Asking the "Why" Questions: An Interview with Bob Beatty
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. Bob was kind enough to share some thoughts about his work with ExhibiTricks readers in the interview below.
What’s your educational background?
I like to say that I'm an accidental museum professional and my "museum" degree is from the School of Hard Knocks. That's mostly true. My bachelors is in Liberal Studies, a.k.a.: "College." This reflects the fact that I changed my major five or six times and after four years at the University of Central Florida, I didn't have enough credits in only one area to graduate. Thankfully an advisor showed me how I could cobble something together, basically four minors and no major.
I was getting my master's in history, also at UCF, when I started my museum career. Honestly, when I started the program, this career wasn’t even on my radar. I just thought, "I like history and I want to get a graduate degree." Several years into it, I started at the History Center in Orlando and the rest, as they say, is history.
In 2013 I started the Ph.D. in Public History program at Middle Tennessee State University and should graduate this August. So I'll soon have some "official" academic bonafides for our field.
What got you interested in Museums?
There really wasn't a single moment I don't think, but a series of events. First was the Elliott Museum in Stuart, Florida. They had these great vignette displays with mannequins—kind of like life-sized dioramas. I remember a barber shop and the druggist—I believe it also had a cobbler and some type of general store. I was fascinated by them and still love dioramas to this day.
Also nearby in Stuart was the House of Refuge, a historic site that was the last of many such places along the beaches in Florida (and maybe elsewhere) for shipwrecked sailors. I think I was intrigued by the story of these places, as well as the sense of adventure and danger they evoked in my imagination.
I pretty much always gravitated toward the "tangible" in museums and used to drag my family to historic sites, battlefields, and forts. I remember being intrigued by a historical display of Civil War objects at the long-gone Six Gun Territory in Ocala, Florida, and the displays in public places: restaurants, hotels, banks, post offices, businesses, and the like. These still stir my imagination.
Thinking back, the first time I even considered the possibility of working in a museum was when I was 12 or 13 visiting a museum at a community college in a small town in Alabama. The director probably saw a little bit of me in him and was really gracious, helpful, and friendly about the field. It stuck with me for sure.
Tell us a little bit about how your background informs your consulting work?
I think there is so much unrealized potential and power in the exploration of history, no matter what you do in life nor which museum discipline you work in. It's trite to say, "You can't know where you're going until you know where you've been," but it's also true!
Good history regularly attempts to answer the "Why" question(s): Why did something happen?; Why are things the way they are today (or were "back then")?; Why this/that/the other matters? The list is truly endless. Things don't just magically "become" they way they are today, a number of forces combined to make it so. That's what makes history so fascinating to me.
As it pertains to consulting work, asking why helps in any number of ways as I help clients adapt to the needs of their stakeholders. Some questions are more simple: "Why do you have barriers to a room in a historic house when you only lead people through on guided tours?" or "Why do you limit photographs?" There might be very good answers, and that's important to tease out. But you and I both know that barriers can represent both physical as well as intellectual obstacles and/or that people LOVE to post photographs of places they've been on social media, which is a great marketing/PR opportunity.
Do you think your approach to project development is different because you focus on history projects?
In some ways yes and in some ways no. I focus on history projects because that's where I have the most experience and it's also my passion.
But I have found that our work—yours, mine, whoever's—is very similar in a lot of ways. We are using the tools we have at our disposal (art, science, history, play, experience, you name it) in an institutional setting for the betterment of communities, stakeholders, and/or constituencies. The instruments may change, but we're all part of the same orchestra. My instrument, if you will, is history. (It's also guitar, but that's another story!)
What are some of your favorite online (or offline!) resources for people interested in finding out more about the latest thinking on public history?
I served as editor of History News magazine and managing editor of the AASLH book series with Rowman & Littlefield from 2007-2018, and both have proven invaluable for staying informed.
