Tag: advocacy

Summertime Museum Advocacy

toy museum

As we head into the summer months archaeological sites and museums will see an increase in the number of visitors.  Typically, the April to October period is the high visitation season for cultural heritage venues.  Family visitation at regional cultural heritage institutions will increase as staycations remain popular.  During this busy season the last thing on the mind of most cultural heritage professionals is advocacy.  After  all, the American Alliance of Museum (AAM) celebrates Advocacy Day in February and the Archaeological Institute of America‘s International Archaeology Day is not until late October.

However, perhaps the best time to gain public support for cultural heritage venues is during the time of greatest visitation.  Consider the following:

  • The families whose children take part in museum day camps and visit the summer field school excavations are the same people who will be voting in the November elections for officials who will decide the public funding for these institutions.  Why should we not take advantage of telling the public about how their current and future tax dollars are needed to continue the services they are experiencing during their visit?  
  • Elected officials spend a good bit of August in their home district on summer recess.  Last year the AAM promoted “Invite Your Representative to Your Museum Day.”  We have four months remaining to plan for these events this year!
  • As we all know advocacy works best as a year-long process institutionalized into our everyday operations.  Our elected officials and the public need to know about the importance of our institutions, not just when we are in need of funds, but by building long-term relationships that extend throughout the year.

So how can we insert advocacy into our already packed summer schedules.  Here are a few ideas:

  • The AAM website has a great fact sheet on the importance of cultural heritage venues as integral components of today’s economic, educational, and entertainment engines.  Consider inserting relevant information from this sheet or link the entire document to your newsletter, website, or Facebook page.
  • Create an Economic Impact Statement and Educational Impact Statement that highlights the role your cultural heritage institution plays in your local economy.  Here are some samples provided by the AAM including our own from the C.H. Nash Museum.
  • Speak Up For Museums by Gail Ravnitzky Siberglied is the best single source I have found on advocacy for a broad range of cultural heritage applications.  The book is loaded with effective projects from simple five-minute tasks to complex programs on advocacy.  I use this text to create projects for graduate students in my Museum Practices seminar.  For example, here is an advocacy inventory that Ashley Foley Dabbraccio completed for a Memphis area museum.
  • Today we understand that advocacy is not just for the marketing, government affairs or public relations departments.  Rather, advocacy is also the responsibility of the exhibit designer, field director, docent, and field school student.  Nearly 30 years ago during my first field school experience the late Dr. Patricia Essenpreis told her students that “If you cannot explain to the visitor why their tax dollars should go to support these excavations or keep the Fort Ancient site open, you might as well go home.”  Sound advice then and today.

How do you make advocacy a part of your everyday operation?

Celebrate and Act on Museum Advocacy Day

advocacy 2013

Today is Museum Advocacy Day in the United States.  I have posted before about the critical role that advocacy must play in the life of cultural heritage professionals.  I believe that we must be mindful to develop an attitude and consciousness of advocacy in all of our actions.

I am pleased that Patricia Harris, a student in the Museum Studies Graduate Certificate Program at the University of Memphis and a graduate assistant at the C.H. Nash Museum at Chucalissa is in Washington D.C. today as part of a delegation of six Tennesseans meeting with our state’s elected officials as part of the advocacy activities organized by the American Alliance of Museums.  The Alliance also has suggestions for actions you can take locally.

What actions will you take to support the preservation and presentation of our nation’s cultural heritage today on Museum Advocacy Day?

Below is an essay written by Patricia on the importance of museums to our culture.

Museums vital to economy, education

by Patricia Harris

Defining an American museum is not as easy as you might think. Some may respond to this challenge with definitions such as: a refuge for relaxation and renewal; a sanctuary for learning; or, in an increasingly digitized world, one of the last strongholds of authenticity.

But here’s one definition of U.S. museums you might not have thought of: economic engines. Just as American museums of all types – from art museums to zoos and everything in between – are essential elements in our educational infrastructure, museums are also vital cogs in the economy nationally, regionally and locally. But don’t take my word for it.

The American Alliance of Museums notes that in direct expenditures alone, U.S. museums inject some $20 billion into the economy, and employ nearly half a million Americans. Museums and other cultural organizations attract businesses to communities large and small. Museums are also key drivers of cultural tourism, and studies by the U.S. Travel Association found that cultural tourists stay 53 percent longer and spend 36 percent more than non-cultural tourists.

Right here in Memphis, Tennessee there are more than 60 tourist attractions, a number of those cultural heritage sites. More than 4 million visitors go to Beale Street Historic District, making it the most visited attraction in Tennessee. In 2010, over 2 million people visited tourist destinations in Memphis and Shelby County. For every visitor that stayed, ate, visited, and shopped, revenue was generated back into the Memphis economy.

But as substantial as is the impact of museums on jobs and local economies, the contribution of museums goes much farther. As state and local government budgets are continually stretched thin, many museums are taking up the slack, filling voids in our social and community fabric. Certainly museums are critical tools for the estimated two million homeschooled children in the U.S.

Art museums have created programs for Alzheimer’s patients and their caregivers, enabling them to enjoy the benefits of engaging with our artistic treasures. Other museums have led the way in working with children on the autism spectrum, providing a safe, comfortable day out for the children and their parents. Visionary children’s museums have become sanctuaries for families caught up in the juvenile justice system. Museums have served to bridge cultural and ethnic divides in communities, from bringing recent immigrants together to meld their old traditions with those of their new homes, to offering English as a Second Language courses. Many museums have led efforts to help our citizens upgrade their job skills through computer training courses.

