Over the course of 2016, ten small museums participated in an AAM pilot project called the Small Museum Accreditation Academy. The Academy, which was developed through a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, was designed to help those museums strengthen their culture of excellence and be poised to apply for accreditation.
As the project manager for the Academy, I spent over a year working with my colleagues to plan the program, select an online learning system, develop the content, create eligibility criteria and an application process, and select the participant institutions from the applicant pool. We were excited to create a program that would address the longstanding issue that small museums felt challenged by the steps involved and time commitment required to become accredited.
Once the participant museums were selected and their staff teams briefed on the logistics, we launched them into the online learning system. The content was divided into eight modules, each of which featured a live webinar, resources to download, homework assignments for staff and governing authority members, and a discussion board on which participants could share their progress or ask questions. Participants interacted with AAM staff as well as with volunteer mentors, experienced small museum professionals who helped to deliver the webinars and answer questions.
Another key part of the Academy was evaluation; we asked participants to rate each content module as well as the overall experience. Those evaluations were an invaluable resource to us as we refined the course content over the duration of the program. They also revealed a key takeaway: the Academy didn’t work.
By “didn’t work,” I don’t mean that the program wasn’t useful to its participants or didn’t teach them important information about the requirements for Core Documents Verification and how to prepare for accreditation. In their evaluations, participants told us that it was a “tremendous experience,” “having access to AAM staff was super,” and “this was a very thorough program and amazing resource.” However, they also told us things like:
“The academy started out at a good pace but as the modules became more involved I would have liked more time.”
“We have significantly advanced our collective team awareness of requisite Core Documents content but did not secure the time within workloads (and emergent unforeseen circumstances) to dive deeply into Documents-production itself.”
“Size of staff and time given to complete the work were challenges we faced.”
And one university museum noted that “during the summer months, our faculty tends to be away from the university conducting research at other institutions or doing fieldwork. It was very difficult to get them to participate in academy exercises, attend webinars, and provide feedback from the first of May through the first of September.”
We had purposely spaced out the webinars and homework assignment deadlines so as not to overwhelm the museums with requirements but, clearly, finding the time to complete the work for the Academy as well as maintaining their job functions was just not a reasonable expectation for participants. AAM staff had hoped, and I think participants had too, that the Academy would offer a rich experience of learning, discussion, and feedback; instead, participants found themselves having to ask us for extensions as their busy museum calendars meant that they struggled to keep up with the expected workload.
AAM took away some key lessons from the Academy experience, which we have been keeping in mind as we develop resources and programs designed to help small museums (and their larger peers) strengthen their operations and successfully participate in the programs on the Continuum of Excellence. The most important lesson is that time is scarce in small museums, so content needs to be available to museums on their schedule rather than one imposed from the outside. Small museums can and will achieve the same standards as larger institutions, but may need increased flexibility in order to do so.
I speak for all of my Excellence colleagues when I say that the Academy was a rewarding experience for us, reminding us of the vital work that small museums do in their communities and their inventiveness in stretching their resources to accomplish great things. We appreciate the ten museums that took part in the Academy project with us and look forward to working with all of them on their future accreditation applications (whenever they’re ready – no hurry!).
Those ten museums were:
- Bainbridge Island Historical Museum, Bainbridge Island, WA
- Earth & Mineral Sciences Museum at The Pennsylvania State University, State College, PA
- Godwin-Ternbach Museum, Flushing, NY
- Wayne Stark Galleries, College Station, TX
- Monterey County Agricultural and Rural Life Museum, King City, CA
- Mountain Heritage Center – Western Carolina University, Cullowhee, NC
- Museum of Art – University of New Hampshire, Durham, NH
- Spartanburg Art Museum, Spartanburg, SC
- University of Mississippi Museum and Historic Houses, Oxford, MS
- Zanesville Museum of Art, Zanesville, OH
Allison Titman is an AAM Accreditation Program Officer. Prior to joining the Alliance four years ago, she worked in small historic house museums in Maryland. She continues to engage with the small museum field through her service on the board of the Small Museum Association.