Friday, May 15, 2015

Book Review - Small Museum Toolkit 4: Reaching and Responding to the Audience

Round 4! Reaching and Responding to the Audience

This one has 6 chapters that address marketing & communication, visitor studies & evaluation, community advocacy, accessibility, visitor services, and finally new opportunities in community engagement.

Some people may not expect it, but in the first chapter about marketing & communications a decent amount of time is spent talking about the museum's identity. If you don't have a solid sense of self, it can be difficult to explain your activities to the public. The other lesson in this chapter is the need to identify affinity groups. We return to this point time and time again - collaboration, partnership, cooperation...these are not just buzz words. This is the reality of contemporary museum work. Looking for potential partners and interest groups helps to build your audience, develop new stakeholders and advocates, and builds relationships with potential partners.
One of the nice little text boxes in this chapter talks about establishing brand identity. So many community museums are lacking in this area. Be succinct, convey your uniqueness, use a standard & easy-to-read font in your communications, get a logo designed that will work online & offline, on t-shirts and postcards and receipts and websites...flexibility and aesthetics count. Also, I know it's tempting to come up with clever little tag lines, but be careful with these. I can think of a couple that actually sound contrary to museum work, although I'm sure the museum board thought they wrote something fun.
Another helpful section is the one on public relations. This is not my area of expertise, and isn't something that gets a lot of attention in museum school. The author's advice on how to best share media releases and take advantage of the various advertising options is much-needed.

We've been talking a lot about visitor statistics and really using the information garnered, and that's what chapter 2 is all about. I think I've said this already in reference to an earlier book in the series, but I appreciate the brutal honesty of this series. This is very true for the visitor studies chapter. It provides talking points for convincing sceptical colleagues of the importance of this work and gives tips on how to get useful, accurate info from your visitors.

I hate to admit it, but the chapter on community advocacy got off to a rocky start for me. It begins with the statement "community service is essential any small museum", and I disagree with this. It isn't essential, it is why we exist. If you don't exist as a community service, then what on earth are you doing? The author rallied a bit though and went on to make some very valuable remarks on "being a good neighbour". I love the statement that "becoming a strong advocate within the local community is not just about promoting your small museum or historic site as an engaging venue" because. I think this has often been the motivation for community involvement and can end up doing more harm than good. We need to stop thinking about what we might gain and remind ourselves that we exist to improve our community, however that is best achieved.
One of the key points in this chapter is community communication. This means having conversations. I love what one director had to say, "what we realized is that the only way our museum can survive is to not ust look back, but to look forward as well". She doesn't just mean collecting modern objects. She means looking to the future of the community as a whole.

Back on the plus side, there is an entire chapter devoted to making the museum more accessible to people with mobility, hearing, vision, or other issues. It walks you through the process of conducting a site audit focusing on these issues. While some of the points about wheelchair accessibility and parking are well known and understood, it delves into many other areas, from exhibit text font & type size, to lighting, tours, the gift shop, and even your marketing efforts. I also really like that the author points out that every museum can improve on accessibility. No excuses. It doesn't matter how small you are or what kind of building you are in. There are some great tips for addressing specific issues, such as hearing and vision impairments, and then in the resources section a list of checklists that you can refer to as another means of assessing your offerings.

The book finishes off with a chapter by our good friend Candace Tangorra Matelic. She makes a great case for this shift and explains it very succinctly; "new roles for museums emerge through honestly engaging the community, discovering what the community cares about, working with other organizations to address community needs, and rediscovering the spirit or passions that uniquely define each individual small museums". One of my favourite things about this chapter is the neat little table that talks about what is and what is not community engagement. This serves as a great check-in when you're planning activities, and gives suggestions on which areas need improvement. For institutions that have never delved into this work, there is another nice table that gives you some basic ideas on how to work toward community engagement - baby steps that you can work through as an organization. Honestly, I think that if you were to only read one chapter in this book, it should be this chapter.

One of the nice things about these books is that they include a lot of case studies from a wide variety of museums. It's a lot easier to understand a theory when you can see it put into practice. I've learned about a lot of 'new' places and museums by reading these books, and have drawn comparisons between them and a number of Nova Scotian museums.