Here in Memphis, the C.H. Nash Museum at Chucalissa provides participatory and hands-on activities for school children and community members alike. At a time in our city when the state of our education system weighs heavily on the minds of parents and city councils, we must not forget the importance of the informal educational experience that museums can provide. Chucalissa alone serves many thousands of students a year with over 100 local schools participating in field trips.  Through visits to museums such as Chucalissa, children can participate in programs that are designed to meet curriculum standards while at the same time provide meaningful and lifelong learning experiences.

A key part of the mission of museums is public service, and we are constantly enhancing and expanding that service to our local communities. And the public has shown its appreciation via the estimated 850 million visits to U.S. museums annually – more than the attendance at all major league sporting events combined. All we ask in return is that the public let their elected officials know how much they appreciate their local museums, as economic drivers, as educational pillars, and as community assets.

Museum Advocacy Day on February 26 is hosted by the American Alliance of Museums. Along with other museum representatives from across the country, I will meet with members of congress to make the case on Capitol Hill for federal support of America’s museums.

Patricia Harris is a student in the Museum Studies Graduate Certificate Program at the University of Memphis.

Baby Steps in Making Museums & Archaeology Relevant

Below is the modified text of a presentation I gave this past Saturday at the Student Committee Workshop on public education and outreach in archaeology at the Southeastern Archaeological Conference Annual Meeting in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.  

My introduction to public outreach in archaeology occurred in 1986 at the Fort Ancient Earthworks in Southwest Ohio during my first field school experience.  The instructor, the late Dr. Patricia Essenpreis, based 10% of our course grade on how we interacted with the tourists/visitors who came to the excavations.  Each day Pat assigned one student the responsibility to answer visitor questions.  Pat was reasonably rigid in all that she did in the field, including how the students interacted with the visitors – you best be able to explain the research questions and your specific task in the excavations. Pat also posed a very interesting challenge to us that year.  She said something very close to “If you cannot explain to the visitor why their tax dollars should go to support these excavations or keep the Fort Ancient site open, you might as well go home.”

That challenge has remained with me to this day.  Over the years it has morphed into questions like the one posed to me during my MA Thesis defense a long time ago by Barry Isaac who asked “Why is reading your thesis more important than eating a plate of worms.”  For a long time the best I could come up with was to respond that the research was interesting and answered many questions about past cultures that we did not know.  That in conducting research at the places like the Hopewell earthwork complexes of the Ohio Valley we could foster a greater appreciation of the complex prehistoric Native American cultures of the region – regardless of the fact that in those years the Native American community was actively protesting against the Ohio Historical Society and their site excavations.

In the years since, those questions or challenges have remained in the forefront of my mind.  Here I will briefly explore some of the responses I have come up with since 1986.  However, I will note that in our training of students in the classroom today, I think we are still not terribly good at getting at this point.  During my questioning of graduate students during brown bags or thesis presentations, I fear that I come off more as the old curmudgeon when I pose my obligatory “plate of worms” or “taxpayer support” question/challenge.  I find that most students today are no better prepared to respond than I was 25 years ago.  I see that as a problem.

Interest and intellectual engagement are certainly important and relevant.  One of my favorite examples in this area was an experience I had with Poverty Point figurines nearly 15 years ago.  Past conventional wisdom had it that these 3500-year-old artifacts may be fertility symbols and that they all represent females.  But for a whole bunch of reasons, today we know that dog won’t hunt.  During show and tell classroom visits, I often posed this question to grade school students – What do you think these figurines are all about?  The answer I got from a 5th grade girl during a presentation at St. Leo’s Elementary school in Lafayette Louisiana was interesting.  Our exchange went something like this:

Me – So what do you think these headless figurines are all about?

She – They didn’t have camera’s back then did they?

Me – No they did not.

She – Well maybe instead of having a picture on the mantle of their grandma or grandpa who lived far away, they kept this statue and when the person died they broke the head off because they were dead.

Me – Hmmm . . . that sounds like a pretty good idea.  I like it.  Has anybody else got any other ideas?

. . . and the fact is, the 5th graders response better accounts for the actual presence of the figurines in the Poverty Point archaeological record than the conventional wisdom passed along by archaeologists.  As an aside, I have remembered that story for the past 15 years.  I have recently wondered if that student, now in her twenties, also remembers that story, and if having her interpretation legitimized proved meaningful to her.

But in moving from simple engagement and curiosity, I consider some of the best resources on this issue are the applied archaeology volumes such as those edited by Paul Shackel, Erve Chambers, and Barbara Little, to name but a few.  These volumes are filled with case studies where archaeology is used as a source for empowerment of indigenous communities.  A distinct component of these studies are the collaborative and co-creative processes where the archaeologist and the indigenous community work together in the research.  Natalye Tate and I recently published a substantive piece on this in the journal Collections.

Let me summarize how this process can work where I am employed as the Director of The C.H. Nash Museum at Chucalissa a Mississippian Temple Mound Complex in Memphis Tennessee. The Chucalissa site was discovered in modern era of Jim Crow politics when in the 1930s the CCC was building a segregated park for the African American community of Memphis, then known as the Shelby County Negro Park.  When the temple mound complex was encountered during the construction process the surrounding 40-acres was removed from the park development and became an enclave of academic research.

