Monday, March 20, 2017

A Small Piece of the Big Picture: IMLS and Local Communities

The new administration's budget which proposes the total elimination of funds for NEA, NEH and IMLS (the Institute of Museum and Library Services) got me thinking about my role as a Museum Assessment Program (known as MAP and administered by the American Alliance of Museums) reviewer. This post is about the ways that my individual experience--like so many other of my colleagues' experiences--pushes back against the false narrative that funding for these agencies only supports elite institutions in big cities or that they are a frill, unnecessary in struggling parts of the country.

I have been a MAP reviewer for museums and history organizations from Eastern Washington State to the Eastern Shore of Maryland.  In every case, the museum itself decides that its progress could be assisted by an outside reviewer.  It's an entirely voluntary process and the museum pays only a token amount. Reviewers like me, essentially volunteers, receive a small stipend for conducting the site visit and writing a report. That stipend and the travel expenses are covered by federal funds.

What have I found?  Every place is different, with different challenges, but all of my visits were characterized by an openness and willingness to learn.  In every case, the organizations were interested in thinking in new ways, particularly about broadening their audiences. Some had further to go than others in that thinking, but at every place, I found myself in thoughtful, questioning discussions.

What were these places like for those of you who might think that IMLS is only for the big guys? What difference does it make? Let's see.

Seven years ago I went to the tiny Hayden Heritage Center in Northern Colorado, where my overnight host, a member of the board, told me she knew I'd arrive soon because she heard the plane overhead in a big, starry sky; the same place where everyone on the board wore cowboy boots and I had a great lunch on Taco Thursday at the local bar.  The museum's collection was wide-ranging:  I recall a giant ball of string, some terrific historic photos, and objects that helped explore the story of this region's settlement including the vital role of women. I recontacted the Heritage Center to see if they'd made use of the report.  Here's the response from curator Laurel Watson, who joined the museum after my visit, when I wrote her to ask about the utility of MAP:
They are key resources to give us tools that enable us to assess our weaknesses and strengths and determine what we need to do in order to better serve our communities and continue to protect and preserve our local history and heritage. 

All the way on the East Coast, on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, the Queen Anne's Historical Society (above, a photo from a July 4th celebration) wanted to expand their community-based work. I remember a thoughtful community focus group, with deep, honest conversation about how the historical society could begin to reach out to the long-standing African-American community whose history had been largely absent in the telling.

In the middle of the country, a larger organization, Indiana Landmarks, was struggling to rethink its historic house. The Morris-Butler House had been the place where the organization was founded and helped jumpstart a preservation movement by forcing the re-routing of an Interstate (above). The house was now sadly outdated in its interpretation, consuming resources and not attracting visitors. Gwendolen Nystrom, now Director, Indianapolis Volunteers and Heritage Experiences at Indiana Landmarks wrote when I recently asked about the value:
The MAP review acted as the catalyst for fundamentally changing the operation of Indiana Landmarks’ beloved historic site, Morris-Butler House. The report provocatively asked the parent organization to consider “whether or not it is appropriate [for Morris-Butler House] to continue as a historic house museum” and prompted the organization to strategically reinvent the house. 
Through her recommendations and the subsequent planning input of other industry experts, we were able to successfully transition the house away from a traditional historic house museum to a smaller, more intimate venue that highlights its symbolic importance to the organization and demonstrates through adaptive reuse our historic preservation mission, all while retaining the historic fabric of the site. Our visibility and visitation has increased since these changes were implemented. This would not have been possible without the Museum Assessment Program (MAP) grant we received from IMLS and the American Alliance of Museums.
Back to the west again, for both a MAP review and then a later re-visit to the Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture in Spokane (a mural from there is at the head of this post).  This museum is an unusual hybrid of state agency and non-profit organization, with history, art, and natural history collections--as well as a world-class collection of Native American materials from the region and the Americas.  It had been through some troubled times, and these were visits with lots and lots of listening.  They have a new director on board this month, and longtime curator Marsha Rooney just reflected on my visits,
Your Spokane MAP visits have been most useful to us, not only for the professional administrative guidance and recommendations found in your reports, but also for the enthusiasm, creative ideas, concrete examples, and internal teambuilding and communication skills that you modeled while on site.
It's been great to check back in this week with these museums and hear about my impact--but it's not about me.  These MAP visits are community investments.  The tiny (say not much more than the cost of a few golf balls) investment almost always lead to additional community investments of both time and money.  Said Laurel Watson from Hayden:
I have used the assessment report for grants for various topics that were brought up in the MAP. It has been a great tool for helping me and my Board (which is consists of entirely new people since the Assessment) determine strategies and goals for the Museum.
This is what the Trump administration has proposed:  the dismantling of support for nothing less than our nation's history. Again, from Watson:
Small museums may be a small piece of the big picture of our national history but without each small piece the big picture begins to crumble and fade.
Call your Congresspeople and your Senators to express support for IMLS, NEA and NEH.  If you've already done so, do it again.  Invite them to visit your museum or historical society to see for themselves.  We can push back and save this resource that contributes to community building coast-to-coast.

Sunday, March 5, 2017

Stuck on an Object

All of us who work in museums see lots of objects--so many sometimes, that they seem to run together. But sometimes there's an object whose physicality or story sticks with us, for reasons we can't seem to explain.  My new job is just a block or so from the Morgan Library and last week I made a quick lunchtime trip--my first visit.  There is a major exhibit on Emily Dickinson there, all of which I enjoyed, but I found myself drawn to this tiny, house-shaped poem. In her tiny, unique handwriting, there it was:

The way Hope builds his House
It is not with a sill –
Nor Rafter – has that Edifice
But only Pinnacle –

Abode in as supreme
This superficies
As if it were of Ledges smit
Or mortised with the Laws –

I've thought about this piece of paper many times since that visit. But I still find myself puzzling over why. Is it that a house and a reclusive poet just seem to go together?  Is it the sense of hand, of personality in the writing?  Is it the combination of shape and poem?  It might be all of the above.

It was a gentle reminder of the many, many ways that each visitor approaches an exhibit and how many different ways there are to find meaning in the object. A generous exhibit design allows each of us to find our way.

What's a memorable object you've seen recently?