Assessment provides blueprint for Rock County Historical Society

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Shelly Birkelo
Tuesday, August 20, 2013

JANESVILLE—An outside assessment of the Rock County Historical Society shows it  needs to work harder at making people aware of what it has to offer and why they should visit.

Steve Friesen, director of the Buffalo Bill Museum and Grave for the Denver Department of Parks and Recreation, conducted the assessment for the Community Engagement Museum Assessment Program.

Mike Reuter, executive director of the local historical society, wanted outside opinions about how to move forward as a museum.

"I wanted Steve's overall viewpoint from the entire (historical society) campus perspective, as to where we were with programs, what he saw from a visitor's standpoint, what are some flaws he saw and how we were effectively engaging with our community," he said.

"To be able to improve community engagement is critical to our success," Reuter said.

The assessment was June 15-19 and included conversations with members of the community, historical society staff and board members. Reuter said it outlines five priorities for the historical society to better engage the community:

1. Foster better long-range planning by drafting a lease agreement with the city of Janesville that's more than the current two years.

2. Install more and better signs so people know all of the buildings--from the Lincoln-Tallman House to the Helen Jeffris Wood Museum Center--are housed on one campus and to point visitors from one to the next.

3. Make local people rather than tourists the primary target for marketing efforts. Tourists account for only a portion of the visits to the historical society site.

4. Reinvigorate existing events and add new events to give locals more reasons to visit and to build new constituencies.

5. Retool tours to make sure they are not too long and introduce new tours to attract new visitors and encourage repeat visits.

“The report will affirm these new directions as well as make an effort to provide a blueprint for better engagement between the RCHS (Rock County Historical Society) and the community,” Friesen wrote.

Historical society board members are aware of the findings, and a strategy to implement many of them is being created, Reuter said.

"In the next 12 to 16 months, we will be acting on all of these recommendations," he said.

The assessment's $4,000 cost was covered by a subsidy from the American Alliance of Museums, Reuter said.

"It's easy to have tunnel vision about what we think we need to do to be successful. So it's important to always be aware it's OK to have outsider perspective to say, 'A, B, C worked well, yet this is something that might translate well to the RCHS,'” he said.

The historical society is working to change and provide better programs on and off campus, Reuter said.

"We want to continue to raise the bar and be a historical agent to turn to if they want to learn more about history and donate to the Rock County Historical Society for safekeeping,” he said. “We want to be known as the historical repository in Rock County."

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