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Keeping It “Small”

Lauren Silberman

I used to think that history museums with a million dollar budget were small. Please keep in mind that I had only interned or worked at museums like the Phillips Collection and various Smithsonian organizations. My perspective was, well, skewed. So when I attended the Small Museum Association (SMA) conference, I quickly changed my mind.

Sort of.

What is a small museum? Do we base our definition on operating expenses, staff size, attendance, or something else? Or is it a combination of factors?

I tend to agree with SMA: members can decide for themselves. Small is relative. Every  museum has money, time and capacity constraints. Limited resources also affect our ability to think creatively and solve problems. Or maybe it’s because of those limitations….

Although I worked for several years at a “mid-sized” museum, I grew more and more interested in the smaller museum world. Compared to my museum, smaller organizations were more imaginative, more flexible, and more responsive to the needs of their communities.  And they knew how to deliver effectively on a shoestring budget. How did they whip up exhibits and programs like that? To me, small museum workers were like modern renaissance thinkers; they have to develop expertise in so many different areas.

A job interview at a large art museum confirmed my feelings. The interviewers praised my portfolio of the various curricula, games and programs I had created. Then they commented aloud how bureaucracy and regimentation prevented them from developing such diverse materials.  I saw the difference between the dream and the reality of working for that museum. I wouldn’t have had either the freedom or the chance to really shine there, so I didn’t pursue the position.

At another SMA conference, I discovered the Museum Assessment Program (MAP). This is supported through a cooperative agreement between the American Alliance of Museums and the Institute of Museum and Library Services. MAP is all about museum people helping other museum people, so I became a peer reviewer and thoroughly enjoyed the mutual learning experience.

When a MAP coordinator’s position opened, I immediately applied. Sure, the program is challenging, but the rewards are gratifying. After three years, I’ve watched many small and mid-size museums expand.  I admit to feeling jealous when I read the reports about all the fascinating things that these museums are doing across the country. I sometimes miss being out on the front lines, leading tours and programs. I hope my work has ripple effects for those who are out there. Their work has certainly influenced me.

I also keep connected with small museums in other ways. I’m on the board of both SMA and my community museum, the Greenbelt Museum. There are always obstacles to overcome, but I work with committed people and look forward to determining the directions we take.

Recently, I started working toward a masters degree in nonprofit and association management. I’ve noticed that many small museums often need assistance with basic governance issues. There are great tools out there – such as the Small Museum Toolkit – but I wanted to increase my own understanding and expertise in the area and see if I could find new ways to help the museums in my program and beyond. I don’t know what will come from all of this, but I’m sure it’ll require some ingenuity and hard work – just like in any small museum!

Photo: “Metal Detecting Findings 2”, Courtesy of http://www.flickr.com/photos/jmoneyyyyyy/6042280852/

Lauren R. Silberman is the program coordinator for the Museum Assessment Program at the American Alliance of Museums. She also serves with the Small Museum Association, the Friends of the Greenbelt Museum and the Anacostia Trails Heritage Area. The author of Wicked Baltimore: Charm City Sin and Scandal, she also recently launched a webcomic about Kate Warne, the first female detective.

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