Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Book Review - Thinking About Starting a Museum?

Almost two years ago I reviewed Starting Right, a book that helps people figure out if they are really ready to start a museum. Getting back into our reference library, a similarly useful book is Thinking about Starting a Museum? published by the Alberta Museums Association. This workbook takes a much more hands-on approach at an even earlier step in the process.

While Starting Right provides many questions for organizations to ask themselves, this discussion guide doubles as a workbook, providing plenty of tables and space to document your answers as you go through the process. "The booklet is a tool to help identify the most effective way to meet a community's heritage needs. It is not intended to outline how to establish a museum but instead, to guide a group through the very important process of deciding how heritage activities can bring the greatest benefit to a community."

I appreciate the fact that the authors didn't hold back, didn't sugar coat anything. They warn that a "museum that is merely existing is not likely to remain open for long; the public will quickly lose interest if it is perceived that nothing changes or happens at the museum". Consulting with the community about any kind of heritage project is not suggested as a good idea but presented as a mandatory requirement.

The workbook is broken up into the following sections:

1. What is a museum?
The flow of the book impresses the seriousness of museum work on the reader - that museums are part of a publicly accountable, professional, international community with a strong code of ethics. From there it moves on to the financial responsibilities associated with museums, reminding the reader that generous one-time donations from community members, businesses or governments should never be interpreted as "first-time" donations. You can't expect these donors to step in year after year, and you can't expect people to always be knocking on your door to volunteer in other ways. Community engagement is always ongoing.

2. Identifying goals, needs and resources
There will always be differing opinions and lots of ideas shared during such a discussion, but the important thing to remember is that we can't be all things to all people. It's important to stay focused and organized in our activities. So before you do anything else, you get to work through a series of questions that address your purpose, community support, and resources. The list of questions may seem long, but this just makes sure you aren't wearing any rose-coloured glasses when you reach your final decision about how to proceed.  You've acknowledged what level of resources are available in the short- and long-term, the sustainability of your ideas, what kinds of skills, infrastructure, and/or facilities are required, and potential partners.

3. Finding the right fit
I especially like section 3. It presents options for groups based on their main objective: education, tourism, community centre, or preservation. Your answers from section 2 will make your objective(s) clear, allowing you to move forward. So if you are really interested in preserving the identity of a community that is dwindling as people move to urban centres, it talks about things you can do to save the town's identity and ensure that its story is not lost in the mists of time.

One thing that I have noticed about this and similar resources is that they always limit their market to groups that are considering opening a new museum. What about a museum that has gotten itself "stuck"? I think it's time to use these resources as reality checks, as part of the strategic renewal process. If institutions aren't constantly re-examining themselves, if they aren't constantly working with their communities, it is only a matter of time before they lose relevancy and end up debating closure. So the next time you find yourself sitting in a staff meeting or chatting with your board of directors and the question of relevancy or community engagement comes up, maybe your first step shouldn't be to dream up the next big scheme. Maybe, just maybe, it's time to go back to the basics. Maybe it's time to step out of reality and pretend that you don't have that museum and see what kind of answers you get by working through this process. And once you have those answers, I'm willing to bet that the road to renewal will become much clearer.

Oh, and did I mention that not only is this book in our reference library but it's also available online for free?

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