Museum Director Musings on a Conference of California Historical Societies Workshop at the Homestead

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

The Homestead was the venue today for a workshop conducted by the Conference of California Historical Societies.  Organized by regional vice-president Ralph Thomas with participants coming from Apple Valley, Downey, San Dimas, Artesia, Boyle Heights, Dana Point and many other areas from greater Los Angeles, the workshop was a stimulating day of presentations and group discussion.

The morning began with an interesting and animated discussion from Kerith Dilley of the Wage Justice Center in Santa Ana talking about volunteer recruitment, retention and empowerment.  Much of what Kerith talked about concerned how to get volunteers to a position of not just doing work, but meaningful work that allows them to get to a point of becoming potential board members and advocates for an organization.

Alison Bruesehoff of the Rancho Los Cerritos historic site in Long Beach tapped into the talents of her younger colleagues to discuss the role of millenials in historical organizations.  Alison vividly brought to the forefront the expectations, experiences and attitudes of people in the twenties and thirties in their interactions with history.

Kerith Dilley of the Wage Justice Center in Santa Ana discussed working with volunteers at today’s Conference of California Historical Societies workshop held at the Homestead.

She noted that millenials are more likely to give of their time than their money, look for opportunities that are socially enriching, and, naturally, are using digital domains in creative and future-oriented ways that advance the causes of history to an extent not necessarily understood or appreciated by earlier generations.  An excellent two-minute video on the progessive-minded Fannie Bixby, of the family that owed Los Cerritos after it was sold to them by Jonathan Temple, and which was produced by millenials was particularly compelling.

Shelley Henderson discussed the concept of the newsletter and challenged participants to go back to basics in terms of what the reason for having them was, who the intended audiences were (which goes to the question of how millenials and the younger iGeneration [a.k.a., Generation Z or post-millenials] get their information about historical organizations.

After a delicious Italian lunch from Hacienda Village Meats, which is located near the museum in Hacienda Heights, the next session was “Keeping Relevant,” and featured my colleagues, director of public progams Alexandra Rasic and programs manager Gennie Truelock, with some assistance from yours truly, discussing ways that the Homestead seeks programmatic relevance.

With a crucial assist from her younger colleagues, Rancho Los Cerritos executive director Alison Bruesehoff talked about millenials and their approaches to history and historical organizations.

This has been done through more interactive and participatory programming, such as our “Curious Cases” series dealing with criminal events in greater Los Angeles from the mid-19th century onward; curriculum-based programs for schools; and the expanding use of varied digital platforms from Facebook to Twitter to Pinterest, as well as one staff member’s proclivity for daily blogging, which often seeks relevancy through references to current issues.

To illustrate ways in which we explore relevancy on our public tours, participants divided into three groups and toured the Workman House and La Casa Nueva.  Objects on exhibit, including early family letters, materials relating to the Temple and Workman bank (which has been the topic of many recent posts on this blog), and architectural features in La Casa Nueva concerning the family’s ethnic identity, were among the components discussed concerning relevancy to visitors, modern issues and other elements.

A panel, featuring Bruesehoff, Chapman University library archivist and Orange County Historical Society officer Stephanie George, and me, then talked about the manifold issues involved in collaboration.  With significant input from attendees, the panel went over the importance of carefully analyzing the need for collaboration; the value of having written agreements; the understanding of the fiscal and human resource commitments from the partners; and those pros and cons that come with collaborative efforts.

My colleagues Alexandra Rasic and Gennie Truelock, with an assist from me, discussed how to engage visitors in relevancy both in an presentation and through a guided tour of the Workman House and La Casa Nueva.

The day ended with Ben Wirick talking about audience development, with attention given to looking at what actual and potential visitors want and need from their interactions with historical organizations and sites.  Certainly, one running thread through the day’s presentations and discussions was about the rapidly morphing and changing demographic shifts, the role of technology, and the imperative for historical societies, museums and others to adapt to change.

In all, it was a stimulating day of presentation and interaction with about fifty people from a broad geographical area and wide variety of organizations.  The Homestead was happy to host, participate and establish a stronger connection to CCHS.  Hopefully, the museum can continue to work with the CCHS and its member organizations to address common goals in the future.  Today was a vivid reminder of the challenges and opportunities that await those of us who work with history and, presumably, all of us in attendance left with a keener appreciation of the importance our institutions play in our communities.

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