Interview is a series of discussions with renowned Pennsylvanians - artists, athletes, authors, historians, musicians, politicians, scholars, television celebrities and others - that have appeared occasionally as features in Pennsylvania Heritage.

James M. Vaughan was appointed executive director of the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission (PHMC) in November 2011. Prior to this appointment Vaughan served as Vice President, Stewardship of Historic Sites for the National Trust for Historic Preservation in Washington, D.C. In his career Vaughan has led several historic organizations including The Hermitage, Home of President Andrew Jackson in Hermitage, TN, The San Diego Historical Society, San Diego, CA, and Strawberry Banke, Inc., Portsmouth, NH. He also served as the museum director at the Hagley Museum and Library, Wilmington, DE.

Vaughan comes to the PHMC with more than 30 years of experience in managing museums and historical organizations and has been the recipient of numerous national awards including being named to the American Association of Museum’s Centennial Honor Roll which pays tribute to 100 of America’s museum leaders who have worked during the past 100 years to innovate, improve and expand how museums in the United States serve the public. Vaughan was also the First Recipient of the American Association of Museum’s Superior Voluntary Service Award.

Vaughan has numerous affiliations within the museum, preservation and history communities. He was elected to the board and executive committee of the American Association for State and Local History. He has serves as a peer reviewer for the Museum Assessment Program and Accreditation Program of the American Association of Museums. He is also a grant reviewer for the National Endowment for Humanities and the Institute of Museum and Library Services. In the past decade he has organized and hosted two influential national conferences on the future of historic house museums and the sustainability of historic sites.

Vaughan holds both a master’s degree in higher education administration and a bachelor’s degree in history from Ohio State University. He has completed Ph.D. work at the University of New Hampshire.


Although he had been at the helm of the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission (PHMC) less than two months when this interview was conducted, James M. Vaughan was already known to agency staff – from senior management to custodians – as Jim. He knows how to make people feel, well, at home in their offices, historic sites, and museums.

Vaughan is reflective and thoughtful, acutely balanced when addressing PHMC’s priorities, and highly optimistic when charting the agency’s goals. He has devoted his career of forty years to public service, thirty of them to the history and museum community, and is no stranger to the challenges inherent in the world of nonprofits. He faces difficult situations head-on and embraces change effortlessly.

Vaughan was lured out of retirement to serve as PHMC’s eighth executive director (including one interim appointment) since its creation in 1945 to succeed the Pennsylvania Historical Commission, established in 1914.

This interview was conducted in Vaughan’s office at The State Museum of Pennsylvania, Harrisburg, on Thursday, January 19, 2012.

Would you tell our readers where you were born and raised?

I was born in Youngstown, Ohio, and raised in Canton, Ohio, both steel mill towns, but I have a lot of family roots in Pennsylvania. I am researching those now.

And your education?

I received my bachelor’s degree in history from Ohio State University and a master’s degree in higher education. I then went to the University of New Hampshire where I finished my doctoral exams, but I never finished my dissertation. That was in American history as well.

Did you join the museum community at that time?

I did. I went to Strawberry Banke Museum [in Portsmouth, New Hampshire] on a research grant and ended up staying on as director and have been in the museum field ever since.

Where did your career take you after Strawberry Banke?

I left there after about five years and went to the Hagley Museum and Library in Wilmington, Delaware, a great industrial museum where the du Pont story begins. I spent four years as the museum director at Hagley, and then had the opportunity become director of the Historical Society of San Diego. I was there about five years and then was asked if I would be interested in coming to Nashville to be the director of the Hermitage, Andrew Jackson’s home, which I did for seven years. I then received a call from the National Trust for Historic Preservation, asking me to come to Washington, D.C., to serve as Vice President for Historic Sites and I did that for eleven years, and briefly retired. And then I was offered the opportunity to come here, to PHMC, which I found irresistible. It’s been a really rich career and I’ve enjoyed all the places in which I worked and lived.

How did you become interested in history and museum work?

My interest goes back to a trip with my grandparents when I was either eight or nine years old. We were going to visit a cousin stationed at Marine Corps Base Quantico in Virginia. It was a trip with historic stops along the way, including Washington D.C., but our first stop was Fort Necessity National Battlefield in southwestern Pennsylvania. That stop and the story of George Washington on the frontier made an impression on my young mind and that’s when I developed my interest.

