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Advocacy is (Always) Essential

Category: Advocacy
Two museum staff members meeting with a legislator inside a museum
Reaching out to legislators to understand and support the work your museum does is vital at all times, and especially in the financial turbulence of the pandemic, argues a director of a small museum.

Do you have five minutes to take a small action that could make a big impact? I know, it sounds like a cheap sales pitch, and if you work in a small museum, your answer may be no. Whether closed, working to reopen, or able to welcome visitors in our spaces, dealing with the impact of the current pandemic has us all even busier than usual. I understand that it is hard to prioritize anything that does not seem essential to keeping your museum going in this tough time.

However, I would argue that advocacy work is always essential. Making sure that your federal, state, and local legislators know about the important role your museum plays in its community does not have to be a huge commitment of time, energy, or resources, and will pay dividends for your institution over the long-term. Your legislators are a resource for funding, for building awareness, and for influencing decisions that affect how and how well your museum can do its work. That is even more true now that many of us are closed or just reopening and are facing long-term reductions in our revenue.

My perspective on advocacy is drawn from my previous work at AAM in its accreditation program, my past service as the leader of the Small Museum Association, and my experiences over the past year as the Executive Director of the American Helicopter Museum and Education Center in West Chester, Pennsylvania. At AAM and SMA, I always encouraged museums to see their legislators as resources and partners, and to view the work of building and maintaining relationships with them as mutually beneficial. You need your legislators to prioritize funding for museums and initiatives that will assist our work, and they need good news to share with their constituents, positive impacts to use as examples, and rental facilities to host events and meetings.

When I became an executive director myself, I was fortunate that my museum already had established ties with elected officials. US Rep. Chrissy Houlahan’s staff worked with my team to arrange a visit for her last fall. We gave her a tour of our facility, with a focus on the education work we do around STEM and on getting more girls interested in STEM careers in order to close the gender gap in those important fields. She asked about our priorities and our needs and was a good sport about trying out some of our hands-on science activities.

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This year, the COVID-19 pandemic ramped up my advocacy efforts even further. In Pennsylvania, museums and historic sites benefit from a designated state grant fund; the amounts distributed to individual institutions are not huge, but they help us to maintain our operations and to leverage that support with other funders. This year’s grants have not yet been disbursed, as the state has paused grants while it deals with the economic impact of the pandemic. It is tough for my institution to lose that funding while also coping with large losses in earned revenue, so I reached out to the office of our state representative, Rep. Carolyn Comitta, to let her know about our concerns. Her staff has been wonderfully responsive, reaching out to their contacts in the government on my behalf and assuring me that Rep. Comitta supports the museum and the grant program.

Our state museum association, PA Museums, had further concerns about the future of the grant program, worrying that it could be cut from next year’s budget to lessen the state’s anticipated deficit. In the organization’s e-newsletter, Executive Director Rusty Baker provided members with a template to use to contact their legislators and ask them to support keeping the grant program in the budget. Rusty asked us to personalize the template with information from our own institutions to demonstrate how the pandemic has affected our revenue and staffing, so I inserted that data before sending it off to our state senator, Thomas Killion.

I was amazed to quickly receive a response from Sen. Killion himself, offering to send a letter of support to the Senate leadership and providing me with contact information for a staff member who would work with me to draft the letter. Just a few days later, his letter circulated to the Chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee and other state lawmakers. The grant program is currently funded in the state’s next budget, which I like to think shows the efficacy of museum advocates.

I hope that I have made the point that advocacy is worth the effort. The other point I want to stress is that it is not something you have to do alone or from scratch; your state museum association, discipline-specific association (AASLH, ASTC, ACM, etc.), and AAM can all provide resources and guidance. This year, AAM is encouraging all of us to virtually invite our representatives to visit our institutions, and providing us with multiple guides and resources that can help us do so successfully:

Whatever form it takes in 2021, I hope you will also consider participating in AAM’s annual Museums Advocacy Day. Whether as an AAM staff member or representing a museum, I have found speaking up for the positive impact that our institutions have on our country to be one of the most empowering things I can do as a member of our field. Until then, I hope you will go forth and (virtually) advocate!

About the author:

Allison Titman is the Executive Director of the American Helicopter Museum and President Emeritus of the Small Museum Association.

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