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Practical Futurism: a Case Study

Category: Center for the Future Of Museums Blog

This week’s guest blogger is Bill Martin, director of the Valentine Richmond History Center in Virginia. Bill was one of our panelists on the session “Practical Futurism” at the AAM annual meeting in Houston last week, and shares how his staff and board used forecasting data from CFM, together with their own research, to shape their strategic plan. 

Richmond is suffering a major identity crisis. It is no longer that sleepy Southern Capital of the Confederacy, as much as the leadership may want to believe in this image. And the Valentine Richmond History Center has been working through an identity crisis of its own, with the help of resources from the Center for the Future of Museums.

The Valentine Museum was established in 1892 as a general museum for the city of Richmond. Its mission has morphed over the years and its collections have grown. Today we hold over 1.5 million objects and substantial archival holdings. The facilities have grown as well, and now encompass a series of historic structures and contemporary additions that encompass a city block located just 2 blocks from Virginia’s capital. Our programs and exhibitions have a long and storied history. The first resolution of the board, in 1902, established that we would provide programming for all school children of Richmond, black and white.

In the early 90’s, a failed expansion program, traumatized the History Center. We suffered the loss of community confidence, and were financially weakened, finding ourselves $10 million in debt. At one point local law enforcement had been instructed to seize the collections as collateral, but the good officer refused to do so after I toured him through the collections and explained their importance!

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From our name to our collections we set out to establish a fundamentally different role for the institution in a very traditional environment. Faced with an aging donor base and a community that is radically changing generationally and ethnically, we decided that forecasting, community research and strategic planning would be the engines driving the reemergence of the History Center.

The timing of the launch of the Center of the Future of Museums was perfect for us. The Museums & Society 2034 report became the base line material for the most recent cycle of planning at the History Center. It was the core reading assignment for all board members and staff. There were reservations among both staff and trustees to this approach. Some people’s reaction was “I’m going to be dead in 2034, why should I care?” But others said very strongly that this is exactly what the museum should be concerned with—helping plan the future of our community.

We focused on four themes from the 2034 report—Demographics, Technology, the Economy, and Cultural Change. Teams of staff and board were created around these areas and we identified content specialists in each of the areas to provide current research on Richmond and these trends. These teams were very diverse groups, and included the local president of the Federal Reserve, head of the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, Tech geeks and representatives from the planning district. The teams worked over a 4 month period, and what emerged from their conversations was that Richmond had changed and we had missed it.

You can read about all four themes in our plan, but here, for example, are a few of the things we discovered about Richmond’s demographic changes, some are which are certainly national trends, but a few of which that are unique to our city:

Generation and Gender
In 2025, 25% of Virginians will be over the age off 65, up from only 12% now. Gen Xers will enter middle age and become the area’s primary travelers, investors and decision-makers. This is important because members of Gen X have different expectations of their cultural experiences. The Virginia Tourism Corporation is now focusing all of its new marketing on this group.

Women will play an increasingly important role in both the family and civic leadership. Eighty percent of all graduates from Historically Black Colleges are women—62% of graduates from the VCU Medical School are women, as are 52% of graduates from the TC Williams Law School at the University of Richmond. The latest census reveals the increasing number of households in the region with women as the principal wage earner.

Diverse Populations
By 2050, 1 in 4 Virginia residents will identify as Hispanic American. Hispanic and Asian residents have concentrated not in the City, where there are concentration of lower income African Americans, but in the counties. Seven census tracts in the city that were low income in 2000 are now middle income. The City Council became majority white, even with a majority African American population.

When Age and Culture Meet
While the majority of Richmond population is aging, the youngest segment of the population is becoming more diverse. By 2025 the number of whites in Richmond over the age of 65 will increase by 464%, while the number of whites between the ages of 18 and 44 will decrease by 81%.

All this raises difficult questions for the History Center. How do we serve our traditional donor base (the Greatest Generation) while developing new approaches for boomers and gen Xers and beginning to attract the attention, patronage and engagement of a younger and increasing non-white audience? Are there universal interests shared by these groups?

Each theme presented similar challenges and opportunities. Experiential technology, for example, holds endless opportunities but also potentially endless needs for staff and for financial investment. Housing values in Richmond continue to decline even as national trends improve, but city residents saw a smaller decline in real estate values than county residents. This may drive people to the city core, helping our urban focus to pay off! Culturally, we hope the History Center, by providing an environment where there are not physical or language barriers to conversation, can be a community nexus for exploring our city’s emerging identity.

From Research to Action
So what did we do with all of this information? First, we took a fresh look at our campus. We were already deep into our Richmond History Gallery project, but we decided to change it based on what we had learned about our current and future audiences. We decided not to build a traditional auditorium for lectures, focusing instead on creating new public spaces. We made the new HVAC systems as energy efficient as possible, not from any inherent dedication on the part of the museum to “go green” but because they make financial sense! Regarding collections, we started major initiatives in African American neighborhoods, and we just collected the interior of Richmond’s first Mexican restaurant. Our new collections plan will also address digital collections.

We see our location as the geographical, emotional, and historical center of the region, and are building our role as a connector. Together with the Convention and Visitors Bureau we’ve created a central calendar for the region, and want to be a major site for community conversations.

The History Center’s plan is a living document—it doesn’t stop here. The strategic planning committee, composed of equal number of staff and trustees, meets quarterly, and we’re beginning to prepare for the next board retreat for the fall of 2012. By which time, we hope, there will be fresh forecasting data from the Center for the Future of Museums to fuel our conversations.

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