Was there any one particular individual or individuals, such as your grandparents, that nurtured your interest in history?

My grandparents initiated it, and I had two really good history teachers in high school, so when I got to college, it seemed natural to major in American history.

Is there any particular period in history in which you are especially interested?

My field for my Ph.D. was colonial-American history, but I find most any period of history to be interesting and I’m an avid reader, not just of histories but of fiction and mysteries and practically everything else. Colonial and the Western history are two of my two favorites.

Speaking of books, do you have any favorite authors?

This will tell you a little bit about me. My wife Janet and I are both avid readers. She also works in the museum field. Janet has been the director of several county historical societies and now she is the Senior Membership Director for the American Association of Museums. After we watch the news, we turn off the television and spend our evenings reading – often the same books.

We have a little contest every year to see who reads the most books. I usually win because I include a sprinkling of mystery books, which she refers to as “weenie” books.

A few years ago, at the turn of the millennium, the Modern Library issued a list of the one hundred greatest novels in the English language written in the twentieth century. We are now in a contest to see who is going to finish reading them first. We tally at the end of each year. Janet is four books ahead, so I must catch up; she has read sixty-seven and I’ve read sixty-three.

During your career in the history and museum community, did you look to any one individual as a mentor?

When you join the museum profession, you discover that it’s a very sharing profession compared, for example, to academia, where it seems scholars are competing with one other.

In the museum community, there’s a lot of networking and a lot of help. I made that discovery when I went to a Seminar for Historical Administration, which was then at Colonial Williamsburg, in 1982. It was a four-week residential program during which you learn a lot of technical information, but what I really learned is there is a whole generous field out there. You can pick up the telephone and call somebody at another museum and ask, “How did you solve this problem?” Museum professionals are very willing to share information and ideas.

What was among your greatest challenges in the nonprofit sector?

I suppose I could say the current one!

First of all, there’s never enough money to do all the things that you want to do, so there is that constant trying to figure out how to make a little bit of money go a long way. There is an impulse in people who love history to save everything and, of course, you can’t. You can’t collect everything. There are many issues, including what do we let go of and what do we hold onto? This is an issue that PHMC is struggling with right now, especially given our limited resources. That will both be the challenge and the reward of being here.

Would you elaborate on what some museum professionals call “the tyranny of collections”?

I wrote an article several years ago for Museum, published by the American Association of Museums. I wrote that historic sites, where I spent most of my career, have a slightly different way they use collections than purpose-built museums.

In a purpose-built museum, you can provide an ideal climate. You can put things in display cases. On the other hand, at a historic site, we want to create an environment that is essentially a learning experience. I thought the profession in developing standards – and I must admit I was one of the people who helped develop them – went overboard when it came to historic sites. If you visit a site and the first things you are told are “Don’t touch,” and “Don’t sit,” then all of our rules make the experience difficult to enjoy.

I have been a spokesperson for redefining how we deal with collections at historic sites and being more flexible. The article I wrote is titled “Rethinking the Rembrandt Rule,” which is shorthand for “treat every object as though it were a Rembrandt.” We have a lot of objects here at PHMC, like steam engines and industrial equipment, which probably don’t need to be treated like a Rembrandt.

Given the challenging economic times that historic houses and small museums are facing, what guidance would you offer?

It would be a couple things. One is that we think of ourselves as just serving the tourist community. We also must think about servicing the communities in which we are located. Most volunteers and employees, many of the individuals who visit, and people who provide support are from the local community and so we need to become more community-based resources. We are not going to turn our back on tourists, but serving the local community should be an equal goal.

Historic attractions must be very clear about their mission in terms of collections, which I call stewardship responsibilities. Many sites have taken on more than they can take care of now and in the long-term. If you’re not able to keep a roof on the place, you’re not being a very good steward. Focus is what we all need to work on.

Now, let’s move onto PHMC. You have been only for here several weeks. What is your early impression of the agency, its staff, its properties, and its collections?

The word I would use is amazing.

I’ve known of PHMC’s stellar reputation for many, many years, but when you actually get a chance to go behind the scenes and tour the collections in storage and visit some of the historic sites and museums, you begin to realize what a wealth of treasures there are here. I have been extremely pleased with the caliber of the staff and how welcoming they have been to me. They have made me feel right at home from the beginning and we’re working as a team to solve some of the issues that need to be addressed. I am optimistic that we will be able to move this institution forward, even with the limits on budget. I’m hopeful, like everybody in Pennsylvania, that the economy will turn around and that we will have some growth in the budget in the years ahead. For now, we have to figure out how to do the best job for the people of Pennsylvania with the budget we have.

