The American Alliance of Museums (AAM) has designated August 10 – 17 as Invite Congress to Visit Your Museum Week. The AAM notes that this “work period” is an excellent opportunity to have legislators visit museums to see the role of U.S. cultural heritage institutions as a public resource for education and engagement. This year, the AAM posted a 12-step guide for arranging the visits from the initial invite to thanking the official for their participation. This advocacy event is a simple yet effective means for communicating with the individuals who vote on the funding for many of the programs that support our work.
For example, at the C.H. Nash Museum at Chucalissa we benefit directly from the Institute of Museum an Library Service (IMLS) programs, an agency that in the past few years has been considered by some as providing services that are not “core” to the Federal Government. However, for Chucalissa the IMLS services are essential to our operation.
Three years ago we received a Connecting to Collections Bookshelf Award that provided over $500.00 worth of best practices literature on a range of museum operations. Our staff regularly consult these books for everything from determining pest control standards to digitizing photos.
Over the past three years we participated in both the Institutional and Collections Stewardship components of the Museum Assessment Program (MAP). We applied to take part this fall in the Community Outreach component. Our participation in MAP is essential to our development as an institution. Again, based in the best practice expertise of the IMLS and the AAM, for the MAP process we complete a self-assessment in the component area and are matched with an expert who completes an on-site peer review and evaluation. At Chucalissa, the recommendations of our MAP reviewer proved crucial for the policies and standards we ultimately developed. Our governing board has taken the MAP evaluations very seriously and provided the resources for implementation of key recommendations. Today, our stakeholders recognize the C.H. Nash Museum for the renewed and essential role that we play in our community. Without a doubt, the two federally funded programs noted above are critical to that success.
The above discussion leads me to ask: Is it the federal government’s responsibility to fund the administration of these types of projects, such as MAP and the Bookshelf award? Are these truly essential services contrary to the House Budget Committee statements in the past year? I argue emphatically yes. Here is why:
First, museums by definition are nonprofit institutions, charged with presenting and preserving the cultural heritage of a community or interest. That is, like schools and other government agencies, they operate for the community good. For the MAP and Bookshelf examples I note above, organization and dissemination on the national level simply makes sense from both logistical and economic considerations. The expertise that the national organizations such as the IMLS and AAM bring to the local community cannot and would not effectively be replicated locally.
Second, the MAP and Bookshelf programs provided our Museum with information and direction to run more efficiently from both mission and economic perspectives. For example, our Institutional MAP provided insights to stream-line and focus the application of our mission. In no small part because of our participation in the MAP program, our annual revenues have increased and we reduced our expenses. We are now more “grant ready” to seek and receive added outside funding. We have set a goal of creating an institution that going forward will be sustainable.
This leads to perhaps the most critical point for cultural heritage institutions today – the need to be relevant to the public we serve. I do not believe the purpose for going to Museum Advocacy Day in Washington D.C. or inviting our elected officials to museums this August is just so we can ask for increased funding or protecting our economic self-interests. Rather, these processes are first about building relationships so that our relevance to the public as cultural heritage institutions is understood. The way I think this works is summarized in an article recently published about C.H. Nash Museum in the Museums and Social Issues journal:
We consider the relevance of our cultural institution to the community of prime importance. We believe that if in 2007 we had asked the residents of Southwest Memphis what the C.H. Nash Museum meant to them, in all likelihood, their response would have focused on how some of “our children visit for school field trips and Chucalissa is where the Indian Mounds are located.” If we ask that question today, we hope the response will include “Chucalissa is the place where there is an exhibit on the cultural heritage of our community; where there is a resource center on our community history; the place where we hold our Black History Month celebrations; where our traditional foods garden was planted last year; where the AmeriCorps Teams that work in our community live; and also where the Indian Mounds are located.”
So, if we ask ‘is the community more likely to vote for public funding and find relevance in our institution in 2007 or today,’ the answer is obvious. Federally funded programs have helped us develop that relevance. Telling that story of relevance to our elected officials allows them to have a complete picture not just to impact their funding decisions, but to become a part of the story they tell and highlight from their districts.
How will your cultural heritage institution take part in Invite Congress to Visit Your Museum Week?