Monday, February 29, 2016

February 2016 Update

Evaluation Program
As I mentioned last month, museums are busy preparing for their summer evaluation, and we continue to be busy assisting in those preparations and working on logistical and other details of the process. I'm pleased to say that the Steering Committee has chosen people to be evaluators and that we are very excited about this high calibre, knowledgeable team. We're also working on developing a new website so that you can submit pre-evaluation documentation online. Documents must be submitted electronically.

Museums that have not been in communication with us will be receiving letters over the next few days. We want to make sure that every museum is feeling confident about their preparations, gets all their questions answered, and gets the best possible score on the evaluation. With only 10 weeks left to prepare for the pre-evaluation, quite frankly we're concerned that a number of organizations haven't been in touch. If this is you, please pick up the phone or send me an email.

Your quick tip for preparations this month has to do with all those documents you'll be submitting. Don't forget to include the date that the document was last reviewed as a footnote on the cover page or elsewhere in the document. We will be looking to make sure the museum/board has reviewed the document within the past 5 years. It's important for you to make sure your policies & procedures are evolving along with your organization.

Collections Database Info
Great database work continues, especially as museums prepare for the dreaded Information Integrity Check of the evaluation. In terms of those preparations, this month has had me actively working with two museums on database and collections issues. This kind of work often feels like it is never-ending since it's often hard to see clear progress. As I've said before, it's something you pick away and just try to take solace in the knowledge that you are improving things.
As a group, we added 375 artifact records and 690 images this month. We've documented (or more accurately are in the process of documenting) 222,169 artifacts and digitized 106,773 of these, sharing what we know with the world. Sometimes the sheer amount of information amazes me, and today is one of those days.

Southwest - 120,368 artifacts, 49,163 images
Central - 42,863 artifacts, 25,228 images
Northeast - 30,982 artifacts, 21,673 images
Cape Breton - 27,956 artifacts, 10,709 images

Congrats to the Central region for adding the most records and images again this month. These museums are busy!!

A scarf...I think...
I skipped the image lesson last month, so I wanted to find a really compelling image and a brand-new lesson for this month. And I think this one is a good one. Let's talk about the importance of a contrasting background for your artifact photography. This is a white scarf on a white background. Or we could make the joke that it's a polar bear in a snowstorm. Just kidding, it's not that bad, but it is still next to impossible to see details or really understand this scarf in a visual way. If this scarf had been photographed on a dark background, we'd be able to see the tassels on the end, the weave, the width and length...our eye could really absorb the details to help us understand how it was made and used.

Odds and Ends
Our special project work continues. Fleming students are plugging away at their adopted records, and almost 200 businesses have been added to the Made in Nova Scotia database. We've got a lot of other irons in the fire, but I won't bore you with those until we have some serious information to share.

In ANSM news, we're excited that we've completed the 100 from 100 campaign, and that our workshops continue to benefit the museum community. Our Education & Training Taskforce met this month and we've got a very full plate of educational offerings to serve up this year. The CCI Storage Re-Org is in March, CMA conference and our Interpretation II workshop happen in April, our Museums & Security Symposium is in May...and that's just the Spring! This week we opened registration for Interpretation II - Exhibitions, and it filled up within 36 hours. If you missed registering, call the office and ask to be put on the waiting list. We always manage to get in a few people from the list, so it's definitely worth it.

Friday, February 5, 2016

Tribute to David Dewar

Last Friday we unexpectedly lost David Dewar, Curator of the Wallace and Area Museum. Dave came to the museum world by way of the private and public sectors, and with a very stalwart belief in public service. Especially during his early years with the museum, Dave was a regular at workshops, conferences, meetings and heritage-related events. He was a recognizable face and voice, and while sometimes he would just sit quietly and take it all in, he was really taking it in. When he did speak, it was because he had a good question to ask or keen insight to share.

Walking into the museum when Dave was at the desk meant being greeted by a big grin and sincere welcome. He always asked how the drive was, how my day was going, and as my visit wrapped up he always asked where I was off to next. There was no talk of business until the personal pleasantries were over. And this wasn't just Dave being polite; he was just a very sincere man. Even though I was there to do my job, he made sure that we began and ended on personal, friendly notes. He also sometimes gave me ice cream or other treats, which made it even easier for me to have a soft spot for the guy.

