profit or not, these principles are critical to survival no matter if you’re for profit or not. Let’s take a look at a few of the challenges and then let’s look at some opportunities.

Do you know who your customer is? What are they interested in? What do you have to offer them? What age groups are you going after and how? Who’s your competition?  Those are just five questions that are the tip of the iceburg. Knowing your current customer is critical. Knowing who your target customer is critical. Now change the word “customer” to your base. It can be member, donor, partner, sponsor or a host of other tags that identify your current audience is and who your target audience might be.

How do you get to know your base? The answer is simple. One good method is when someone decides to become a member. The membership form is a great starting point for gathering information. Ask only for what you need and avoid questions that don’t lead to something you need later. For example, do you need to know where someone works? Maybe you want to do social hours after work and need that info. Maybe you need a cell phone number to use for text messages. Whatever you decide, make sure your data is useful and actionable.

In addition to the membership form, look for ways to engage your members and your targets with a simple method, ask them. For example, at your membership meeting, hand out 4 post-it notes or cards that have two colors. One color is for what they “like”. The other is for what they’d “wish” . People naturally want to help. It’s in their nature. So if someone has invested in your organization with a membership,  they want a good experience. So ask them what they like and what they want. Gather the information autonomously works best and then use the data to adjust accordingly. Motto: Constantly survey your audience for feedback.

Historical Society Delema

Historical Societies are at a crossroads. These organizations were formed anywhere from 50-200 years ago. Their missions are typically to preserve, protect, advise on issues of local history. Many are based in historical buildings or a historic location that were started for one reason or another.While their missions are noble, they are having to deal with dwindling membership, lower attendance, less interest in local history, and fewer hours of  available time to engage.

Back in the early to mid-1900’s people looking for social outlets found history exciting. The industrial revolution was underway and many towns were in transition. Groups formed to protect properties that were being torn down. So people organized. It’s no different today, but the big question is not that you can get enough support to save or preserve a property, but what’s going to happen to it in the future after you’ve restored it. Who’s going to provide the money to sustain the property? Who’s going to maintain the building? Who’s going to manage it? Government support has historically been a primary source. But those are dwindling. Townships no longer want to use tax dollars to underwrite historic properties. Companies are less willing to donate, and non-profits need to offer something to whatever base they’re attracting. And don’t assume a revenue source is going to be there forever. The environment changes.

The New York Historical Society is a great example of a historical society that changed with the times. Back in 1993 the NYHS shut its doors for the last time. (See article).

Fast forward to 2011:

Following a Three-Year Renovation, New York City’s First Museum Invites Visitors to Experience Its First Permanent Installations, a Brand-New Innovative History Museum for Children, Trailblazing Special Exhibitions, Premier Restaurant and More…

Now fast forward to 2017 with an announcement stating:


They have a museum, artifacts, and employees. But they also have a restaurant and a bar. Museums are figuring this out and are doing similar things. Forgot to mention, the New York Historical Society needed more than leadership vision, it took $65 million in fundraising and grants to make the vision a reality. A tough project to say the least.

No no one is saying that you need $65 million to upgrade your origination. Two things you do need: leadership and a modernized vision that will work given the challenges of today.

Technology & The Digital Age

In today’s business world, digital is critical to any business. And it doesn’t matter whether you’re profit or non-profit business – you are a business and you need to run like one. In today’s digital age of cell phones and internet searches, all businesses are digital whether you like it or not. If you don’t embrace the idea, you face extinction.

Also, you have to recognize your competition. Yes , museums and historic organizations have competition. The fact is, if your competition is digital and you’re not, their message gets out faster and cheaper, their base and their potential new base gets information, and they have the ability to engage. It’s no longer acceptable to just having a site on the internet. You have to know what do you with your site (or sites) to engage with your audience that brings your data.  So what data are you going to gather that can be analyzed to create “actionable data”? It has to be data that you can do something with it.

Take genealogy research for example. Many historical societies have archives of local artifacts. People today don’t take a trip to you as a first choice, they go to the internet. So let’s say you have a website and tag some reference materials that you do have that allow people to get hooked to you as a reference source. You’re now staring a relationship. Say you have files of families that are buried in the local cemetery.  A possible solution is to post the names of the files you have on record. State if you have photos, history, background or whatever. Then create a “Visitor Request Form”  on the same page.  Now you have a chance to communicate, to assist, and to get them to come see and learn what you’re all about. So create the ability to inform, but work to build your base.

Also track what people are looking for. Maybe it’s genealogy, or local history, or the history of their new home, or a local historic site. Gather that information. Now you have actionable data. Now create programs that support those requests and you’ve now created a way to engage.

