Over the past four months the NHS has been reinventing itself for a Covid present and post-Covid future. But, our long-standing but flexible mission is defining and delimiting that change.
The NHS is a history organization. We collect, preserve and interpret the past for a public audience. But we are always thinking about how the past shapes the present, and how knowledge of the facts of history can inform how we struggle to shape the future. We have often worked to explain to our audiences that these things are more than academic, But, the whole world is with us in this moment.We are all asking questions like this: How has the country dealt with what seem like irreconcilable ideological differences in the past? When the answer was, with a war, what might have prevented that? How do the monuments to the Confederacy that, until very recently dotted our landscape have an effect on our society? Is our President’s approach to governing unprecedented, as is often claimed? Do the circumstances that drove the formation of American police forces still shape their habits and practices today? In fact, is a country that was created with violence always inclined to solve its problems violently?
These issues and many others with historical points of contact are being debated and discussed in media, in legislatures, in living rooms and around water coolers all over the country. Organizations like ours have never been more relevant. However, we know, from data collected across the country, that history museums are perceived as trusted sources for information about the past, and that his trust is attached to specific perceptions about our institutions and our avoidance of the appearance of bias. We believe that this is a strength, a tool for performing our mission, and therefore not something we should discard lightly.
It is clear that historical information is always touched by bias. Interpretations are shaped by the shared values and expectations of our current era and limited by the available facts. Both of these things change over time – new research leads to new understandings of the past, and present norms and values also change, sometimes in an instant. This is a good thing, as long as people can trust that in knocking down a shibboleth, we are adding to our understanding and broadening our vision, and not replacing one narrow view with another.
And this flows both ways. Continuing historical research and new historical interpretations, while not in their essence political, can ultimately spur or contribute to change in our culture and society. For example, we know that the Civil War was fought over slavery. And while many fought for emancipation with the expectation that the freed people of African descent would have the full rights of citizens, we recognize today that in many ways, this did not happen. Whatever you believe needs to happen now to address the consequences of this, these are the facts that historical research provides.
So that was a rather long explanation of why we believe that our relevancy is found not in taking a position on controversies or political movements, even when many of us feel strongly. Or in changing the mission of our organization toward political activism or direct service in these challenging times. We believe, however, that we do have a key role, in providing our audiences with information that is useful to understanding current events, and in placing them in the context of our shared history. And, in fact, data tells us that this is exactly what most people want us to do. We are endeavoring to do those things as part of the general realignment of our programs that the state of current events — pandemic, economic uncertainty, and social unrest – have pushed us to accelerate.
So, what exactly have we done in the past four months to realign our institution while remaining bounded by our mission? The moment we knew that we would need to close (along with so many others), we knew that we would lose something close to 30% of our income in a moment, and that has been the case. But, as our Board President Paul McGreevy has said, we decided to keep working. In fact, to work harder, just mostly from home.
Our core staff began to assemble content in all of our areas of activity and to find ways to put it up online, for free. We called this initiative History at Home. In doing this, we decided that our best path forward was not to reduce our operation, but rather to focus on keeping our audiences, and even expanding them, by taking our content to where people were: like us, mostly at home. In this we were clearly successful. In general, our website hosted about 60% more visitors in quarantine than it did last spring. Some areas saw even more dramatic improvement. Sixty times more visitors came to look at our collections online in this period, up from several hundred last spring to nearly 20,000. This represents an expansion of audience from a relatively small group of researchers to a much broader public audience for this resource.
We kept our Museum Store going through online sales. ShopNewportHistory.com went from about 1500 visitors each month last spring to over 6,000 each month this year, and the online store earned more than double the dollar value of online sales in 2019. The bricks and mortar shop continued to make sales, too. By phone order, with curbside pickup and even local home delivery. We kept our core staff on payroll, and kept them very busy.
We also created our Know Your History initiative, which offers specific historical information that may provide virtual visitors with context for current events and issues. Today, this page on our website contains information about Black history. Future additions will continue to be responsive to current events, including the history of protest in America and information about Rhode Island’s First Nations.
At a virtual Meeting of the American Alliance for Museums, keynote speaker Anthony Salcito, a VP at Microsoft, spoke encouragingly about the organizations around the country that took the path that NHS has followed. Those who expanded online offerings increased their audiences and potentially, their reach.
So, three questions are on the table now. How are we doing, what have we learned and what is next? We have changed in the past 4 months. Rhode Island has changed, the museum field will probably never be exactly the same, and in fact that is likely true of the whole world. During the same AAM session, Mr. Salcito and others told several hundred assembled museum professionals that those of us who will do well going forward will likely be those who are nimble, adaptable, and willing to accept that there is no going back to normal. Digital access will be a component of everything we do, probably more and more so, not less and less. Young people will be learning online, scholars will be researching online, and as has been the case over the past three months, thousands of people from all over the world will be accessing our resources online.
We have been nimble and adaptable for the past 12 years, so that is the easy part. And we have taken some large steps into the digital realm this year. What must follow now is significant evaluation and planning. What works best, and perhaps most importantly, how can we translate successful new online programming into income! We need to know what did not succeed, and can be discarded? What role can digital fundraising events play for us – join us at the Virtual Newport Show in one month from today. And finally, how can we work with, and learn with, other, similar organizations who are going through the same process?
To these ends, NHS will be revitalizing its long-range planning committee to begin to ask these questions, collect data, and make some strategic decisions about how we go forward. And in regard to the last question, we have established a partnership with the Rhode Island Historical Society, from whom we separated in 1853, to begin to think about the whole state, it’s illustrious history, and how we can deliver that history to a broad audience, digitally and together.
Finally, thanks to our community for your interest in NHS, and your interest in keeping us going. Your support directly after the Covid closure gave us the confidence to maintain course. And now, I have tremendous confidence that we will continue to play an important role for our community and our vital, vulnerable, and changing nation.
NHS Board Members, 2020
Paul McGreevy, President
Douglas Newhouse, First Vice President
Dwight Sipprelle, Second Vice President
Nancy Cardoza, Treasurer
Anne F. Hamilton, Secretary
Elaine F. Crane
Nancy Cushing Evans
Akeia de Barros Gomes
Thomas P.I. Goddard, Richard I. Burnham, Presidents Emeritus