In 2002 a small 1920s era African-American farmstead was excavated at the Chucalissa site.  Because the site museum interpreted only the prehistoric  Mississippian culture and to a lesser extent the contemporary Native Americans in the form of the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians, the materials from this farmstead excavation were stored away.

Note that the community surrounding the Museum is 90% African American and we record more visitors from that zip code 38109 than any other.  In the summer of 2010, we received a grant to employ nine area high school students to create an exhibit on the farmstead excavations.  Our grant proposal goal was simply to create a single exhibit case on the excavations.  The five-week process exceeded our expectations dramatically.  In addition to the exhibit case itself, the students collected 30 hours of oral history interviews that they edited into a 20-minute documentary, created timeline banners of the African American experience in southwest Memphis and began a resource center.

So, the grant funders and everyone agreed they got their money’s worth out of the project and we got a great exhibit, but I don’t see that as the real success story – rather, the real success of the project was in the co-creative process.  The museum staff provided the technical expertise, but the students created the content and had the final decisions in all aspects of the exhibit creation.  The only stipulation was that the exhibit had to focus on the excavation materials and the broader African American experience in Southwest Memphis.  The students selected the artifacts that would be in the display case, chose the community leaders to interview, researched the timeline scripts, and even determined the color of the wall paint.

In the same way that National Archaeology Day should simply be a node on an annual continuum of public outreach, so was this exhibit creation.  As an archaeological and cultural heritage museum we have ongoing projects with the surrounding community that predate and postdate the exhibit creation.  These projects include regular volunteer day activities in processing of prehistoric and historic cultural materials, a traditional medicinal plant sanctuary and dye garden, special programming, hosting Black History month events, community service projects and more.

There are two punch lines here in response to Pat Essenpreis’ challenge years ago.  First, the community surrounding the C.H. Nash Museum now very much understands how and why their tax dollar expenditures that support the museum are relevant.  I vividly recall a community meeting I attended 5 years ago.  The President of the Westwood Neighborhood Association abruptly challenged a University of Memphis colleague’s proposal saying “Don’t tell me what the University of Memphis is going to do for our community.  The last time you came and did your research you were here for two years and all we got was a map on the wall.”  That sentiment was replaced by the same individual announcing at the farmstead exhibit opening “We need to let more people in the community know about our exhibit at the Museum” along with collaboration on numerous other projects.

The second and equally important point is that we as the museum staff and archaeologists could not have created the exhibit that the students created nor could we have collected the information on the African American CCC crew, accessed the cultural memory that is now in place at the Museum, or interviewed the neighborhood candy ladies, simply because those data reside exclusively in the community.

I would like to consider  one other point on community engagement and public outreach.  In a recent post, I presented  the essay of Leila Hamdan, a graduate student in my Museum Practices seminar this year to illustrate the relevance of museums to the public.  The final line of Leila’s essay is where I find myself today in responding to the challenge Pat laid out to students in her field school 25 years ago.

Our challenge is to engage and demonstrate to the public the relevance to the preservation and presentation of their cultural heritage.  In so doing, we can create a public who will demand that the cultural heritage professional in fact preserve and present those materials and that the resources are made available to carry out that work.

And to everyone who responds with something like – nice idea – now let’s talk about the real world, I conclude with the advice given by Richard Dreyfuss to Bill Murray in the film What About Bob?  – it is all about taking the baby steps and consistently so.  We have just concluded extended community outreach through National Archaeology Day, and here in Louisiana Archaeology month – we need to continue that process all year.

Some ‘How to’ Proposals on Museum Advocacy

In a blog post last year I reviewed the book Speak Up For Museums the American Alliance of Museums premier publication on museum advocacy.  In the Fall Semester of 2011, students in my Museum Practices seminar at the University of Memphis completed an Advocacy Inventory from that book for area museums in Memphis.  This year’s seminar followed up with those same museums to create proposals for further advocacy and community outreach work.  Below is the proposal written by graduate student Ashley Dabbraccio for the Davies Manor Plantation Museum in nearby Bartlett, Tennessee.  Ashley’s proposal draws from the Speak Up For Museums book that all cultural heritage professionals will find useful in the public outreach work.

The Davies Manor Plantation Big House

Davies Manor Plantation Advocacy Proposal

by Ashley Foley Dabbraccio

The proposal below is a specific advocacy plan designed to showcase the Davies Manor Plantation. All the possible tasks proposed are covered and suggested by the American Alliance of Museums’ text Speak Up for Museums: The AAM’s Guide to Advocacy. Visit the AAM’s advocacy website at http://www.speakupmuseums.org to gain further knowledge about advocacy within the community (AAM’s #2). Also, purchasing a copy of the American Alliance of Museums’ Speak Up for Museums text is a first step in increasing the museum’s knowledge on advocacy. Keeping a copy on hand allows the museum to review completed or new suggestions under the AAM’s guidelines. The guide expresses that advocacy be planned on a week-to-week basis. The suggestions within this proposal highlight the Davies Manor Plantation’s key strengths and limitations, while acknowledging the size and type of the institution. The proposal covers efficient ways to promote advocacy on multiple levels, even with a small staff. The proposed suggestions range from immediate tasks that require little input to tasks that require an intern.

