Forum Journal & Forum Focus

Funding the Fundamentals 

12-09-2015 17:35

During the second half of the 20th century, historic house museums, historic sites, and outdoor history museums proliferated across the country. Most were founded on the premise that transforming a historic building into a historical museum would be a good way of ensuring its preservation. Often it seemed that the best or even the only way to rescue an endangered historic building was to make a museum out of it. Not only would the building be under the control of preservation-sensitive nonprofit museum people, some of them expert curators, but the historic place would become an educational resource, open to the public and to schoolchildren, and a celebrated public resource.

I built my career on this idea. Early on, I fled the regulatory world of state historic preservation offices for the seemingly more fertile field of historic sites and outdoor museums. Now after 30 years of laboring in the historic preservation and history museum vineyards, I am increasingly troubled by the preservation fate of many historic site museums. I remain fascinated and passionately drawn to these places, but my answer to the question of whether museum use is ideal preservation is, at best, “it all depends.” At worst such marriages can lead to disaster, or, more commonly, gradual impoverishment and deterioration, both for the historic resource and for the museum. Often the difference between best and worst has to do with the ability and the discipline of a nonprofit organization to “fund the fundamentals” — fundamentals that are often gritty, expensive, and in competition with lofty educational goals and compelling historical programs.

Historic sites and outdoor history museums are founded around the love of the places and stuff of history and around the potential of these places to contextualize our past — informing and inspiring us, and helping us to educate our children. Often they are rooted in the vision and efforts of volunteers and amateurs, who, despite the addition of professional staffs of curators and educators, must sustain ongoing governance and fundraising efforts. Their missions and purposes are rooted in museological ideals that, in a nonprofit environment of fiscal scarcity, often compete with, and sometimes even conflict with, business principles.


When a historic building becomes endangered and a candidate for a preservation effort, it is often because the business-based conditions under which it was built and thrived have changed. Perhaps it has outlived its occupants, and its neighborhood has evolved in a negative economic direction… or its neighborhood’s prosperity has left it in the path of new development… or its downtown is dying, strangled by peripheral mall development… or the old school or library has been abandoned for a shiny new suburban model. “The numbers” no longer make sense — often, they haven’t made sense for a while. The cost of keeping up the old place always was high, and lately money for maintenance has been scarce. The old building has seen better days.

In an upwelling of civic pride and genuine historical vision, leaders emerge saying, “We can save this important relic!” And others say, “We’ll help!” A new historic site is launched, with the best of intentions. But the problems of the building and its maintenance backlog often remain. Still, the new nonprofit is energetic and creative, and it has passion for the potential of the historic place. It devotes heroic amounts of energy and raises cash to launch the project. It often acquires collections of historical objects to furnish the place or to exhibit in its seemingly abundant space. “If we restore it, they will come — and they’ll help pay for it!” they say and believe. And “they” do come, in numbers at least large enough to inspire the faithful to create worthwhile interpretive and educational programs. Their numbers are also large enough to wear out the historic floorboards that have thus far survived more than a century. They pay admission, although not quite enough to fully support the worthwhile interpretive and educational programs, and never quite enough to replace those worn-out floorboards, or the failing roof, or the rotting sill, or the….

After a few years, with the place really beginning to look shabby, the board of directors mounts a heroic capital campaign that enables the organization to spruce the place up. They give it a fresh coat of paint, confident that with the place looking better, they’ll be even more successful in attracting future supporters. Meanwhile, donations of historical objects keep pouring in.

The story has been told over and over again throughout the country, in big institutions and small community start-ups, in private organizations and in public institutions, at the local, state, and federal level. In 2004 the General Accounting Office estimated the National Park System preservation maintenance backlog at between $4.0 and $6.8 billion. Meanwhile, the historic barn at your local historical society is in imminent danger of collapse from foundation failure and sill rot brought on by repeated flooding; the docents have removed most of its artifacts to temporary storage in the basement of the society’s historic farmhouse, which is also in the flood plain but has a sump pump. In 2005 a nationwide study of the condition of America’s collections, many of which are housed in historic sites and museums, found a dismal situation: 65 percent of collecting institutions have damaged collections due to improper storage, and 40 percent of institutions have no funds allocated in their annual budget for preservation and conservation. 1

Our historic sites and historic house museums are in trouble. Although Americans love history, our audiences are shrinking or distracted by leisure alternatives. Governmental support is scarce and often shrinking. Philanthropic support may be stable, but it is unlikely to grow enough to meet the need. Concerned professionals are talking about alternatives: “Maybe there are too many historic house museums.” “We certainly don’t need more of them.” “How can we help the unsustainable ones appropriately to transform themselves, or even to go out of business?” But what are we to do about the historic sites and museums that are worthwhile and can be sustainable? What about the important new ones that truly ought to be created? In our concern for a field that may indeed be overextended, should we close the door on the possibility of new and brilliant historic sites? I don’t think so.


