Forum Journal & Forum Focus

Management: Addressing the Real Issues 

03-11-2019 14:42

What does it take in the 1990s to succeed in running a historical organization? A Ph.D. plus an M.B.A. plus a law degree? A combination of the business acumen of Lee lacocca, the intellectual grasp of Arnold Toynbee, and the ability to pull ’em in of P.T. Bamum? What happens to mission in the quest for money, to education in the effort to survive, to history when the people who have a knowledge and understanding of it are busy studying balance sheets?

Last year the sponsors of the annual Seminar for Historical Administration at Colonial Williamsburg made a concerted effort to come to grips with such questions. In fact we turned the seminar into a quest for answers to a long list of troubling issues. The need was obvious. Budget pressures in the 1980s forced nonprofit administrators to raise money, make money, and squeeze more out of available money to survive. Museum and historic-site directors who, at the beginning of the decade, did not know what the term “marketing” meant were thinking by decade’s end of little else. Any notion that a training program could ignore business skills was long gone, but we revamped the seminar to try to help its participants think through management issues and strengthen their sense of larger purpose as well.

The seminar is an intensive, three-week- long training course that Colonial Williamsburg has hosted for thirty-one years. Three national organizations join Colonial Williamsburg in sponsoring the seminar—the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the American Association for State and Local History, and the American Association of Museums.

From among applicants nationwide, the sponsors select up to eighteen participants annually. Generally, these participants have fewer than ten years experience in the field and fewer in administrative positions. Veteran directors of museums and historical organizations, including Colonial Williamsburg staff, serve gratis as the teaching faculty.

Through the years the thrust of the seminar has swung toward trying to make managers out of liberal arts graduates. That is, the seminar has tried to provide remedial administrative education to people trained to recognize fine architecture, to appreciate the decorative arts, or to explain the subtler points of the Civil War, for example. But it was not always so. The seminar’s historian and outstanding former coordinator, William J. Tramposch, has chronicled the change.1

Edward P. Alexander initiated the seminar in 1959 to attract young historians—graduate students—into historic-site and museum work. As the director of interpretation for Colonial Williamsburg Alexander saw a need to entice first-rate scholars into the booming preservation and museum fields so that artifacts and sites would be interpreted with authenticity and integrity. The early seminar introduced students to historical organizations and their administration, but the curriculum emphasized interpretation.

A decade later, as Tramposch has recorded, the seminar admitted beginning professionals as well as graduate students and stressed research; background information on historical organizations also was incorporated into its curriculum. Techniques of administration still received relatively short shrift, but so, by then, did interpretation. By 1976, however, the curriculum had diminished the emphasis on research. Sessions in administration had become prevalent, and those already working in the field—junior staff members—were predominant among the participants. By 1983, the end point of Tramposch’s study, the seminar was almost exclusively training professionals, and seventy percent of its curriculum dealt with management issues.

Tramposch recognized the fact that the seminar’s sponsors had laudably altered the curriculum in response to changing needs in the field, but he challenged “the dangerous implication behind these changes,” which he described as “the assumption that the participants at SHA already have some basic understanding—or at least knowledge—of the components that help make historical administration a unique field. This is a false assumption, especially in light of the fact that today’s seminar participants hail from more diverse academic and work backgrounds than they did before.”2

Others agreed. In 1988 Colonial Williamsburg brought together a group of evaluators who not only recommended that the content of the seminar be reevaluated, but also its duration and the time of year during which it traditionally had been held. Ever since its founding the seminar had been held in the summer, a difficult time for historic site administrators, among others, to get away. Overburdened administrators also found it tough to leave their institutions for the full month that the seminar ran. Encouragement for content change came also from the 1989 seminar participants, who argued that their needs as adult professionals were best met when speakers dealt with issues and challenged them with exercises, case studies, and give-and-take discussions.

Therefore in 1990 we reduced the seminar in duration to three weeks, moved it to late fall, and removed the nuts-and-bolts lectures from its curriculum. In their place we substituted seminar-style discussions of live issues —problems currently troubling administrators of museums, historical societies, and related organizations. Secondly, we organized sessions around three concepts of the responsibilities of historical administrators. The first week stressed the historical administrator’s role as a cultural leader, something that directors caught up in management problems can so easily lose sight of. Sessions that week dealt with mission issues and issues relating to research, preservation, interpretation, and evaluation. The second week acknowledged that the historical administrator must also be a capable manager. Sessions that week dealt with financial issues, marketing issues, legal issues, political issues, and issues in administrating personnel. The third week required historical administrators to think also of their responsibilities as professionals in a field. Sessions covered current field issues, social trends and challenges, career crafting, and self-analysis. We ended with an overview of management, leadership, and administration. Did the new format work? Less than perfectly. Students wished we had mixed more case studies and problem-solving exercises with roundtable discussions as contexts for considering issues. And they felt sometimes pushed “just for controversy’s sake” to challenge faculty members on issues. Their views are reflected in adjustments made in the 1991 seminar scheduled for this fall.

But I think the basic premises are sound. Historical administrators need to be good business managers, but they need more than business training. The most important decisions they make are not whom to hire for the staff or how much to charge at the gate. The most important decisions are what of historical value to preserve and what to tell visitors about what has been preserved.

Under the leadership of vice president Dennis O’Toole of Colonial Williamsburg and the other enthusiastic representatives of the cosponsoring organizations—Lawrence Goldschmidt for the National Trust, Margaret McCarthy for AAM, and Patricia Michael for AASLH—the Seminar for Historical Administration is continuing its long record of distinguished service to the field.3 Its long serviceability has come from its capacity to change with the field but still to stay rooted in the recognition that has persisted from Ed Alexander through Bill Tramposch to the present—that historical administration has special requirements and values. The seminar will remain valuable if it helps struggling managers retain sight of that.

1 The following on the seminar’s history is from William J. Tramposch, “A Companion to Change: The Seminar for Historical Administration, 1959-1984,” Museum Studies Journal, Fall 1984,8-18.

2 Tramposch, “Seminar,” 17.

3 Information on the seminar for applicants and others may be obtained from Peggy McDonald Howells, manager, Museum Professional Services, The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, P.O. Box C, Williamsburg, Virginia 23187.


Publication date: July/August 1991


Author(s):Gerald George