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The Advantages of Being a Small Museum

Category: Alliance Blog
Carissa Pfeiffer saw blue skies for small museums after attending the 2019 AAM Annual Meeting & MuseumExpo, particularly in their ability to embrace community partnerships.

Despite visiting only rarely, I have a strong affinity for New Orleans, the “big sister” of my own hometown: Savannah, Georgia. Both were historically port cities, sites for the global movement of goods, ideas, and people (willingly and not). They grew in complexity and uniqueness precisely because of the diversity that shaped their histories. In New Orleans, collisions of people, environments, and materials—often painful—have forced changes and forged connections as devastating as Hurricane Katrina but also as delicious as Creole cuisine. Maybe every city can claim something similar, but to me, New Orleans is an especially good backdrop for professional discussions at a time when museums have an imperative to address such convergences head-on. There are plenty of lessons in sustainability to be learned from any place that has not only survived through challenging times, but redefined itself for the better as a result.

This year’s Annual Meeting theme, “Sustaining Vibrant Museums,” spoke to the abilities (or at least aspirations) of our institutions to meet with whatever comes our way and respond with approaches that honor the environment, the inclusion of different people and cultures among our audiences and staff, and the diversity of stories and substance behind the materials we use and create for education and engagement. One of the major strategies that recurred across sessions was collaboration and partnership across organizations, departments, and disciplines.

While museums of all sizes are no strangers to precarity and “doing more with less,” small museums are used to the absolute necessity of such cooperation for survival. As someone coming to AAM as a worker at two museums small enough that I can count the staff of both on my hands, it was gratifying to see that many of the issues and ideas that came up at the conference were no less relevant to small organizations than to large ones. In fact, as Laura Raicovich recently argued in an opinion article for Hyperallergic, “Rethinking the ‘Bigger Is Better’ Museum Model,” large institutions can learn a lot from smaller organizations, whose strategies are sometimes more closely tied to the communities they serve. Referring to (expansion-obsessed) art museums, Raicovich states, “if bigger institutions look to collaborations with community-based organizations, public libraries, and other organizations in our cities that bear important local histories, we can learn more about the art we have in our collections and how they function outside the walls of museums.”

The smaller and younger an organization is (and the less of an established audience it has), the more important it is to know how its services relate to the community both within and beyond its walls. In some ways, this gives smaller museums an advantage. Staff sizes may be small enough that workers at all levels are in regular contact with visitors, for instance. The organization may be less entrenched in traditional notions of what a museum must be, and therefore more willing to take risks that defy those notions. When programs are already operating on lean staff and budgets, it might be easier to recognize when they’re no longer working, and to pivot those scarce resources to something more relevant. Necessity is the mother of invention, after all. Most importantly, though, from what I’ve seen, smaller organizations are better at recognizing that they truly can’t do it alone. It takes a profusion of collaborators from both within and outside a small institution to keep it alive and thriving.

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This is certainly the case at my own workplace. When I began working at Black Mountain College Museum + Arts Center, I was pleasantly surprised by the strength of its partnerships with other arts and educational institutions. With only three full-time employees and one part-time, it’s thanks to strong partnerships that the museum has been able to mount meaningful exhibitions, publish catalogs and journals with probing scholarship, host an academic conference that attracts international visitors, and commission and present cutting-edge works and performances.

One of the sessions I attended at this year’s Annual Meeting which underscored the value of partnerships was “A Scientist Walks into an Art Museum,” about partnering with diverse content experts; not only bringing scientists into art museums, but also artists into history museums, historians into science museums, and every other possible variation. Success in the partnerships discussed relied on the museums identifying and recruiting experts, preparing them for their audiences through professional development sessions, and hosting public programs. These investments of time and effort were worthwhile, as they offered visitors who may not otherwise have come to the museum a new entry point, and also provided the content experts with a new audience of people who would not otherwise have encountered their work. Museums gained expertise and perspectives that they did not have the capacity to provide on their own, and experts, motivated to bring their work to a broader audience, expanded their skill sets by learning from museum professionals how to communicate with the public.

In fact, involving a multitude of voices as a key part of a project was one of the most apparent ways museums represented at the conference were trying to combat the idea of traditional museum authority and make sure that exhibitions or programs are relevant to visitors. In addition to working across departmental boundaries, actively seeking the perspectives of other subject matter experts, and partnering with other organizations to offer services that neither could provide separately, co-production with audience members was a strategy I saw come up again and again within the broader theme of collaboration.

In one chapter of the comprehensive MASS Action toolkit that was available at the Museums & Race Transformation and Social Justice Lounge (and available as a free download!), Christine Lashaw and Evelyn Orantes identify a spectrum of community engagement practice from “contribution” to “collaboration” and finally “co-creation,” with case studies for how these were successfully applied to a large, collections-focused exhibition as well as an intimate, community-driven one.

A similar spectrum of strategies for inclusiveness appeared in the session about the OF/BY/FOR/ALL project (one of the most popular sessions I attended at the conference). OF/BY/FOR/ALL issues a straightforward formula for making museums representative of the communities they (cl)aim to serve: hiring staff that are OF a segment of the community you are seeking to attract + offering programming created BY members of that community = making sure your museum is meaningful FOR the community. The presenters also emphasized the need to target and reach out to specific communities of geography, identity, and affinity, instead of thinking of “community” in the broadest sense. To paraphrase the presenters, saying “all are welcome here” does not mean as much as demonstrating who exactly is welcome by involving people directly.

In a poster session, Beth Twiss Houting and Monica Zimmerman presented “Community Engagement Through Audience-Designed Programs” and shared how the Historical Society of Pennsylvania and the Puerto Rican community arts organization Taller Puertoriqueño have come together to develop a model for audiences of both organizations to create their own programs. One of their takeaways at this stage was that flexibility is key, since what museum professionals expect will appeal to new audiences is not always what audiences actually want.

In these sessions and many others, I was reminded of some of the lessons I’ve learned working for small museums. It may be impossible to do everything, reach everyone, and know all the needs of the communities you serve on your own, so putting time and resources into partnerships that will extend those capabilities might be one of the most fruitful investments you can make—a rudimentary sort of mutual aid network that might demand a lot at times, but will strengthen everyone involved. Start small and specific, leverage others’ knowledge so that you can deliver services based on real needs, and share the risks and benefits of change when possible.

The renewed emphasis on partnerships across all sizes of museums indicates that all of us, no matter the size, are finding it increasingly important to strengthen the ties that bind us to the communities we serve. Partnering with other organizations and involving audiences directly are important strategies for moving toward a more sustainable, vibrant future.

About the author:

Carissa Pfeiffer is a graduate of Pratt Institute, where she received an MS in library and information science with an advanced certificate in archives, and the University of Georgia, where she earned degrees in English literature and printmaking/book arts. She currently divides her time between the Asheville Museum of Science and the Black Mountain College Museum + Arts Center in Asheville, North Carolina.

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