Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Too Many Museums?

A few weeks ago, at the Small Museum Association conference, when asked about grants for basic inventory work, I suggested that perhaps museums shouldn't be museums unless they could support core functions (like taking care of your collection) without outside grant support. There was almost an audible gasp and one blogger shared my comment with a colleague who asked why? At the same time, Anne Ackerson of the Museum Association of New York has provoked a lively discussion on both the Upstate History Alliance list-serve and MANY's Facebook page by asking what should be included on a checklist for anyone thinking of starting a new museum.

After some consideration I thought I should clarify my thoughts. I'm not anti-museum, and I'm particularly not anti-small museum, where I have spent much of my career. But here's what I'm against (and then keep reading to find out what I'm for):

Unsustainable and Unrealistic Missions
Here's an example of a provisional charter granted by the New York State Board of Regents:
The board of trustees has petitioned the Board of Regents to form a corporation to collect, encourage, promote and disseminate a greater knowledge among the public of the history of the State of New York and particularly the Town of X and surrounding area; to collect, own, hold, maintain, preserve, and make available to the public a collection of items related to the historical record of the Town of X; to arrange, create, maintain and promote appropriate historical exhibits and displays; to establish and maintain an historical research collection and archives; to bring together those people interested in history, promote and support historical research and scholarship, sponsor and organize historical and cultural activities, programs and events for the public, and issue publications in any format; to encourage the suitable marking of places of historic interest; to acquire by purchase, gift, devise, or otherwise the title to or the custody and control of historic sites and structures, and preserve and maintain such sites and structures; to cooperate with the Nearby Historical Society in projects and activities of mutual interest; to cooperate with the County historian, state officials and historical organizations to collect and preserve materials of countywide and statewide significance.
Big mission, right? I can't speak to the resources of the organization but I can see that the total population of this entire community is only about 1000 people. I can see that it will be a stretch for an organization in this size community to take on such a large mission. Would the organization have a better chance of success if their mission read "bring together those people interested in history and promote and support historic research and scholarship, sponsor and organize historical and cultural activities?"

And as a subset of this, I'm against the New York State Regents policy of granting provisional charters to almost anyone.

Vanity Museums
I know many great museums have started from the ambitious aims of collectors: the Whitney, the Guggenheim, the Henry Ford--but I also see new museums now that reflect very narrow interests and do not yet demonstate their ability to fully engage the public in the topic at hand.

Undocumented, Uncared for Collections
Because your predecessors didn't pay attention to a collections policy, or didn't have one, or believed, as one person told me at the SMA conference, "that we should take everything!" your museum is sinking in stuff. But it's stuff that doesn't necessarily tell you much of anything: dozens of white petticoats, photo albums of unidentified people, scrapbooks of undated newsclippings about national issues.

We will Build It and They Will Come
Tbis mania affects big and small museums alike. In nearby Oneonta, the Soccer Hall of Fame, long touted as an economic engine, has closed its doors. The City Museum of Washington lasted less than a year after a multi-million dollar renovation.

And another subset: I’m against consultants who tell your museum that you’ll have many, many visitors without a clear understanding of your community or your museum and government officials who leap on board poorly developed plans.

And What am I For?
  • Museums that use their limited resources wisely.
  • Museums that start small, dream big and plan to get there
  • Museum staff and volunteers who commit to ongoing learning and professional development
  • Museums that collect only in targeted, strategic ways, within a clearly articulated collecting plan
  • Museums that collaborate
  • Museums that matter
What are you for?

Photo:  Installation at the Dean Gallery,  Edinburgh, Scotland, on a snowy day.


Bodhibadger said...

I absolutely agree! These are all excellent points. For more on this theme see this post on the Center for the Future of Museums Blog. One of the challenges is having this conversation with people who are thinking of starting museums, but are not part of the museum community yet. Since they are usually "out of network," they don't hear this advice until after they are open, and in trouble. (At which point I often get a phone call about income streams and how other museums manage to pay their bills. Sigh.) I wonder if there shouldn't be a more complicated process to incorporating as a nonprofit, that shows you have taken some basic training related to the organization you are founding. So someone filing for tax exempt status as a museum, for example, would have to be a member of one or more museum-related professional associations, and have attended at least one conference or course. From the perspective of a tax-payer (even setting aside my museum hat) I would feel better about supporting organizations that gave evidence they have a clue as to how to run themselves...

Mose said...

Here Here.

You have made some excellent points. I too have seen many museums - small and large - that are overwhelmed with "stuff" because they cannot say "no" or don't have the expertise to distinguish between the important and the trivial. As heretical as it may seem, I think that many private collectors do a much better job managing their collections than some small and understaffed museums.

I would add to your list that I am for museums that care about their audience and take the time to understand how people learn. (This from someone who entered the profession as an antiquarian and eventually realize that the objects don't really matter if they don't resonate with the audience.)

Colleen said...

Last year I worked on an internship at IMLS and they were in the process of creating a definition for "museum." I wonder if they finished? Does anyone know where the boundaries are for what makes a "museum"? Thanks for the fascinating post.

Linda Norris said...


Ah, what's depressing is that New York State, unlike almost any other, does have a system in place...but it doesn't work. And I would love to know/understand more about if all non-profits face the same problems, or if museums are slightly more problematic because we own buildings and stuff!

Mose--absolutely right! And what was I thinking not to mention audience (I'll excuse myself by saying that museums matter should have been followed by the implicit, "to their audiences."

Colleen--several definitions of museums are out there. Here's ICOM's: A museum is a non-profit, permanent institution in the service of society and its development, open to the public, which acquires, conserves, researches, communicates and exhibits the tangible and intangible heritage of humanity and its environment for the purposes of education, study and enjoyment.

But there are also historical societies, historic sites and historic house museums, cultural centres, and all kinds of other places that occupy some part of the issues about too many museums.

Norman Paul said...

Dear Ms. Norris,
I too attended the SMA conference. I wish the weather had been more conducive to a walk along the beach and I wish I had attended the session you did. As a planning consultant I too wonder about the number of museums and the broad scope of many of their missions. But as a consultant I take modest exception to your comment related to consultants and audience identification. I have found that many institutions either don’t ask the basic question about who their audience is (and if they’ll come) or aren’t disciplined in their evaluation of consultant reports if they commission one. The enthusiasm to create is one of the very reasons new museums come into being.