What Happens When Preservation and Innovation Collide?

The National Trust for Historic Preservation reflects on their journey through the Innovation Lab for Museums.

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Over the course of two years in EmcArts’s Innovation Lab for Museums, the National Trust for Historic Preservation deeply explored what it meant for a national organization focused on saving historic places to learn how to innovate — how to embrace and implement new processes, skills, and ways of thinking. 

In this post, Estevan Rael-Gálvez, Senior Vice President of Historic Sites, reflects on the arc of the Trust’s journey through the Innovation Lab.

Overview

The very notion of juxtaposing innovation with preservation provided not only a challenge, but also a great opportunity for National Trust Historic Sites and the organization as a whole. The motivation behind our application to the Innovation Lab for Museums was our belief that historic sites are capable of cultivating new forms of knowledge and consciousness and fostering creative openings, where memory and culture are not simply vibrant and alive, but also allow for transformation and renewal.

The Innovation Lab has been a tremendous journey. However, as with any project of this nature, the experience has been a “winding road” that led National Trust Historic Sites to some unexpected places. At some points along the journey, assumptions were challenged, while others were confirmed. Throughout the project, the organization has grown and embraced the language of innovation, and we have incorporated much of the “muscle-building” requirements around innovation into our daily work.

This work has also radiated out in at least two other distinct ways. First, as other departments and divisions of the National Trust have witnessed the excitement and synergy around the work of the Lab, they have adopted both the language and framework. Second, as we have held conversations with other historic sites, house museums, and historical organizations, a similar level of excitement has arisen, particularly in offering new, replicable opportunities.

Our project

We applied to the Innovation Lab because we recognized and believed that change was not only necessary but also possible. Our original application stated:

The existing operating model for [historic house museums] lacks the ability to sustain itself, both culturally and financially. Across the country, historic house museums … find themselves with declining attendance, shrinking budgets, and obligations for the care of historic buildings and collections that they cannot meet. Yet, at the same time, exceptional examples of historic house museums vividly demonstrate that they have the potential to function as highly engaging educational institutions, dynamic community touchstones, and uniquely authentic signifiers of the broad continuum of history.

The overall strategic goal of the “Re-imagining Historic House Museums” initiative for the Innovation Lab was to provide a platform—a launching pad of sorts—from which National Trust Historic Sites could innovate the traditional house museum model, away from a relatively stagnant standard toward a new model with experiences that focused on what is core to those museums—place and story.

“Re-imagining Historic House Museums” embodied a fundamental institutional shift for the National Trust to abandon traditional house museum precepts (static objects, contrived period rooms, guided tours), and instead, to create spaces that informed, illuminated, and inspired. The re-imagined historic house museum would engage the senses beyond sight to include sound, smell, touch, taste, and even sentiment. It would welcome user-generated content and foster new collaborations. It would utilize architecture, collections, and landscapes to tell a broader range of stories that reflect the diversity of American history. It would serve as a living laboratory for conservation, creativity, and scholarship. It would seek to address tensions and difficult issues based in the realities of its past.

Our initial meetings led to a charter with a very clear challenge, vision, objective, and principles, all of which defined the work that we would do in the prototypes that would follow. While the initial vision of our effort toward reimagining was broad and deep—affecting organizational and management practices as much as programming and finance, in the end, the reach exceeded our eventual grasp.

As is true of managing any large portfolio, balancing capacity and creating equilibrium is critical; both at the Historic Sites Department at the Trust’s headquarters, and at each and every historic site in the portfolio. Therefore, the process of going through the Lab eventually led us to a highly conscious phasing and thoughtful prioritization, enabling greater focus, and eventually slowing down enough to spark the creative potential at these places of memory.

Challenges and unanticipated obstacles

The National Trust had never before participated in a funding opportunity structured quite like the Lab. EmcArts had not previously granted Lab funds to multiple (and multiple-sited) museums such as those of the National Trust, which while generally clustered, is in fact a portfolio located from coast to coast.

The portfolio itself posed a challenge because the operating, governance, and ownership models vary across three categories of sites (Stewardship Sites, Co-Stewardship Sites, and Affiliate Sites). Because of this variation, the reality is that there are at least 27 unique museum models, each with their own communities, infrastructures, and challenges. Finally, while the Historic Sites’ Department, which includes headquarters staff and the larger portfolio of 27 sites, represents the largest component of the National Trust (assets, staffing, budget, and endowment) the major focus of the Trust as a whole organization was on preservation advocacy — on saving historic places. Thus, these challenges provided, in many ways, the perfect laboratory for experimentation. Both the Historic Sites Department and the Trust as a whole inevitably learned a great deal, stretching our “adaptive muscles” in ways big and small.

The goal was not only to greatly strengthen the network of sites, but also to shift away from a command and control model to a model of support and synergy of those sites. Cultural change in any organization, however, is never easy or quick and always subject to unique personalities and the inevitable political undercurrents in play, and the Trust was no exception to these challenges.

Additionally, staff capacity was perhaps one of the greatest challenges for implementing the various components of the Lab. From a sheer logistical standpoint, given the relatively small number of staff at headquarters, most of whom have very specific roles in their support of the sites (i.e. chief architect for sites, collections manager), we struggled to maintain an extraordinarily heavy day-to-day workload and at the same time take full advantage of all that the Lab offered.

