Monday, April 2, 2012

A Layer Cake? A Crown? Thinking about Museum Standards

A couple weeks ago,  I was pleased to be asked to join a day of thinking about museum standards at the American Association of Museums in Washington.  Twenty or so colleagues, from New England to Hawaii, representing museums ranging from county historical societies to the Getty Museum, along with staff from AAMAASLH and IMLS,  spent the day talking about AAM's Museum Assessment Program (MAP),  Accreditation, and AASLH's StEPs program for history organizations. Our goal was to focus on how we might, collectively, design a program that moves all museums forward.    I've been a MAP reviewer and now have worked extensively with the StEPs standards both in developing curricula and webinars for AASLH and in a state-wide training program in Connecticut so I was happy to join a great group of colleagues in a lively discussion.

From my perspective, it seemed as if, for a long time,  the Accreditation program was the crown jewel in our field, attainable by few,  and with benefits that were never clearly articulated.  And perhaps others held that same view,  because only a tiny (4%) percentage of US museums have attained that status.  AAM's thoughtful rethinking seems to reflect that same concern.  If we say our museums are great, that they matter, that they are worthy of public and private support--but then say, oh, only 4% of museums meet our own standards, what message does that convey?  So what do we, as a field, do?   Because, it's important to note that all these efforts come from the field, not from a governmental oversight agency.  (New York is an exception, in that the Board of Regents sets forth its own standards,  but there is no state agency that actually enforces any of those standards.)

The MAP staff posed a number of questions to the group.  What elements might be embedded in the MAP process to encourage the goal of Accreditation?  Does MAP need a report card or rating scale?  Can StEPs indicators be used as indicators for Accreditation readiness?  How can these programs best connect?  How can we propel museums up the continuum?

 The metaphors flew fast and furious.  Would a field-wide standards program build layer, upon layer, like a cake?  Or like a crown, with accreditation as the top points?  Are we building a house, with a sound foundation?  Going up a set of steps?  Is it like a board game where you need to accomplish a certain number of steps to move forward?

Despite--or perhaps because of the abundance of those metaphors, there were several important areas of agreement.  One, that the field can--and should-- to push itself harder in terms of encouraging museums of all sizes, shapes and disciplines to meet standards.  Second, that these programs will work best when we all (including other specific organizations such as the Association of Zoos and Aquariums) work together to find common ground and share information in a clear, understandable framework.  In metaphorical terms, that we move from a series of silos to an interconnected approach.   I shared my own personal hobbyhorse--that standards need to focus, not just on collections (easier to assess plans and policies there) but also need to focus on an organization's ability to connect with their audiences and communities.

I think progress in this area will result, in part, from an understanding that we, as a field, can't be all things to all people--and that individual institutions must make hard choices about their future.  I'm pleased to see several places where these conversations are happening.  

On my must-see list for two upcoming conferences are sessions that address some of these hard choices.  At the upcoming Museums in Conversation conference in Albany, on April 23 historian and exhibit developer Christopher Clarke and Gretchen Sorin, Director of the Cooperstown Graduate Program will introduce and referee a sure-to-be-lively conversation framed around the statement  “New York State’s smaller history museums would be better off if they radically reduced the size of their collections.”    At the AAM conference in Minneapolis,  on Tuesday, May 1,  Marieke Van Damme, Deputy Director for Development and Planning, Bostonian Society Old State House Museum, Boston, MA and Rainey Tisdale, Independent Curator, Roslindale, MA join Ole Winther, Head of Department, National Heritage Agency of Denmark, Copenhagen, to discuss sweeping reforms, including widespread mergers, taking place at museums in Denmark and Norway and whether such reforms would work here in the United States.

The conversation is sure to continue on many levels--but I'd like to hear your thoughts.  When Ford Bell, President of AAM,  set the stage for our meeting, he commented, (I'm paraphrasing)  "the more institutions in the excellence tent, the better for advocacy."  And that doesn't just mean advocacy for government funding, it means advocacy and connection to your community on every level, in every way.  How can we bring more organizations into the big tent of excellence?


Amanda said...

When museums I have been connected to have considered accreditation, it has almost always gone on the "wouldn't it be nice..." list rather than the "must have" list for one simple reason: it offers no clear public benefit. Accreditation - and adhering to industry standards of excellence and all that entails - means a great deal to those of us who work at museums, but I haven't yet seen a good argument for why it benefits a museum in an obvious, external way, rather than the simple "it makes the museum better" defense.

Georgianna Lagoria de la Torre said...

Great post - Do you think the process of accreditation is preventing our museums from reaching “excellence” status, or are excellent museums forgoing the process?

Linda Norris said...

Amanda and Georgianna--thanks for your comments. I agree, it is on the wouldn't it be nice list...and Amanda, do you think that the accreditation process could be used to articulate a larger public benefit for museums as a whole? And Georgianna, I do think accreditation is not highly valued by the field, except for those museums that have done it (not surprising), and I think it's an interesting question about what excellence really means in such a broad, changing field.