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Director’s Notes: September 2014

Remarks from the 2014 Annual Meeting

In reporting on the work of the Newport Historical Society over the past 18 months, it is important to start with our staff. I am not sure how many of you know us as individuals, but we are a 10 full time and 6 part-timers, and we are charged not only with the day-to-day work of the NHS, but also with staying connected with the developments in our field, which are numerous and both exciting and threatening. Let’s look at a few:

  • The relevance of house museums and historic sites is being challenged and examined. As the Connecticut Landmarks organization recently put it:  “the status quo of guided tours, school programs, and the occasional public program is just too risky a path if we want to be a sustainable, and vital, organization in the future.” The status quo is risky; this is an interesting place for an organization to find itself.
  • The roles of tourism and heritage are being explored with an eye towards balancing quality of life and economic development. Visitors increasingly want a different kind of experience than traditional leisure travel provides, and destinations are called upon to become more sophisticated about discovering the balance between serving the tourist and providing for healthy, prosperous resident communities.
  • New techniques for talking about and teaching history are cropping up everywhere, from something as simple as an app to Bill Gates’ new “Big History” project. But we want to do more than just checking boxes on a checklist of innovations. Do they serve our mission? A session at the upcoming New England Museum Association meeting asks the question “When an app is the answer, what is the question?” This is a real issue as we seek to make use of our time and energy in ways that are useful for more than appearances.
  • It is possible that for all small non-profits, not just history organizations, old models for how we support ourselves may become less effective.  Visitation and philanthropy often do not now provide enough income to support the maintenance of cultural institutions and museums. And those of us who have traditionally made money monetizing parts of our collections – sale of photographic rights, for example – are now under pressure to offer our content free, on the web. Which we probably, ultimately, want to do!

Why would we want to offer our content for free? Because it would serve our mission. Given the changing face of philanthropy, we are often encouraged to think about ourselves as businesses, to think about our assets, and to look for new revenue streams. And we do these things; at the NHS, we do them deliberately and often. BUT:  we are not exactly businesses, and I’d like to emphasize two reasons here.

1) We do not really own our assets, but rather hold them in trust for the people of Rhode Island.  And, we have special responsibilities that come along with that, in return for which we are offered our exemption from a variety of taxes, and

2) Our bottom line is never profit. It is true that we have to make money in order to perform our mission, but it is the mission that represents our bottom line: it is our service to our constituents that is a measure of our success. Again, let me emphasize: we need a healthy financial status in order be sustainable – to survive. But that is not enough. We have a special responsibility – we must excel at service in order to deserve to survive.

So we must find new ways to earn and raise money, but we must also focus on the mission at the core of everything we do. This pull and tug is one of several such conundrums that are at the core of our performance. In addition to giving really excellent tours and offering exciting programs, we are also obliged to pay attention to these issues, and our future depends on it.

At the NHS, we are committed to doing so through exploration, innovation, by taking measured risks, and always by looking for dialog and collaboration with our colleagues and our communities.

Innovation means change, and change often means loss at the same time that good things are happening. Three vital staff members have moved on this year. Dr. James Yarnall, and Jane Carey, who have edited and designed the Journal Newport History for what seems like forever, are both passing the baton as of the issue that has just released. Stacie Parillo, who gave shape to our important Lost & Found project and contributed to the NHS in innumerable other ways, has also taken a new position in Providence. We will miss all of them.

New additions to our staff include Bridget Sullivan, who will take the position of Collections Registrar, and Chelsea Gunn who is beginning this month in a newly created position, Manager of Digital Initiatives.

In the coming year, our strategic priorities will be:

  • Completing our capital work and the campaign which funds it; creating a functional base for access to our collections.
  • New exhibitions and publications: Revolution House, changes at the Brick Market, a revitalization of the Journal, Newport History.
  • Exploring the utility of digital initiatives in reaching audiences and supporting scholarship.
  • Continuing to explore the potential in collaborative efforts, especially including the Newportal and Catalyzing Newport projects.

We will continue to innovate and change, using the past as our inspiration and our guide as we do so.