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Guidestar recently carried an article Is Your Organization Ready for “The Boom”? by Christine Litch that notes the impending retirement of the Baby Boom generation and its potential impact for nonprofit organizations. AASLH’s “History News” Summer 2007 issue has an article “A Golden Age for Historic Properties” by John Durel and Anita Nowery Durel that highlights intriguing possibilities to involve Boomers in years to come. No question about it: Boomers will shape local historical organizations for many years to come. Both Litch and the Durels see the influx of Boomer volunteers and users as a structural issue. Litch foresees difficulties in accommodating so many potential volunteers, while the Durels call for reorganizing how programs work. What are some of the issues you are noticing as Boomers more frequently use or volunteer for your organization? What are some of the ways that you are adapting to new demands? How has your organization adapted to new realities in the past?
Any lessons there?

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11 Responses to Ready for the Boom?

  1. Mike Worcester says:

    Im going to re-frame this topic just a hair by taking on one of the central premises of the article: that Boomers will become active volunteers in historical societies.

    My question is this: is that an easily acceptable presumption? Will Boomers truly volunteer both in numbers and level of involvement like the generation before them? I really wonder about that.

    When looking at our current volunteers levels, we see a definite gap caused by a drop off of people who fall into the Boomer age range. Especially when compared to the World War II generation. It makes me question if we will see the same level of active participation from the previous generation.

    So, Boomers out there, any thoughts?


  2. Mary Warner says:

    You know, Mike, during one of the sessions at the AASLH annual conference in September, one of the attendees said that Boomers are not behaving as people expected they would upon reaching retirement. Instead of seeking out volunteer opportunities, they’re taking their nest eggs and having fun. When you’ve got Dennis Hopper doing commercials in which he tells new retirees to live their dreams, I’m not sure volunteering for a nonprofit is going to top the list. It probably feels too much like work. People want to explore their personal interests when they are unfettered by working for a living. Museums are going to have to find ways to speak to this self-interest and we’re going to have to provide volunteer activities that feel like play instead of work. Of course, I’m speaking as a Gen Xer, so what do I know? 🙂


  3. Claudia Nicholson says:

    Ahem. . . . Boomer here.

    I think I may have read one of these articles. What I am seeing already is that retired people are out there having fun, visiting grandchildren, taking trips they’ve dreamed about for years, or recommitting to their families in hands-on ways (grandparents as babysitters or primary caregivers). And in this region of the country, taking off for warmer climes for the winter.

    What I understood from one of the articles, and what I have seen at my own place, is that we have to think seriously about revamping our volunteer programs to accommodate groups for projects of limited duration. One of the articles even went so far as to suggest that museums hand off portions of program to organized groups of volunteers to take care of it themselves.

    I haven’t yet wrapped my mind around the occasional, project-driven volunteer. I still keep hoping that there are legions of people out there that are willing to commit to a four-hour period every week from now until forever.

    It ain’t going to happen. Adapt or die. And expect to find a lot fewer people willing to give you their retirement.


  4. David Grabitske says:

    A friend of mine from Boston passed along a copy of a paper entitled, "The End of History Museums: What’s Plan B?" by Cary Carson, a retired vice president of the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. In the paper Carson challenges us to "make history come alive, this time for Generations X, Y, Z and beyond." He suggests that to be ready for the Boom and beyond, historical organizations need to collaborate on a regional "superstory" (one story with varying shades told in multiple venues) and to encourage "B.Y.O.T" (bring your own technology). In order for this to work, the superstory has to be told like an addictive soap opera, and users should not only be allowed but encouraged to record the story with the technology that they will inevitably bring. How realistic would this model be for Minnesota?


  5. David Inman says:

    For those interested in the paper David mentioned, here’s <a href="http://www.bu.edu/ah/programs/carsoncary.pdf">The End of History Museums: What’s Plan B?</a> as a 1.7MB PDF, courtesy of Boston Univ., one the sponsors of the <a href="http://www.bu.edu/ah/programs/museum.html">New Audiences for Old Houses: Building A Future With The Past conference</a> (scroll down about a page) where the paper was presented. (Note that the PDF file appears to have been created by scanning the original so you can’t search for text as you can frequently do with PDF files.)


  6. David Inman says:

    I’m not sure why the links didn’t appear as clickable links. If you copy the URL (between the quotes) and paste it into the address field of your browser, you should be able to access the file or page.


  7. Mary Warner says:

    David I. – I don’t know why the links aren’t clickable either.

    David G. – Is this something your tech staff could work on?


  8. Mary Warner says:

    While it would take me time to consider the superstory idea that Cary Carson has suggested (the logistics make my head spin), I can tell you that there is an attitude that needs changing in the museum world when it comes to the idea of celebrity that he touches on.

    Cary’s suggestion is that we hire actors and producers in order to create an ongoing history soap opera that is posted on the web. This soap opera would be the grand collaboration of many historical organizations in a region. The goal of the soap opera is to hook viewers and get them to want to visit the organizations involved and to meet the "TV celebrity actor-interpeters" they’ve connected with.

    Cary also talks about how the tech-savvy generation wants to take an active part in their own learning by using their technology and posting their experiences on the various Web 2.0 applications on the web (i.e. Facebook, MySpace, blogs, Flickr, etc.).

