Notes from IHA

Notes from IHA

There are big changes in the works at two outstanding cultural heritage organizations in the United States. Recently, Terry Davis left her position as CEO of the American Association for State and Local History (AASLH) after twenty years of service to the national nonprofit organization that advocates for history organizations. Ford W. Bell has announced his retirement in May 2015 as president of the American Alliance of Museums (AAM). What happened while they were at their posts, and how much is owed to their leadership?

When Ms. Davis arrived at AASLH, she found a highly respected organization that was in internal disarray. Membership had dropped precipitously, there had been an almost complete turnover of staff, and morale was at an all-time low. Under her watch, finances stabilized, new programs strengthened the organization, and AASLH reached out to affinity groups, from field services and historic house museums to corporate museums, state history administrators, and tribal museums. With the backing of a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS), AASLH created the Standards and Excellence Program for Historic Organizations (StEPs), which is helping museums across the nation to meet professional standards of operation. The organization also created an online course in basic archival practices and developed the nationwide Visitors Count program using visitor surveys to improve facilities. During Ms. Davis’s tenure, AASLH became a forceful advocate for museums and history organizations and formed a partnership with AAM in giving a stronger voice in the nation’s cultural discussions.

At AAM, Dr. Bell led the way toward innovation in services, opening the membership to the smallest museums. He demonstrated leadership as the association created a new strategic plan, and he supported the change of the name of the organization from the American Association of Museums to the American Alliance of Museums. Dr. Bell continued support for peer review in the Museum Assessment Program (MAP) and encouraged changes in the AAM accreditation program that will streamline the process and make it a desirable option for more museums. Under his leadership, AAM created the Center for the Future of Museums, which offers cutting-edge ideas, analysis of trends that affect museums, and access to the latest thinking about the role of museums as educational institutions. He leaves the alliance with operating surpluses and an increase in memberships of 48 percent.

These examples raise the question of how organizations, large and small, are affected by the leadership of their directors. This is not to suggest that nonprofits do not depend in great measure on their boards. The collective wisdom of trustees and the outstanding contributions of board leaders are crucial to stable organizations that have vision. Healthy organizations reflect supportive partnerships between boards and staffs. However, there is no denying that directors of cultural heritage organizations create dynamic teams that put into practice the policies created by boards, and they help to achieve that shared vision that boards and staffs forge for their institutions.  As leaders, they put their own personal stamp on the performance of their organizations.

It will be interesting to see what directions these two important nonprofit service organizations take under new leadership. One hopes for a continued strong partnership and for new contributions to museums and history organizations throughout the country.