The Endangered “Lecture Series”

by Tobi Voigt on

When it was founded in 1922, the Detroit Historical Society had two missions: first, to help the Detroit Public Library collect historical documents for preservation, and second, to host a regular lecture series on Detroit history topics.

Third Annual Ignition Meeting, Champion Spark Plug Company, Sept. 3-5, 1947. From the Detroit Historical Society Collection

Third Annual Ignition Meeting, Champion Spark Plug Company, Sept. 3-5, 1947, Detroit, MI. From the Detroit Historical Society Collection

Nearly 100 years later, we now run our own museum and collect our own historical documents, but the lecture series remains virtually unchanged. Each month we invite a historian or author to share his or her scholarship as an evening lecture to a crowd of . . . twelve. On nights that we feature a pop culture topic –historic department stores, the history of Vernors’ Ginger Ale – we have been known to get a whopping 30 people in our 120 seat auditorium.

Until yesterday, we hadn’t really given it much thought. I mean, lecture series are just what you DO as a museum, right? They’re like PB & J, cookies and milk. They are such a part of our collective institutional history that, if you’re like us, we’ve never stopped to question why we do it.

We are in the process of planning our public programs for the next fiscal year, which for us starts on July 1. Like many (all?) of you, we find ourselves with more opportunities (and expectations) for programs than our staff of three realistically can handle. As a manager, I find myself saying “We need to do a cost/benefit analysis on our programs!” and “We need to find ways to free up capacity for new projects!” But as an educator, I feel a bit like a kid who has been told that I can only get a new toy if I give up an old one. In essence, in order to make room in our toy box, we have to make some choices.

We haven’t decided if we will end the lecture series yet, but here are a few factors we are taking into account:

  • The lecture series helps keep us connected to the scholars who are researching and documenting our region’s history.
  • The lectures provide a great value to a small group of dedicated members.
  • We rarely break even on the lecture series, making it necessary to reallocate funds from other programs to cover the costs. And this does not take into account staff time, utilities and other indirect costs.
  • We just aren’t getting the attendance. There are a lot of reasons for this, but our member surveys suggest that the lecture series key demographic – older, Caucasian men and women –aren’t comfortable in attending nighttime events in Detroit.

What would you do? I am curious to hear all your ideas and suggestions.

I’d also be interested in taking this topic to a whole ‘nother level: Are lecture series antiquated? Are they a sustainable program for any museum? Why, why not?

Chime in below with your comments, please!

4 Responses to “The Endangered “Lecture Series””

  1. April 01, 2014 at 3:13 pm, Bob Beatty said:

    I, for one, remain a fan of the lecture series. The biggest thing I’d consider in your cost-benefit analysis is how important they are to your overall institution. Is attendance your key measure of success or is it some sort of knowledge gaining?

    Also, one success I had with these events was to pair them with an outside group–finding something that was interesting to that group so there was more of a built-in audience. We also included them as part of evening events, so that folks could enjoy a bit of nosh ahead of time.

    And you might consider going to an every-other-month model or moving the lectures to lunch & learns and such.

    Adult audiences are always, always a challenge. And I bet 90% of the folks reading this would be happy with an audience of 30….


  2. April 01, 2014 at 6:36 pm, Chick History said:

    I am a fan of the lecture series too and I don’t think the model is out dated. I think it has more to do with the topics and subject matter. It just seems the scholar/research model just doesn’t play out to a general audience anymore.

    I think stepping outside of the box, way outside, would breathe fresh life into a lecture series. What about historical fiction authors? That could shake things up and bring in a new audience.

    We say it all the time, but sometimes have a hard time putting it into practice…but the sexy and fun topics are what generates the most interest.

    Bob’s idea of pairing with outside groups is really good too.

    -Rebecca Price


  3. April 01, 2014 at 6:48 pm, TobiV said:

    Since I wrote this, I have talked to a lot of folks in the community, and it seems that lecture series are still popular in general. My undergrad history department can get upwards of 200 for theirs each month, and our curator did an off-site lecture last week for 500 people! And you both suggest the same in your comments as well. Thanks!

    We’ve decided to try a few things next year, which are totally in line with your comments. First, we are going to cut back to a quarterly lecture series instead of stopping them altogether, and take a look at the topics more closely as well. We also plan to reach out to other area organizations that do lecture series and see if we can team up to do joint programs.

    As for program success: My motto has always been, “10 people or more makes it a success!” But these days, we do need to start thinking about allocation of resources. If we stop the less-successful lecture series, we will be looking to replace it with something that has an even bigger reach, audience, mission-impact, etc.

    Thanks for the comments!! Good conversation!


  4. June 06, 2014 at 8:22 pm, UPDATE: The Endagered Lecture Series | AASLH Blogs said:

    […] March I wrote a blog post asking whether lecture series are endangered. I received some great feedback in the comments section, and I took the suggestions to heart. […]


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