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Advocacy & Museums: Not Just for Administrators Anymore

June 27, 2011

With shrinking support dollars, advocacy is more than ever a pressing and essential survival skill for public institutions.  The American Association of Museums‘ (AAM) 2011 book Speak Up For Museums: The AAM Guide to Advocacy by Gail Ravnitzky Siberglied is an excellent starting point for the discussion.  As AAM President Ford Bell notes in the volume’s Preface “We advocate for the value of our museums every time we open an exhibit, welcome a school group, send out a press release, meet with funders or hold a special event in the community.  Advocacy can be as simple and personal as chatting with a visitor” (p. xi).  Advocacy work with elected officials and policy makers is the focus of the volume.

Like many AAM publications, the scope of Speak Up For Museums is basic but comprehensive.  The volume covers the limitations in advocacy work for nonprofits, involvement of museum boards, advice from public officials and museum advocates, and a basic civics lesson on government structures and operations related to advocacy.

Two chapters stood out as particularly helpful to me.  First, Chapter 3, An Advocacy Inventory, contains step-by-step templates/guides for compiling institutional data (e.g., visitation demographics, elected and other public officials, and economic data) critical for successful advocacy.

Chapter 6, Start Advocating Today! A Week-by-Week Plan provides a list of 57 advocacy tasks.  The examples range from simple to complex and include adding all relevant elected (city, state, county, federal) officials to your mailing list and social media sites (and vice versa), updating a museum’s virtual presence on websites, Wikipedia and social media pages, and  joining with other area museums in advocacy efforts.

The AAM hosts a Speak Up For Museum webpage with many links and information on advocacy work.

The 125 page volume was a quick read and a ready reference for framing further advocacy work.  My takeaway points directly and indirectly from the book include:

  • Museums continue to move from being collections driven to centering on the visitor experience in the same way that archaeology now includes a public accountability component unheard of 50 years ago.  In this regard, all practitioners take on advocacy roles.  Advocacy is now embraced by the field archaeologist, the curator, and the research scientist, not just the administrators, educators and marketing departments.  Particularly with the advent of social media institutions no longer have the luxury of controlling the means and pace of their advocacy efforts.  Speak Up For Museums focuses on advocacy with public officials.   Although not explicitly stated, the public realm of advocacy also requires a full team effort.  Despite centralized press releases and lobbying efforts, all staff need to create their 3-minute elevator speech advocating for the institution.
  • I have a new appreciation that advocacy is a long-term process that starts with building a relationship today.  I often smile smugly at the Facebook entries from the institution that only posts for self-promotion or Kickstarter/Pepsi Challenge type fundraising efforts.  I suspect the public official feels the same way if they only hear from me when I need something but am not engaged as part of the broader solution.
  • Advocacy is not rocket science.  Advocacy can be as simple as putting one foot in front of the other and doing the next right thing.  Adding the email addresses of all relevant public officials to an e-newsletter list is pretty straightforward and can probably be achieved with a half-hour of Google search time.  In fact, Chapter 3 “An Advocacy Inventory” suggests that the template/guide tasks “can also be done as a case study for a graduate class in museum studies” (p. 16).  Hmm . . . sounds like Project 1 for my Museum Practices graduate seminar in the Museum Studies Certificate Program at the University of Memphis this fall semester – pick an area museum and develop an advocacy guide for them.

Speak Up For Museums is a great resource to start or further develop an institution’s advocacy work.  Although geared specifically toward museums, the application is adaptable to a range of nonprofit agencies.

What are your tools for advocacy?

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