I'm also a pretty avid reader of blogs. John Fea's The Way of Improvement Leads Home is a must-read on a variety of topics, mostly historical. Kevin Levin's Civil War Memory really keeps me informed about issues related to how communities grapple with history. I am also a huge fan of Colleen Dilenschneider's Know Your Own Bone blog on audience research. Though his blog mostly waxes poetic about music, I find Bob Lefsetz says a lot about audiences that I think applies to my work. In some ways, he reminds me of Carol Kammen whose "On Doing Local History" column in History News has long been an inspiration of mine.
Twitter has just become a great place to see the discussion going on with historians of all stripes: academic and public historians in academia, history professionals, museum professionals, public intellectuals, and even celebrities.
Several podcasts are regularly in my queue as well: The Road to Now (which features Bob Crawford of the Avett Brothers and historian Ben Sawyer), Museum People from the New England Museum Association, and Museums in Strange Places from my colleague Hannah Hethmon. This is by no means a comprehensive list. But each addresses our work either specifically or tangentially. It's up to me to make the connections to my own work.
I also maintain contact with a lot of people from all levels of work in our field: consultants, directors, educators, curators, students, you name it. Sometimes I'll see something come across the transom and reach out to someone about a program or activity. Other times I'll schedule a call just to check in or pick someone's brain. There are so many people doing so many amazing things and collegiality is one of our best traits as museum/history professionals.
What advice would you have for fellow museum professionals, especially those from smaller museums, in bringing aspects of community engagement into their work?
I blogged about this a little while ago. It's a term that Kent Whitworth first shared with me: "Stewardship is the open hand, not the closed fist."
People have to remember that we're in this together with stakeholders, constituencies, and the community. We cannot mandate from on high. The open hand means asking: “What can do that benefits you the most? How do we help you achieve your goals?” The closed fist is more like, “I’ll tell you what you need that we can provide.” (Sometimes the latter statement also adds the word “only” to the equation.)
This is a museum professional's version of the Platinum Rule: "Treat others the way they want to be treated."
What are some of your favorite museums or exhibitions?
There are too many to mention and I know I'm going to leave a few out. The Strong in Rochester, New York, is probably my favorite museum. I really loved the history of California exhibit at the Oakland Museum of California, particularly its Forces of Change gallery which I thought was just terrific in both engaging the public and in what they displayed. Like many of us in this business, the Tenement Museum is at the top of my list. I also have a real affinity for Civil Rights-related museums like the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, and the Rosa Parks Museum. The recent redo of the LBJ Library and Museum really gave me some renewed insight into Johnson as a president—particularly as it related to Civil Rights and the fight against poverty.
I really love the museums that made me think about the hard stuff. I visited the Museum of Tolerance last summer and it moved me tremendously. The same happened before I was even working in the field when I first visited the Holocaust Museum in DC. Visits to the Oklahoma City Memorial Museum and the National September 11 Memorial Museum impacted me greatly. I should also note the tremendous admiration I have for those who work in these museums. I don't run from the challenging discussions, but I'm not sure I could do it on a 24/7 basis like they do.
Closer to home, I love what Joe Chambers has done with the Musicians Hall of Fame here in Nashville. It's a real hidden gem in a town with a lot of music-related tourism.
That's a pretty robust list but only scratches the surface. I can usually find something to love in just about every museum I visit. So I guess you could say my next visit is probably my favorite.
What do you think is the “next frontier” for museums?
When you figure it out, please let me know!
All kidding aside, I've been keeping my eye on a couple of things. First, as always, is community engagement. When I did my master's thesis "Legacy to the People : Community and the Orange County Regional History Center," I learned how deeply embedded the ideal of community service is in American museums and I've never stopped striving for that.
Collections are our single biggest competitive advantage and I see us continuing to find new ways to use artifacts, objects, and other primary sources in our work. I believe our audiences respond best to this. They may not know the terms "object," "artifact," "archival collection," or even what differentiates various styles of art, but they know they like the "real" that these things represent. And experiencing them online or on television cannot replace experiencing them in person. Along those lines, I've long followed the Active Collections work of Elee Wood, Rainey Tisdale, and Trevor Jones that resulted in a book earlier this year.