    We have entered the era of microcelebrity, as Clive Thompson describes it in the current issue of Wired magazine. (http://www.wired.com/techbiz/people/magazine/15-12/st_thompson)
    Each one of us with an online following can be a microcelebrity. My daughter and nieces regularly take pictures of themselves, sometimes with the intent to post them on their private Facebook pages in order to share them with friends.

    Tell me, how many small museums use the personalities of their staff members in order to sell their story? What I see most often is museum staff that doesn’t want personal attention. It’s all about the mission of the organization. But, you can’t sell that mission unless you have personalities who can deliver. Who can make it exciting. Who can connect with visitors and users.

    We could take a hint from the younger generation here and lose a little of this self-imposed modesty. While we wouldn’t want an individual personality to become more important than our mission, we also don’t need to hide behind the cabbage leaf, so to speak.


  9. David Grabitske says:

    Mary brings up a good point about staff and volunteers at historical organizations becoming microcelebrities. On the one hand, the leaders in local history are microcelebrities whether they want to be or not. How often does a member of the public simply call you at home? If that has ever happened, you are a microcelebrity. Anyone have a story to share about such an incident?

    This also gets back to Miller’s comments (in "Under a Microscope?") about the blurring of the lines for nonprofits. While he’s primarily concerned about business practice, I think something could be said for the blurring of a line between pop-culture and "trusted historical resource." That’s probably one more reason we all are reluctant to fully embrace microcelebrity. As Mary points out, it is all about the mission. So long as we never lose sight of that in any endeavor (business, celebrity, etc.) I think nonprofit historical organizations will be in fine shape.

    So is modesty something Minnesotans can overcome? If so, for the exceptionally bashful person, what might be the first step toward losing strict modesty?

    David I. — thanks for finding those papers online. I did a very brief search and had struck out.


  10. Mary Warner says:

    I have been called many times at home for work-related issues, which is nothing compared to how often our executive director gets called at home.

    I think the way to overcome our modesty (or bashfulness) is to concentrate on those we are serving. How can we make them feel comfortable and accepted? How can we give them a show? By giving them a show, I don’t necessarily mean dressing up in period costume and becoming an actor, but in creating engaging presentations and in presenting one’s self in a manner that is both interesting and welcoming. The focus isn’t really you. The focus is the audience and in communicating your message in a way that the audience enjoys and understands.

    If you’re successful at this, people will start thinking of you as a microcelebrity and they’ll want to meet you and talk to you and ask for your autograph. Once again, this isn’t completely about you. Your fan wants validation. Think about how you feel when you’ve met a celebrity. Nervous, probably . . . wanting to feel like you’re important enough to be in this person’s presence. You certainly don’t want a celebrity to deny what you say to him, for example, if you pay the celebrity a compliment for his work. What you don’t want to hear is, "Oh, it was nothing." The actor Stephen Fry tells a great story on his blog about an incident with John Cleese that speaks to graciously accepting compliments. It’s a great lesson no matter how "micro" your celebrity may be. (Link here: http://stephenfry.com/blog/?p=19)

    Accepting microcelebrity can be hard for us modest historians, but doing so feeds others’ desires to know something about the people around them, including us illusive historians. When you’re reading an article, don’t you want to know who wrote it? If it’s especially engaging, don’t you want to know more about the author, including maybe seeing a picture? By accepting your microcelebrity and releasing some information about yourself, you’re feeding your audience’s curiosity, letting them feel connected to you and the larger society through your communication of history.

    In relation to this, I’ve noticed that some of our colleagues will not put their names on newsletter articles they’ve written. Not only is this an example of not being able to accept microcelebrity, it is not good for the historic record. In order to fully understand an historical piece, we have to know who wrote it. This would be a good first step for shy historians – claim yourself as the author of your work. Your audience deserves this much.


  11. Krista Finstad Hanson says:

    Hi All

    Generation Xer here with a Boomer mom (born in ’45) and my two kids are now officially musuem-ready (ages 5 & 7 – well the 7 year old for sure!). It seems to me the same amount of people who currently attend local and historical society museums will continue, but I have no research to base that on. Hopefully the number won’t go down… but I can’t see it going up (although the crowds at the Retro Rama events at the MHS History Center were really big and inspiring!)

    But in my work researching and writing about historic house museums for Minnesota and Wisconsin I found that nearly every site had a core group of dedicated volunteers who were mostly grey-haired folks, and perhaps some middle-aged or younger paid staff members. Of course there’s the occasional high-school or college-intern as well.

    I am thinking however of my mom’s involvement in the local museum which definitely started after her retirement. She had already been a "do-er" of course and then added on some more things to do after she left her day job: History museum, church duties, garden club and of course travel and visiting grandkids too.

    Which gets back to the old "live what you learn" adage – I am a do-er but also a museum lover via my family. And I am taking my kids to museums because I love them and I want my kids to love them and I want these museums to be there for them as they grow up.

    I personally don’t want a lot of technology. I think it remains awe-inspiring to see the opposite actually…. the women cooking on the wood-fired cookstove and learning about all of that process. Seeing the old implements and having someone tell you or show you how they were used. That is the purpose of a historical museum in my book. I don’t want to listen to a podcast while I’m at a museum instead of seeing a costumed (real life) person in front of me. But I am definitely not the "norm" for my generation either (no cell phone or cable tv here… let alone MP3 players or the like).

    But seriously …. if everyone could live their passion and turn that into a doing-good and giving-back thing in any variation of need (history museums, impoverished kids, advocating for …. you name it) think of what a world this would be!


    Krista Finstad Hanson


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