Exciting changes are happening at the 800+ organizations taking part in the StEPs program (Standards and Excellence Program for History Organizations).

Our “StEPs Spotlight” series highlights accomplishments by the participating organizations.

Join us each month to read how StEPs is helping these organizations take a leap forward by improving policies and practices, opening lines of communication, and setting goals for a bright future. 


Grassmere Historic Farm at the Nashville Zoo

Grassmere Historic Farm at the Nashville Zoo features a house built in 1810 by Col. Michael C. Dunn. It is one of the oldest residences in Davidson County that is open to the public. Originally built in the Federal style, Dunn’s grandson renovated the home after the Civil War changing it to Italianate.

In 1964, Dunn’s descendents, Margaret and Elise Croft who were still living in the home, entered into an agreement with the Children’s Museum of Nashville (now the Adventure Science Center). The agreement stated the museum would assist with upkeep of the home while the descendents lived the remainder of their lives there. After their deaths, the museum would own the property and buildings. The agreement also stipulated that the property would be maintained as a nature study center with the mission to educate about animals and the environment.

The Nashville Zoo began managing the site in 1996. By 1998 the home had been restored and opened to visitors. In 1999, the farm opened. You can read more about the history of the site here. 

Grassmere has one full-time staff member, six seasonal staff who conduct tours, and six or so dedicated volunteers who assist with everything from spring cleaning, Christmas decorating, crowd control, and greeting visitors.

What would you say is the most significant improvement within your organization as a result of taking part in StEPs?

We are a zoo first and a historic site second. StEPs has helped zoo administrative staff who are not directly associated with Grassmere Historic Farm understand the importance of taking care of what we have, and has led to a deeper understanding of museum standards and why they matter. The zoo’s board is not normally focused on the historic site―we’re operating a zoo! But StEPs has helped create more awareness within the board. 

Can you offer specific examples of other positive changes within your organization as a result of StEPs?

Several big things have come from our involvement with StEPs. We did not have a collections policy, nor did we have the associated documents (accession/deaccession forms, loan agreements, deed of gift, etc.) so I spent a good deal of time creating a policy that would work within our organization. Once that was done and approved by the zoo’s education curator and chief operating officer, we could check off several Basic performance indicator boxes in the StEPs workbook.

We were still missing some vital components, however, namely having each item in our collection accessioned and numbered. Through StEPs I was able to show the education curator and COO the importance of this process which then paved the way for me to purchase the Nomenclature 4.0 book and basic supplies to begin the numbering and cataloging process. In turn, our education director used StEPs to convince the zoo board of the importance of this process which allowed him to get budget approval for the purchase of PastPerfect software. 

ca. 1900

Tell us how your organization is making its way through the program.

Grassmere was invited to participate in StEPS as part of an AASLH grant project funded by the Community Foundation of Middle Tennessee. We joined eight other small history organizations that met quarterly to work together on answering the self-assessment questions in the StEPs workbook. The group focused on one section at a time, beginning with Stewardship of Collections.

Over the next two years we also covered the Audience, Interpretation, and Stewardship of Historic Structures and Landscapes sections as well. Being a part of the group helped us, along with the other seven organizations, to stay accountable, work through common issues and struggles, be creative in problem solving. It was a great way for all of us to meet quarterly and hear about each other’s progress in StEPs and overall. It helped give us all a stronger sense of community. Although the grant has officially ended the group still meets.

Has your organization been able to use StEPs as leverage in fundraising or in other ways?

Not in fundraising, but in a budget increase for Grassmere that allowed us to purchase PastPerfect software and other collections-care items (shelving, acid-free boxes)

What advice do you have for organizations just starting in StEPs?

Do it! It may seem daunting and you may think you’ll never make it through the book, but start! You will likely be able to check off more boxes than you first think is possible. The workbook is wonderful at helping you identify what is important and what you need to focus on. Find small museums in your area that are interested in working on StEPs too. Go through the sections together. It’s great camaraderie! You don’t feel so alone, and tackling problems and projects together is very rewarding.

Since StEPs is a self-paced program, there is no pressure to GET IT DONE. Work on a little bit at a time. Find what’s blatantly missing and tackle it first. Getting one task done will lead you to the next one. Just do it! 

Finally, which section of the workbook has been your favorite?

I have really enjoyed the Collections section. I like to have things in order and that’s definitely a “things in order” section! It was a lot of work creating a collections policy, but it was VERY rewarding. It is going to take us a while to check all of the remaining Basic boxes (namely due to the big job of accessioning our collection,) but it is a work in progress. Every time I get another item accessioned, marked, and in the system it’s one more done and one more step closer to the big check mark.

Our thanks to Tori Mason, Grassmere Historic Site Manager, for providing information for this blog post.

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