I'd also like to see us, as a field, find a way to measure our public value. I've blogged a bit about this already. AAM has recently done a good job reporting on Museums as Economic Engines and the high esteem the public holds for us. But we've yet to truly capture the intangible that we provide to our communities. I've been keeping an eye on the Happy Museum Project out of the U.K. for a few years and perhaps "happiness" is a way we can measure our value.
And like community engagement, the issue of sustainability is not a new frontier at all but it's an important one. I see this resting on two cornerstones in the immediate term.
The first is Diversity and Inclusion. In my book I refer to the former as a passive pursuit and the latter as the more active. We must seek to be more inclusive (and genuine in that attempt). We do this not only because it's the right thing to do but also because audience demographics are against us.
The second is advocacy. We simply must get better advocating for our ourselves and our work. I call it "the steady drumbeat of advocacy"—advocating constantly, not only when faced with some sort of policy or funding crisis.
Can you talk a little about your book? What were interesting common threads in the essays? What surprises popped up?
An AASLH Guide to Making Public History was originally just going to be a compilation of articles I had published as History News editor. Kent Whitworth was program chair for the 2008 AASLH annual meeting (in Rochester, home of the Strong). He hit upon the theme of "transformation" due to the Strong's institutional transformation; it also fit well with Rochester's history. Together we pondered the possibility of transforming the AASLH meeting itself and hit upon the idea of publishing a "theme essay" History News in Spring 2008. We have kept that up since then with articles every year in the spring on the upcoming meeting theme. (As a matter of fact, the latest History News, my 48th and final as editor, has Tim Grove's article for 2018 on Truth or Consequences.)
The book was originally going to be me compiling these already-written essays into a book, writing a brief introduction and maybe a conclusion, and publishing them with Rowman & Littlefield. I made the "mistake" of bringing it to my dissertation committee at MTSU as my capstone project. I say "mistake" because they wanted me to put more of my own thoughts into the book. So the book went from ten chapters to, ultimately, twenty-one. I wrote ten. It was a great exercise for me and I used a ton of resources beyond just those articles. I ultimately framed the discussions history professionals had had since 2008 around those themes.
Not surprisingly, the book includes lots of discussion on many of the issues I raised in answering your "Next Frontier" question. Financial and institutional sustainability remains top-of-mind as does a need to transform how we operate/interact with our communities. Collections, the sheer volume history organizations hold, standards for care, and what to collect, also predominate.
The other two main themes are Diversity and Inclusion (a term I capitalize intentionally) and History Relevance. Both issues extend well beyond history organizations.
Would you also like to talk about your thesis work?
I'm near completion of the first draft of my dissertation, “You Wanna Play in My Band, You’d Better Come to Pick”: Duane Allman and American Music. It looks at the life's work and career of one of my heroes, Duane Allman, and his founding of the Allman Brothers Band, a truly groundbreaking band.
Those who know me know I'm kind of obsessive about the Allman Brothers. They just represent everything about music that I like. Of the music I love, they've got all of it (with the exception of punk rock—but they have that in attitude). The dissertation is my attempt to say why that band was so special. Writing it and earning the Ph.D. is this is the last of a group of goals I wrote down when my youngest daughter was born. So it's a culmination in a lot of ways.
If money were no object, what would your “dream” museum project be?
Oh, don't do this to me! It would be very artifact-focused. Almost dominated by artifacts. You can rarely have too many of them for me.
The museum would be place-based. I prefer historic sites and historic buildings: purpose-built museum buildings just don't carry the same weight with me. The subject matter would be historical, but would definitely relate to the present day. I mean, why study history in the first place if it doesn't somehow relate to present circumstances? And it'd include music or music history in some way: instruments, stories, songs, movements, all of that.
Thanks again to Bob for sharing his thoughts (and all the great links!) with ExhibiTricks readers!
Click over to The Lyndhurst Group website to find out more about Bob and his work. And if you'd like to get a 30% discount on Bob's book, An AASLH Guide to Making Public History, just click on this link, and enter the Discount Code: RLFANDF30 on the Publisher's website.
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