Monday, January 24, 2011

Book Review - Starting Right: a basic guide to museum planning

I usually steer clear of writing book reviews, but over the past few months I've been delving into our reference library.  Part of my motivation is that some of these books are getting older and outdated, and should perhaps be retired from the lending library.  Another reason is that I enjoy reading and so this is a casual way to do some professional development.
I decided that I'd share some thoughts from these books since I think they offer great thoughts and advice for the museum community.  These reviews will be an intermingling of the authors' thoughts and my own, ie what the book made me think about when considering our situation in Nova Scotia.

Starting Right: a basic guide to museum planning by Gerald George and Cindy Sherrell-Leo is the first on my list (for review anyway).  Over the past year, I've lost count how many times Anita and I have heard about a group wanting to start a new museum, or an existing museum debating about closing its doors.  How, in such a small province as Nova Scotia, can this be so common?  Perhaps it's time for a little reality check.

image from
Starting Right is an excellent book that I think all museum workers should read.  While it is written for those who are thinking about opening a new museum, it also serves as a great reality check for those of us who have been working in the field for awhile.  It's so easy to get caught up in the myriad tasks of running a museum; reading such a reality check is a great way to ensure that your organization is still on the right track.  Its purpose is to "help anyone who lacks a museum background but is taking on museum responsibilities, particularly anyone who is considering creating a new museum."  What the authors don't want to see is "museum mayhem through the creation of museums that are poorly operated or cannot be sustained."  Given current realities, how close are we to 'museum mayhem'?

In a nutshell, it boils down to respect for a community's history (or the particular theme) on which a society focuses.  This book defines museums as the stewards of tangible material culture, but it is just as important to consider the intangible.  It reminds us that having a collection of any kind does not mean that it has to end up in a museum, let alone a new museum.  There are lots of existing organizations in the province with whom partnerships can be formed. Further dividing our resources will only weaken the museum community and burden an already overstretched volunteer-base.

The first section of the book walks the reader through a reality check to see if they are really ready, willing and able to start up a new museum.  It also asks some serious questions about whether or not starting a new museum is even a good idea.
  1. What local or provincial organizations can we talk to about our ideas/plans? Museums, historical societies, funders, name a few.

  2. Can you afford the necessary museological training through workshops, webinars, conferences etc., both in terms of finances and human resources?  Remember that this isn't a one-time expense, but will be ongoing.

  3. Does your community support you?  Once you're up and running, will the community regularly visit and pay entrance fees or leave donations?  Will they donate artifacts?  Will they volunteer?

  4. Who is your targeted audience?  Do you want to reach families, students, seniors, or will the museum cater to a special-interest group?  How will you attract these people?

  5. How much will it all cost?  Where will the money come from?  What other fundraising activities take place in the community, and how will these affect the success of your own?

  6. Should you really start your own museum if there is an existing museum nearby with whom you could join forces?  Are you asking your community to support a new museum when there are already two in town?
If you get through the first section and still want to start a new museum, the book then reviews 20 questions to consider in museum operations.  These questions run the gamut, discussing missions and mandates, facility and security requirements, governance and policies, human resources, research and interpretation, and marketing.  I especially like that they cover museum ethics and staff training.  And finally, my two favorite questions are:
1. How will you cope with change?
2. How will you keep your museum alive, dynamic, creative, even visionary, and closely connected to your community?
As I said at the outset, this is not only a great book for people who want to start a new museum, but is a great way for the more practiced professionals to take a step back, look at themselves critically, and see how they measure up.


    J Goreham-Penney said...

    Book reviews are a great idea for a feature at this blog. Maybe people from member museums could pitch in and contribute to the blog in this way?

    Karin said...

    are you offering???

    J Goreham-Penney said...

    Maybe- anything good on that lending library bookshelf?

    Karin said...

    what are you interested in? we've got books on collections, management, governance, marketing & retail, facilities...

    J Goreham-Penney said...

    Hmmm, I could do with a good collections read, maybe something about heritage sites, I'd love to read something that's very divisive in the heritage field so give me your most controversial museological book (possibly about collections management or built heritage or something).

    Karin said...

    I'll do some digging to see if we have anything controversial. I'll pass it along at Friday's regional meeting.