Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Museums and Politics

I grew up in rural New Brunswick, where families vote for a certain party, and no one strays from the party line because...well, they just don't.  The other common school of thought is that you vote for who you know and trust - we know Bev, we like Bev, and we support his terrible high-pants wardrobe choices.   It wouldn't matter if he drastically changed policies because when you know the guy, why bother to check out the party platform right?  We'll just march to the polls and vote for him because he's a good guy who is very community-minded - surely Bev wouldn't steer us wrong.

I work in heritage so obviously I appreciate and enjoy traditions, but voting the same way your family has voted for generations isn't exactly a smart move.  The issues change and the people change, so the parties are always having to reevaluate where they stand.  As for voting for Bev...well, having a personal relationship with the candidate is not equivalent to a "get out of jail free" card when it comes to reading the party platform.

Museums are among the groups that remain politically neutral.  We must work with all levels of government, regardless of which party happens to be in power.  Chantal Hebert commented at the 2009 CMA conference in Toronto that a common mistake (not just among museums) is that we focus all of our attention on the party in power instead of maintaining relationships with political parties in general.  By maintaining better relationships with all parties, advocacy will be much easier since we won't be a stranger, but a recognized and respected organization.

Several recent studies have shown that Canadians value museums.  They trust us, they believe in our work, and they expect to see it continue.  We need to take this message to the political candidates.  The Canadian Museums Association, Heritage Canada Foundation, and Tourism Industry Association of Nova Scotia have come up with some key facts to raise and questions to ask your political candidates.  These can be used when the candidate comes knocking at your door, when you attend public meetings, phone in to radio talk shows, or submit questions to the party leaders and candidates via social media.  It all helps to get the message across that Canadians do in fact care about their heritage, and museums provide many benefits to their communities in terms of quality of life and economic spin-off.

These tools are great!  We need advocacy groups who can help to keep an overall message on target, and to tackle those issues which are common to museums across the nation.  While we often feel like we're fighting the uphill battle alone, museums across the country are actually in the boat with us.  Imagine the power of all those voices.

On May 2nd Canadians are going to the polls.  Over the past two weeks students across the country have been rallying through vote mobs to tell politicians what they consider to be important issues.  Let's take a page from their positive, non-partisan book and get educated and advocating.  Oh, and then let's vote on May 2nd.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Southwest Curator's Group Meeting

It feels like we've had a very long winter, and while the crocuses and robins are starting to appear, a sure sign of Spring in the heritage world are the regional meetings.  Yup, road trips are starting up again.  On Friday we traveled to Lunenburg for the Southwest meeting.  We were missing a few people from the Annapolis Valley side, but there was still a good turnout at over 15 attendees.  The meeting was hosted by the Fisheries Museum of the Atlantic, which is pretty much impossible to miss as a building.  It's very big, and very red, and located right on the water.

Since our conference is only two weeks away we weren't able to stay for the entire day...too many things to do in the office.  But these meetings play a key role in reporting to our members and figuring out how we can better meet their needs.  We strongly encourage our members to connect with their regional group - the meetings are great networking and learning opportunities, and sometimes it's just nice to get together with people who understand the struggles of operating a museum, to complain and compare notes.  These are the kinds of meetings that board members, volunteers, and staff can all benefit from since you gain a much broader perspective on the museum landscape in Nova Scotia.

During our morning with the Southwest group we heard an update from Paul Collins of the Department of Communities, Culture & Heritage.  Anita gave an update on ANSM activities - the conference and advocacy issues, and I got to ramble a bit about our QR code and database renewal projects.  The group also talked a lot about statistics and the importance of submitting this information to the government.  We had to leave right after a tasty lunch at a local restaurant, but in the afternoon a couple people from the Department of Education met with the group to talk about how museums can work with schools to enhance curriculum content.  At each meeting, the group invites some sort of expert in to talk about some key issues, whether they be fundraising, artifact research, insurance, or whatever else people are interested in.  Not all of the regions do this at their meetings, but the Southwest group is finding this to be a very effective use of their time together.

One of the fun things about the South Shore of Nova Scotia is its colourful houses.  It's especially pronounced along the shore, but even as we drove across country we would see a random bright blue or yellow house amid the white farm houses.  Lunenburg definitely has it's fair share of colourful buildings, which somehow adds to the fun of wandering around the town.

The next road trip will be to Tatamagouche for our conference...hope to see you there.

The week that Seth came to town

We rarely have visitors at the office.  We're a little out of the way, so unless you're checking out the new Seaport Farmer's Market and somehow wander into the wrong building, or you have a meeting with us, chances are that we won't accidentally run into you.  But somehow, someone managed to find us this week.

