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Grow where you are planted

March 12, 2012

There is a lot of doom and gloom about the fate of museums.  This week American Association of Museums President Ford Bell sent out an email to the membership about pending national legislation that will adversely impact museums.  News articles abound that deal with the financial shortfalls and shifting museum demographics, along with reduced visitation.  The National Trust for Historic Preservation offers a survival kit to cultural heritage institutions for getting through the current tough economic times.

Into this climate comes the Spike TV American Diggers and National Geographic programming that I posted about last week. I believe our response, in large part, should be to make our cultural heritage institutions more relevant to the public we serve.  In every museum related course I teach these days, on the first class meeting we watch the 2009 video interview with Robert Janes on this very issue.  When the Governor of Florida, Rick Scott, argued that anthropology programs were a poor use of higher education funds, students at the University of South Florida issued a response that spoke to the issue of relevancy.

At the C.H. Nash Museum at Chucalissa, despite national trends, for the past year, we saw a dramatic increase in our school group visits.  We attribute the increase to our revamping of all programs, now tied directly to curriculum standards, to become more relevant to the public we serve.  An experience this past November illustrates this point.  The lead teacher for a visiting school group of nearly 200 was particularly enthusiastic in her praise for the student experience during their three-hour visit.  She confessed that she was somewhat reluctant to schedule the visit as other teachers in her suburban school cautioned her that Chucalissa’s meagre offerings did not justify the transportation cost for the students.  After her school’s visit, she strongly disagreed and intends to correct the misperception in her district.  In essence, we were able to show our relevance to her students educational needs.

I originally wrote the sentence –  we are a very visitor focused institution – but changed that to user focused.  As a University based facility, we host many internships, student research projects, class visits, and more – again, demonstrating relevancy to our governing authority.

Relevancy can be demonstrated in many simple ways:

  • We have over 800 followers on our Facebook page and 1700 subscribers to our e-newsletter with whom we regularly communicate.  These two outlets can be platforms to present an alternative to the American Diggers mentality.
  • For our weekly staff meetings, each fall we begin with Chapter 1 of Stephanie Weaver’s Creating Great Visitor Experiences and get as far as we can by the end of April.  We have yet to get through the book in the academic year.  This has been a fantastic opportunity to place ourselves in the shoes of our visitors so that me might better live into our mission of supporting them.
  • Our Volunteer Days where visitors are able to work with cultural materials curated in our repository can be promoted as a counter to sitting on the couch and watching American Diggers, by actually engaging in archaeological research.
In the above examples, we live into our Mission statement to “protect and interpret the Chucalissa archaeological site’s cultural and natural environments, and to provide the University Community and the public with exceptional educational, participatory, and research opportunities . . .”
Let me close this rather self-congratulatory post by noting that as a small institution we have the luxury to focus on the nuance without the concern of generating funds for multi-million dollar payroll and other operating expenses.  In so doing, we do not attempt to reinvent the wheel or come up with a new gimmick to attract visitors.  Rather, we strive to grow where we are planted in seeking relevance with the public that we serve.  Such an orientation seems our best response to not just economic woes, but the destructive methods and mentality of American Diggers.
How do you demonstrate your relevance to the public that you serve?
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