Reviews of other books in the series can be found here:
Book 1: Leadership, Mission & Governance
Book 2: Financial Resource Development and Management
Book 3: Organizational Management
Book 5: Interpretation: Education, Programs, and Exhibits
Book 6: Stewardship: Collections and Historic Preservation

Friday, May 8, 2015

Book Review - Small Museum Toolkit 3: Organizational Management

"Effectively managing people, facilities, and partnerships can make or break an institution." Truer words were never spoken. As the author goes on to state, this isn't why we got into the museum business, but it is an integral part of the game. So with that in mind, here we go for round 3 of this book review series. Five chapters and 3 appendices later, this book should shed some light on how you can improve the management of your museum, no matter how long you've been in the museum business.

The first chapter is a real bricks & mortar look at the building, its use and maintenance. It encourages you to think about your visitors' first impression of the site, having a regular maintenance schedule, pest management plan, looking for ways to "green" the museum, and have solid financial plans to accomplish your goals. And how does it suggest you do all this? Through an operations manual (we often call this a facilities management plan). It should contain architectural drawings (and descriptions/drawings of any renovations), a site map, lighting and alarm map, floor plan (with labels), circuit breaker map, fire suppression system map, plumbing map and/or info on water shut-off valves. It's a good place for your Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS), equipment warranties and manuals, and contact info for vendors or service providers. This is also where you should outline your maintenance and cleaning schedule - everything from when filters need changing to when the trees need trimming to when the cases need dusting. And last but not least, your key log should be here, along with your key & alarm code policy (or at the very least a few lines stating who gets keys). You absolutely have to know who has keys to which doors, cabinets, etc., for pretty obvious reasons. You may feel like some of this information is obvious, but as my mother likes to say, common sense isn't as common as it used to be.

Now let's talk Disaster Plans, or Emergency Preparedness Plans if you prefer that term. This isn't something you can buy nor is it something that should just be sitting on some shelf. This is a living, breathing document. If it is more than 5 years old, if it wasn't revised the last time there was a board or staffing change, if it doesn't account for a new & major acquisition, then it is out of date. And the thing about emergencies is that when they strike, it can be a pretty scary and emotional thing, so having a plan to guide you through the process is crucial. Knowing who is responsible for what, and having checklists, phone lists, and basic instructions will be your best friend when something bad happens.

There were two other areas in this chapter that really jumped out at me - insurance and facility rental. These are areas that I know some museums struggle with - insurance is an expensive headache and renting out the museum space can be terrifying. This wasn't in the book, but we always point people to the CMA's insurance program. As for facility rentals, I really appreciated the author's discussion on mission-based building use and the list of questions to address in shaping a policy. There is a lot of inconsistency in how museum's handle rentals, and there often seems to be a reactionary approach to policy development, so forcing some discussions in advance and comparing notes a bit more sounds good to me.

The next three chapters in the book deal with people - staff, volunteers, and interns. There are some common threads through these chapters and tons of great info in good detail, such as the need for job descriptions, hiring qualified people, and regular evaluations. There is often a fear that setting goals and evaluating volunteers will be "asking too much" or might "drive them away", but it is just part of operating a professional organization. You need to acknowledge the efforts and accomplishments of your staff and volunteers, and provide constructive feedback and opportunities for growth. We are not hobbyists, we are professionals. The section on internships is very transferable to other roles; ensuring that projects and tasks are matched to the person's skill and knowledge levels, and ensuring that the internship is mutually beneficial.
And don't forget to keep this personnel info on file to protect all parties involved.

The final chapter in the book talks about collaboration. As an intro, the author says we need to collaborate because "times are hard, sharing resources helps them go further, collaboration can increase your audience, and collaboration can make your project more attractive to grant-making agencies." This is all true. I would also add that collaboration is a way to gain an outside perspective on your museum. We're always so busy that it can be tough to take a step back for perspective or a step out into the unknown, and collaborating can help you get over those hurdles. When we think about which museums are thriving, our list consists of museums who connect with other museums, community groups, businesses, etc., and aren't afraid of trying non-traditional museum stuff. It can be difficult to capture the myriad ways we could be collaborating. But this book does a good job of arguing the point, providing suggestions on how to start, how to identify potential partners, and how to manage and assess the partnership. It includes a sample management agreement and case studies for inspiration. It's a heavy topic, but the author does a great job of breaking it down.