v Immediate Tasks Requiring Little Input

  • Take full advantage of social media sites, including Facebook, to promote the museum. “Friending” or “fanning/becoming a fan” of government officials and other area museums is a great advocacy tool on multiple levels. Friending keeps government officials aware of the daily progress, events and programs at the museum. Plus, social media gives other museums ideas and “partnering” opportunities with the Davies Manor Plantation. In advocacy, social media forms relationships on different levels. Social media demonstrates to government officials the museum’s active role within the community, which will help obtain their support if Davies Manor seeks government funding. Second, social media develops a relationship with other museums in expanding outreach and cross-promoting events with other museums. Davies Manor may also learn of other events at other museums to implement within their own setting. (AAM’s #11, #24)
  • Set up a LinkedIn account, if the museum does not have one already. Having a profile allows Davies Manor to link to their government officials on the site. The LinkedIn profile also enables the museum to link to high school/college/graduate students, who are looking for museum-related internships. A LinkedIn account allows the museum to review different resumes, jobs, and other activities that students are involved in; in order to see if they are a “right match” for an internship at the museum. (AAM’s #14)
  • Add government officials’ email addresses to the monthly newsletter. The addition of government officials at all levels to the Davies Manor Plantation newsletter keeps them informed on the museum’s progress as well as the “current happenings.” (AAM’s #2)
  • Join the AAM’s advocacy alerts. Signing up for the alerts is fast and easy. The alerts allow the museum to gather information on advocacy possibilities provided directly by the American Alliance of Museums, making the alerts program a great way keep informed. (AAM’s #7)
  • Do the AAM’s Free Advocacy Training Program. The program only takes an hour and can be done at a museum meeting or retreat. The program has different training sessions that apply to the staff and/or the museum itself. Also, the AAM archives all the previous programs for review. The program demonstrates to museums where improvements in advocacy are possible. (AAM’s #4)
  • Follow the museum’s profile within the news. Set up alerts on sites, such as Google News, so the online engine alerts the museum of any mention of the staff, or the museum itself, within the news. The museum can make sure all the information provided in the news is accurate or know whom to contact, if something is incorrect. The alert system also shows the museum’s standing with the community, adding to present and future community outreach. Also, add government officials, so staff members can monitor the official’s media coverage, especially if it pertains to historical or museum work. (AAM’s #43)

v Immediate Tasks Requiring Medium Input

  • Create a media list, if the museum does not already have one. Knowing whom to contact for different events makes it much easier to involve the media in specific events, including events hosted by the museum or events honoring the museum.  (AAM’s #55)
  • Check out the museum’s profile on different websites. Review, and correct any mistakes, found on sites, including Wikipedia, the museum’s personal website, etc. Currently, the museum has a Wikipedia page. As Wikipedia receives many views, especially from possible visitors, having current information available on the page is a good idea. Correcting any wrong information present there provides people with correct knowledge and prevents any “tall tales” from continuing to circulate. (AAM’s #51)
  • Ask government officials to write recommendations for grants. For example, ask government officials to supply a recommendation for the maintenance renovations. Asking for a letter of support not only keeps them aware of the museum’s current projects, but also works to promote future governmental advocacy. If any officials do write a letter of support, don’t forget to thank them for their generosity, letting the official(s) know the museum appreciates their time and commitment to museums.  (AAM’s #25, #47)
  • Write an opinion piece about “something unique” for the local newspaper. Local write-ups help engage community members and demonstrate new ideas that the museum wishes to develop. For example, a profile of the “travel trunk” program makes for an excellent piece and may drum up more response for incorporating it into classrooms. Continually doing these pieces throughout the year keeps the community involved in the museum’s programs. (AAM’s #9)

v Higher Priority Tasks that Required Ten Hours or More of Effort

  • Involve the media in special events. For example, the Colonial Dames, an organization similar to the Daughters of the Revolution—except with more of a focus on historical preservation and historical places—will be honoring Davies Manor Plantation with a plaque for their preservation efforts. Events, such as the Colonial Dames ceremony, raise awareness for the museum. See if any of the local newspapers want to feature the event. Mailing a copy of the article to all government officials, as expressed by the AAM’s plan is a great idea. Inviting officials to the event is also a possibility to raise governmental awareness for the positive contributions the museum has made. (AAM’s #32)
  • Join the AAM’s Advocacy Day. The American Alliance of Museums hosts an annual two-day program in Washington, D.C. The event brings together museum professionals and museum supporters. Attending the events allows the museum to experience different programs on improving advocacy and form connections to other museums and supporters from outside their own area. Advocacy Day is a good way to form long-distance connections that may be beneficial in the future.  (AAM’s #8)
  • Promote the “Travel Trunk” Program. Use the informational brochure to promote the program to parents and school teachers. Sending a copy of the brochure about the program to governmental officials may help to get the program off the ground. Once, the program is used within the school systems, discuss the program’s success on Facebook and other social media outlets or get reviews from teachers to add to the promotion of the program. (AAM’s #11, #46, #49)
  • Gather testimonials. Encourage visitors to leave testimonials after their visit, by filling out a testimonial form. The museum can use those testimonials within brochures, on the website or even when applying for different types of funding. (AAM’s #12)
  • Gather letters from school children. The letters show what students have learned from their time at the museum. The letters also demonstrate how the museum and school districts work together on an educational level. Send a letter from the museum, along with the children’s letters, to elected officials to demonstrate the type of work the museum is currently doing within the community. Also, use the media list to contact local newspapers about a possible article on community outreach.  (AAM’s #26, #55)

v Major Tasks requiring an intern or large commitment

  • Set up an Advocacy Internship. Due to the limited full-time (2) and part-time (2) staff, an internship solely based on advocacy is a distinct possibility. Assigning an intern to work exclusively on advocacy allows Davies Manor to devote more time to all types of advocacy.  Any of the above mentioned work could be given to an intern, who can establish steps to promoting advocacy on many levels for the museum. (AAM’s #49)