To be a true preservation steward of a historic place, the institution that holds it must achieve sustainability. To achieve sustainability, a historic site or museum must realistically put its assets, opportunities, and obligations in balance, both for the present and long into the future. It must provide both for its current needs and for its long-term needs. Its historic property is often both its home base and the basis for its existence — it may at once be its greatest asset and its greatest liability. The obligation to preserve and conserve must be core to its purpose and its mission. If this is true, then the site or museum must address fundamental preservation needs in fundamental ways. If preservation is core to its purpose, it must be made core to its operation, its budget, and its strategic planning. Although necessary and worthwhile, funding of this kind of sustainability can be a major challenge to a nonprofit institution. The degree to which an institution can meet this challenge may be a touchstone for whether or not acquisition or holding of a historic building is a good idea, either for the building, for the institution, or for the public trust upon which the institution depends.

Unfortunately, the physical needs of historic properties generally are mundane. Their problems are often insidious, hiding behind panels and walls, lurking in attics and musty basements, and concealed all around the landscape. And they are seemingly endless. In the environment of financial scarcity and programmatic urgency in which many historic sites and museums operate, major preservation maintenance lacks the excitement of an innovative new exhibit or program, and it lacks the appeal of staff and operating needs. By default, it’s all too easy to defer. Too often, it is an early casualty in budget cutting — if it makes it into the budget at all. After all, the building is not going anywhere; its problems will still be around next year (and the year after). Sometimes, physical preservation needs are so big as to overwhelm an annual operating budget. With fatalistic sighs of relief and desperation the board and staff consign them to once-and-future capital campaign plans.

But if historic sites and museums are to be sustainable preservation stewards, they must address their ongoing (indeed endless) historic preservation and conservation obligations in their annual operations and their strategic (and opportunistic) planning, as well as in their capital fundraising. Annual operating budgets should include renewal and replacement allowances that realistically address major cyclic (i.e., predictable) maintenance needs. Capital campaigns should include endowment allowances that will provide for ongoing preservation long after the current round of restoration work is complete. Boards and staffs should adopt a philosophy of prudence: “If we cannot realistically fund it, let’s not acquire it.”

None of this is rocket science, and none of these ideas are new. The concept is as venerable as the etymology of the Old English term steward, which means “keeper of the hall.” It is grounded in an honest and comprehensive understanding of the physical needs of the historic place and a disciplined approach to caring for it that includes raising and endowing the substantial funds required for ongoing preservation work. This honesty and discipline can present a sobering, sometimes deflating burden for the staffs, boards, and funders alike. Like a salutary bucket of cold water in the face, it says that the ordinary preservation needs of the historic place are at least as important as the exciting opportunities of new programs and staff operations. It says that if we ignore or defer these physical needs, they will accumulate, eventually overwhelming and undercutting our core purposes and missions, and destroying the sustainability of our institutions. It reminds historic sites and museums to balance program and audience development with serious attention to their historic infrastructures. And it reminds donors and grant makers not to overlook fundamental needs in the excitement of encouraging innovation.

Fortunately, the business of historic sites and museums does not operate according to zero-sum rules. Stewardship and innovation are not opposites, and the attention to preservation needs does not need to be at odds with program development. Without stewardship, innovative programming is just a flash in the pan. Without innovation, stewardship becomes care of an increasingly irrelevant place. But tied together in a mutually reinforcing system, innovative programming and preservation stewardship can become a formula for sustainability, which in the end should be the most fundable fundamental of all.

1National Parks Conservation Association, “The Burgeoning Backlog: A Report on the Maintenance Backlog in America’s National Parks” (May 2004). Heritage Preservation, Inc., A Public Trust at Risk: The Heritage Health Index Report on the State of America’s Collections (Washington, 2005).

Publication Date: Spring 2008


Author(s):David A. Donath