The Future of the Berks History Center: A Message from the Director

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Introduction & Mission:

Recognized as the Official Historical Society of Berks County by the Pennsylvania Historical Museum Commission, the Berks History Center (BHC) has been a bedrock institution in Berks County since its founding in 1869. Throughout its 149 year history, the Berks History Center has been and continues to be committed to collecting and preserving Berks County’s historic legacy. The BHC is the organization the citizens of our community turn to when they want to connect with their home, their community and their history.  Our commitment to protect and care for our invaluable collections, preserves the unique identity and character of our community. The BHC believes this is our role and value to the community we serve and are honored to provide this leadership. We seek to preserve the past, yet we understand that in order to do so for generations to come, our organization has and always will continue to evolve. And, while the future organization may look different from what it is today, the most important thing is that the BHC remains viable to continue its mission to preserve Berks County’s heritage.

Over the past fifty years, many events and trends have changed our society, impacting our community in many ways. These transformations have had a profound effect on all aspects of our lives, including the operating efficiencies of the BHC. Furthermore, the BHC faces a number of challenges within its current operating model that threaten the sustainability of the organization. The purpose of this report is to demonstrate how these changes have affected the BHC, what we have done already to address these challenges and how they will direct the work of the BHC board and management as it develops a sustainable business plan for the future.

Changes & Challenges

Over the past 20 years, a significant factor that has affected the BHC has been the attrition of the World War II Generation, who, unlike more recent age groups, were a generation of “joiners.” Unfortunately and inescapably, a large segment of the “Greatest Generation” has died, resulting in a major decline in the membership ranks of many organizations like the BHC. As a result of this decline, a significant portion of one of the BHC’s largest revenue streams has been lost. Today, the BHC has a membership community of about 1,250 (large by the standards of historical organizations) and we are fortunate to have many Baby Boomers, Gen Xers and even Millennials among those members. We are thankful to all of our members who continue to support the BHC each year. However, this number is more than fifty percent less than what it was a decade ago; in 2006, the BHC had a membership of 2,700. Fortunately through the efforts outlined in the Accomplishments & Achievements section further along in this document, the BHC’s membership has stabilized over the past 18 months. Additionally, the World War II Generation had amassed significant financial assets and was very generous in remembering and supporting the BHC with their estates. Nevertheless, this type of generous giving has also declined in recent years.

Another significant challenge has been the de-emphasis on history as a part of the core curriculum offered in schools today. The lack of concentration on history education does little to instill a sense of importance for the subject that would otherwise carry forward in a student’s later life and nurture their appreciation for local history. Also, due to lack of educational funding for school field trips and extracurricular enrichment, the BHC’s school visitation has declined over the years. Currently, an average of 3,000 school children, mostly from 3rd and 4th grades, visit the BHC every year, a number that is significantly less than in years past.

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While changes in educational standards have weakened the BHC’s community value as an educational institution, increased access to information in the digital age has also impacted the BHC. The change in the way we access information via the internet has been positive and transformational in countless ways, increasing the availability of educational resources exponentially. However, increased access to electronic information has also proven problematic for libraries and archives such as the BHC’s Henry Janssen Research Library. What was once proprietary information at the BHC, and significant revenue, is now free for the taking with a “click” of a mouse and the amount of materials available online grows daily. As a result of this quickly changing environment, the BHC can no longer rely on library access fees as a significant source of earned revenue.

In addition to decreased opportunities for earned revenue, the BHC’s business support base has dramatically declined through the relocation and erosion of businesses in Reading and Berks County. While the BHC is supported by a number of loyal local businesses, the overall availability of local business support through sponsorship, membership, and advertisement dollars has significantly declined. What was once a thriving business community, our region has suffered a striking loss of businesses that were “Berks-based.” Many of the businesses that remain in Berks County today are headquartered elsewhere and do not possess an understanding of, or appreciation for, the heritage that is unique to Berks County and what makes our community special. This loss of local business support coupled with the attrition of the generous givers of the World War II Generation has stunted the philanthropic support once given to the BHC.