Ashley Dabbraccio




Ashley Dabbraccio is a History M.A. student at the University of Memphis. Her research interests center on gender history in the 19th century, particularly focusing on crime and vice. Her museum interests include national parks and their presentation of Civil War history.

The Disconnect Between Museums and Schools

In an article titled “Insistent Questions in Our Learning Age” published in the Journal of Museum Education (Volume 35, Number 3, Fall 2010), Beverly Sheppard asks several questions including the following two:

•Why are our programs guided by school-based curriculum standards rather than by the unique qualities of learning in informal settings?
•Why do so few of our legislators have knowledge of the breadth and depth of museum/school programming?  (Sheppard 2010:218)
There are several steps cultural heritage venues can take to help respond to the questions raised by Sheppard.
  • Curriculum Standards and Standardized Testing – Although 45 states to date have adopted the Common Core Standards that will go into effect in the next couple of years, replacing the more draconian aspects of the current system, standards in some form will continue into the future.  At the recent American Association/Alliance of Museums (AAM) meeting in Minneapolis I was surprised to learn that many museums have not matched their programming to the state standards.  Although initially a rather cumbersome task, in a survey of Memphis area teachers we found that the primary reason that determined whether a school would either visit or arrange for in-school museum visit was not the financial cost we had assumed – rather, the number one reason was whether the programs matched state curriculum standards.  At the C.H. Nash Museum, we now list the curriculum standards for all of our educational programs on our website.  The McClung Museum in Knoxville has an excellent detail of lesson plans and curriculum standards on their website.  Through website listings, museums can be more proactive in letting the educators know where our unique programs meet their standards.
  •  Public officials lack of knowledge about our programs – The answer to this question seems rather simple, at least as I have experienced the issue.  Legislators do not know about museum/school programming because museums do not communicate the information to them.  For example, last year my Museum Practices graduate seminar contacted 12 medium to small Memphis area museums to complete the AAM advocacy inventory form.  For the most part, the museums reported little contact with their elected/appointed public officials, and almost none specifically related to issues of educational programming.  In a follow-up with those 12 museums, this year my students found that only three museums used their completed advocacy inventory in follow-up with their public officials.  Because only four individuals attended the session on Museum Advocacy at the recent AAM meetings suggests that Memphis museums are not anomalous in this regard. (See earlier blog post on this issue.)

These questions and others raised by Beverly Sheppard in her article are substantive concerns that need our full attention.  The questions clearly represent a challenge for cultural heritage professionals in the coming years.  Museums and archaeology have never held the primacy in educational mandates enjoyed by public schools and libraries.  Can you imagine a school without a library?  Emphatically, no.  Can you imagine a school without a museum?   Well, yes – in fact, I doubt that most educational institutions have affiliated museums.

In the 1960s when I was in grade school, I went to the Cincinnati Museum of Natural History as did every other child who was the product of the public or parochial school system at the time.  We went because the Natural History Museum was the Museum in town.  I don’t recollect any special programming beyond a normal tour.  I doubt there was any discussion with our teachers on what we would experience or how it related to our coursework.  The trip to the museum was more like a rite of passage – our tour of the galleries and exhibits, with docents who made sure we didn’t touch anything.

Times have changed.

In the film What About Bob? Richard Dreyfuss proposes that Bill Murray take baby steps to begin solving his issues.  If we begin taking baby steps, and consistently so, we can begin to address the critical issues raised by Beverly Sheppard.

What are your thoughts on the need for taking these baby steps?

Making Museums Relevant

I have posted before about the importance of demonstrating the relevance of our cultural institutions to the public who finance them.  In a recent assignment in my Museum Practices seminar at the University of Memphis students responded to the following:

Put yourself in the position of John or Josephine Q. Public. In the current economic chaos, the bank is foreclosing on their home, they have lost their jobs, and the city just reduced their public services. In referring to the National Endowment for the Arts and the Institute of Museum and Library Services, the House Budget Committee recently argued that “The activities and content funded by these agencies…are generally enjoyed by people of higher income levels, making them a wealth transfer from poorer to wealthier citizens.” Isn’t your research or the position you aspire to as a museum professional just another example of this wealth transfer? What do John and Josephine Q. Public get for their tax dollars that fund your research/position?

The students wrote some great essays in response.  One of the best was from Leila Hamdan which she graciously agreed to share as a guest post this week.

Making Museums Relevant

by Leila Hamdan

Cultural institutions expand, stimulate and progress social cohesion through shared symbols, experiences and quest for meaning of existence, which all people share regardless of income.  These institutions are tools for education, collaboration and community.  This paper will discuss reasons why a portion of America’s tax money should continue to fund cultural institutions and the paid positions of their employees.  I will look at the work I have done to serve the public as a collections manager and registrar at a national art museum.  Additionally, I will explore the existing political agenda to cut all public services, including the arts, and argue that private funding alone would marginalize the main audience that most cultural institutions strive to reach.  The project description states that paid positions in museums are an example of money being taken from the poor and given to the rich.  This idea leads people to accept the false notion that the rich control art and culture, where in fact we have a much longer tradition of arts as a species than the current commoditization reflects.

