Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Book Review - Running a Museum: A Practical Handbook

Back to the reference library we go. I'm almost exclusively reading museum books right now as part of my approach to the CMAP project, so you can expect more frequent book reviews for a little while.

ICOM & UNESCO published this doozy in 2004. Edited by Patrick Boylan, it is basically an anthology consisting of 12 articles written by museum professionals from around the world. The nice thing about the anthology format is that you can read up on whatever aspect of museum work you want. The table of contents has a little blurb under each article title so you know exactly what you're in for. The articles cover the history of collecting, museum ethics, collections management, inventories & documentation, care & preservation of collections, exhibits, visitor relations, museum education, management, marketing, security, disaster preparedness, and illicit traffic.

In the introduction, Boylan outlines 3 goals for the book, all of which tie back to it being a source of "best practice" information. The first goal is for it to be of assistance to new museum professionals, to assist existing professionals in understanding their colleagues' work, and to help steer internal discussions and strategic planning of museum operations. The book is meant to bridge the gap between theoretical textbooks and technical how-to guides. Hopefully, no matter what your role in the museum, you will be able to get something out of the handbook.

Some quick highlights of recommendations:
1. You should only collect items related to your mandate.
2. Incoming loans are accepted for brief, specified periods of times and must be tracked.
3. Regular inventories are crucial.
4. Anyone can put some basic preservation strategies in place.
5. You need to know more about your visitors than just how many came through the door.
6. Museum programming is only limited by your imagination.
7. The traditional solo leader is very inferior to the modern team leader.
8. Self-evaluation is critical to the health of the organization.
9. Everyone needs a job description.
10. Marketing doesn't have to be scary or expensive, and is imperative.
11. If you haven't done a risk assessment of your site/facilities, you need to. And in response you need to develop a disaster plan.
12. If something gets stolen, your collections documentation better be impeccable.

One thing that I was not a huge fan of (Sorry ICOM & UNESCO!) was that some of the articles were very conservative and/or traditional in their advice and approach to museum work. I'm not sure if this was an intentional positioning; that in order to make the handbook as accessible as possible on an international level, they didn't want to focus on cutting edge museum work and just wanted to establish a solid foundation. I can understand that. It's tough (if not impossible) to do the fun stuff without having first done some of the tedious meat & potatoes work. Every museum should have these basics down pat. But I think the danger in ignoring certain standard practices is that some museum workers would interpret those practices as being good things to do, but not requirements of the field. For new museum workers, if they don't see things such as collections databases, internet marketing, and other activities positioned as standards, they may end up wasting valuable time and resources as they try to move their museum forward.

As I've previously mentioned, I quite enjoy books and resources that are easily accessible - that you can quickly grab the info you need and put it into practice. I like resources that really guide you through a process, ask you questions, and get you to apply information to your unique situation. This handbook definitely delivers on this, with lots of little case studies and scenarios that end by asking what you would do in that situation. There are also some samples and templates, and an insanely long list of additional reading for the bookworms in the audience. For the really new museum people, an extensive glossary is provided to explain some of our funny jargon.

I think it is safe to say that most museums could learn or be reminded of ways to improve their work. So even though some of the guidelines in this resources are rather tame, I think it would be a good exercise for museum workers to go through and see how their institution aligns with these best practices. If you feel up to the challenge and want to check this one out for yourself, you can download it for free. Enjoy!

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