Last month, Rob Lukens completed a journey that began nearly 20 years ago when he was a volunteer at the Chester County Historical Society. A former West Chester resident and respected museum professional with strong leadership skills and a doctorate in American history, Rob succeeded Kim Hall at the helm of CCHS.
He shares his vision of the Historical Society in this interview.
Q: What do you feel you bring to the President’s position at the Chester County Historical Society?
A: I’m honored to have been chosen for this position and feel like it’s the opportunity of a lifetime. I have a deep passion for preserving, interpreting and promoting Chester County’s past. That’s an essential part of who I am as an individual and professional.
Being away from the county for a couple of years has made that even more evident. That love for the county’s heritage is the fuel that will keep me going during the good times and tough challenges ahead.
Passion can, however, only get you so far. Fundraising will, of course, comprise a major part of my work. The position will require a healthy mix of day-to-day management, while adhering to broad long-range plans. My academic understanding and technical experience will help provide a solid foundation for leading the organization.
With most all organizations I’ve worked for, I’ve been involved in leading change. At the Chemical Heritage Foundation, it was a new collections and exhibition program. At Historic Yellow Springs, it was the merger with the Chester Springs Studio. At the U.S. Capitol Visitor Center, my challenge was advocating the formation of educational programs.
At CCHS, our challenge is remaining relevant and fiscally healthy in an era when all nonprofits are experiencing declining funding. Ultimately, I will rely heavily on the talented individuals around me at CCHS.
Like most other historical organizations across the U.S., CCHS has seen many challenges in the last decade. How will you address some of these lingering issues such as budget concerns, endowment and capital needs, audience development?
I look forward to helping continue the great work that Kim Hall did in strengthening the organization’s finances. Building financial security is priority number one. At the end of the day, that’s what allows us to preserve the county’s heritage, teach about it, and enable staff to do their jobs.
There is, however, an iterative process between expanding an organization’s programming (exhibits, preservation, education, etc.) and its finances. Focusing on just one won’t work -— they
have to move forward in tandem. We are, after all, here to serve our mission first and foremost.
One way we can serve that mission is by looking at how we use technology, which has transformed how people learn and participate in museums. Successful 21st-century museums function more like forums than lecture halls or stagnant display spaces. People experience the past differently today.
Our goal is to help people learn about what it means to be a Chester Countian today by looking at its past. Who are we? What traits do we share and how are we beautifully diverse? These are the questions we’ll seek to answer by looking at the past, or perhaps I should say, we’ll allow our audiences to discover these answers for themselves.
In these challenging times, institutions like CCHS need to really think deeply about what their core mission is and stick to it, and do it well.
What will you do to help CCHS become more integrated into the community?
Open dialogue. We will seek out and find ways to hear from our communities (there are many) about what we can do for them. Likely it will be the informal feedback that will help us better connect.
This is not a one-way street. We expect to hear from established and new residents, young and old Chester Countians, school groups and specialized researchers, and diverse audiences about their needs. We can’t be all things to all people, but we can certainly try to understand our audiences and make sure our initiatives match the current reality.
I feel particularly strongly about reaching out to the K-12 educational community. Knowing how we can help social studies, history and civics teachers educate their students using the local lens is very important to CCHS.
What are your impressions of CCHS’s Board of Directors and staff?
The people of the organization are its greatest asset — that was clear from the start and one of the main reasons I came to CCHS. The staff has incredible talent, knowledge and passion for their work. The board is dynamic, smart and dedicated to thinking outside of the box to advance the organization.
What are your thoughts on CCHS’s history education programs and exhibitions?
Relevance – they must be relevant. Although they both have their value and we will continue to do both, I prefer thematic over collections-based exhibitions and programs. People really engage more with stories than with most stand-alone objects.
Educational programs and exhibitions need to be fully integrated. Instead of isolated exhibits or one-off special
school programs, I want the institution to think about broad, holistic initiatives that incorporate all facets of the organization.
I also believe that history is, by its nature, interdisciplinary. It needs to be taken out of a vacuum and discussed in other contexts.
Specific initiatives I’d like to pursue include looking at technology through the lens of local history, exploring the county’s food heritage, and reaching out to diverse communities across the county.
Why do you like history? What do you see as its value?
History is an infinite pursuit for me — understanding it, teaching it, preserving it, etc. My entire career has been sparked by that intellectual curiosity — the pursuit of something we can’t ever fully understand.
Anyone that thinks history is lifeless or stale doesn’t pay attention to the news or politics — it’s everywhere, and as a museum professional I am compelled to help audiences realize that.
As a father of two young kids, I feel that one of the greatest rewards this line of work gives is witnessing children marveling at their heritage.
What about personal interests?
It’s difficult to have personal interests when I love my work so much and spend as much time as possible with my family. Any real spare time gets filled in with reading and writing, exercising, and working on miscellaneous home renovations (another “infinite pursuit”).
I aim to publish a book from my dissertation, “American Arctic Exploration: A Social and Cultural History, 1890-1930,” but that will take several years.
I keep telling my wife that I want to get back to seriously playing the guitar, but I’m not sure when I’ll ever have time to do that! -CL-
For more information about the Chester County Historical Society, contact 610-692-4800; Web site.