Why the AASLH Annual Meeting is My Favorite Museum Event

AASLHThis years annual meeting of the American Association of State and Local History (AASLH) will take place from September 16 – 19 in Louisville, Kentucky. I attended my first AASLH Conference in 2010 in Oklahoma City when I received a Small Museum Scholarship. I have only missed one annual conference since then.  The AASLH meeting has become my favorite meeting related to my role as a museum professional.  Here is why:

  • In 2010 I was a reasonable newbie in the museum business.  In fact, when I was hired as the Director of the C.H. Nash Museum at Chucalissa in 2007 I had never formally worked in a museum.  Instead I had operated on the periphery of museums in my career as an archaeologist and academic.  The 2010 AASLH meeting proved an ideal venue to get my feet wet in learning about available resources, best practices, and networking with other museum professionals.
  • Over the past 30 years I have attended many professional meetings ranging from city-wide to international in scope.  While not dismissing the importance of any association, as a small museum professional, I find that AASLH conference is a perfect fit for my needs.  Conferences such as the American Alliance of Museums (AAM), while certainly of value, tend to focus on the needs of the medium to large museums. City and state conferences, while wonderful networking and experience sharing opportunities, cannot marshal the resources of a national organization like the AASLH.  Although sessions often cover the same topics as both larger and smaller professional meetings, the AASLH application is more inclusive of small museum contexts.  Of critical importance is understanding that the AASLH application is not lesser than, but rather more inclusive and relevant to my needs as a small museum professional.
  • The program for the Louisville meeting is particularly relevant to my interests.  I am particularly looking forward to hearing Wendell Berry one of my favorite writers/philosophers speak.  Check out the preliminary program to see what sessions might suit your interests and needs.  In a quick review of the program, sessions such as Kids Count, Too! Writing History through Community Collaboration; The Courage to Co-Create: Practicing Engagement with Your Audience; Marketing Educational Programming in Tough Times; and The Power of Possibility: Developing Partnerships through Project-Based Learning immediately caught my attention.  I am pleased that multiple “pop-up” sessions will take place at this year’s conference to provide more spontaneous discussions on a range of issues.
  • I am intrigued by the theme of this year’s conference – The Power of Possibility.  In a time when many cultural institutions are just now recovering from the recent economic downturns, focusing on what is possible in our new realities is an exciting step in the right direction.

If you have not been to an AASLH conference before, I encourage you to check out the event.  If you have attended in the past, the program for this year’s meeting looks fantastic.  Hope to see you there!


Why You Need to Donate to Small Museums Now!

Two generations exploring the Muscatine city map at the Pearl Button Museum
Two generations exploring the Muscatine city map at the Pearl Button Museum, Muscatine, Iowa

Each year about this time I receive many solicitations in the mail for donations to area museums.  I should qualify that statement – from large area museums.  At best, smaller museums can afford to send email newsletters with fund appeals.  As the director of a small museum, I don’t make this statement as a complaint or grievance.  In fact, I am very pleased that I am not responsible for those mega-size electric bills and other expenses that larger institutions pay!

As might be gleaned from the last couple of posts on this blog, I am a strong advocate for cultural heritage institutions demonstrating their worth as community assets.  My experience has shown that when we do so, economic support follows.

I am also a small museum junkie.  Places like the Pearl Button Museum in Muscatine Iowa, The Santa Fe Trail Center in Larned, Kansas, and the Mennonite Heritage and Agricultural Museum in Goessel, Kansas are some of the larger of the small museums of which I have fond memories.  When traveling on backroads, my wife and I always stop at any and all county and smaller museums.  Unfortunately, these venues are often closed, have very restricted operating hours, or are open only by appointment.

As we near the end of the year and peak time of annual charitable contributions, I urge everyone to remember the small museums.  Mega-museums like the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Pink Palace in Memphis, and the Exploratorium in San Francisco – yes, they all need charitable contributions and support too.

