Building Successful Partnerships between Museums and Universities
Catherine M. Lewis, December 2007
Editor's Note: The following article is one of a series on public history and the profession, commissioned by the Professional Division.
Public history programs, at the certificate, undergraduate, or graduate level, are hidden gems within universities. Often housed within history departments, the most effective programs build goodwill in the communities they serve, generate revenue for the college or university, and prove to be a fertile training ground for the next generation of museum or preservation professionals.
The certificate program that I coordinate at Kennesaw State University (KSU) helps students develop the skills to think critically about the public presentation of history and culture. Classroom and fieldwork deliver theoretical and practical understandings of memory and history, preparing students for careers in historic preservation, community documentation, museums, and cultural program development.1 Students take 18 hours of coursework in public history, including courses such as "Historic Preservation," "Documentation and Interpretation," "Museum Studies," "Oral History," and "Fundraising in Non-Profits." In each class students engage in hands-on projects that might include curating an exhibition, documenting the history of a neighborhood, creating a radio documentary, or writing grants. Most students who enroll in KSU's certificate program are history majors, who see the program as helping them define their career paths. When they complete the program, they are well trained in both theory and practice and qualified for an entry-level museum job or further training in graduate school. As a faculty member, I rely on partnerships to get them there.
Beginning the Conversation
Universities with museum studies, public history, or preservation programs are often looking for opportunities to work with local cultural institutions to help train their students and to reach out into the community. Yet, few institutions have experience with such collaborations. To help bridge this gap, I presented at several conferences this past year, including the AHA and the American Association of State and Local History annual meetings with my colleagues Ann McCleary and Catherine Hendricks (Univ. of West Georgia), Patricia Mosier (Atlanta History Center), and Andy Ambrose (Tubman African American Museum). The lively conversations generated by these sessions made it clear that there are many untapped possibilities for such collaborations. These panels had four main goals:
- To inspire faculty members teaching in history, preservation, public history, and museums to partner with local history organizations, thus giving students a laboratory to learn skills that will help train them to join the profession.
- To help large, medium, and small cultural institutions develop and maximize internship and outreach programs in partnerships with universities.
- To provide historical organizations with practical tips about fostering collaboration with local universities.
- To discuss the pros and cons of preservation, oral history, and museum studies projects in the classroom.
The audience members who attended these conference sessions were either involved in such collaborations or were about to embark on one, and they were filled with questions, such as: "How do I begin?" "Should the students be paid to work on such projects?" and "What is the most significant challenge such projects face?" The spirited discussions that resulted made it clear that the discussion needed to be made available to a wider audience. Because I am both a faculty member at KSU and a curator and special projects coordinator at the Atlanta History Center, I can speak from the perspective of both types of institutions.
In a short article, it is difficult to detail the complexity of such partnerships, so I will briefly describe two representative examples. In 2005, independent researcher Jill K. Sauser and I began a conversation about a project to document the history of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra (ASO). At the same time, my KSU colleague Tom Scott was planning to teach the "Oral History" class that is part of our public history program. In a hallway discussion, I pitched to Tom the idea of having his students use the ASO as the topic of his course. With Jill's skillful coordination and with the enthusiasm of Nick Jones at the ASO, the partnership began to take shape.
Jill and I wrote a grant for the project that was eventually funded by the Georgia Humanities Council. Tom restructured his curriculum, and the 15 students who enrolled were asked to conduct five interviews with current or former ASO employees, donors, or volunteers as part of the requirements of the course. They also wrote a research paper using the interviews as some of their primary research. During the process, the ASO generously agreed to host the students for a backstage tour, dinner, and free concert. In sum, the students conducted more than 70 interviews, all of which are transcribed and will be made available to KSU, the ASO, and the Atlanta History Center. After the project was completed, the ASO held a public program at the Woodruff Arts Center that featured individuals who had been interviewed by the students.
The collaboration was ultimately productive, but did have some significant challenges. While enthusiastic at first, the staff at the ASO did not stay as focused and dedicated as the oral history team had expected. The students were unprepared, in some cases, for the frustration of missed appointments and unproductive interviews that plague all oral history projects. Finally, Tom had to contend with students who failed to complete the interviews that they had promised to the former or current employees of the ASO, jeopardizing the goodwill that the team hoped the project would generate. While none of these challenges became insurmountable obstacles, they did remind us of the importance of efficient and realistic project planning.
