Creating a Company Culture at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Through Storytelling

Expert publishing blog opinions are solely those of the blogger and not necessarily endorsed by DBW.

Like many large publishing companies, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt was cobbled together through mergers and acquisitions. According to a spokesperson, the company’s culture was somewhat fractured, with employees from various historically separate parts of the company identifying more heavily with their former employer — now a part of HMH — rather than their new one.

To address the issue, HMH has spent considerable time and effort to create a small exhibit inside its headquarters in Boston, to create a company lore.

Call it better morale through storytelling.

The company engaged a professional exhibit creator to design an experience that would tell the story of the company and tease out the unified themes of all the various parts of the current iteration of the firm. HMH eventually hired that person to be on staff full time.

Here’s an explanation from company spokesperson Bianca Olson:

HMH created the History Exhibit in partnership with Boston Children’s Museum and the effort was led by Mary Cullinane and our Corporate Social Responsibility team. To create a unified company history at HMH, we began by bringing archivist Susan Steinway on board to examine the nearly 200 years of historic papers, artwork and artifacts owned by company. As expected, she discovered many treasures – handwritten notes from Virginia Woolf, original printing plates from the famous Peterson Field Guides, photos of Winston Churchill on the steps of the HMH office, and more. These treasures formed the basis for the “Cultivating Curiosity” exhibit.

Susan came to us from the Boston Children’s Museum where she worked as a consulting archivist and librarian. With more than 20 years of experience, Susan has held research roles at Boston Magazine and the Massachusetts State Library. She has a master’s degree in Library Science from Simmons College and an undergraduate degree from Smith.

Check out pictures of the exhibit below (all photo credits Jeremy Greenfield):


Displays of famous HMH authors.

A telegram from Virginia Woolf is one of the highlights:



The above stained-glass window was designed by Sarah Wyman Whitman, HMH’s first woman designer, hired in 1880. In two decades with the company, she designed more than 200 book bindings. The window itself depicts some of the front-matter from an early history of the company, The Firm of Houghton, Mifflin & Co., which was published in 1890.


A wall of the company’s many Caldecott Medal winners, given to the best children’s book illustrations each year.


A wall of the company’s National Book Award winners.


This terracotta representation of part of a catalog from the company’s earlier years is so heavy it had to be mounted inside the wall.


A timeline of the entire company’s history.


Curious George, one of the company’s key franchises, in many languages.


This box of books is a huge pile of employees’ favorite titles in a Plexiglas box, The company often has small events in this room and covered the box with food and drink.

Even the bathrooms in the museum area showcase a bit of company history, with a Curious George character denoting the men’s room and Carmen Sandiego the women’s:



More information:

“Cultivating Curiosity” is an interactive exhibit that showcases 180+ years of company history and celebrates the Company’s impact on America’s literary and educational landscape. Created in partnership with Boston Children’s Museum, the exhibit features artifacts such as the desk where founding literary figures Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote, as well as original illustrations, author correspondence and texts that capture critical moments in history. The exhibit also celebrates HMH’s pre-K-12 education solutions and children’s favorites and includes a replica of a piano decorated by H.A. and Margaret Rey, the authors of the beloved Curious George series. The original piano was recently donated to the Cambridge Public Library, where it will be the centerpiece of a new Curious George Room.

In 2013, HMH opened the exhibit to schools and youth-serving organizations across Massachusetts through a fully-funded educational program. The “Cultivating Curiosity” curriculum, targeted at grades 3-8, is Common Core-aligned, and offers an opportunity to learn more about Boston’s literary and educational heritage. HMH subsidizes school group transportation to and from the exhibit at HMH’s Boston headquarters.

The exhibit, which has transformed parts of HMH’s Boston headquarters into museum-style galleries and walls, was developed in collaboration with Boston Children’s Museum. The Museum – the second oldest of its kind in the world – draws on almost 100 years of experience and craftsmanship to create unique, evocative and interactive exhibits for children of all ages within a wide range of settings, including historical museums, private corporations and science centers.

The exhibit also features original, rare artwork by HMH authors and illustrators, original works from Thoreau and Virginia Woolf and a photo collage highlighting HMH’s Newbery, Pulitzer and Nobel prize-winning works. The exhibit also includes a timeline of the company’s business evolution including its early days as the historic Riverside Press.


One thought on “Creating a Company Culture at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Through Storytelling

  1. Susan McConnell

    As an employee from one of the “fractured” cultures in another HMH location, I would love to see some effort made in other locations to create similar exhibits from other iconic and historic elements from non-HM legacy authors and characters. This is neat and interesting…if you are in or are able to visit…the Boston office.



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