But here is an example of how your donation to a small museum will make a difference.  A bunch of years ago on a backroad trip to Colorado, I was driving through Baxter Springs Kansas on a rainy Sunday morning about 11:00 AM.  As I drove through the small town to see what there was to see, I came across the Baxter Springs Museum Heritage Center.  On the front door hung an open sign.  Surprised and assuming that perhaps the staff had left the sign up from the day before, I parked my car.  Sure enough, the museum was open and staffed by an elderly woman and a young teenager.  I thoroughly enjoyed my visit to that place – particularly their Civil War exhibit.   I suspect that the cost for keeping the museum open on Sundays for out-of-town visitors and residents alike is less than $5000.00 per year.  For a larger museum, like the Metropolitan Museum of Arts with a 2.5 billion dollar investment portfolio, that $5ooo.00 is a proverbial drop in the bucket.  For Baxter Springs, the $5000.00 is a bigger chunk of the small town’s discretionary funds.  (I notice on the Museum’s website they are now only open from 1 – 4 on Sundays.)

A few hundred or thousand dollars here and there will really make a difference in the visitor experience at small museums such as those reported in this post.  The same total contribution to larger museums if even noticed, will only have a negligible impact.

As we reach the end of this calendar year, consider making a donation to a small museum.  Here are some possibilities:

Regardless of where you choose to make a contribution, know that such public support for the small museum is essential for their very survival.

Accessible Programs in Archaeology and Museums

kstringer-coverThis past week I attended the American Association of State and Local History (AASLH) annual meeting in St. Paul, Minnesota.  I have come to expect the unexpected when I attend professional meetings.  Perhaps the greatest unexpected highlight of the AASLH conference was a session organized by my former student and now colleague, Katie Stringer titled “Welcoming All Visitors: Accessible Programs at History Museums and Sites.” Through her dissertation research, Katie has developed considerable expertise in this area.  She recently published Programming For People With Special Needs: A Guide For Museums and Historic Sites.  The volume focuses on seven key components needed to create effective museum experiences for individuals with special needs.  Based on her work in Tennessee, the book also draws on case studies as disparate as New York’s Museum of Modern Art and the Brooklyn’s Transit Museum.  The 110 page volume is a concise primer filled with go-to resources for any cultural heritage professional seeking a holistic introduction to the field of inclusivity.  Katie’s presentation in St. Paul focused on her research contained in her recent publication.

Two other papers in the session focused on specific needs that were very relevant to our programming needs at the C.H. Nash Museum at Chucalissa.  Mattie Ettenheim, Museum Access Program Manager for City Access New York addressed program creation for individuals with autism.  Besides providing a solid introduction to the general needs for creating effective experiences for children on the autism spectrum, Mattie provided excellent online resources to get more detailed information on the subject.  Particularly helpful are resources available through the Museum Access Consortium, including a series of podcasts (right hand side of link).  Mattie also noted that Kids Included Together is an excellent resource on creating programs for children with special needs.

Callie Hawkins, Associate Director for Programs at President Lincoln’s Cottage, Washington D.C.  shared her work on creating innovative programs for individuals with impaired hearing, including ASL-based podcast tours of the facility.  She noted that resources for funding requests for such programs were given a high priority through organizations such as the Institute of Museum and Library Services.

I found all the presentations particularly relevant to our situation at the C.H. Nash Museum at Chucalissa.  As a small museum, because of our low staff to visitor ratio, we are able to provide programming for children with special needs that larger museums simply are unprepared for.  For example, our Art For Voice camp last summer was particularly attractive for several children on the autism spectrum.  Our intent is to expand our special needs programming.  We are fortunate that two of our Graduate Assistant staff also have considerable experience in programming for children with special needs.

Program creation for individuals with special needs can be an ideal niche for the small museum or cultural heritage institution to explore.  Here are some thoughts:

  • For many types of special needs, the small museum is often more suitable than the larger institutions.  Persons with autism, reduced immune systems, special physical or cognitive needs are often better served in the less crowded and more tranquil small museum environment.
  • Funding for creating such programs may be prioritized through organizations such as IMLS or local support networks.
  • There are often formal and informal networks of parents, care-givers, and other service providers who can assist in the creation and implementation of special needs programs.