As a collections manager and registrar for a national art museum, I passionately worked to uphold the museum’s mission to preserve and advance the creation of fine metalwork.  Community was a crucial part of the museum’s operation; metalworkers are inherently communal people, and the general public was never excluded.  Metalwork is a bridge between art and industry, labor and luxury and is a medium that affects the lives of every living being and has since the first Bronze Age.  Through museum programming we reached an inclusive audience from all backgrounds and income levels; our largest audience was working-class people intrigued by metal arts.  Many people had heard stories of their family members, usually a grandfather, who was a blacksmith, and wanted to know more about the skill and history.  The museum I worked for had a permanent collection, temporary exhibition galleries, an extensive library, and two metalworking facilities.  These areas allowed museum visitors to see fine, well-crafted artworks on display and in the same visit see similar creations made my real metal artists working in the two facilities.  The visitors could then read about histories in the library or ask me, also functioning as the head librarian, questions.  My responsibilities allowed me to assist visiting artists and scholars with their research, as well as, teach people of all ages and backgrounds lessons in metal elements, the history of metal industry and art, and contemporary fine art and craft.  This kind of knowledge is both pragmatic and empowering.  I also worked to preserve the permanent collection, acquire new pieces for the collection and bring in a variety of exhibitions.  In the six years I worked for the museum, I saw the minds of countless children expand when they saw an artist melt or bend metal into another form, and I understood the empowerment they gained first hand.  I had once visited that museum for the first time and remember very well how mind opening and world expanding the experience was for me.  Years later, as an employee, public tax dollars paid my salary, and I worked to give the public everything I could.  Many of the employees work for non-profits, putting in extra time and energy for a position that they are passionate for and thankful to have and do not necessarily make much money doing.  The employees of cultural institutions deserve the support of the American tax-payer as much as American tax-payers deserve to have control over what cultural arts are available for them and future generations.

When presenting a case to “John Q. Public” on why their tax dollars should fund cultural institutions and programs such as the National Endowment for the Arts and the Institute of Museums and Library Services, one cannot overlook the existing political agenda to lower or eliminate government funding for many public services and benefits in education, health care, environmental protection, housing, as well as, the arts.  Other countries are experiencing devastated economies similar to America.  Austerity measures currently threatening the general public’s livelihood in France, Spain, Greece, Chile and Canada are the same that threaten America’s public.  It is not far fetched to say that our country is heading in the same direction of economic collapse with one major difference being the amount of tax dollars that are spent on military defense.

The NEA and IMLS are two democratic groups that heavily support and fund cultural institutions by promoting public access to educational materials, preservation of cultural traditions and advancements in arts.  Republican Vice-Presidential nominee, Paul Ryan, chairs America’s House Budget Committee, which recently approved a budget plan for FY13 to cut all federal funding for the NEA and IMLS.  After which the House Appropriations Committee approved a bill to drastically cut funding for public services including the NEA.  It is unlikely that most of the projects funded by NEA and IMLS would happen if it were not for the grants they provide.  In 2012, the NEA awarded grants to the American Alliance of Museums to revise their accreditation process.  They also awarded grants to several institutions for diverse exhibitions and publications, including Asian art, Dina’ina Athabascan culture, black performance art, mixed race Asian American heritage and artwork by Carrie Mae Weems.  If organizations like the NEA and IMLS were no longer publically funded, artistic production would dramatically decrease or disappear along with the transparent and democratic process of preservation of cultural heritage and access to information.  Privatizing funding for arts and cultural institutions would narrow the audience and recipients of funding to a tiny demographic, which traditionally excludes minorities, underprivileged and the working poor.

Part of the purpose of NEA, IMLS and other means of publicly financing the arts is to ensure access to art for the broadest segment of the population possible with the assumption being that culture is a necessary part of life.  As the old union song goes, “small art and love and beauty their drudging spirits knew.  Yes, it is bread we fight for, but we fight for roses too.”  If all public money for culture were removed there would be a contraction of what was available to see and who was allowed to see it and reap the benefits.  In justifying my position to “John and Josephine Q. Public” on why their tax dollars should fund my position in a cultural institution, I would first ask Mr. and Mrs. Public to question the political and economic agendas that affect all aspects of their lives.  I would ask them to question their role in the assimilation and gentrification of culture and arts.  Lastly, I would encourage the public to advocate and support their local museums and cultural institutions.

Leila Hamdan is a Graduate Student in the Museum Studies Graduate Certificate Program at the University of Memphis.  She can be reached at lihamdan(at)memphis.edu

National Archaeology Day & Advocacy

A bunch of opportunities are in the air to conduct effective community outreach for both archaeology and museums. The Archaeology Institute of America’s  Second National Archaeology Day (NAD), October 20, 2012 is just four months away.  With over 50 collaborating organizations to date, including that 400 locations of the U.S. National Park Service, state agencies such as the Louisiana Division of Archaeology, the Alabama Archaeological Society, the Florida Public Archaeology Network, and professional organizations such as the Society for American Archaeology, the national scope of the celebration is an excellent opportunity to highlight the relevance of cultural heritage preservation and presentation in our country today.  The NAD blog has a list of all the events planned across the country to date for the October celebration.  The list is impressive and includes special tours of research labs, conferences, festivals, presentations and much more.

