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Museums Investing in People

November 14, 2011

I must confess to a bit of smugness when I read a recent Associate Press article about the struggle of museums in today’s economic climate.  The article cited museum professionals on the need to show relevance in tough economic times.  My smugness came in part from comments from one interviewee that this need for relevance caused their institution to plan the first museum upgrade in 50 years.  Too often museums have fallen into the trap of expecting public support because, well, we said so.

My smugness also comes from a truth I express when introducing visitors to the C.H. Nash Museum at Chucalissa.  I comment that almost every new product, exhibit, and program from our introductory video, hands-on archaeology lab, and Drumming Across Cultures program, to name but a few, are all created by our student graduate assistants, interns, and volunteers at the museum.  We do not have any blockbuster presentations, but drumming circles, dart throwing with atlatls, and low-cost cultural heritage exhibits prove equally engaging.  Our attendance is up.  Smugness here again, but I suspect that in tough economic times, our $5.00 admission fares better than the blockbuster museum fees of $20.00 plus.

I believe that if we can prove our social relevance, we will develop an institutional base of stakeholders, who will drive our museums with their time, talents, and resources.  To me, this all comes down to investing in people. There are many success stories that take this approach.

Over at Nina Simon’s Museum 2.0 Blog recently there was a very interesting discussion about interns.  The perspectives ranged from a loose approach where interns pretty much figure out their experience on their own, to a highly structured mentorship in complete accord with the Internal Revenue Service guidelines.  Regardless, all respondents agreed the internship process is an investment in people.

Two of my favorite resources on people investment are Archaeology as a Tool for Civic Engagement edited by Paul Shackel and Barbara Little and Places in Mind: Public Archaeology as Applied Anthropology edited by Erve Chambers and Paul Shackel.  Both of these volumes report a host of archaeology and museum projects in direct partnership with the community served.  In so doing, the community become less actors on the stage of their cultural heritage expression but become the very producers and directors of the process.

Programs such as Footsteps of the Ancestors among the Hopi youth, the New Philadelphia Archaeology Project in Illinois, and our own African-American Cultural Heritage in Southwest Memphis project are also investments in people.  I used to think that such efforts were simply expedient means for stakeholder development.  I have come to understand that such processes are an essential means in creating an authentic cultural heritage presence.  More importantly, these investments are our mission mandates to be relevant to the public we serve.

How do you invest in people?

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