At Chucalissa, we find that our small setting that includes both indoor and outdoor exhibits, hands-on tactile opportunities, coupled with resources that we can draw from the University of Memphis, make us an excellent venue for persons with special needs.  This approach is not a matter of recreating or restructuring our mission to fit an economic market.  Rather, this approach allows us to consider our mission, our strengths and weaknesses, and  how we might best serve the public who fund the operation of our museum.  In this way, we more fully live into our mission mandate to provide the public with “exceptional educational, participatory and research opportunities”

How do you serve your special needs visitors?

Museum Studies Programs and Small Museums

Check out my guest post this week Museum Studies Programs and Small Museums, a Win-Win Collaboration at the American Association of State and Local History blog.

small museums

A Crititical Resource for Small Museums


The Small Museum Toolkit, edited by Cinnamon Catlin-Legutko and Stacy Klinger and published by Alta Mira Press is the latest offering in the American Association of State and Local History Book Series.  The toolkit consists of six 150-page topical volumes each comprised of a half-dozen articles.  The six volume topics are:

  • Leadership, Mission and Governance
  • Financial Resource Development and Management
  • Organization Management
  • Reaching and Responding to the Audience
  • Interpretation
  • Stewardship

Initially, I was reluctant to spend 150.00 for six short volumes covering topics for which I already had several hefty volumes sitting on my bookshelves.  However, when I examined the volumes at a recent museum conference I became convinced the set was worth the investment.  My change in thinking resulted from recognizing, as the title implies, the set is specifically geared to small museums.

For example, in Volume 1 a 20-page article “DIY Strategic Planning” by Cinnamon Catlin-Legutko provides examples, guides and a general discussion on all aspects of strategic planning.  The last page of the article lists eight recommended resources, including the standard strategic planning texts, for further consideration.  But important point is this – the article is not a less than, watered down version of what the large museums reference.  Rather, the article specifically addresses the needs of the 79% of North American museums that are small.  In the remaining chapters of Volume 1, the small museum professional will find discussions of assessment tools for evaluating a museum, the relevance of small museums, the importance of mission statements, along with developing and maintaining a museum board of directors.  Each of the six chapters has between eight and twenty references for more information, many of which are available online.

In Volume 5 Eugene Dillenburg and Janice Klein’s “Creating Exhibits: From Planning to Building” is a surprisingly comprehensive introductory guide for creating an exhibit from the “big idea” to conservation guidelines.  The resource lists for this chapter include many of the standard exhibit references such as Serrell’s Exhibit Labels and Falk and Dierking’s Learning From Museums.

I also used  several of the Toolkit chapters as readings this past fall in my Museum Practices graduate seminar at the University of Memphis.  For example, in Volume 5 Madeline Flagler’s “Interpreting Difficult Issues” draws on her first-hand experience of incorporating multiple voices into historic house museums in Hawaii and North Carolina.  Again, it would be a mistake to consider Flagler’s twenty-page article as a watered down version of how the Smithsonian tackles a controversial issue.  Rather, the article covers several steps and resources specific to a small museum context such as the importance of community input, community relations, and the training or retraining of docents who might have told the story a different way for years.

An added bonus I discovered while writing this post was a Blog based on the Toolkit that seems to publish regularly.  A quick scan of the recent posts shows that many of the chapter authors offer further discussions on the topics taken up in the Toolkit.

The Small Museums Online Community of the AASLH is also a superb site for networking with other small museum professionals and gaining access to an abundance of resources.

The Small Museum Toolkit is a resource that would likely be as relevant to the Director of the Field Museum as the new 720 page Third Edition of the Manual of Museum Planning is for the director of a small county museum with a staff of two.  That is, both directors will gain useful information from both resources, but as a primary go to resource, the two titles are addressed to different audiences.

If you are a small cultural heritage venue or interested in learning about what it takes to run a small cultural heritage venue, check out the Small Museum Toolkit.  I am certain you will not be disappointed (as certain as I am that I get no percentage of the sales).