One of the thoughts that kept running through my mind as I was reading this book and writing this post was that we need to better document what we do for future museum workers. If you've got a good system figured out, then you should write it down so everyone can be on (and stay on) the same page. Those organizational documents can then serve as excellent training resources for summer staff, volunteers, board members, and new staff. If/when you leave the museum, they serve as foundational and crucial guides for your successor(s).

So that's it for book 3. All in all, a very impressive read that I will definitely be recommending.

Check out my reviews of the other books in the series:
Book 1: Leadership, Mission and Governance
Book 2: Financial Resource Development and Management
Book 4: Reaching and Responding to the Audience
Book 5: Interpretation: Education, Programs and Exhibits
Book 6: Stewardship: Collections and Historic Preservation

Friday, May 1, 2015

April 2015 Update

Odds and Ends
Well, first and foremost I have sad news to report. Our intern has finished his time with us and we are back down to 2.5 people in the office. Thanks to Kevin for all his hard work over the past 4 months. He snuck off without writing his goodbye blog post, but since he got himself an interpretation gig at the Halifax Citadel for the summer, we look forward to still hearing from him and seeing him from time to time.

Museums 101
Antigonish Heritage Museum
IMAC met this month to talk all things Advisory Service. Gary hosted us at the Citadel and there was much planning and scheming (in a good way) and of course cake eating.

Our Museums 101 workshop took place in Antigonish and got rave reviews. And remember how I said that you should always ask to be put on the waiting list if the workshop is full? Well, we actually got 4 people in off the waiting list this time. So it really is worth being on the list. Interpretation I is coming up very soon, as is the Stone Soup Symposium. Having just returned from the AAM conference (stay tuned for a separate blog post on that), I can't stress enough the importance of such professional development opportunities. Good for morale, good for networking, and good for inspiration.

The Museum Fund is coming along nicely. We have now raised 72% of our goal. Let's keep the momentum going for a better future for Nova Scotian museums. If you still haven't contributed, click here to read about it and see how you can help.

The CMAP committee met again this month and I am pleased to say that we have definitely turned a corner. It feels like things are coming together nicely and making a lot more sense. We think we have found a way to make the evaluation process easier on the museum while garnering better quantitative and qualitative data on museum operations. I'm hesitant to go into too much detail until we've piloted the new process, but I think it's going to work well. And speaking of piloting, it's coming up quickly! May 28-29th we'll be hitting the road and testing out the new evaluation. Our friends and colleagues Val Lenethan and Barbara Wentzell are joining us as pilot evaluators. Both have years of experience with museums in Nova Scotia and with CMAP in particular. They and the participating museums are eager to provide feedback on this new process and make sure that we end up with a great new system.
James House Museum

Fleming Project
This year's project has officially wrapped up. I will be sending along the student reports next week, but right now am just feeling a nice sense of accomplishment in knowing that 300 database records got some help from these students. That's a pretty decent drop in our bucket of 200,000 records. And we were all over the map in terms of what kinds of objects were included in the project. We targeted some WWI-era stuff, but everything else was pretty random - artworks, books, furniture, magazines, newspapers, clothing, accessories, dishes...the list goes on and on. The students all said they enjoyed the project and the chance to use a state-of-the-art database system. So once again we are really pleased with how this project turned out. Is it weird if I'm already looking forward to next year?

Collections Database Info
As museums prepare to open for the season, I am looking forward to seeing spikes in our database activity. This month 358 new records were entered and another 639 images were added. We're making good and steady progress all the time. As you do prepare for the summer, don't forget about our 2015 scanning challenge. Let's get those photos and postcards and 2-dimensional objects scanned and attached to the database. We're sitting at 219,319 artifacts and 93,066 images. It would be great to pass the 100,000 images threshold this summer.

Southwest - 119,161 artifacts, 40,968 images
Central - 41,389 artifacts, 21,892 images
Northeast - 30,747 artifacts, 20,284 images
Cape Breton - 28,022 artifacts, 9,922 images

Congrats to Cape Breton again for adding the most records, and to the Southwest region for adding the most images.

All for now. Good luck to all the museums preparing to open their doors for the season. I look forward to visiting.