At the C.H. Nash Museum at Chucalissa we are firming up our plans for NAD.  Thus far, we scheduled the opening of a newly constructed replica prehistoric residential house.  Along with tours, including our new Medicinal Plant Sanctuary, we will also have flintknapping, hide tanning, atlatl dart throwing demonstrations and hands-on activities for the entire family.

Beyond just hosting events, NAD is an opportunity to take part in a community awareness and outreach campaign over the next several months.  Those of us who work in small to medium-sized museums with limited budgets are often overwhelmed when trying to compete with the larger venues.  NAD is an opportunity to participate as equal partners in a national consortium of collaborating agencies.  In building for the event, here are some opportunities to consider:

Op-ed and News Media Articles – The American Association of Museums (AAM) celebrates a Museum Advocacy Day each year.  In building awareness for the event, the AAM encourages individual museums to write op-ed pieces for local news media.  The C.H. Nash Museum is not the biggest museum in Memphis by a long shot, but we are the only museum to take up this AAM challenge.  As a result in both 2011 and 2012 our staff wrote op-ed pieces published in Memphis’ daily newspaper, the Commercial Appeal, highlighting the important work of museums in our community.  Of course, we will submit an op-ed piece for National Archaeology Day, and use the national scope to promote cultural heritage awareness and our event.  The NAD’s national scope allows such media coverage not to be viewed as paid advertising but as feature stories that explore the important role our museum plays in archaeological research and preservation.

Elected Public Officials – This week, AAM President Ford Bell sent an email to all members announcing August 11 – 18 as Invite Congress to Visit Your Museum week.  Given the epidemic of budget cuts occurring in our country, President Bell wrote:

What will influence Congress the most as they make these tough budget choices?“According to a recent study, constituent visits have more influence than any other influence group or strategy. This ‘Invite Congress to Visit Your Museum’ event is the perfect opportunity for Congress to learn first-hand how museums provide essential community services. I urge every museum to participate in this event.

Our experience at Chucalissa shows that when we ask our elected officials to visit our museum, they respond with a very real interest in seeing how we are relevant to the electorate they represent.  NAD is an excellent opportunity to showcase that relevance in a nationally organized forum.  Consider using the summer recess period to connect with your public officials on both the national and local levels to talk about how you will tie into NAD activities and why archaeology is meaningful to the community they represent.

Word of Mouth – I am fond of saying all of this type of work is a process not an event.  I recollect from the movie What About Bob it’s all about taking baby steps.  I had an experience this past Friday that reflects this understanding.  First, especially when we are slow at the Museum, I am a sucker for taking any visiting young boy or girl outside to let them throw darts with an atlatl.  They always enjoy this activity. This past Friday I moderated two break-out sessions on prehistory at the Delta – Everything Southern Conference that featured my friend Sam Brookes.  Sam has forgotten more about the archaeology of the Mississippi Delta than I will ever know.  Each breakout session was attended by about 50 folks.  After the sessions, four separate individuals came up and thanked me for taking their children out to throw darts during their visit to the Museum.  Each person raved that their child/grandchild was thrilled with the opportunity and wanted to come back to the Museum for another session.  Here is the punch line on this.  I only recognized one of the four adults (granddaughter pictured above) but graciously acknowledged to all that providing the opportunity is what we are all about at the Museum – which is true.  The resulting word-of-mouth advertising from such encounters is often built one person at a time but is more effective than op-ed pieces or paid advertising.  Check a recent post in Colleen Dilenschneider’s Know Your Own Bone blog to explore the evolving priority of such word-of-mouth interactions over other forms of marketing.

National Archaeology Day is an incredible opportunity in our ongoing process of demonstrating the relevance of  our work in cultural heritage preservation and presentation.  We can tap into this national event to introduce new communities to the archaeological venues their tax dollars support.  After this introduction, these visitors can become our word-of-mouth ambassadors to their neighbors, and so on, and so on, and so on . . . it is truly a never ending process!

When will be the right time for Museum Advocacy?

I am in Minneapolis attending the Annual Conference of the American Association of Museums.  As is typical for such events, there is too much to do, too many sessions to attend, and too many folks to talk to.

On Monday I attended a session on Museum Advocacy Day.  Including the three speakers, there were a total of seven people in the room.  Seems there should have been more interest.  Other sessions presented at the same time covered topics such as museum branding, trends in corporate philanthropy, gaming and collections, handling hazardous material collections, designing an endowed director position, cultivating future leaders, and so on.

One of the presenters at the Advocacy session asked “Who owns the stuff in our museums?” and the four choir members responded “the public.”  Next the choir responded with “taxes” when the speaker asked “What ultimately is the source of funding for museums?”

Another presenter commented that next year, after many of the pending federal and state budget cuts to museums become a reality, there will be more folks attending such museum advocacy sessions.  This seems a bit like trying to put mercury back into a bottle after it has spilled – better not to let it spill in the first place.

