Discovering the Power of Transformation

Adapted from Chapter 3 of An AASLH Guide to Making Public History

Transformation is at the heart of the study of history and at the history enterprise as well. History is the study of change over time and sometimes, in the long view, that demonstrates revolutionary change. In thinking about this as applied in the world of history organizations, transformation is more than just a buzzword, it’s a necessity.

Ponder how we got from displays like this (the original Star-Spangled Banner on display in the old Smithsonian Arts & Industries Building)…

Long gone are the days when museums could exhibit artifacts on their intrinsic merit alone (if that ever existed in the first place). As is true for the historical discipline writ large, history organizations must be able to answer the “why” question(s): Why this artifact matters, why this site or historic house means anything, and/or why something particular happened.

…to the current display of this storied artifact at the National Museum of American History.

In many cases, shifting our own institutional focus from the “what” of history to the “why” requires a systematic reimagining of the organization itself — often this reimagining results in complete institutional transformation.

Chapters 3 of An AASLH Guide to Making Public History provides insight into transformation at three history organizations: The Strong in Rochester, NY, and the Harriet Beecher Stowe Center and Connecticut Historical Society, both in Hartford, CT. Thhe chapter highlights the leaders of these institutions — Rollie Adams, Katherine Kane, and Jody Blankenship, respectively — as a segue to Chapter 4, “Change and Transformation in History Organizations,” a chapter by Candace Matelic that proffers her research on the subject of transformation in our institutions.

Taken together, the cases of The Strong, the Stowe Center, and Connecticut Historical Society reflect Matelic’s model of organizational transformation. Each diligently sought the core of what made the institution unique, that which reflected the organization’s raison d’être. From there, leaders and staff adapted their work and activities toward that end. Each institution carefully considered the question: “Why do we matter?” The answer provided both internal and external focus.

I know there are countless other examples of history organizations and museums doing likewise. I’m hope you’ve already thought of additional instances. In addition, think about what it is that makes your institution truly unique. Why does it matter in the first place? The answer to THAT question provides a point on the horizon to aim for.

A twenty-year veteran of the nonprofit world, Bob Beatty is founder of The Lyndhurst Group, a history, museum, and nonprofit consulting firm providing community-focused engagement strategies for institutional planning, organizational assessments, and interpretive direction.

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