Museums as Relevant Institutions

Story of Frank Haggerty and Babe Ruth at the ballplayer's birthplace museum in Baltimore, Maryland

A recent Wall Street Journal article on changes in the leadership of museums recounts the experience of an art museum director whose suggestion to discuss environmentally friendly museums was initially dismissed.  She was recently elected to head the professional association that did the dismissing.  Now, authors such as Robert Janes put forward the need to make museums relevant to the issues facing the current world and the American Association of Museums hosts special webinars on The Green Museum.  A couple of weeks ago I posted on lessons I learned from Pat Essenpreis, specifically on the need to explain the relevancy of archaeological research to the public.

These issues are not much different from John Cotton Dana’s call for museums to be relevant to their communities in his 1917 publication of The New Museum.

Over the past couple of weeks my wife and I have roamed through the Maryland/Virginia area hitting museum venues both large and small.  At most of these venues I have tried to keep on my museum professional’s hat on to learn from the successes of others, especially on the issue of relevancy and engagement.  At some locations, I must confess to just being completely absorbed in the story, not really care how it is told.  Such was the case with the Babe Ruth Museum in Baltimore.

Relevancy and engagement are considered in Nina Simon’s book The Participatory Museum, where she lays out three types of participation that museums can engage with visitors: Contributory, Collaborative, and Co-creative, something I touched on in last week’s post.  Simon writes:

“In contributory projects, visitors are solicited to provide limited and specified objects, actions, or ideas to an institutionally controlled process. . . In collaborative projects, visitors are invited to serve as active partners in the creation of institutional projects that are originated and ultimately controlled by the institution. . . In co-creative projects, community members work together with institutional staff members from the beginning to define the project’s goals and to generate the program or exhibit based on community interests”  (cited from here).

What strikes me as important in this consideration is not to view the types of participation as a linear evolution as simple to complex, but rather, how inclusion of these approaches fits a broad range of visitors to a museum.  This brings me back to full circle where I started this post.  These are challenges that have been raised in various forms for the past ten years, going back to the American Association of Museums‘ 2002 publication Mastering Civic Engagement: A Challenge to Museums and in the more distant past to Dana.

How do you make your outreach to the communities you serve relevant?

Report from the American Association of State and Local History Conference

I had a great time last week attending the American Association of State and Local History Annual Meeting in Oklahoma City.  The conference program listed an extensive number of sessions that focused on Museums and Public Outreach.  As well, given that the meetings were held in the very heart of Indian Country, a separate “Tribal Track” set of offerings dealt specifically with topics related to Native American cultural heritage.  You can check the entire program here.

A few of my highlights from the conference include:

  • A recent trend considered by many of the presenters is the shift from school group to family museum visits.  With school program funding cuts, we are keenly aware of this shift at the C.H. Nash Museum.  Sarah Watkins, Curator at the USS Constitution Museum, introduced the Family Learning Forum a project funded by the Institute of Museum and Library Services.  The site is packed with resources.  Of particular interest are the Success Stories that detail over 50 different family programs in place at museums across North America.  The Family Learning Forum website is a fantastic place to experience a variety of museum programs in history, art, archaeology and more.  Also, the Denver Art Museums resource link is one example of an institution with an abundance of downloadable guides and ideas for the family visit.
  • Over the past few years, museums and cultural heritage centers have begun using  innovative Scavenger Hunts and Geocaching for instructing on a range of topics.  Museums are increasingly going beyond the rote “find the answer in the exhibit text” type of scavenger hunt by incorporating role play and gaming.  For example Watson Adventure, Urban Interactive, and the Scavenger Hunt Ideas blog were resources presented by Rebecca Crawford of the USS Constitution Museum to consider when developing such activities.
  • The final session on the final day of the conference Of the Student, By the Student, and For the Student was excellent.  Journey Through Hallowed Ground from Monticello to Gettysburg and the Colorado Youth Summit were two examples where youth take part in service learning projects to experience history, archaeology, the environment and preservation.
  • I found the most stimulating session at the conference to be The Essential Frameworks of Informal Learning, presented by Beverly Sheppard, editor along with Kim Fortney of An Alliance of Spirit: Museum and School Partnerships.  Sheppard noted that only 9% of life is spent in formal learning settings.  A take-off point for the discussion was the Learning Science in Informal Environments: People Places and Pursuits from which the Six Strands of Science Learning are taken.  Sheppard reported that one year after a museum experience, visitors related less to exhibit facts and more to the affective quality of exposure to the “big idea” of the presentation.   The Informal Science website is a resource for further exploration on these areas of inquiry.  A lively discussion on experiences with innovative approaches to informal learning followed Sheppard’s presentation.

