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A Museum Program Niche

May 21, 2012


Following up on last week’s post about a people engagement niche, I want to take a look at creating a program niche.  Over the past few years at the C.H. Nash Museum, we have gone through a transition in our programming.  Thirty years ago, our programs focused on a reconstructed prehistoric village with a rather regimented Native American performance coupled with an exhibit of human remains.  Time, economics, accountability in presenting indigenous voices, along with the Native American Grave Protection and Repatriation Act, dramatically altered those programs.  My predecessor as Museum Director, Dan Swan, in 2005 pondered after the removal of the last vestiges of the dilapidated replica village “Without the reconstructed village, what is the value of the Chucalissa site?”

As I posted before  addressing that question has been a focus of our work over the past several years.  We first looked around at what other Museums did well.  The Pink Palace here in Memphis has an exceptional “traveling trunk” exhibit to the schools.  We thought about creating something similar.  Just across the River in Arkansas, the Parkin Archaeological Site offers a week of Black History program each February.  A similar offering seemed a good way to relate to the 95% African-American Community that surrounds the Chucalissa site.  Fortunately, we did not get past the thinking stage on any of these projects.  Instead we considered our own niche – our SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats).  For the past three years, we begin each fall semester with a week-by-week chapter review of Stephanie Weaver’s Creating Great Visitor Experiences that helps us to investigate these concepts and to refine our niche.  Here are some of the things we have come up.

Context – Chucalissa is situated on 100 forested acres that are adjacent to another 1000 acres of the T.O. Fuller State Park.  In a recent survey of our monthly e-newsletter readers, respondents suggested we develop more programs on our natural environment.  In 2008, the Southwind Garden Club created a state certified arboretum at Chucalissa.  This summer members of the Westwood community will plant traditional foods in an urban garden at Chucalissa.  This past Saturday we launched our Traditional Medicinal Plant Sanctuary funded through Green Fee at the University of Memphis.  Of note, the Memphis Botanic Garden (MBG) also recently created a medicinal plant garden.  In conversation with MBG Garden Curator, Chris Cosby, we discussed how Chucalissa and MBG gardens might complement and not be redundant to each other.  As Chris noted, at Chucalissa, our plants are in their natural context and allow an appreciation of the micro-environments that support the different species.  At MBG’s made environment this appreciation is not as apparent – a great example of living into our mutual strengths and opportunities.

Resources – As a regional repository for the past fifty years, the C.H. Nash Museum has accumulated a considerable educational collection of historic and prehistoric materials.  Educational collections result from the past practice of the museum accepting donations of unprovenienced artifacts from surface collections or other unknown sources.  Although we no longer accept such donations, in the past we accumulated 30 or so cubic feet of collections with no research value but plenty of educational worth for exhibits and programs.  These educational collections allow us to use real artifacts in our hands-on archaeology lab and in other offerings, such as our stone tool program.  This opportunity is unlike any other in our region –  again, a niche that we can live into.

The Chucalissa Site – One of our greatest strengths is that our Museum is located on the grounds of a temple mound complex built by Native Americans 1000 years ago.  The greatest weakness our Graduate Assistants identified last fall in assessing our current programs and exhibits was our museum’s lack of interpretation of the site.  That is, we do a good job of interpreting both prehistoric and modern Native American cultures, in general, but our Museum presents little specific to those people who lived at Chucalissa.  At the same time, we curate collections from a 50 year archaeology program at the site on which to base those presentations – obviously, a niche that we can fill best.

In the Memphis area, within a 2-3 hour drive there are perhaps a dozen or so museum venues that interpret the prehistory of the region. In one respect, savvy marketing dictates that the dozen venues not be cookie cutter models of each other to effectively cross-promote all venues.  However, more importantly by developing our individual niches we can live into our individual strengths and opportunities.  For example, until five years ago, the trail system at the Chucalissa was not much more than an afterthought in site interpretation.  We considered our off the beaten path location as a deterrent in attracting visitors.   Today, we envision our “rural oasis 20 minutes from downtown Memphis” as an asset and an important part of our niche.

What are the unique niches that your venue fills?

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