Last week at the New England Museum Association (NEMA) conference, I had the opportunity to attend an off-site session at the Osterville Historical Museum. The session, titled “Not Your Grandmother’s House Museum,” was about how to increase engagement of local communities at small historic sites. The Osterville Historical Museum is home to two historic homes and a boat shop with over a dozen wooden boats. After time exploring the boat shop, we were welcomed to one of the historic homes with warm protection from the rain and refreshments. Settling in for the conversation portion of the session, we learned the three key principles the historic site follows to guide interactions with their community. Called the 3 R’s, they are as follows:
- Relevance: the museum should be present with their community and understand current issues the community cares about. For the Osterville staff, this means being a part of every group in the village. Being present at those meetings builds support for the museum and shows the museum’s support for the whole community. While this level of involvement is only possible in museums in small communities, larger institutions should get involved as much as they can – what meetings is it most important for the museum to be present at?
- Resources: museums need to take a hard look at their resources before deciding what activities to participate in or initiate. What grants are available? Who do they have on their team and what skills do they offer? If staff is present at other community events and groups what resources do these two-way relationships bring to the table?
- Relationships: Who are all the people interacting with your museum? Volunteers, visitors, collaborators, funders, etc. How can you keep them engaged and maximize those relationships?
While these three points guide many of Osterville Historical Museum’s decisions, questions during the session raised a few final key points:
- Keep volunteers actively motivated and engaged. Make it a fun and supportive place where they can share their talents and connect with others in the community.
- Don’t overuse resources – keep in mind what your physical and human resources can handle and don’t push it. Long-term sustainability is key.
How can you apply these tips and guideposts to your museum? How do you effectively engage your communities while remaining sustainable?
With Halloween and Veteran’s Day coming up, I began thinking about how American museums respond, or not, to various holidays.
In attempting to stay relevant to their visitors, should museums address holidays? If so, which ones? We certainly cannot expect every museum to celebrate every holiday. If the goal is to stay relevant, it follows that any museums wanting to recognize holidays must know the holidays their visitors observe. Here are some holidays museums might observe:
- School holidays – vacations that whole cities or states have in common are often treated as holidays by museums. Many museums plan special events knowing that families will be looking for something to do. Just take a look at this partial list from a Boston vacation week last year to see some of the special offerings museums facilitated.
- ‘National’ days – this is my term for all those days like ‘National Hot Dog Day,’ ‘National Donut Day,’ and ‘National Grandparents Day.’ It seems that almost every day of the year has something similar – and most of them are unknown – so there’s certainly no need for museums to celebrate any, much less all. But if one relates to the subject of a museum or item in its collections, it can be fun to do something as small as having a sale on a café item, a simple activity, or a social media post related to the special day.
- Religious holidays – these can be tricky for museums, but not if the museum has clear ties to one, or more, religious traditions. This connection may be in a museum’s mission or the stories of a historic site.
- Ethnic/cultural holidays – museums with strong ethnic ties can be counted on to celebrate the corresponding holidays with programs and events. Other museums, however, may choose to celebrate with a particular ethnic group in their community. For example, large history or art museums without individual ethnic ties may work with local community groups to host celebrations with that community.
- Government holidays – these holidays are observed by most government offices and many additional organizations, including schools. Government-run museums are often closed on such holidays, but other museums might commemorate the day or welcome greater crowds.
As with any activity a museum sets out upon, the bottom line is a holiday’s connection to the museum’s collection and mission. If the holiday has no connection to either, any celebration may feel forced and irrelevant. Exceptions include collaborations with community groups. If a museum’s community celebrates certain days, museums can often serve as host sites or collaborators with these community groups, celebrating holidays that may or may not directly relate to their collections.
It’s also important to note the variety of ways museums celebrate – from admission discounts to elaborate events to social media posts. Along with choosing the holiday, museums must determine the appropriate way for their institution to celebrate.
How does your museum celebrate holidays?