Taking “Small” Seriously

Jason Illari brought up a touchy subject in a recent AAM’s Small Museum Administrators Committee blog. He asks what “small” really means when it comes to museums. Do we automatically assume they are somehow less important or influential? Are their contributions any less meaningful? He wonders if we can look at our small museums from a different angle.

Jason notes that localism and sustainability aren’t just empty buzz words. We’ve embraced these cherished values and applied them all across society: “…from Main Street communities, local farmers markets, sustainable living and community supported agriculture,….alternative public education models, and eco-tourism.”

And smaller museums can ride that cultural wave. He believes it’s “time we ‘think big,’” redefine our meaning of “small,” and look at our museums in relation to their surrounding communities.

Steve Friesen has also tackled this idea in an excerpt from his chapter “Making the Case for the Small Museum” in the Small Museum Toolkit. AASLH defines a small museum as having a small staff and a budget of less than $250,000.

“But,” Steve says, “there is so much more to small museums” than using numerical criteria, such as statistics or staff size. “A big problem,” he maintains, “is the unspoken message that [small museums] are somehow less or inadequate” because of their budget size. He says:

I will admit that…big museums can hire more staff and pay higher salaries. They can send staff for training at conferences and meetings. They can allow staff to take on leadership roles in the museum community. They can pay for fancier graphics and electronics, hire better-known entertainers for programs, and attract more donations. But as tempting as it might be to do so, we cannot assume that large budgets and staffs equal better museums. More resources enable quality but do not guarantee it.

Quantity doesn’t always mean quality. Being “small” isn’t a matter of good or bad; it’s just different. Perhaps we can learn a thing or two in forums with our other community-minded neighbors. As our visitors associate the term “small” with well-crafted, responsive, creative and passionate, we can celebrate the best that money can’t buy.

2 Responses to “Taking “Small” Seriously”

  1. August 14, 2013 at 8:05 am, Robert Connolly said:

    I am the Director at the C.H. Nash Museum at Chucalissa, a small university affiliated museum located on the grounds of a prehistoric archaeological site. We do not aspire or pretend to be anything other than a small museum. We attempt to live into our strengths as a small museum and find our niche in the city of Memphis. Here are just a few of the ways that approach plays out:

    1) In a era of the participatory museum, we are in a better position to offer true experiences that engage the visitor in co-creative experiences.

    2) We are responsive to requests to serve as a venue for experimental or expedient programs.

    3) As we have a low staff to visitor ratio with a range of hands-on activities, we are a favored location for small special needs group tours.

    4) As a small university-based institution we thrive as a venue for the collaboration between the interested public, avocational museum/archaeologist folks, and students in the and creation of a range of exhibits and programs.

    We are able to function in this way in part:

    1) because of a limited bureaucracy through which decisions must be made.

    2) Our small size and lack of commitment to blockbuster type exhibits does not require that we focus so much on attendance and gift shop revenues.

    3) We developed a reputation of being responsive to our community and other stakeholder needs that fall within our mission.

    In sum, I do not view small museums as less than – at all – rather we are different than the big museums. I have no desire to compete with the larger institutions or try to be a junior version. I suggest instead that small museums embrace and live into that smallness and do all the things that are more intimate and engaging with visitors that our mega-sized brethren can only dream about!


  2. August 16, 2013 at 10:10 am, Jason Illari said:


    Thanks so much for elaborating more on this topic! I think it’s a good thing to create some “buzz” surrounding how smaller institutions can play bigger roles. I’ve been wondering lately if my somewhat awkward writing style has kind-of propelled the discussion in a direction not exactly intentioned…? Is that the sign of a good or bad writer I wonder?! I guess readers will glean from the SMAC post what speaks most to their own experiences and that’s great. I think at the heart of my post was a feeble attempt to start a dialogue about the concept of “small” and if the museum community could ever unite around a “rebranding”- perhaps not quite the right word- of the “small” self-designation. In other words do we foresee a time when institutions and professional organizations (like SMAC) drop the “small” for something more in tune with the “spirit of the age” and current museum thinking? Is it just a word or should a new label be developed? I don’t know…I really don’t know…but I think about it


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