Museum Studies at Tufts University

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Rethinking Relevance

Be relevant. Is there a phrase we’ve recently heard more often than this one in the museum field? It’s tossed around a lot. So much so, in fact, that I’m getting kind of tired of it. But these past few months I’ve had multiple conversations and experiences that have led me to reflect on relevance even more, and I’ve realized that maybe the reason it’s the subjects of so many conferences, books, and blog posts is because:

  1. It’s super important, especially for public institutions such as museums
  2. It can take a LOT of effort and skill to implement well
  3. It’s more complex than it seems at first

So, if you can bear yet another voice on this subject, let me share a few words about my recent reflections. And in light of it’s complexity, let me start with the simple definition, put forth by Merriam-Webster, that relevance is something with a “practical and especially social applicability.”

That’s a pretty broad definition, but it speaks to our conversations around relevance that almost all speak to the ‘applicability’ part. Whenever I hear conversations about relevance, they seem to focus on specific techniques but only briefly, if at all, mention why these practices matter. While techniques are critical, I think we’re selling ourselves, and our communities, short if we gloss over our reasons for implementing them. Motivation and technique always go hand in hand when implementing and practicing values.

Three motivations that I see are a:

  • Drive for numbers: Some museums see relevance as a tool to increase the number of visitors at the museum. The American Alliance of Museums’ (AAM) blog has a section titled “Building Cultural Audiences” devoted to conversations about expanding visitors through better understanding of their preferences and organizational adjustments.
  • Drive to serve: Other museums put the emphasis on their role as an institution in service to their community, as outlined in ICOM’s 2007 definition of a museum.
  • Drive to collaborate: Nina Simon discusses in her book The Art of Relevance the concept of an assets-based focus in which museums work with their community’s assets and collaborate rather than serve.

While a museum can be motivated by each of these, they will at times be faced with a choice that does not accommodate all – and then which will they choose?

Motivation aside, there are many different techniques to increasing relevance. But they seem to fall into two categories:

  • Situational relevant techniques include programs that capitalize on time, anniversaries, or trends – high interest areas that increase visitors. Think blockbuster exhibits, exhibits and programs commemorating an event, or trends in technology. However, each such program is temporary and so begs the questions: do the additional visitors stay engaged with the institution for a long duration? If not, does this count as relevance?
  • The flip side of situational relevance is engagement integrated into the institution. Museums that follow this method demonstrate a long-term commitment to relevance in their community through outside partnerships and the institutional culture. It often involves strong mission-based programming, listening to the community, long-term commitments, and focusing on assets.

While reflecting on these different motivations and techniques, I at first thought that integrated techniques motivated by a desire to serve or collaborate were better. But then I thought about the diversity of museums and began questioning whether relevance does, or should, look the same at all of them. Is there one standard that all museums need to reach in order to be considered ‘relevant?’

Characteristics such as size and location of a museum and their audience do not need to change the motivation, but they sure have an impact on the techniques. Does one technique denote more or less relevance than another? And therefore, are some museums positioned better to be relevant than others?

Many large institutions fall into the situational category with large exhibits and programs, while smaller institutions may find it harder to accommodate trends but easier to integrate a new value into their entire staff. To compensate for such differences, large museums could create advisory teams to work more closely with specific communities and small museums could find smaller/cheaper ways to integrate situational techniques.

It’s easy to see a few programs a museum is doing and walk away critiquing their level of relevance. But of course there are many actions and conversations we don’t see if we don’t work there. And we also need to recognize that most museums are on a path towards increased relevance and these journeys may look different for different museums. What would it look like for our field to encourage one another along this process, while holding each other accountable, rather than judge from afar?

Thoughts on the Berkshire Museum’s Proposal to Sell 40 Pieces.

In recent weeks, the museum world media has been inundated with the articles regarding the Berkshire Museum’s plan to auction off 40 pieces of art in its collections to support a $60 million renovation and expansion. As expected, the auction proposal was met with criticism from museum professionals, institutions, and the American Alliance of Museums.

