Monday, June 22, 2009
Over the last few weeks, I've had several conversations with colleagues at museums and other cultural organizations who are looking for every way possible to squeeze nickels and dimes out of their operating budget. Stop getting the local paper? No more office supplies and re-using every piece of paper? No more new gift shop merchandise for a time? Giving up the cleaning staff and professional staff cleaning bathrooms? Small museums aren't in the same boat as colleges. A recent NY Times article talked about what colleges were giving up--from cafeteria trays to HBO in the dorms--but small museums never had many of these "luxury" items.
Most small museums already exist on extremely tight budgets. What's left? And of course, for some organizations, what's left has devolved down to the sale of collections. For the most recent occurrences of that phenomenon, read my colleague Anne Ackerson's latest blog post on Leading by Design.
At the same time, I've also noticed that a number of small museums look slightly more unloved than ever. Duct-taped rips in the carpet, not enough storage space so objects living in hallways, and a slight air of decline.
Pretty depressing, yes? But then I came across this Repair Manifesto, a project of the Dutch art collective Platform 21 and felt slightly encouraged. How does it connect to museums? We're creative people--and we also have a vast reservoir of creativity in our collections to inspire us. It can be good for our imagination and our museums can be places where our community puts its imagination to work. We value ingenuity and we're not about the latest fashion.
How could a museum put these ideas to work? For starters, this manifesto would make a great exhibit. A quick search through some online collections databases provides some ideas.
What about if a museum drew upon the skills of its community and hosted repair days? I've worked on several industrial history projects and the knowledge of retired machinists, tool-and-dye makers, locomotive engine makers and others is astounding. Events like this not only repair items, but also honor and acknowledge a community's collective expertise. I know some of these guys could help repair my non-working iron, or broken chair leg, or whatever, and I bet young people could repair some of that current technology that just gives up (or I give up on). And not just machine repair--how about all those mostly lost to many of us needlework skills of mending zippers and the like?
But don't stop there. Museums could go a step further and think about repair in a metaphorical sense. Doing this, you could develop programs that bring diverse parts of your community, the ones who never talk to each other, together to talk. Check out the Living Library program or the Lower East Side Tenement Museum's Kitchen Conversations for inspiration. This is where you can make a real difference--and perhaps do more than just duct-tape your community together.
Feedsack Dress, Smithsonian Institution
Swanson Shoe Repair, Seattle, Photo by Joe Mabel
Tractor Repair, Manzanar Relocation Center, Library of Congress