This week we had a very fun and special guest in Halifax, all the way from the U.S. of A.  We (royal we) first started talking to the CollectiveAccess team last summer when I was looking for a replacement database system to our rapidly devolving MS Access system.  In less than a year we went from discussing options to having a totally customized CollectiveAccess database for the community museums of Nova Scotia to use.  We've got instructional videos on YouTube, and the traditional pdf user manual.  We now have 8 of 55 museums migrated into the new system, and plan on bringing two more in next week.  Sometimes it feels like it has taken us forever to get here, and sometimes it seems like we just started the process.

Our next door neighbour, the Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21, is also working with Seth's team on a database project, and so he was invited to town to talk shop.  This provided us with an opportunity to bring a few IMAC people and one of our beta-testers to town for a meeting with him as well.  Unfortunately we were missing a few committee members, but we were still able to have some good discussion, and Seth was able to answer a lot of questions.  We looked at the database and talked about what needs to be done to set up phase II of our database renewal project.  Based on these discussions we'll be coming out with a new version of the Passage Game Plan, which will focus on improving data for the launch of our new Nova Scotia collections website.

There's still a long road ahead in this project, which means many more Skype conversations about databases, websites, desserts, vintage kids' tv shows, Lego, and Heritage Moments.
Seth also hopes to return over the summer, which means we might be able to make a few museum site visits together.  Until then, thank you Seth for visiting, and sorry about the bad weather.  You're welcome any time, so long as you realize it's your turn to supply the chocolate.

Aidan, Katie & Seth
Derek, Christine & Anita

Lessons learned during Seth's visit:

  1. Taking photos of a man who is swinging his arms in front of a massive Canadian flag can be tricky.  I have promised not to share these since this man ended up looking like a ballerina.  
  2. My blog is "too serious".
  3. Cadbury Flake chocolate bars and PG tips tea are good productivity incentives.
  4. Homemade fudge is another good incentive.
  5. Computer models grossly overestimate my weight.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Community Museum Assistance Program

Having a collections manager mind, I like stats and having things organized...knowing what's what.   I confess that I am a stats junkie when it comes to my blog.  If I see that a new country has popped up in the list I announce it triumphantly to my co-workers, and I enjoy competing with myself to see if I can increase the previous month's traffic.  I plan on devoting a blog post to museum visitor statistics, so in preparation for that and in light of the international visitors that find my blog, here's a snapshot of how the community museum world operates in Nova Scotia.

Last week I attended a talk by Paul Collins, the Coordinator of the Community Museum Assistance Program (CMAP).  Paul and I tend to work together a fair bit, and we've had our share of road trips.  Paul is basically the provincial government's version of a museum advisor, so it's not unusual for me to get calls from people that start out, "I was talking with Paul Collins and he said I should phone you..." 
CMAP was established in the 1960s and is still a uniquely Nova Scotian program.  Providing operating support to museums that "effectively provide access to their collections, information and facilities for the benefit of the community", Paul works closely with pan-provincial heritage groups like ANSM in order to provide museums with an integrated approach.

The 1990s saw an evolution of the program, so it now includes a two-part evaluation system: the self-assessment and triennial peer evaluation.  The self-assessment is a 200+ questionnaire that is designed to help museums figure out their strengths and weaknesses so that they can prioritize their work.  It is also a great tool for groups that are thinking about starting a museum.  As Paul says, many of these organizations will call and ask for the assessment and then never move ahead because they realize that museum work is far more complicated than they thought.  It's a great reality check for any museum though, regardless of how long they have been in operation.
Once a museum completes the self-assessment and formally applies to become part of CMAP, they are evaluated by a 3-person team of their peers.  This team spends half a day at the museum looking at the following areas: Collections and Access to Information, Community, Facility, Governance, Interpretation, Management, and Marketing.  If the museum makes the grade, a recommendation is made to the provincial government that they be added to the program.

2003 map of community museums in NS,
slightly out-of-date now
67 community museums are currently part of this funding program, and as Paul explained to his audience last Tuesday, they get a lot out of it.  In addition to the funding dollars, they have a clear understanding of excellence.  They also have to report their visitor statistics to government, so we know a lot about who is visiting community museums.  The triennial evaluation provides an excellent motivation to "clean up" every few years, and the museums are always keen to improve their last score.  They are also competing with other museums - the high and low scores are circulated without the name of the receiving museums, so everyone knows what the score is to beat.  Since this process first started in 1995, the average score has gone from 51.9% to 73.9%, with the annual high score being around 97%.

For organizations like ANSM, the evaluations are a great way to learn about training needs.  While we never know who got what score (unless they feel like bragging), we are notified about trends across the province, which means we can adjust our training accordingly.

So until next time, good luck on the self-assessment and feel free to comment on training needs that you've noticed.