Age Matters

People usually associate historical societies with “the older scene”.  But did you know there are all kinds of audiences out there. But let’s face it. Peoples lives are different today then they where when historical societies and museums were being created. The  back in the early to mid 1900’s. The nuclear family is no longer nuclear. Fathers work, mothers work. Kids are involved in more programs than ever before and the fight for free time is an all out battle. So if you want to go after an age group, you have to offer them something. And in today’s social environment, adults levitate towards food and alcohol. It’s just a fact. So do your programs, events, activities have what they want given their limited time? Or does the group or activity benefit their children? If the answer is yes, you’re heading in the right direction.

While most think that history is hundreds of years ago, or the revolutionary war,  civil war, or any war for that matter, there’s history for any age.  Here’s an example. A local historic organization wanted to expand into a young historian program for children and young adults so they’ve started to create programs for young adults and children.  The point is if you engage the children, the parents follow. Or vise versa, if a parent thinks the program is good for their child, they’ll engage.  Scholarships, Script writing, sleepovers, camps, or contests all are ways to engage youthful historians. And don’t forget to get your data.

Image: An example of two programs created for children and young historians for The Historical Society of the Somerset Hills based in Basking Ridge, New Jersey. Both programs are designed to expand membership thru children, but to keep the parents engaged as well.

Gather Data On What You Do

Recently I took on a task to review a historical society’s records. Most societies have in their charter have the obligation to keep records of meetings, treasury reports, and annual reports. These reports are typically approved as the “official book of record.” It’s really the only place where your history is being captured so it’s really important to keep accurate records.

An important factor when keeping these records is their consistency. The best way to be consistent is to create a series of templates and stick to them month after month, year after year.  If you do this, you’ll have the ability to compare in later years and you’ll notice that it’s an easier read due to the fact that you actually get used to reading and you start looking for anomalies (which turn into interesting stories to research).

Metrics That Matter

In any business you need to measure what you do so you can later compare your goal estimates against what you actually recorded. Do this any you’ll know if you’re successful. And if you didn’t reach your goal, you can have discussion on what to change for next time. It’s a circular process.

Now you have your source data, the next step is to define a set of metrics to gather. You’re looking for what I refer to as “metrics that matter” or “actionable metrics.” Another thing consider are are Key Performance Indicators or KPI’s. These KPI’s are what will drive your organization forward. It’s where you set goals, measure, then create actions to reach the KPI goal over time.

Like a business, a historical society should measure what they do. They need to gather actionable data that you can use to make future decisions for the direction and focus of your organization.

A few suggestions to measure include; events, activities, and programs (by registration, attendance, revenue, and expense).  You might also include membership attendance and new membership registrations. As mentioned earlier, always perform a post survey to get participant feedback about what they liked and what they would like to see next time.  Experience shows that getting the feedback before they leave is the most effective. If you try to communicate via email or letter after the participants leave the responses will be very low, typically 1-5%.

Key performance indicators are fairly straightforward and over time become the drivers to your organizations success to reach your goals. We recommend you measure monthly and annually. Below are a few suggested indicators that you can gather to set expectations/goals for the year based on where you were, where you are, and where you want to be.

  • Membership: Current vs. Goal
  • Donations/ President Letters/Capital Campaigns: (use previous years as basis
  • Board Size/Trustees: Current vs. Goal
  • Affiliations: Actual vs. Goal
  • Volunteers: Actual vs. Goal
  • Events: Attendance, Members added, members/non-members attending (Past vs. Current vs. Goal)
  • Events: Revenue/Expense Estimate vs. Actual
  • Visitors: Physical guests coming through your doors. (Current vs. Past)
  • Partnerships: Actual vs. Goal
  • Revenue:  events, products, membership (if repeating event current vs. historic)
  • Expense:  events, products, membership (if repeating event current vs. historic)
  • Research Requests: by category request and time invested
  • Web Traffic: Current period vs. Past period (typically views, platforms, duration, most visited, demographics – Google Analytics is a great start)

Over time your organization will mature on how best to gather and measure these metrics. If you set goals to these metrics, they become indicators. You can now create a plan to move your organization forward and it’s not subjective, you have data to back you up.

Over time, as you gather this data, modify your goals and objectives that help you better achieve your goals. Be glad you have a gathering process, a review process, and a goal process. It’s these processes that are a foundation to your future and your survival. Fail to gather, analyze, and adapt and you risk death.

Final Thoughts

EVERY EVENT, ACTIVITY, or PROGRAM provides data. You just have to be smart enough to either ask for it or get it. Get feedback from the kids. Get feedback from the parents. And keep the goal in mind all the time… raise visitation, deepen engagement, and improve investment outcomes.

About the Author

Brooks Betz is a freelance writer who often writes for the T3C Idea Exchange. Brooks was originally from Westfield, New Jersey and resides now in Basking Ridge, New Jersey where he volunteers for a number of historic minded organizations that preserve and promote history. He can be reached via the T3C Contact Us page.

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