Wednesday, December 2, 2009

We Can Do That!

Two conversations today reinforced the idea that local community museums have unique, important roles to play--that is, if we choose to think about them differently.   I paid a visit to my own community's fledgling history organization--after looking at some lonely tools and a great collection of photographs, the volunteer and I had a discussion about ways to get people involved in history--and I mentioned that I had found a historic photo of my house I'd never seen on Flickr--work done, as it turns out, by a young volunteer.   That led to a larger conversation about Treadwell past and present--our current population including many artists, and Treadwell's former self, where there were two grocery stories and six places to buy gas (along with a  milliner, cooper and assorted other occupations).  How can a very local history organization connect past and present--with an eye towards the future?

A colleague and I then discussed a new exhibit project, which led to a discussion of the kind of participatory museum that Nina Simon writes so eloquently about.   Recently, I've noticed that as I work with small museums, staff and volunteers get excited about the idea of serving as community gathering places, as places for conversation.  Christopher made a really important point--that they get excited because they can see that they can do it!  In the field, I sometimes feel that we (me included) spend a great deal of time suggesting to people that they need to do better--catalog better, store better, do better scholarship, create better exhibits.  It's pretty discouraging if you think you need a Ph.D, loads of acid free boxes, a fancy cataloging program and more.  Becoming a center for community conversations won't mean that you don't need to do those things, or aspire to best practices, but it does mean that you can see success--you can see the start of connecting to your community--and that can only lead to good things.

On Museum-L during the last couple days, there have been two interesting (and to some degree related) questions and responses about attendance and open hours.  It is heartening to hear that a number of museums are reporting increased attendance--due in part to "staycations" and the economic times, but also due to increased efforts to reach out to your community.  It certainly makes sense to me that celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Buffalo Bills matters as much as celebrating some other anniversary--and the results at the Buffalo and Erie County Historical Society have been terrific, as Executive Director Cynthia Comides reported on Museum-L,
Our numbers are up – way up. We have exceeded our highest visitation numbers since 2001. Family events doing very well, and our Thanksgiving week was a big success for both attendance and shop sales.
Some reasons:
1)       Popular exhibit celebrating Buffalo Bills 50th Anniversary drawing many first time visitors
2)       Collaborative cultural initiatives with other organizations
3)       Strong marketing efforts

The other discussion on Museum-L has been about open hours.  I've become a great advocate of changing hours, and am a bit peeved by the line of reasoning which says, we tried it and nobody came.  Funny, last time I was at a library there were lots of people there in the evening.  Maybe what we offer can be better, and more meaningful--then people will come in the evening and the daytime as well.  Those organizations reporting increased attendance didn't get there by hoping.

And a final observation.  Collect less!  It will give you more time to think about ways to engage your community.


Nina Simon said...

Thanks so much for this post. I'm preparing to keynote some state museum conferences in the spring and am planning to focus on exactly this fact-that small community museums are in the BEST position to be innovators with regard to community involvement and participation. I'm seeing that again and again, and it's exemplified for me by efforts like the Top 40 program at the Worcester City Gallery and Museum that Philippa Tinsley reflected on here.

When there's no one to jam things up in bureaucratic procedures, no one in marketing in "sculpt the message," no one calling for a long drawn out strategic process, you really can get some great things done and new relationships fostered.

LCBrisson said...

I love this post and will share it with the local historical society across the street from my house. They are working very, very hard to make more connections in the community, but have not yet seen huge results. I know if they hang in there long enough things will start to happen. I loved the line "Those organizations reporting increased attendance didn't get there by hoping." Amen!

Linda Norris said...

Thanks both of you for your comments--and Nina, your post made me think about Bill Gates and all those other innovators who began work in their garage, and created big, fascinating new things--so maybe small museums are the "garages" of innovation, rather than just the attic. LC--I do believe the hard work will pay off--so good luck to your neighborhood museum!

Jodi Jerome said...

I've been reading your blog for the last year and am always impressed with your comments and observations. I work primarily with small museums and it is difficult to not get discouraged when one sees all the fantastic programming and exhibits that goes on at larger museums while you are trying to achieve enticing results with much less.

Thank you for this entry and comments. It is an inspiring conversation I think more smaller organizations need to be having with their board members. Most are too afraid of doing it wrong, or haved locked themselves into a "we tried it years ago & it failed" monologue.

Linda Norris said...

Thanks Jodi--both for reading and the comment. I think there are exciting opportunities for small organizations, particularly in this economic climate--but it does require the hard conversations that boards and staff need to have. Don't hesitate to let me know if I can help in other ways with more information--I never quite seem to have enough time to blog about things that interest me!