Lastly, one cannot ignore the demographic and cultural changes that have taken place within the City of Reading and Berks County over the last 40-50 years. As the population has changed from predominantly European caucasian to a multicultural mix, the BHC has struggled to make the changes necessary to reflect the shifting cultural norms and interests of the current population. Overall, this shortcoming can be observed in every aspect of the organization, including the content of the museum and research library collections. Due to past collecting practices and trends, cultural norms, and the general nature of how artifacts come to be regarded as important to preserve, the BHC collections do not reflect the experiences of many of Reading and Berks County’s current populations. Furthermore, the BHC’s membership and visitation tends to be predominantly white, middle class, as does the staff and board, leaving out a large portion of our community. In the face of changing demographics in Berks County, in order to remain viable and relevant to the current and future populations of Berks County, the BHC needs to creatively adapt by planning for accessibility and inclusiveness.

Accomplishments & Achievements:

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Despite the challenges the BHC has faced over the past 30 years, it has also made significant strides. In more recent years (the last 36 – 48 months), the BHC has been aggressively proactive in planning for the future sustainability of the organization. Starting in 2014, the BHC has renovated, or created entirely new exhibits in all of its galleries in the BHC Museum. This is a major departure for the institution, where in the past, exhibits would routinely go unchanged for 25 years or more. Concurrently, repairs and updates were made to the interior of the BHC’s Museum galleries through funding received from generous friends and the Educational Improvement Tax Credit program, a funding stream that the BHC began accessing in 2013.

Also, in 2014, the BHC began introducing exhibits and programs that interpreted more recent subjects in history, resulting in increased community interest and engagement. Exhibits such as Magical History Tour: A Cultural and Musical Happening spawned the inception of what has become one of the community’s largest attended musical events: the Magical History Tour concert! Since it began in 2014, all 6 Magical History Tour concerts have been attended by an average of 1,200 people. The event has a dedicated following and Magical History Tour Pt. VI on August 18, 2018 will continue this excitement. Simply put, Magical History Tour is an event the people of Reading and Berks County don’t want to miss.

Using valuable feedback from our members, volunteers, and patrons, the BHC increased the number and improved the content of our programming and bus trips. By providing programs that engage the interests of our patrons as well as creating programs that reach our target markets, the BHC is building its following, increasing attendance, enhancing revenue, and expanding the reach of its brand in the community. The BHC bus trips are incredibly successful and have resulted in many new memberships.

In 2015, after thoughtful consideration, the BHC made the difficult but necessary decision to divest itself of the Hendel House. While the Hendel House remains a significant historic architectural structure in the Center Park Historic District, the property did not further the mission of the BHC and maintenance of the building exhausted significant financial resources our organization needed for its operations.

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As we took stock of the financial sustainability of the organization, we also assessed our preservation efforts in our museum and research library. In 2010 and again in 2016, the BHC installed new high-density shelving in the BHC Research Library, providing safer storage and increased access to a larger portion of the Library collections. At the same time, additional high-density shelving was added to storage areas in the museum. Later in 2016, the BHC embarked on a collections management project that aimed to inventory, organize, and evaluate the BHC’s entire collection of museum artifacts. This process took 16 months, revealed nearly 30,000 artifacts and resulted in the deaccession of artifacts that did not fit the mission of the BHC. The process of deaccessioning is now ongoing. Through the generous support of the Edwin Barbey Charitable Trust and other friends of the BHC, the project was completed at the end of 2017 and has improved the BHC’s knowledge of exactly what artifacts are in the collection, where they came from, how they were used, and where they are currently stored. The project was recognized as an organizational milestone by PA Museums in 2018 with an Institutional Achievement Award that distinguished the BHC for establishing and maintaining standards of excellence in the BHC Museum. By tending to our collections through these initiatives, the BHC is upholding its responsibility to care for and protect the artifacts and documents that embody the historic legacy of Berks County.

With the addition of enthusiastic and professional staff members the BHC has created a positive culture of teamwork, persistence, and a “can do” attitude, which has gone a long way in helping the BHC to achieve its goals. The BHC staff and their volunteers are becoming experts in teamwork. With positive leadership and a culture of esprit de corps, the Berks History Center has become a creative, collaborative work environment. The cultural changes that have taken place at the BHC were fueled by a shift in leadership and policies on the Board of Directors. Term limits were established and new board members have infused the BHC with fresh ideas.

