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