Sunday, February 22, 2009

Speak Up For Museums

Tomorrow and Tuesday are the American Association of Museums' annual Museum Advocacy Days. This year, the need is especially urgent as zoos and aquariums have been barred from competing for economic stimulus funding, history and art museums were nearly excluded, and museums nationwide have been feeling the effects of the recession.

Museum work is sort of an invisible field. When I told my friends and relatives that I was entering graduate school for it, they'd kind of cock their heads and say: "So what will you be doing, exactly?" One of my most intelligent friends, when I explained about the educational programs, collection management and exhibit development, said that she'd actually never considered that people did that stuff for a living. When I was doing my graduate internship, TIAA-CREF had a commercial that featured a collections manager, for just a second. I was so excited to see it on television, that I vowed to invest all of my money with them, if I should ever get any (maybe someday...)

Yet, the impact of museums is substantial. They are like cultural oxygen: most of the time, you may not notice their presence, but you'd definitely feel their absence. Museums employ more than half a million Americans and are an important engine for cultural tourism. In some towns (like Cooperstown, NY) they're the primary draw. In other towns (like Stockbridge, MA) they're key components of thriving cultural destinations.

Museums help communities in other ways. Several years ago, the staff at the Brooklyn Museum was faced with a strugging neighborhood, full of gang activity and poverty. They realized they could help, and developed a comprehensive after-school program that has become a national model. Children can spend every weekday late afternoon there. As they get older, they become more involved in running the program, helping out the younger kids. It builds self-esteem, it teaches them things, and it keeps them off the streets and away from gangs. The Tenement House Museum in Manhattan offers programs for new immigrants.

Museums are sources of pride for communities. They host interesting educational programs and enjoyable activities. They're often a destination for people with out-of-town houseguests. They're a favorite field trip destination for students and scouts, a popular activity with organized social groups, and an enjoyable place for caregivers to bring elderly or developmentally disabled consumers.

Museums add a lot of value to communities in many ways. But funding all of the things they do has always been a challenge. Very few museums are fortunate enough to be able to support themselves with admission charges and gift shop sales. Most museums look for support from private foundations and from all levels of government. With the economic crisis impacting both foundations' investments and government spending, museums are facing very tough times. A visit to the job listings of the AAM website will say it all. Most of the positions listed are either top-level management (that museums can't afford to do without) or unpaid/low-paid interns. The middle level has all but disappeared with the cutbacks in funding. Most museums will do just about anything to prevent funding issues from impacting their public programming, but it's only a matter of time.

AAM has several suggestions for advocacy that can be found at, along with links to fuller explanations of the issues museums face. If museums are important to you, email your representatives and let them know. They will be hearing from me, and I hope they'll be hearing from you, too.

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