It was impossible to hang out with Dave without smiling. If you didn't find his smile infectious, his quick, dry wit would get you. Dave wasn't a collections manager, so this quick wit often came out while I was at the museum and going through database updates or digitization recommendations. He'd get that little mischievous gleam in his eye and start cracking jokes and making smart alec remarks. Truth be told, I really enjoyed this. It made my visit more fun; more a visit with friends than a job. But I also found it really frustrating. I used to retaliate by telling Dave that we needed to download his brain. He had so much knowledge about the local families, history, and museum collection, but because he would rather share that with you in a conversation, this information wasn't always in the database records. Yes I can hear you squirming and see you rolling your eyes Dave, but I warned you that I'd out you about this some day. It's sad to think about how much knowledge is gone.

Like all community museums, Wallace relies on volunteers and summer students to do a lot of work. One thing I admired about Dave's approach to curatorship was how he took great pride in his own work, and was more than happy to talk about a research subject, exhibit that was in development, or future plans, but he never bragged himself up. Instead, he would brag up other people on his team. He really gave people the chance to embrace a project or task as their own. He praised people when they displayed an aptitude in a certain area, and encouraged them to pursue it further. While they may not know it, Dave was always talking people up, sharing with me how someone or other did such great work. The project that immediately comes to mind for this is the annual mural painting done by a local artist. For the past 15 years or so, Dave worked with the artist to come up with a theme for a new mural which would complement his new exhibit. He was so proud of these murals, of how they brought Wallace's history to life, connected something new with some very old things, and helped people understand and appreciate their community's history. I think this is also why he participated in some of our special projects, like the Made in Nova Scotia enrichment work and the Fleming College partnership project. He understood that everyone had something to contribute, and we all have a part to play in celebrating our heritage.

Dave could give you the generic stories and information about the different groups and activities that existed in Wallace. He not only knew all of the different businesses, but could regale you with a seemingly infinite number of details about each of them. And he could talk about the Mi'kmaq or Acadians or Loyalists for hours on end. But what he liked to do more was to share the personal, individual stories, and discuss how they connected with the bigger issues of that time and place. He loved to make history come alive. And he was really good at this. Not only did he share the stories of specific individuals in all of his exhibits, but he came up with some pretty nifty techniques as well. One of my favourite exhibits that he did was on shipbuilding in the community. We see a lot of shipbuilding exhibits in Nova Scotia, but what made his special is that he had a little corner of the room with glass bottles sitting on a barrel - smells of the shipyard. In these glass bottles were the different oils and materials of the trade. Nothing was toxic or remotely harmful, but in a whiff you were transported back to a pre-industrial work yard, and could really understand the materials of the trade, how messy certain jobs were, and how someone would go home smelling. Simple, but extremely effective.

In Dave's honour and memory, let's try to be better about capturing those wonderful stories; of the school teacher who refused to let a con man get the best of her, of the mysterious trunk that laid locked for decades, of the 18th century letters that fell out of a wall during renovations...I'm sure we can all think of really interesting, personal stories that need to be brought back to life.

To Dave, thanks for sharing the stories of Wallace and Cumberland County, for educating people in an engaging way, and for being so passionate about your community's heritage. I'll miss ya buddy.

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Book Review - Fundraising for Small Museums

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First off, let's not judge this book by its cover. Let's just agree it's a really ugly cover and move on.

This is one of our more recent library acquisitions. It includes 8 chapters on a variety of subjects - philanthropy trends, donor relations, solicitation methods, membership programs, capital campaigns, grant applications, and planned giving.

If you're like me, you didn't get into the museum field to do fundraising. That means we have a lot of learning to do about the money side of things. Quite frankly Cilella has included so many good suggestions, quick tips, and lists of additional resources to examine, that pulling out a short list to include in this post was not easy. As I read, I flagged points that resonated with me and/or spoke to issues in the Nova Scotian heritage community.

Chapter 1 dives right into the clich├ęs, the biggest of which is that people give to people, not to organizations. There has also been a big shift in how much information donors want about their donation, ie is it going to be used to make the building wheelchair accessible or pay for an artifact to be conserved or hire a summer student? People want to know they are making a good investment, and that means the museum is under pressure to perform well. Cilello recommends a 6-step approach to strategic fundraising: develop tangible goals, figure out how much it will cost, how long it will take, identify your sources, review & refine as you work through it, and finally, write all of this down.
A lot of time is spent in this chapter talking about the role of board members, and the author bemoans the fact that so few boards require members to actively fund-raise and/or contribute financially to the organization. I won't delve into all the details, but there is solid info on reviewing expectations, responsibilities, and making sure that you've got a mix of marketers, bridge builders, cultivators and closers on your board. It also recommends thinking twice about board members who are career builders, single-issue individuals, grandstanders, lone rangers, and wallflowers. Cilella includes descriptions of all of these roles and why they are good or bad, which is a pretty blunt but helpful reality check.