Our initial plan was to establish a virtual portal for improved communications and to develop a more robust Historic Sites’ network website encountered a variety of obstacles. Some obstacles were related to the capacity of headquarters’ staff, given the push and pull of expectations, mandates, and unexpected urgencies. The Marketing Division encountered other obstacles related to the National Trust’s highly regulated and structured website, resulting in a challenge that, while not insurmountable, would have taken more time than available. As a result, however, not only because of the difficulties encountered, but also because of continual engagement and communication with the sites, this process allowed for a more nimble and flexible approach.

In the end, we adjusted, course-corrected, and set our sights instead on assessment and prototyping, which though unanticipated, resulted positively. While some sites met resistance from some stakeholders around assessment and even the very definition of innovation, and other sites received criticism from the public during their prototyping efforts, most efforts at the sites were receptively met with great expectation and encouragement. Nevertheless, all of the challenges became learning experiences that the sites have absorbed and are using as they move forward in their ongoing work to create and innovate.

Impact

Perhaps the most overt evidence of National Trust Historic Sites growing “innovation muscles” can be seen in the prototyping projects implemented across the portfolio. The sites responded enthusiastically and immediately, planning or implementing their projects, with many presenting their assessments of the completed projects during a Q & A session at our 2013 National Historic Preservation Conference in Indianapolis. Not surprisingly, the prototyping revealed ingenuity, initiative, and creativity, pushing the boundaries of past practices. Per our very “lightly-held” nominal guidelines and framework, the projects were small and manageable, and integrated the innovation philosophy and processes we all had been exploring for the past year.

Three examples of these prototyping projects include:

  1. Underwriting an architect-in-residence at the Glass House, who actually lived in a mobile unit (combining a van, a scissor lift, and an inflatable, translucent room) in order to truly integrate himself into the site’s campus life
  2. Supporting travel for the Executive Director of the Farnsworth House to explore the Rural Studio in central Alabama, an avant-garde architectural studio sponsored by Auburn University that focuses on efficient, economical and sustainable building techniques and is located in one of the poorest counties in the United States – for potential partnerships for his own rurally-located site
  3. A digital web interactive for Lyndhurst, a three-phase project that includes 360° filming for a virtual tour for viewers to navigate “through” the interior of Lyndhurst during the holidays, further filming and upgrading technical aspects of the website to support the “tour,” and lastly connecting the site to Glass House, again virtually through portals that will allow visitors to hone in on a piece of art at Lyndhurst and end up focused on a different piece of art at the Glass House. For this last project, the goal is to connect all the sites virtually in this unique way, and connecting the Glass House and Lyndhurst is a small and incremental effort toward that end.

New capacity for innovation

From an organizational point of view, the fact that President Stephanie Meeks declared 2013-2014 the “Year of Innovation” for the National Trust is remarkable evidence of how pervasive the ideas of the Innovation Lab became. In her winter presentation to the Board of Directors, and at an ensuing All Staff Meeting, Ms. Meeks stated unequivocally that the Trust must dedicate itself to highlighting and celebrating innovation to further transform its work. She specifically noted that, “as the leaders of the preservation movement, we are looked to for advances in preservation action and leadership thinking.” As such, the Trust established the “Insights in Innovation” Speaker Series for all staff to support education about innovation process and ideas.

Future plans

National Trust Historic Sites believe that history holds tremendous power and potential to illuminate, inform, inspire, and influence. We believe that when combined with the power of place, the opportunity to deepen the understanding and appreciation for the past exists in a critical, layered, and sensory experience. As practitioners of history, we know from the lessons of the past that sometimes, like wine, good ideas need time to develop and the right time and place to open and savor. And other times, innovation requires taking a step back, re-focusing, and trying something in a different way.

Because of our Innovation Lab experience, our staff is eager to continue experimenting, taking risks, and realizing that change is dependent upon incremental changes that work toward tipping points. During the prototyping process, I often heard site staff comment that they had never witnessed the National Trust investing in innovation and encouraging risk taking. The framework and language and frankly, a changed culture, have given the staff permission to take risks, make mistakes, adjust, and if necessary, repeat, until momentum is steadily built. This changed culture has resulted in thinking differently, moving past assumptions about stakeholders, audiences, programming, revenue, and infrastructure, and finding ways to leverage all of these toward a common goal. The National Trust will continue to draw upon the momentum of the Lab by investing, even in small ways, in operational and programmatic innovations.

About
Estevan Rael-Gálvez is Senior Vice President of Historic Sites at the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

  • Jane Lewis

    As a member of the initial Innovation Lab team from the National Trust, the experience confirmed my belief that innovation is (1) essential for the survival of classic house museums and (2) that it is a process, not an event. Having practiced innovation at the site I am affiliated with in Texas (Vlla Finale), it is clear that the public is hungry for new ways to experience historic sites. However; ensuring that the staff and other supporters recognize that fact is an ongoing exercise in education, experimentation and evaluation. Some successes come easy, but longer lasting results require persistence and patience. Innovation in traditional arenas is not for the faint-at-heart but, once the benefits are realized, there is no “going back!” Thank you to Estevan and the EmcARTS team for enlightening and encouraging innovation through its sites at the National Trust!

  • henry urbach

    At the Glass House we are really grateful to Estevan, the National Trust, and EmcARTS for nurturing innovation at our historic site. We continue this experimental process — I couldn’t agree more, Jane —with exhibitions, public programs, educational outreach, and new ways of inhabiting the site. Our two-week residency with Alex Schweder was a unique opportunity to better understand how we can accommodate artists or writers-in-residence at the Glass House while affording Alex access to Philip Johnson’s library toward his dissertation research at Cambridge University.