Overall the AASLH sessions were the most stimulating professional meetings on museum matters I attended in quite a while!

Were you there?  What are your highlights from the meetings?

Museum Tours: To Guide or not to Guide

We had an interesting discussion in our African-American Cultural Heritage in Southwest Memphis project today at the C.H. Nash Museum.  The students visited Davies Manor Plantation last Friday and were guided on the tour by the site manager, Nancy McDonough.  Today we talked about what impressed the students most about the visit.  Jasmine noted that being in the Big House was a powerful experience because she knew that as an African-American, the building was off-limits to her in the  slavery era.  A couple of students raised the absence of labels in the exhibits – something they enjoyed.  The lack of labels was in sharp contrast to the previous Friday visit to the Pink Palace, and the Friday before at the National Civil Rights Museum.  I noted that at the Tenement Museum in New York, all tours are guided and there are no labels anywhere.  (The National Civil Rights Museum and Tenement Museum are two of seventeen International Coalition of Sites of Conscience.)

Our discussion brought to mind some studies I recently read.  Survey results from Reach Advisors on Museum Audience Insights is quite revealing and perhaps surprising when it comes to guided and audio tours compared to self-guided tours with lots of exhibit labels.  (History News, quarterly magazine of the American Association of State and Local History reports a summary of the survey results in the current issue.)  The survey results suggest that at least a substantial portion of museum visitors want to be left alone to view exhibits, unaided by audio tours or guides.  In fact, the History News article reports that a double-digit percentage of visitors find audio and guided tours absolutely annoying!

Check the Reach Advisors web link for a wealth of survey data on museum visitation.  What surprises do you find in these data?

Learning Through Webinars & Podcasts

This week I downloaded a bunch of podcasts from last September’s annual meeting of the American Association of State and Local History.  You can download the podcasts directly from the AASLH web page or through iTunes.  The podcast topics include Web 2.0 Technology and Social Media, Discovering Your Hidden Audience, Creating Diverse Partnerships, and so forth – about 20 in all.  The couple I listened to so far have, in one case been interesting – the Lincoln administration with some interesting comparisons with President Obama – and the other quite helpful in exploring how three different institutions use social media.  The social media podcast illustrates two ways I find this information tool useful.  First, the topical coverage is basic, in this case covering Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and so forth.  Second, the podcasts include case studies that offer insights on how to adapt and apply these tools to my own needs.

Cuts in travel budgets make conference attendance more selective.  To answer this challenge,  more and more organizations reach their membership through inexpensive or free webinars and podcasts of Annual Meetings.  For example, in addition to the AASLH, for the past several years the Society for Applied Anthropology posted selected sessions from their annual meetings as free podcasts.  Will the Society for American Archaeology be not more than just a few years behind this trend?

Free webinars include those sponsored by the Smithsonian Institution such as their Problem Solving With Smithsonian Experts kicking off this week.  The American Association of Museum also offers low-cost webinars, free podcasts, along with free webinars that ultimately end up on YouTube.

All of which raises the obvious – with so much stuff out there, how does one choose?  Here is my take on this point.  Gordon Wiley was considered the last “generalist” in archaeology.  As a discipline, we clearly are quite specialized.  Two decades ago I wrote my MA Thesis on the analysis of flint artifacts from a single site.  I now serve on a committee of a doctoral student who is testing a very specific type of non-destructive spectral technique for fingerprinting flint raw materials.  Specialties are now sub-specialized.  I find that podcasts, webinars, and the like are excellent resources from which I can choose resource information to which I will devote more time.  For example, with social media, podcasts and blogs are very helpful in directing me to specific resources that answer specific questions.

How do these resources answer your research needs?