The second collaboration began out of necessity. In 2005, the university received a half-million dollar grant from the Marcus Foundation to fund Holocaust education, on the condition that the university had an exhibition on the topic that was free and accessible to the public. In 2006, the university was about to close a Holocaust exhibition that had been on loan for three years from the Anne Frank Center, USA, and the university needed a new exhibition to fill the space of that popular installation. As the coordinator of KSU's Holocaust Education Program (HEP), creating a new exhibition became my responsibility. In five months, the HEP staff, consultants, and I researched, wrote, designed, and installed an exhibition that should have taken two years. Our only option was to rely upon partnerships. We turned immediately to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM), the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), and the Atlanta History Center (AHC). Our colleagues at each institution—Patricia Heberer and Ellen Blalock (USHMM), Shelley Rose (ADL), and Glen Kyle (AHC)—helped in profound and significant ways. On January 18, 2007, KSU opened three exhibitions: Parallel Journeys: World War II and the Holocaust through the Eyes of Teens; V for Victory: Georgia Remembers World War II; and The Butterfly Project.2 Details about developing these partnerships are outside the scope of this article, but it is important to note that project teams are often presented with impossible schedules that require extensive resources. In this case, the university elected to fund this project in the middle of the fiscal year with staff and faculty that were already carrying full loads.
These are but two examples of how such collaborations can develop. Several other local examples suggest how scholars and museums in one region are building such partnerships. My colleague and the former director of KSU's Public History Program, LeeAnn Lands, engaged in a multi-year project documenting and interpreting the history of Summer Hill, an African American neighborhood in Cartersville, Georgia, that resulted in an oral history project and the creation of an archive and permanent exhibition.3 She recently completed "Taking Place: A Community Examination of Its Place," a radio documentary in partnership with the Georgia Humanities Council, Kennesaw State University's Department of History and Philosophy and its Keeping and Creating American Communities Project, and the Holly Springs Historic Preservation Commission.4 Ann McCleary and her students have been working with an African American neighborhood in Powder Springs, a community in West Georgia.5 Don Rooney, urban history curator at the Atlanta History Center, engaged Georgia State University graduate students enrolled in the university's Heritage Preservation Program in an exhibition project that was installed at the Sam Nunn Atlanta Federal Center focused on the history of Rich's Department Store in 2003.6 The collaboration involved the U.S. General Services Administration, the Atlanta History Center, and Georgia State.
The key to a successful partnership is good planning. Universities need to determine which local museums or cultural resources are engaged in a project that could easily involve students. Museums or historic sites need to find faculty members at the university who are engaged in historical research that is focused on local history and community outreach. Finding the right project can be a rewarding experience, one that often promises long-term benefits for everyone involved.
Ten Things We Wish We Had Known about Creating Successful Partnerships
1. Practical considerations matter. Student interns are often limited by their transportation and class schedules. Institutions frequently suffer a lack of space and equipment to accommodate students. Addressing these concerns early in the planning process will help your institutions build a successful partnership.
2. Establish realistic expectations. Develop a complete and thorough project plan that details the expectations of all parties. Write clear and detailed job descriptions that everyone involved in the project reviews.
3. Consider how the partnership will help your institution with development opportunities and public relations. Meet with staff members involved in those areas at the beginning of the project.
4. Partnerships take twice as long you think. As a faculty member, I often have to do a semester's worth of work to build the partnership.
5. A business etiquette seminar is helpful for interns and students, especially in the areas of attire and cubicle etiquette.
6. Mentoring is a key piece of these partnerships. Encourage the museum staff to work with students and be available for career counseling. This teaches students how to build a network.
7. Both institutions engaged in the partnership should work together to develop a well-defined project plan (with a schedule and budget). Vague plans result in confusion, wasted time, and bad public relations.
8. Do not shy away from multisemester and multiyear programs.
9. Think big. Write grants, look for national public relations opportunities, and consider international connections.
10. Allow both institutions to assess the project and share those assessments. This is a learning opportunity that many organizations fail to implement.
Catherine Lewis, an associate professor of history at Kennesaw State University, is the coordinator of KSU's Public History Program and the director of KSU's Holocaust Education Program. In addition, she is a curator and special projects coordinator at the Atlanta History Center. She has curated more than 30 exhibitions and is the author or co-author of many books, including The Changing Face of Public History: The Chicago Historical Society and the Transformation of American History Museums. For more information about developing partnerships, please contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
1. LeeAnn Lands, KSU Public History web site, www.kennesaw.edu/history/public_history/PublicHistoryWebsite/intro.htm (accessed March 1, 2007).
2. For more information, visit KSU's Holocaust Education web site at www.kennesaw.edu/paralleljourneys.
3. LeeAnn Lands, The Summer Hill Project, www.summer-hill.org/oral_history_project_process.html (accessed March 17, 2007).
4. For more information about this project, see KSU Press Room, acsdevl.kennesaw.edu/access/newsreleases2.asp?dt=731 (accessed March 15, 2007).
5. For more information about this project, visit the Center for Public History web site, University of West Georgia, www.westga.edu/~history/center.htm (accessed March 2, 2007) and "News from the Center," Center for Public History, University of West Georgia, www.westga.edu/~history/center%20news2002.htm (accessed March 1, 2007).
6. For more information on this project, visit www2.gsu.edu/~wwwexa/news/archive/general/03_1203_pinkpig.htm (accessed March 17, 2007).