The Whole is Greater

Adapted from Chapter 11 of An AASLH Guide to Making Public History

While Aristotle didn’t actually coin the exact phrase, “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts,” he is credited with the philosophical concept.

Most of us have seen this concept at work on sports teams (particularly when a HUGE underdog wins). This is true in music too (I’m formally studying it as it applies to the Allman Brothers Band). But in the world of museums and nonprofits, this concept often bears fruit in the partnerships and collaborations we establish.

Alexis de Tocqueville observed this tendency in his early nineteenth-century treatise on the nascent American republic, Democracy in America. Tocqueville highlighted Americans’ proclivity to work in concert in both the political sphere and in public life. “I have often admired,” he commented, “the extreme skill with which the inhabitants of the United States succeed in proposing a common object for the exertions of a great many men and in inducing them voluntarily to pursue it.” In many ways, American state and local history reflects this principle. It is an example of democracy in action.

For many observers, Alexis de Toqueville’s early 19th-century observations on America still ring true today.

Tocqueville called these activities “Public Associations in Civil Life.” “Americans of all ages, all conditions, and all dispositions constantly form associations…. associations of a thousand other kinds, religious, moral, serious, futile, general or restricted, enormous or diminutive…. If it is proposed to inculcate some truth or to foster some feeling by the encouragement of a great example, they form a society.”

In America, Toqueville discovered a nation of joiners. “Nowhere is this more evident,” James M. Vaughan articulated in an essay in Zen and the Art of Local History, “than in our efforts to save our local history and historic structures.” “Soon after the creation of the republic,” Vaughan continued, “community leaders and scholars organized themselves into state and local historical societies.” Tocqueville found this joining together as inherent in the American experiment of self-government. Americans clearly reflected this in their history organizations.

There is little that stops the creation of a new museum or history organization. While there are certainly constraints precluding the activity, all in all, the founding of a new institution pretty easy. It’s the “keeping open” (sustainability) part that is hardest.

In previous posts I have highlighted how Entrepreneurship, Change, Transformation, and Possibility fit into the sustainability equation. This introduces another concept, one we know well: Collaboration. The goal for true collaboration it to achieve Aristotle famous precept, “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.”

Vaughan’s essay in Zen and the Art of Local History highlights some of the challenges the history field faces in collaboration. “Our pride of independence coupled with our competitive spirit” counters the inclination to join others in common cause. “These traits become barriers to collaborations, partnerships, and mergers.” Vaughan asked if we could “learn to put the needs of our communities ahead of the more narrow needs of our own organizations?” Many believe we can.

This idea builds upon that of one of America’s greatest museum thinkers and leaders, John Cotton Dana. Dana set the stage for collaboration in his 1917 work The New Museum. “Learn what aid the community needs,” he wrote, “fit the museum to those needs.” Unwritten is that that community “fit” must also fit within the museum’s mission.

Dana wrote these words as he reflected on the principles he learned in establishing the Newark Museum. They are but a small part of a larger book that warrants reconsideration. Many would be wise to revisit this canonical text on an annual basis as Dana’s philosophies and suggestions regarding the role and “place” of museums in a community are as relevant today as they were 100 years earlier, perhaps even more so.

“Nothing can replace the opportunities that arise when you intersect with people who come together around common goals and interests,” Erin Carlson Mast of President Lincoln’s Cottage wrote with Andrea Kajer in preparation for the 2014 AASLH Annual Meeting. President Bill Clinton said exactly the same in an address at a conference at the Clinton Presidential Center in Little Rock, Arkansas. “Wherever [good] people are coming together with the aim of getting something done,” he noted, “good things are happening.”

It’s important for institutions to probe a bit deeper here. Most importantly, as Mast observed, “The expressed need may be different for different parts of the community. It’s more about examining the different expressions of need and determining how your organization is best able to meet a deep, abiding need that is also true to its own mission/story versus chasing community needs and changing your organizational identity like a trend or fad.”

An effective museum, Dana wrote, “Examines its community’s life first, and then straightaway bends its energies to supplying some of the material which the community needs, and to making the material’s presence widely known, and to presenting it in such a way as to secure for it the maximum of use and the maximum of efficiency in that use.” Working together is Dana’s underlying premise.

Greg Stevens, my fellow museum professional, good friend, and frequent partner-in-crime in getting things done often says something he’s adapted from the Judy Garland and Gene Kelly movie Summer Stock:

“You’ve got a barn, I’ve got the costumes. Let’s put on a show!”

Greg’s words are a witty way to remember the core elements of collaboration: meeting needs. In this analogy, the community need is an empty barn that needs filling (and entertainment), our institutional need is to put our costumes (historical assets) to use.

As you think about collaboration, I urge you to keep two sayings in mind — while always using the institution’s mission as the lens through which you make decisions:

  1. “You’ve got a barn, I’ve got the costumes. Let’s put on a show!”
  2. “Learn what aid the community needs: fit the museum to those needs.”

I find collaboration at the heart of the history enterprise (and of nonprofits in general). I am interested in your thoughts on whether you believe the whole is truly greater than the sum of its parts.

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.