The Experience of Museum Advocacy
Patricia Harris is a recent graduate of the Museum Studies Graduate Certificate Program at the University of Memphis (UM). She also served for two years as a Graduate Assistant at the C.H. Nash Museum at Chucalissa. For her Graduate Thesis Project at the UM she assessed a three-year museum advocacy project in greater Memphis, Tennessee, US. At the American Alliance of Museums (AAM) Meetings this past month in Seattle, Patricia was featured in the session Effective Advocacy in Your Community: Learn How! where she spoke about her advocacy project. Below is a summary of her presentation.
Measuring Advocacy Effectiveness in Memphis Museums
by Patricia Harris
My thesis project at the University of Memphis explored advocacy practices in Memphis area museums, as well as the broader concept of museum advocacy. My personal advocacy experience began in 2012 in the Museum Practices seminar, one of the core courses in the University’s Museum Studies Graduate Certificate Program. From 2011-2013, students in the Museums Practices seminar initiated the creation of Advocacy Inventories with eleven Memphis and mid-south museums. These inventories are taken from Speak Up For Museums: The AAM Guide to Advocacy. Based on the initial inventories, the Museum Practices students made advocacy recommendations for the institutions, conducted follow-up surveys on advocacy practices, and created educational/economic impact statements for each museum.
The advocacy projects carried out by the students with the museums are important for two reasons. First, the process introduced the students as emerging museum professionals to advocacy. If the museum field desires to continue and sustain advocacy as a practice, new generations of museum professionals must be active participants in advocacy work from the beginning. Second, the projects also introduced museums to advocacy work. Many museums, especially smaller institutions, are unaware of how to do advocacy, and in some cases, unaware of the concept.
Of the eleven museums that completed initial advocacy reports with students from the class, only three institutions participated for all three of the years. So, while it is important to understand the advocacy done by these three institutions, perhaps more significant is why the other eight museums did not, or could not, take part in advocacy work.
The Museum Practices students were providing a variety of resources, and were quite literally willing to do free advocacy work for the institution. Why did some museums not take part? Did they feel advocacy wasn’t important? Did they simply not have the time? Or did they not have the interest? Were the resources being provided not relevant for the size and/or type of the institution?
When speaking about advocacy we are quick to share what went right. Stories of success are extremely important, but perhaps acknowledging and understanding why things went wrong or why things never even got off the ground is vital to truly institutionalizing advocacy in the museum field. In so doing, we learn and we can better fine-tune our advocacy resources to encompass more institutions.
The take-away from this project is that we still need to advocate for advocacy. Presumably, you’re all here because you believe in advocacy and what it can do for your institution and your community. In just one metropolis like Memphis, eight out of eleven museums aren’t there yet. Why aren’t they being reached?
It is up to the other three museums out of that eleven to show the hows and whys of advocacy. During graduate school I was a graduate assistant at the C.H. Nash Museum at Chucalissa. We fall into the small museum category with only three full-time museum staff and four part-time graduate assistants – which I know is still much more than many places have. Just in the past three years Chucalissa has sent a graduate student to Museum Advocacy Day each year, participated in “Invite your Legislator to Your Museum Day,” hosted four NCCC AmeriCorps teams (we received Sponsor of the Year award in 2013), and completed economic/educational impact statements now featured on the American Alliance of Museum’s website. The results of these activities also helped leverage funding from the University of Memphis to support our Museum. I say all of this not to brag, even though I am proud of our work, but to emphasize the importance of grassroots advocacy. The AAM points out that advocacy is not just about making “asks” for money and resources from the federal government, but instead is more about building relationships. Though we often think of this “relationship” as the bond between a museum and it’s elected officials, perhaps museum advocacy needs to start with relationships between museums.
For example, as we’ve seen a small institution with limited staff and resources may not feel that advocacy is the right endeavor for them. Though, if a fellow small museum in their community or the next town over is successfully making strides for advocacy and touting its value, the museum may feel more comfortable and supported in beginning their own advocacy efforts. For smaller museums, it is hard to make that trip to Washington DC for Museum Advocacy Day, or to attend a national conference like this, or even feel that such a large organization’s resources like the AAM are right for them. Thus, sharing advocacy resources and knowledge with other museums in your community may be key to getting those other eight interested and participating. A great example of this is of course museum studies classes at the local university.
State or regional conferences are a great place to share these resources and build relationships. The information in advocacy sessions at state or regional conferences is locally sourced, and comes from museums or colleagues you probably already know.
Advocacy can be intimidating and will take effort by you and your staff to implement at your institution. But the reward is great. You’re not only advocating for your museum, but you are advocating for your community, your city, your field, and yourself. If you don’t think you’re important enough to advocate for, why would anyone else? Building advocacy locally and at the ground level through partnerships and relationships with other museums can be the key to your success. Remember our voice is strongest together.
Contact Patricia at email@example.com