The Challenges Faced in Small Museums

May 9, 2019

As I was looking through resources on the museum and public history field, I noticed that there were articles that explain why small museum professionals get the credit they deserve but there were not many articles that discuss the physical challenges working in small museums present. I decided that this week’s post I will introduce the physical work small museum professionals have done to help make the museum and historic sites. In previous blog posts, I have shared my memories of working in small museums and historic house museums that I also recommend reading to comprehend what the physical work is like at small museums. With this perspective, I understand the challenges faced by small museum professionals.

At the historic house museums, I have not only worked in education programs but I was also involved in the interpretation and preservation of the collections and maintain some of the upkeep of the historic houses. For instance, at the Connecticut Landmarks’ Hartford properties I was responsible for dusting and cleaning items, tables, et. cetera. Then I took an inventory of the collection and filled out collections conditions paperwork. These tasks I worked on took a lot of time and physical demand to accomplish so the historic houses were well-maintained to make sure we still preserved for future generations.  Also, I was a part of the team that worked on revamping the tours by picking a theme of the house and researching the theme for a more engaging visitor experience using the collections in the house. At other small museums, I took on other projects such as grant applications, social media posts and analytics, responding to donation request letters, invoice for summer program, and purchase supplies for education and museum supplies. Each responsibility I had took a lot of time to dedicate to, and may not be accomplished in one day because of other responsibilities that would need to take priority depending on what is going on at the moment.

Small museum professionals deserve a lot of credit for all of the work that they put in to keep the museums running for the visitors and the rest of their communities. In a blog post “The Value of Small Museums” by Aimee E. Newell, the Executive Director of the Luzerne County Historical Society, she talked about her experiences in working small museums and what she valued in her experiences working in small museum based around a question that was posed to her one day: “Why don’t you have a better job?” My blog post in which I reacted to Newell’s post delved into my own experiences that answered that question:

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.

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.

While previous articles have discussed how they had to wear multiple hats to accomplish what bigger museums do with a larger staff, we should address more the consequences of this work ethic. It could be impressive at first how the small museum professionals get so much accomplished in multiple roles, we cannot forget that like all museum professionals small museum workers need to take time to practice self-care and have equitable workplace to help combat burnouts. If we encourage museum staff in small and large museums to wear multiple hats and expect them to put one hundred percent into all of those hats while being underpaid and a lot of times underappreciated, then we end up losing dedicated museum professionals. The question I pose for everyone who reads this post and I really want everyone to consider the answer: when we wear multiple hats, do we really accomplish every task effectively and completely?

Resources:

https://lookingbackmovingforwardinmuseumeducation.com/2018/08/16/reaction-the-value-of-small-museums/

https://lookingbackmovingforwardinmuseumeducation.com/2019/02/07/museum-memories-connecticuts-old-state-house/

https://lookingbackmovingforwardinmuseumeducation.com/2019/02/21/museum-memories-stanley-whitman-house/

https://lookingbackmovingforwardinmuseumeducation.com/2019/04/25/museum-memories-connecticut-landmarks-historic-houses-in-hartford/

https://aaslh.org/the-value-of-small-museum-experience-or-why-i-dont-have-a-better-job/

https://museumhack.com/mighty-small-museums/

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/

What Grants Mean for Museums

Added to Medium, July 26, 2018

Museum professionals understand that grants are significant for funding museums to keep them exercising their practices such as running programs and caring for collections. Based on my experiences, grants are a tedious necessity since there is a lot of paperwork that needs to be filled out to fund museums, and the information we need to fill out for grants is repetitive depending on how many times we need to apply to the same grant.

One of my responsibilities at the Long Island Explorium includes writing grant applications and proposals. I have worked with state grants and kit applications to keep the museum fulfilling its mission. With the Executive Director, I filled out paperwork to send to the state representative and the county legislator. Also, I filled out online applications for program kits such as the Earth Science Earth & Space Toolkit to be able to use at the museum. In the Earth Science Earth & Space Toolkit application, I would first write in the museum’s demographics as well as a brief explanation of how the museum will use the toolkit in a downloaded form then copy the information into the online application after making adjustments to reflect the current year.

While my main interest in the museum field is education, I see value in learning about grant application processes since we need a fund source that is at least somewhat consistent to keep museum education programs running. The problems we all come across in the field is limited availability of grants and being able to convince foundations, government agencies, and other funders of why we need these funds. It is a challenge to find funding for our museums but it is worth the time and effort to search and apply for these grants.

Foundations, organizations, government agencies, and other funding sources have websites that share resources on what grants are out there and how to apply for them. I came across a blog post on the American Alliance of Museum’s website written by Charlotte A. Montgomery who shared some of the websites about grants to help museum professionals get started on the grant search process. One of the websites in the post was for the Foundation Center (http://foundationcenter.org/) which connects people to the resources they need by using data, analysis, and training. Another grant website discussed in the blog post was Grants.gov which is a place to find and apply for federal grants, and it is highly advisable to make sure the organization is registered with the System for Award Management weeks before planning to submit a proposal. Once museum professionals find the grant or grants they want to apply for, they need to figure out what the grant process is like to accurately submit a proposal.