Finally, in the past two years, the BHC has innovated the way that we connect with our community, including our members, patrons, sponsors, and partner organizations. Through a branding assessment and strategy, the BHC has made a significant effort to establish and elevate BHC’s brand identity by becoming more consistent in our branding efforts and building better relationships with the people who support us. For example, we reviewed and revised our membership benefits, along with our membership management systems, to better serve the people who support the BHC. We implemented a communications and social media strategy that prioritizes engagement and utilizes feedback from our members, patrons and followers. Due to these efforts the BHC has built a significant following and is now better recognized throughout the community. The BHC has experienced approximately a 35% increase in attendance at its 2nd Saturday Programs, a regular attendance of 1,200 participants at its annual Magical History Tour Concert and 400-600 participants at its annual 4 Centuries in Berks Historic Property Tour.  While more work needs to be done, all of these accomplishments, as well as our rebranding efforts have brought about greater engagement with BHC’s constituents and laid the foundation for a brighter, more sustainable future as a public trust intended to serve the entire community.

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The trustees, staff and volunteers at the BHC have worked hard to make real, effective change within the organization and many of their endeavors have been revolutionary in the overall direction and viability of the institution. All of these combined Accomplishments & Achievements have contributed to reducing the structural deficit of the BHC operating budget by 60% and while this is a good start, the BHC board and staff are continuing their work to formulate a business model that is viable, relevant and ensures future sustainability. However, even with these efforts underway, the BHC currently faces a number of hurdles that need to be addressed in order for the organization to survive. In addition to the changing cultural climate of support and membership that was outlined in the first four pages of this paper, the BHC is challenged by a number of issues on site. With each passing year, the perception of safety (real or imagined) seems to be more of a concern for those who visit the BHC. Combined with the challenge of limited parking, this attitude inhibits the BHC as a user-friendly destination. The BHC facilities are aging and in need of significant repair and retrofitting. The BHC museum building was constructed over 90 years ago out of solid concrete, making the structure a challenge to retrofit or adapt for multiple usages. The BHC buildings are also in need of new mechanical and HVAC systems and do not have the appropriate climate control or fire suppression systems necessary for protecting the BHC’s precious collections.

Conclusion:

In planning for the future, any decision must be grounded in a preliminary strategic/business planning session with staff, trustees, and members of the BHC community to better establish and define the BHC’s core values and identity. In addition, a thorough building assessment of our current location must be conducted concurrently with the strategic/business plan to determine whether or not the BHC’s current location is viable as a venue for the BHC of the future.

Having spent considerable time thinking about multiple options for the BHC, we believe working collaboratively with a consulting firm that specializes in museum and cultural organizations to achieve a sustainable business model is the BHC’s best course of action.  Integrating the corporate knowledge of the BHC Board and Management Team with the expertise of a well-regarded consulting firm, the BHC will determine the best direction for the future sustainability of the organization.

Carrying out a strategic plan and any course of action that follows will require significant capital and community support. As we move forward, one must keep in mind that the BHC is not simply another cultural organization within our community, but rather, a museum and research library that are unique in promoting the cultural and historic legacy of our county. If marketed correctly and structured as a tourist attraction with greater traffic, accessibility and parking capacity, the BHC could make a significant contribution to the economic development and promotion of our region by virtue of its potential as a tourist attraction that tells the story of Berks County. In order to take that approach the BHC will require a strategic planning document structured in a narrative format that can be used as a marketing tool to engage the support of the entire community, including Berks County residents, philanthropist and state and local government. The BHC leadership has determined that the best way to achieve the strategic framework/marketing document we described is with a firm that possesses expertise in this field. Therefore, after interviewing four organizations that hold the skill sets we deem necessary, the BHC Board and Management has decided to move forward and engage the consulting services of Schultz & Williams to work with our organization to produce this document.

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Sincerely,

 

Sime Bertolet, Executive Director

The Berks History Center’s Annual Report was originally published in the Fall 2018 Issue of The Historical Review of Berks County

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