Believe it: Museums Matter

Museum love, Soapbox

mamlogo-color-01-12Following are my remarks from the Annual Meeting of Maine Archives and Museums at the Collins Center for the Arts, University of Maine, Orono, on October 29, 2013.  The theme was “Re-charge Your Mission: Ideas to Ignite and Inspire.”

When I called the meeting to order a few minutes ago, I thanked the University of Maine for having us back again here at the Collins Center for the Arts in 2013.  And we’re glad to be back for all kinds of reasons, not the least of which is the great staff here and the fantastic space.  But it’s also really meaningful to be right back here where we were in October 2012 and think about all the places that we have been in between.

In just one year, MAM has led get-togethers and professional development workshops in Camden, Searsport, Caribou, Portland, Hinckley, Newport, and Bethel. We’ve held board meetings in Augusta, Bar Harbor, Bath, Belfast, Brunswick, Camden, and of course, today, Orono. We’ve been at the table at a Cultural Tourism Summit in Northport, we accompanied the Maine Department of Transportation to St. Agathe in the St. John River Valley to help establish a new state Scenic Byway, we participated in the Maine Office of Tourism’s Long-Range Planning Forum in Portland, and we have also represented MAM on the advisory committees of Experience Maritime Maine, The Maine Curator’s Forum, Northeast Document Conservation Center, and Maine’s new Cultural Emergency Resources Coalition.

MAM has also reached beyond the borders of the state to participate in conversations about the importance of museums and archives at the regional and national level. MAM was in Washington, D.C. in February for National Museum Advocacy Day, and next month we’ll be in Newport, Rhode Island for the New England Museum Association’s Annual Conference. We’ve also connected with the new Regional Archival Associations Consortium, an affiliate of the Society of American Archivists.

But we haven’t just been reaching out; we’ve also been looking within. MAM is a membership organization, so to use an analogy that’s appropriate for this year of the Maine Civil War Trail, MAM is of its members, by its members, and for its members. So we have continued the work of finding out more about who we all are, what we do, why it’s important, and how we can help each other. 2013 was the second year of MAM’s grant-funded Maine Cultural Institutions Outreach Project, or MCIOP, where our goal, ultimately, is to create a comprehensive public database of all collecting institutions in Maine, if for no other reason than to make us aware of each other’s existence—though certainly we do envision broader and more practical applications for that database, as well. The project also includes professional development workshops throughout the state, and I know that you know how seriously we’ve taken that mandate.  MCIOP workshops will continue into the spring before the project wraps up in May. We have also been working with the Maine State Museum on kickstarting a statewide values-assessment program, which some of you will hear a little more about this afternoon if you attend the “Inspiration Under Your Nose” session with MAM Board member Sheri Leahan.

We’ve been thinking a lot about advocacy this year—a word that means different things to different people, but that for us is all about being loud and proud about what makes you or your organization special, about all the ways you serve your community, and why people should care about that and support it. To that end, MAM wrote and adopted a new advocacy policy in 2013 and simultaneously launched a new Advocacy section of its website, including a toolkit with recommendations for easy and low- or no-cost things you can do with and for your organization every month.  One of today’s final sessions is an introduction to those new resources.

And of course, MAM has been planning.  2013 is the last year covered by our existing Long-Range Plan, and so we’ve been busy this year preparing to write a new one. That probably sounds a little bit like what your teenager might say when you ask him if he’s written his term paper yet—“I’m working on it”—but actually we have put a lot of real, hard work into this project, starting one year ago at last year’s annual conference, when we began a year-long process of gathering feedback from colleagues and stakeholders, whether they’re members of MAM or not. That process will continue in just a little while with the “power lunch” session for today’s conference, where we are inviting everyone who wants to, to come and talk about the draft plan and everything that is wrong—or right—with it.

As part of gathering that feedback, we conducted another institutional member survey this year, with our advocacy initiatives in mind. We approached it with the goal of crafting a statewide Economic Impact Statement for our industry, with the added bonus that all those who participated were able to effectively gather the necessary information for their own, individualized Economic Impact Statements, which for most organizations was the first one they had ever created. I’m going to report on the results of that survey right now, but I want to let you know that we’ve kept it open and we would love to hear from more of you before Museum Advocacy Day rolls around in February, which is when we plan to make it publicly accessible. The more of you who respond, the more accurate a picture we will be able to paint of our shared value. You can find info on the survey on MAM’s website, or contact me or Erin Bishop personally for the link.

