Reaction: The Value of Small Museums

Added to Medium, August 16, 2018

I enjoy museums, and I especially enjoy working at museums. I have had experience in working in both large and small museums during my career in museum education. No matter the size of the institution and staff members, all museums should be valued within our communities. This week I came across Aimee E. Newell’s blog post, “The Value of Small Museum Experience, or Why I Don’t Have a ‘Better’ Job”, on the American Association for State and Local History’s (AASLH) website. Newell is the Executive Director of the Luzerne County Historical Society in Wilkes Barre, Pennsylvania. This post described her experience working in a small museum and the reactions she received when she explained her work in the museum field.

Like Newell, I have also been asked the same question or been asked varying questions ultimately stating the same thing: “why don’t you have a ‘better’ job?” It is a backhanded complement to ask this question, and by asking this question to me suggests our work in the small museum is less significant than in any other institution. Working in this field has proven over and over again that our museum work makes a tremendous impact in communities especially on visitors. I was also taken aback by this question as I read the post and I also thought about her response

I managed to reply, “How would you define ‘better’?” The conversation didn’t really go anywhere after that, but the question has stuck with me. And, I remain a little offended, no matter how many nice things this person said to me in preface to the question. Do we really want to define particular museum jobs as “better” based on geographical location, salary size, or annual budget level (which is what this person seemed to be implying)?

When did we start defining some museum jobs as “better” than others? Small museums have had limited resources such as annual budget levels and salary sizes in comparison to larger museums. The problem with defining museum jobs as “better” than others is it devalues the hard work museum professionals contribute to the small museums. All museum professionals have so many challenges and other things to accomplish that we are reminding ourselves to not take self-care for granted. As a museum professional who works in a small museum, I argue that museum professionals in smaller museums have even more responsibilities since we are required to wear multiple hats to accomplish varying projects on a regular basis.

My career in the museum field began working in local historical societies and historic house museums. In each of my experiences, I have worked on many projects from doing research for exhibits and education programs to cleaning and preserving historic houses. Like Newell, I also moved away from Massachusetts when I noticed an opportunity to expand my skills and take on more challenges. I moved to Long Island and worked at the Long Island Museum, which is a larger museum than I have previously worked for. I enjoyed the different set of challenges working in a larger museum presented since before I started at the Long Island Museum I was previously mainly teaching education programs.

At the Long Island Museum, I was put in charge of scheduling volunteers, booking school and group visits, taking care of petty cash for school and public program purchases, coordinating mailing flyers to schools and libraries, and updating our teacher contact lists. By having the experience of working in different size museums, I could see the time and dedication to their work in the field is not so different from one another. Small and large museums have the same mission in bringing visitors to their institutions to share the educational value they have within the community and beyond. This experience and the observations I made are what I bring with me to each new project I work on today.

I still work on multiple projects at the Three Village Historical Society in East Setauket and the Long Island Explorium in Port Jefferson. At both of these places, I see the time and dedication everyone puts in to keep the historical society and children’s museum running for the visitors who appreciate the resources we provide and for people we hope to bring awareness of our organizations to. I love reading about Newell’s experience working at the Luzerne County Historical Society since we learn her perspective on working in a small museum. For example, she stated

I love the sheer variety that my job entails. Sure, I spend a lot of time doing executive director tasks – fundraising, attending board and committee meetings, serving as chief spokesperson and supervising the staff. I am a walking encyclopedia for the historical society’s budget figures and membership numbers on a daily basis. But I am able to balance these administrative and fundraising tasks with curatorial projects and program brainstorming. Small museum experience teaches you to don many hats (sometimes at the same time). You learn to prioritize, along with picking up a mind-boggling variety of new skills – quickly.

Working in small museums do help museum professionals like myself to be able to learn quickly skills they need to complete projects that will ultimately fulfill the overall mission of the museum. In my experience, I have balanced administrative, financial, and educational projects by prioritizing the ones that are most dire at the moment. A lot of times priorities have to change in order to meet the demand of what is happening in the current situation. The importance of these experiences is knowing that while these museums are smaller they are making a difference.

What was your reaction to the AASLH blog post? If you work in or have visited a small museum, what was your experience like?

To read the original AASLH blog post, the link is here: https://aaslh.org/the-value-of-small-museum-experience-or-why-i-dont-have-a-better-job/

2 thoughts on “Reaction: The Value of Small Museums”

  1. I work at a small museum and I understand the comment. Better as in better paying or better as in more hours or better as in more professional. Many museums don’t pay or pay very little. I wouldn’t be offended by that comment. I am learning new skills and helping inspire and teach people something about the past they didn’t know. My work is important, people are often amazed at how knowledgeable I am and what they learned so I see both sides of the issue.

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    1. I am always happy to hear when visitors to small museums especially to ones I have worked and currently work in show appreciation for the work I have done and our colleagues have done in inspiring and educating people of all ages. I always wish to bring more awareness of our important work to the people so more can see what we have to offer in our museums.

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