The Only Thing that is Constant is Change

Adapted from Chapter 1 of An American Association for State and Local History Guide to Making Public History

In 2010, AASLH held its annual meeting in Oklahoma City in partnership with the Oklahoma Museums Association (OMA). As we began planning the conference in earnest in early 2009, program chair Cinnamon Catlin-Legutko of the Abbe Museum in Bar Harbor, Maine; Brenda Granger of OMA; host chair Dan Provo of the Oklahoma History Center, and I all understood there was no way we’d be able to ignore the proverbial elephant in the room. The U.S. economy was in the midst of its longest, and by many measures, worst economic downturn since the Great Depression.

Oklahoma State Capitol Building, Oklahoma City

The economic crisis cost Americans considerably an caught many in the history field unawares. As might be expected, giving dropped precipitously and many organizations that relied on public funding found monies directed elsewhere — often to address what funders believed were more pressing social needs. The Great Recession didn’t only affect giving, the lifeblood of any nonprofit organization, but it also affected the financial stability of the organizations themselves. Declining endowment values of 50+ percent cost history organizations dearly.

The Great Recession was certainly not the first recession in history. Economists cite twelve sustained declines of the American economy since 1945. What made this particular event stand out was its length (eighteen months) and its severity — not just in the United States but worldwide as well.

In Chapter 2 of An AASLH Guide to Making Public History, Laura Roberts and Barbara Franco pointed out some systemic challenges the field had failed to address over the years that made this event much more damaging. One of the biggest was the ever-present question of the volume of history organizations in the United States and the need to consider a “history system,” an idea floated by Boston’s Technical Development Corporation, Inc. in 2009.

But while a national solution never came to fruition, a group of history
professionals in the Phoenix area put the idea into practice. Lisa A. Anderson of the Mesa Historical Museum and Jody A. Crago of the Chandler Museum had each dealt firsthand with the effects of the economic downturn. Anderson’s museum had lost all of its funding from Mesa; budget shortfalls resulted in a 50 percent reduction in professional staff for Crago’s.

Together with Peter Welsh, then of the Arizona Historical Society Museum
at Papago Park
, Anderson and Crago conceived of a new model: a history system for the region, one that played on the strengths of each institution. Recognizing that the Chandler Museum had an outdoor learning environment focused on farming in the desert, the private Mesa Historical Museum transferred its agricultural equipment collection to the City of Chandler’s museum. This allowed both organizations to better focus on their respective strengths. Most notably, the Chandler Museum could expand and tell a more complete story of agricultural development, and the Mesa Museum could focus on an exhibition on Spring Training baseball.

This is but one example of how history organizations adapated to the current landscape and sought to become more sustainable as not only individual institutions, but as collective endeavors in the history enterprise. Is this a model that could be expanded more widely? What do you think?

Please share your thoughts with me.

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.