The AAM’s Speak Up For Museums website contains the dire warning that “The House report (a narrative produced by the House Budget Committee that explains the bill) notes that “The Federal Institute of Museum and Library Services is an independent agency that makes grants to museums and libraries. This is not a core Federal responsibility.” The report further states that funding for the NEA and NEH “can no longer be justified” and that “The activities and content funded by these agencies…are generally enjoyed by people of higher income levels, making them a wealth transfer from poorer to wealthier citizens.”

That should get everyone’s attention.  What will it take for the public to demand that their cultural heritage be prioritized in funding?  closure of all public libraries?  the Smithsonian Museums?  The 400 National Parks in the U.S.?  What will get the attention of archaeologists and museum professionals?  the loss of jobs at those closed institutions?  the complete gutting of legislation that fuels the CRM industry?

We are in a crisis on both ends of the spectrum.  On the one hand the inconvenient truth of the public defunding of cultural heritage support in the United States today is not fully appreciated and appropriately responded to by cultural heritage professionals.  As well, the public has chosen not to take responsibility to demand that funding for the preservation of their cultural heritage be a priority.  The political leadership notes the lack of input by both groups on this issue and has chosen to allocate tax dollars to the projects of advocates and lobbyists who bang on their doors regularly.

This past semester, students in my Museum Practices graduate seminar at the University of Memphis each worked with an area museum to complete a Museum Advocacy Inventory.  Completion of the inventory required the students to work with an area museum to pull together the data for all of those talking points needed for a 2 minute elevator speech to elected officials.  Students seemed to enjoy the process but questioned the utility for the Museums they worked with.  This Fall Semester students will follow-up with those museums to see how the institutions have used the Inventory.  And of course, because actions speak louder than words, I will more pro-actively engage in advocacy work from my position as Director as the C.H. Nash Museum.

Both sides of the fence have much work to do.  Museum Advocacy with public officials on the part of cultural heritage professionals is an important place to expend a good bit of energy.

How do you advocate for the cultural heritage of your community?

Advocacy & Museums: Not Just for Administrators Anymore

With shrinking support dollars, advocacy is more than ever a pressing and essential survival skill for public institutions.  The American Association of Museums‘ (AAM) 2011 book Speak Up For Museums: The AAM Guide to Advocacy by Gail Ravnitzky Siberglied is an excellent starting point for the discussion.  As AAM President Ford Bell notes in the volume’s Preface “We advocate for the value of our museums every time we open an exhibit, welcome a school group, send out a press release, meet with funders or hold a special event in the community.  Advocacy can be as simple and personal as chatting with a visitor” (p. xi).  Advocacy work with elected officials and policy makers is the focus of the volume.

Like many AAM publications, the scope of Speak Up For Museums is basic but comprehensive.  The volume covers the limitations in advocacy work for nonprofits, involvement of museum boards, advice from public officials and museum advocates, and a basic civics lesson on government structures and operations related to advocacy.

Two chapters stood out as particularly helpful to me.  First, Chapter 3, An Advocacy Inventory, contains step-by-step templates/guides for compiling institutional data (e.g., visitation demographics, elected and other public officials, and economic data) critical for successful advocacy.

Chapter 6, Start Advocating Today! A Week-by-Week Plan provides a list of 57 advocacy tasks.  The examples range from simple to complex and include adding all relevant elected (city, state, county, federal) officials to your mailing list and social media sites (and vice versa), updating a museum’s virtual presence on websites, Wikipedia and social media pages, and  joining with other area museums in advocacy efforts.

The AAM hosts a Speak Up For Museum webpage with many links and information on advocacy work.

The 125 page volume was a quick read and a ready reference for framing further advocacy work.  My takeaway points directly and indirectly from the book include:

  • Museums continue to move from being collections driven to centering on the visitor experience in the same way that archaeology now includes a public accountability component unheard of 50 years ago.  In this regard, all practitioners take on advocacy roles.  Advocacy is now embraced by the field archaeologist, the curator, and the research scientist, not just the administrators, educators and marketing departments.  Particularly with the advent of social media institutions no longer have the luxury of controlling the means and pace of their advocacy efforts.  Speak Up For Museums focuses on advocacy with public officials.   Although not explicitly stated, the public realm of advocacy also requires a full team effort.  Despite centralized press releases and lobbying efforts, all staff need to create their 3-minute elevator speech advocating for the institution.
  • I have a new appreciation that advocacy is a long-term process that starts with building a relationship today.  I often smile smugly at the Facebook entries from the institution that only posts for self-promotion or Kickstarter/Pepsi Challenge type fundraising efforts.  I suspect the public official feels the same way if they only hear from me when I need something but am not engaged as part of the broader solution.
  • Advocacy is not rocket science.  Advocacy can be as simple as putting one foot in front of the other and doing the next right thing.  Adding the email addresses of all relevant public officials to an e-newsletter list is pretty straightforward and can probably be achieved with a half-hour of Google search time.  In fact, Chapter 3 “An Advocacy Inventory” suggests that the template/guide tasks “can also be done as a case study for a graduate class in museum studies” (p. 16).  Hmm . . . sounds like Project 1 for my Museum Practices graduate seminar in the Museum Studies Certificate Program at the University of Memphis this fall semester – pick an area museum and develop an advocacy guide for them.

Speak Up For Museums is a great resource to start or further develop an institution’s advocacy work.  Although geared specifically toward museums, the application is adaptable to a range of nonprofit agencies.

What are your tools for advocacy?

%d bloggers like this: