Tag: American Alliance of Museums

What is a museum? Back to the Future with John Cotton Dana

start trait wordle

The International Council of Museums defines a museum as “a non-profit, permanent institution in the service of society and its development, open to the public, which acquires, conserves, researches, communicates and exhibits the tangible and intangible heritage of humanity and its environment for the purposes of education, study and enjoyment.”

Though the ICOM definition still works, for the most part, today the very concept of a Museum is being pushed, pulled, and repackaged.  For example, the Museum Association blog published an interesting piece on the impact of the Google Art Project on the study of artworks.  The article considers how folks studied a work of art in the past and today.  Not having the books in the distant past meant the only means for studying a work of art was to go to a museum.  Five years ago in my Museum Practices graduate seminar I recall the literal gasps at my suggestion of a virtual museum.  Today the study of art on a computer screen is no less legitimate than viewing portfolio sized books, 35 mm slides or those arcane film strips of the not too distant past.

At the start of each semester in the Museum Practices seminar I ask students to take out a piece of paper and spend a couple of minutes doing some trait listing to the prompt “What is a Museum?”  The above Wordle contains the words the 18 students listed on the first day of class this fall.  The Wordle below contains the terms the same students listed at the end of the semester.  The difference reflects the shift in museums from being collections centered to focusing on the visitor experience as expressed in the New Museum by John Cotton Dana nearly a century ago.  Dana’s emphasis on the notion of museum’s being institutions of public service is more relevant today than ever before.  The Wordles suggest the students get this.

We will discuss some of the most challenging readings of the entire semester in our final class this Tuesday including:

Visit the Center for the Future Museums for these and other resources.

The pundits who explained the outcome of the recent U.S. presidential election by noting “It’s not a traditional American anymore” would have done well to read the above articles.  They also would be better prepared to deal with the 21st Century by reading the words of John Cotton Dana written some 100 years ago:  “The museum can reach only those whom it can attract.  This fact alone is enough to compel it to be convenient to all, wide in its scope, varied in its activities, hospitable in its manner and eager to follow any lead the humblest inquirer may give . . . Remember always that the very essence of the public service of a public institution is the public’s knowledge of the service that the institution can give . . .”  (Cotton, p. 39 The New Museum).

The Wordle below suggests the Museum Practices seminar students agree.  Do you?

final wordle

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?

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