December 2012: Multiplying Multiculturalism: One Museum Plots a Course to Promote Cultural Preservation Statewide
With indomitable will and intense passion, Althemese Barnes set out to save a cultural gem. The John Gilmore Riley House is the last visible evidence of a once thriving middle-class community, Smokey Hollow, in Tallahassee, Florida. Ms. Barnes envisioned Riley House as much more than the historic residence of a successful businessman, community leader, and pioneering educator. She saw it as a vehicle to keep history alive. Riley House could help present and future generations hear, touch, and explore their rich multicultural heritage. Ms. Barnes led a 20-year odyssey to save Riley House. In the process, she built an innovative museum and strengthened cultural preservation across the state. Then she faced her greatest challenge: finding a leader who could succeed her.
Saving and Showcasing a Cultural Legacy
Ms. Barnes mobilized community support and raised money to buy and restore Riley House. Preservation was the first goal, but hardly the last. In addition to developing and showcasing Riley House as a museum, Ms. Barnes worked across the community to sponsor an oral history program. She partnered with educators to create in-school heritage lessons and a summer camp program.
The museum launched multicultural outreach through workshops, lectures, tours, special exhibits, and cultural events. It disseminated historical publications and established an archival resource center at Tallahassee Community College. It also sponsored innovative activities, including a U.S. Colored Troops regiment that re-enacted the Battle of Natural Bridge to document Civil War contributions of African American soldiers.
The Power of Partnership
Ms. Barnes developed strong relationships with Tallahassee Community College and the Florida A&M History Department. She worked with the Florida Chamber of Commerce and State Legislature. She took partnering national, with the Smithsonian National African American Museum, the National Chamber of Commerce, and the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS).
To help save other cultural treasures, Ms. Barnes founded the Florida African American Heritage Preservation Network. The network provides professional development and technical support and sponsors a unique cultural tourism program.
As she explains, "If we succeed, others succeed. Most people who launch cultural preservation initiatives start with tremendous passion. They often don’t know what resources are available or how to partner. Through the network, we can reach out to other museums and provide training, information, leadership skills, grant-writing education… We can instill a level of confidence and give them a knowledge base that they didn’t know existed."
Preserving the Future of Riley House
For the museum to endure and grow, Ms. Barnes and the museum board recognized they must expand capacity, including facilities and professional staff. The John G. Riley House and Museum received a 2010 IMLS grant to build institutional capacity, by expanding professional resources and developing a succession strategy.
The grant allowed the museum to hire additional staff and provide more professional development. The major challenge, however, was finding the right successor and transferring a lifetime of expertise.
The museum identified a rising leader with partnership expertise, strong understanding of government relations, and superb management ability. Marion "Missy" McGee, a former partnership development specialist with the U.S. Census Bureau, agreed to join the Riley Center through an executive apprenticeship, which will ultimately lead to her taking over as executive director. This apprenticeship approach has been used in corporate settings to prepare professionals for leadership roles that demand specific skills and expertise. Ms. McGee came aboard as an assistant to Ms. Barnes and now has the title of assistant director. This progression allows Ms. McGee to work with the founding executive director and the museum board, directors, and staff to establish a clear vision and plan for the future.
The IMLS grant also allowed the museum to implement an internship program. This helps engage future leaders while teaching the museum to better reach younger generations through vehicles such as social media. Already the interns are helping the museum to improve rapport with local media and draw younger audiences.
The partnerships Althemese Barnes built are now paying off for her successor. "One of the best things, personally, has been the chance to meet other museum professionals, including IMLS grantees, " Ms. McGee notes. "It’s a growing peer support group, a chance to meet emerging leaders and to share experience, strategies, and approaches. It’s tremendously helpful."
All signs indicate that Ms. Barnes is succeeding, once again, with the museum’s succession approach. Ms. McGee explains, "We’re finding ways to not just take on the many efforts that Ms. Barnes has performed but also to make her strategies and techniques duplicable, so we can extend responsibilities to volunteers, work-study students, and others. The more we involve younger people, the better we can build active support from emerging leaders, who will be our partners and supporters."
The Riley Center’s future looks bright in inspiring rising generations to discover, embrace, and protect their cultural heritage.