According to an article published last week by NPR, The Berkshire museum, located in Pittsfield, MA has faced an annual budget deficit surpassing $1million annually for the past 10 years. Van Shields, the executive director of the museum, claims that the institution has no choice but to sell a portion of its collection, or die out as an institution. AAM fired back urging The Berkshire to reconsider its funding plan, because this sale of art breaks the public trust and ownership of non-profit museum collections. Collections, said AAM, should not be treated as a financial asset.

This situation leave the Berkshire Museum between a rock and a hard place. How can they otherwise fund raise, and remain a museum at all, while facing extreme financial deficits? Grants alone are unlikely to provide millions, and dependency on a large donor seems unrealistic. They would most likely need to restructure their entire campaign, which could be possible, but could also take years that the museum may not have to meet its annual expenses. However,  the backlash from the museum world if the Berkshire continues with the auction plans (said to be set within the next 6 months) could be detrimental to the museum, and could result in measures such as a ban on loans from other museums, and loss of accreditation.

Looking at the Berkshire Museum’s mission statement below sheds a little light on the place for auction sales within the mission of the museum, and the truth is, the collection is not mentioned:

Berkshire Museum’s mission statement:                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                           “Bringing people together for experiences that spark creativity and innovative thinking by making inspiring educational connections among art, history, and natural science.”

Very technically speaking, an auction of 40 pieces of artwork, expected to sell for at least $50 million,  could expand the progression of the mission, because without funds, the museum would not be able to exist or spark creativity and innovative thinking without the financial means to do so as an institution. Nowhere in the mission is there mention of preserving, collecting, or hoarding a massive amount of objects.

Yet if one of the purposes of a museum is to serve the public in good trust, then the Berkshire Museum’s decision to auction off art is not in good ethical standing. For example, two of the pieces to be auctioned are Norman Rockwell’s “Shuffleton’s Barbershop” and “Shaftsbury Blacksmith Shop.” Rockwell spent the last 25 years of his like in Pittsfield, and gifted these works to the community for public enjoyment and appreciation. The auction of these pieces does not present the good of the public interest. Perhaps selling more pieces of lesser value than a Rockwell would better serve the public interest, but then again, that could place objective value on art which is meant to be subjective to the beholder. The situation is not an easy one.

As museum staff structures themselves move toward more business like models (the number of Executive Directors with MBAs is on the rise) where do collections fit in? Are they permitted to be on the free market for the very survival of an institution? Or do they still rest in the untouchable public domain?

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Call for Articles: Emerging History Professional Takeover of History News Magazine

Call for Articles: Emerging History Professional Takeover of History News Magazine

Emerging History Professionals are taking over the Winter 2018 issue of AASLH’s History News magazine! The issue will be guest co-edited by emerging history professionals Hope Shannon and Hannah Hethmon. Features and articles will all focus on Emerging History Professionals and reflect their insights and opinions about the field.

Anyone in the early stages of a public history career, broadly defined, is an Emerging History Professional. This includes graduate and undergraduate students, hobbyists, early-career professionals, and any other AASLH members who identify as belonging to this community.

History News exists to foster publication, scholarly research, and an open forum for discussion of best practices, applicable theories, and professional experiences pertinent to the field of state and local history. History News is a quarterly membership publication of the American Association for State and Local History (AASLH), a nonprofit educational membership organization providing leadership, service, and support for its members who preserve and interpret state and local history in order to make the past more meaningful in American society.

The editors are seeking submission of article abstracts. Proposed articles must:

  • Be relevant to the theme of Emerging History Professionals. Articles by emerging professionals will be given priority over those with more time in the field.
  • Not have previously been published elsewhere.
  • Be 2,500-3,000 words in length and properly footnoted and cited in Chicago/Turabian style.

Instructions and Deadlines:

The deadline for submitting abstracts is August 15, 2017.

Authors of accepted articles will be notified by the first week of September 2017. They will then have until November 1 to submit a final edited and reviewed version of their article. At that time, the article must be fit for print.

Along with the abstract (500 words max), submission must include:

  • A brief paragraph explaining how the article is relevant to the early history career/emerging history professional issues and AASLH’s mission (200 words max)
  • A brief biographical statement (100 words max)

Questions about topics and submission guidelines should be directed to Hope Shannon (hopejshannon@gmail.comand Hannah Hethmon (

For more information including topic suggestions, click here.

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