Although you’ve here less than two months, you have already taken part in two major ceremonies.

I was greatly impressed with the dedication of the state historical marker honoring Governor [Robert P.] Casey [in Scranton on Monday, January 9]. The Casey family turned out in great numbers. First Lady Susan Corbett gave some really wonderful remarks. It was an emotional and warm event that meant a lot to the people who attended.

The [Pennsylvania] Farm Show was truly memorable – it was my first visit. We rolled out the Bureau for Historic Preservation’s historical marker scavenger hunt for young visitors to find twenty-two replica markers related to this year’s annual theme [“The Land of Penn and Plenty: Bringing History to the Table”].

I did have a potato donut, which I was told was part of the initiation ceremony. I spent a few years on a farm when I was growing up and we used to go to the county fair but I never saw one indoors before so it was quite remarkable.

What will be among your first priorities at PHMC?

There are a number of important parallel priorities which make our work challenging. The first priority is to develop a solid strategic plan based on the realities of where we are financially and in my second week we had the commission meeting to launch the strategic planning process and I thought that retreat was very successful. We have been meeting every other week since then to try to analyze the results of that and begin to put some of those tasks forces together to look at particular issues that came out of that. We will be reporting back to the commission at its next several meetings and hope to adopt a new plan by May.

The year 2013 marks the one hundredth anniversary of the creation of our state history agency. What do you envision for the commission’s next century?

That’s a big question. It will take several years to figure out where we are headed and how we are going to get there. I do think that the commission needs to be a stronger, private/public partnership, not only with our historic sites and museums, but with our membership program of the Pennsylvania Heritage Society. We need to grow public participation and eventually build a fundraising program.

Have you had a chance to visit any of our sites yet?

I was at Washington Crossing [Historic Park in Bucks County] yesterday. I’ve visited a number of sites before I knew I was going to have this position. Last year we stopped at the Drake Well Museum at Titusville. Around Thanksgiving one year coming back from Ohio on our way to Washington, we made a detour to the Scranton area and then headed south to Eckley Miners’ Village – it tells a powerful story. Over the years we have visited quite a few places, but once you’re responsible for them, you approach them with a much different eye. I’m going try to visit all of them this year.

In your rare spare time, do you have hobbies?

Travel and reading are our hobbies.

We love to travel and we’ve visited all fifty states in the last twelve years. I made the mistake about ten years ago of buying Janet a National Park Service (NPS) Passport as sort of a $6.95 joke. It’s cost me a fortune so far. She’s on her fourth passport. Together, we have done more than 250 national parks. Janet and I like to drive when we travel when we’re able.

We spent three years following different sections of a Lewis and Clark trail. As we were returning home one time and plotting the route, we realized we’d be traveling through through Nebraska. We also noticed it was only sixty miles or so out of our way to visit Agate Fossils Bed National Monument. And, of course, we did – we drove 120 miles roundtrip out of our way to do so. We asked ourselves, “When are we going to be in northwest Nebraska again?” The answer was obvious.

“What a clever marketing tool for the Park Service,” I thought. Thousands and thousands of people have these passports and they will go visit a site that they would have never picked out as a destination. I hope that our Pennsylvania Trails in History does the same thing. We ought to be looking at whether we could create some kind of a passport or some sort of – and I don’t like using the word gimmick – but something similar that invites people to go to places they might not otherwise visit and discover that they had a good experience there.

And so you left retirement to continue public service?

Janet and I have been public servants all our lives. We both feel really fortunate that we are doing something we love. The joy of this kind of work is that you are doing something different every day. You’re doing something that you can feel good about because it’s a valuable service.

When Janet and I began thinking about retirement, we would ask one another, “What do we want to do when we retire?” It was easy to answer. We want to be around interesting people. We want to do something useful for society. We want to travel. We want to read a lot. Then we’d look at each other and say, “Wait a minute! That’s what we do now and we get paid for it!”


Michael J. O’Malley III joined the staff of the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission in 1978 and has served as editor of Pennsylvania Heritage since 1984.