So–there were 23 respondents to the survey who supplied numeric data for the questions that we asked.  Together, those 23 organizations:

  • Served 312,248 visitors and patrons in the past year, including almost 18,000 schoolchildren,
  • They did so at very little cost to those patrons: fully two thirds of the respondents charge no admission or use fee at all.  Of those who did, the average regular adult admission fee was only $7.50—less than the cost of a movie.
  • Those organizations operated on a shoestring, with a total of only 20 full-time and 49 part-time paid staff members among the respondents—but nearly 600 volunteers, who donated nearly 38,000 hours of time over the past year. Sixteen of those organizations—fully two-thirds of those who responded—have no full-time staff at all.  The average number of employees, both full- and part-time, was just three per organization.
  • The survey participants made ends meet with an average annual budget of less than $16,000. Five organizations had no annual budgets at all.  Five more were under $5,000.
  • Only three organizations received federal funds, and only three (not the same three) received state funds. Half of the respondents indicated that they receive some amount of funding from their municipalities, but in all, government funds represent only 7.6 percent of operating income.

So on a statewide basis, what can we make of all this? Well, Maine Archives and Museums has about 230 institutional members, and so this sampling reflects about a tenth of that.  But the respondents ranged from the smallest of the small historical societies to some of our largest and most ambitious museums, so I like to think that it represents an accurate cross-section of our community.  If that’s true, then we can begin to get a clearer picture when we extend the numbers to reflect our full institutional membership: more than 31 million visitors and patrons served, including nearly 180,000 school children. 690 people employed. 387,000 volunteer hours. $30 million each year pumped into our state economy. That’s a big deal.  As a colleague once put it, “This isn’t a hobby, you know.”  This is an industry.  We’re for real.  We matter.

And listen, if you are one of those organizations who responded, or is planning to respond, and only have zeros to fill up those little blanks, hear this and believe it: you matter, too.  Because when somebody goes to your museum, or historical society, or historic property, or archival collection, they’re buying lunch somewhere—they’re filling up the gas tank somewhere—maybe they’re staying overnight—and they’re probably stopping at some other cultural destinations along the way. Those who know—including Abbe Levin of the Maine Office of Tourism, who’s leading on session on this very topic later this afternoon—will tell you (will tell you probably a couple of times) that cultural heritage tourists stay longer, spend more, come back, and bring friends.  And you contribute to that in a real and tangible way, whether your budget is seven figures or none.

At the Cultural Tourism Summit in Northport earlier this year, Abbe told the group—which represented some museums but also other fields like performing arts and agritourism—that the best and most effective way an individual organization can advocate for itself is to serve its real-life audience.  To make sure that each person who walks through your door or sits down at your table has a meaningful experience, feels valued, and feels like you value your mission and collection. If you’ve got the energy and the means to put together a marketing plan and go to trade shows and attend all your city council meetings and get involved on the regional and national level, go for it, absolutely.  But don’t let it sidetrack you from the core of what you’re about, what makes you unique.  Maine Archives and Museums is here to do some of that big-picture work for you, and for all collecting institutions in Maine, because that’s what we’re about.

To that end, I’m pleased to announce our new mission statement, which came out of a long-range planning retreat in September and was voted on and approved by the Board of Trustees earlier this month:

Maine Archives and Museums actively stimulates the flow of knowledge and support among organizations and individuals in Maine who identify, collect, interpret, and/or provide access to materials relating to history, living collections, and culture, in order to strengthen and promote all collecting institutions in Maine.

So if you’ve been following along all these years, you know that we really haven’t changed what we’re all about—we’ve just turned our mission statement into something that says it better.  And for all of us, I think, the message for today, as we talk about re-charging our missions and getting inspired—is to do what you do and do it as well as you possibly can.  You know what you’re about, and why you’re important—your job is to make sure that everyone who interacts with you knows it as well.  Give them a reason to get to know you, a reason to come back, to tell their friends and colleagues, to write about you on their Facebook page.  Make them your advocates.


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