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Relevance First

July 30, 2012

Current student-based ceramic vessel exhibit that will be upgraded through additional student-based projects

Be forewarned, I am on a soapbox . . .

Public cultural heritage institutions such as museums and archaeological sites often focus much time and effort on increasing economic revenues.  But the much touted winners of economic revival at venues such as Conner Prairie with a 100 million plus endowment or the Mesa Verde sized operations of the National Park Service are of limited relevance to the majority of small museums or institutions operated with very limited staff or other resources.

In an excellent essay in the recently published Small Museum Toolkit, Volume 1, Steve Friesen (2012:50) notes that these venues ” . . .  are carefully crafted to meet a particular mission and provide a particular service.  They are different from larger museums not so much because of their subject matter but because of how their size enables them to present the subject matter.  They are string quartets, not orchestras.”

The majority of public cultural heritage venues will never break even for operating revenues/expenses.  They will rely on tax base funding, endowments, donations, and volunteers to keep the doors open.  However, cultural heritage institutions can and must show a balance sheet of relevance and value.  Demonstrating relevance and value marks a shift from the 1960s when I participated in the obligatory field trip to the local natural history museum in my hometown.  The expectation of funding and visitors because we are The Museum in town is unreal in today’s climate of economic chaos and a political agenda akin to replaying the Scopes trial over and over.

Our strategy at the C.H. Nash Museum is less to increase revenues, but to be cost-effective in all that we do.  We have also moved from a position of an institution of privilege to an institution of service.  As the University of Memphis (UM) is our governing authority, our Mission Statement includes a statement of relevance and service to that institution.  We ask how can our Museum support faculty/student research and educational opportunities.  When giving a Museum tour, I always note that almost everything the visitor will see that was created in the last five years results from student-based projects.  These projects include our introductory video, medicinal plant sanctuary, programs, exhibit redesign and much more.  For example, three years ago, a graduate assistant worked on the redesign of our ceramic vessel exhibit.  In 2011, each student in the Museum Practices seminar at UM created a “best practices” proposal for another upgrade to the ceramic vessel exhibit.  This fall an intern in the Museum Studies Graduate Certificate Program will blend together the best aspects of those student proposals into a further upgrade that we intend to last for the next several years.  The redesign of our ceramic vessel exhibit served as the basis for 3 different sets of student projects, and provided 15 students with an applied educational experience.  I believe this method of operation is an example in demonstrating relevance to the educational mission of the University.

I have posted before about our outreach projects relevance to the neighborhood in which our museum is located.

The Participatory Museum, with its many manifestations, is certainly a buzzword today for cultural heritage programs.  But a substantive aspect of that participatory experience is accountability to the public we serve.  In a comment on my blog post last week, Maureen Malloy provided a link to a report on the place of archaeology in the public’s decisions about how they spend their time in outdoor recreation.  The report notes that 20% visit archaeological sites and 45% visit historical sites.  Outdoor walking is a main form of activity.  In last 10 years, photography as an outdoor recreational activity has skyrocketed.  At the C.H. Nash Museum, with our outdoor prehistoric earthwork complex, nature trail, arboretum, medicinal plant sanctuary, and resident wild life, how can we demonstrate our relevance to the shifting trends noted in the report cited by Maureen?  Should we consider visitor-based photo projects such as exhibits, contests, scavenger hunts, earth caches?

Demonstrating such relevance is not the next good gimmick to attract visitors.  Rather, demonstrating relevance is multifaceted.  On the one hand, cultural heritage venues must be accessible, accountable, and in line with the public interests who fund their operation.  At the same time, the cultural heritage venues can tap into that interest to deepen the understanding of the importance, relevance, and value presented and preserved in our cultural heritage institutions.  When both of sides of this equation are aggressively pursued, tax base funding, endowments, donations, and volunteers will follow whether the institution is large or small.

How do you demonstrate the relevance and value of your institution?

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