Sarah Sutton’s second edition of Is Your Museum Grant-Ready? revealed one of the first things to do before even thinking about applying for grants is to understand the grant funding system. According to Sutton, she pointed out that

If you need funds for programs or capital projects, then the best way to support the grants process is to understand it well enough to ask the right questions and provide the right kind of material and assistance.

When museum professionals are able to ask the right questions and provide the right kind of material as well as assistance, the whole grant process will be easier to understand for future grant applications. Also, museums would save a lot of time when figuring out how to apply for the grant. Without knowing how the process is performed, a lot of time is wasted as we continue to correct the errors are made.

I learned that it is important to go over each detail carefully while I was filling out grant paperwork for the Long Island Explorium. Since I have to make a number of copies to send to the state representative and county legislator, it was easy for me to make and discover errors. The good news was I was able to catch them before I sent the paperwork in the mail. If any errors were made in the process, we would not be able to know until a few months after submitting the paperwork; it would take a few months for them to go through the grant paperwork. Understanding the process is beneficial for myself as well as all museum professionals working on grant proposals. Since there are so many museums that apply to grants, each museum need to figure out how they can stand out from other applications.

As I was reviewing information about grants, I came across two blog posts on answers to grant proposals if non-profits were brutally honest. The writer pointed out that non-profits are trained to tell funders what we think they want to hear, and had collected various honest answers to questions posed by grant applications. If non-profits are able to be brutally honest, some of the answers are

  1. What is innovative about your program design? “Our program is entirely innovative. The design is unproven; the approach is untested; the outcomes are unknown. We also have a tried-and-true service delivery model with outstanding results and a solid evidence base to support it. But you funded that last year and your priority is to fund innovative projects. So we made this one up. Please send money.”
  2. How will you use the funds if you receive this grant? We honestly really need this grant to pay for rent and utilities and for wages so our staff can do important work and feed their families, but since you won’t allow your funds to be used for those things, we will say that your grant is paying for whatever you will actually fund, then get other funders or donors to give and then tell them that their money is paying for the stuff that they want to fund. We will ultimately waste hundreds of hours every year trying to figure out who is paying for what, hours that could be used to deliver services. Please send unrestricted money.
  3. What is the mission of your organization? Susan, can we talk? This is a renewal grant. It’s the third year you have supported us. You know what our mission is, along with our programs, outcomes, challenges, etc., because we’ve been in constant communication. Instead of writing an entire proposal again as if you’ve never heard of us, how about I just tell you what’s new since last year? That will save us both a lot of time. What’s new is that Jason got a standing desk that he made out of cardboard boxes and Gorilla tape because you and other funders want overhead to be low. He says hi. Also, demands for our services has doubled. Please send double the amount of money you normally send.
  4. What needs are you addressing? We are addressing the failure of our government and capitalism to provide for people who are suffering from systemic injustice caused by government and capitalism. Please send money or convince corporations and the rest of society to pay more taxes and take care of people better and put us nonprofit professionals out of business so that some of us can pursue our dreams of acting and/or wedding photography.

I believe a lot of museum professionals from time to time have identified with these honest responses. Museum professionals are constantly attempting to brainstorm innovative ideas for programs to draw visitors in and show foundations providing grants we have something unique worth putting money towards.

Also, we do need to consider paying for rent, utilities, and salaries when trying to fund our museums but the problem can be summed up with this question: is there a grant that will pay for us to be in our building and do the work we do to support ourselves? An honest response previously listed suggests there isn’t. One of the issues we are talking about in this field is the lack of providing living wages for our staff and how we should be working towards better pay. As we work towards addressing and resolving what we need to fix, we should acknowledge how we need to receive more support from the government to help us fix the problems we are facing in the museum field. We are constantly working towards making sure the government provides funding for our organizations through our advocacy efforts, and since we continue to struggle to make sure they run smoothly with sufficient funds we need to continue to advocate for our museums.

We acknowledge the need for grants in our organizations, and without grants we would have a hard time keeping our museums running.

Have you worked on a grant or grants for your organization? What are your experiences with grants?

Resources:
http://nonprofitaf.com/2018/02/answers-on-grant-proposals-if-nonprofits-were-brutally-honest-with-funders/
http://nonprofitaf.com/2018/07/answers-on-grant-proposals-if-nonprofits-were-brutally-honest-part-2/
https://rowman.com/ISBN/9781442273108/Is-Your-Museum-Grant-Ready-Second-Edition
http://ww2.aam-us.org/about-us/grants-awards-and-competitions/grants-calendar
https://www.comnetwork.org/insights/
http://www.raise-funds.com/positioning-grant-writers-for-success/
https://www.aam-us.org/2015/02/02/your-museum-needs-money-now-what/
http://www.smallmuseum.org/smaresources
https://www.childrensmuseums.org/members/resources/grants-and-award-calendar