Chapter 2 is titled The Universe of Fundraising, and I think part of why I liked it so much is because of its forthright language. The author says that before you do anything, you've got to know why you exist, where you're going, how you're going to get there, and how you're perceived. "Some museums have been in existence so long that they have forgotten why they are in business". Ouch. But also, yes. I can think of examples of this and I'm sure you can too. Again there are just too many good lessons here to go into detail, but the bottom line is that without an understanding of your mission, goals, and community needs, you'll be spinning your wheels. Another great statement here is that "raising money without a strategic plan is wasteful, useless, and irresponsible. Keep your plan simple, articulate it to all who will listen, and then act on it to make it a living document. A plan on the shelf will gather dust, not support." If this is striking a chord with you, you might want to read this chapter and take the author's advice on how to change gears and be more effective.

The third chapter addresses stewardship, ie cultivating relationships and support from your community in an ongoing way. This is an activity for everyone, regardless of their role in the museum. You've got to be strategic, coordinated (mixed messages are bad), look at a broad range of prospective supporters rather than just the "large gift prospects", communicate via personal & impersonal methods, and have a solid understanding that timing is key, and sometimes it takes money to make money.
The list that I loved in this chapter is at the end and is titled "The Donor Bill of Rights". It's just a basic list of assurances and opportunities that our donors should be receiving, but it isn't any of the items in the list that I loved. I love the message that it sends, the reminder that we need to be respectful, that giving is voluntary, and that our donors should have full confidence in us. Not partial, not occasional, but full confidence. This message carries through into chapter 4 on methods of solicitation. Amid the tactics are some very sobering words about the realities of today's society; "donors are fearful today that you will not spend their money wisely", that media reports about rare instances of fraud and misconduct have left people wary of institutions and authorities. There has also been a shift in giving that means people want to see the social impact of their gift - are kids being educated, or hungry people being fed, or an aged building being restored...understanding and being able to engage in the impact of their gift validates the donor and creates a bond with the museum.

Chapter 5 addresses membership programs and special events, and I have to say again that Cilella's bluntness is extremely effective. He refers to our membership programs as "being in a confused state". "Older members view their membership as an investment...newer members are looking for an economic and economical exchange for an experience". In terms of membership levels, no mincing of words: "if you have a lifetime membership program, discontinue it as once. It is old concept and a very bad idea". For the other levels of membership, the problem/danger is that museums are offering certain things in its membership package, but these don't often reflect the wants/needs of our potential members. Quite frankly, we are out of touch. "The moral of this story is that administrators, directors, and managers need to constantly reevaluate the programs that have been in existence since the beginning of time to determine whether that program's future will provide growth for the institution or a playground for a few swells who really don't want others playing in their sandbox."
There was another paragraph in this chapter that really jumped off the page at me. It talks about a simple method of determining whether your fundraising venture was a success or failure. Typically we think about the bottom line; whether we made money or heaven forbid, lost money. Yes this is important. If we are devoting a lot of time, energy, and resources to a fundraiser and we barely meet our expenses, then we really didn't have a fundraiser did we? But Cilella goes on to explain that one of the other critical indicators "of failure is the inability to make new friends. Did your event attract the same old crowd? Or were there a lot of faces who were new to you and your board members?" If that isn't a marker of success I don't know what is. We've got to start thinking about long-term support instead of focusing on the current state of the bank account or how much money a particular fundraiser brought in. We've got to get away from being a club or clique that isn't reaching out and making new friends. This is partially why we put so much emphasis on the online work of museums. Online engagement is an entry point, a way to make those new friends.

This is getting long, so I'm going to cut it short, and end with one final thought. If I've piqued your interest, feel free to be in touch about borrowing the book.

One of the many lists in the book is "thirty ways to fail at fund raising in hard times". Yes, how to fail at fundraising. This is of course a tongue-in-cheek list, but item #2 is actually a variation of one of my (and my Mom's) favourite sayings: The 7 dying words of an organization are "we never did it that way before". How true is that? If you go around with that kind of an attitude you're doomed to fail. So let's stay positive, let's stay creative, and let's talk about money.