Museum Studies at Tufts University

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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?

Weekly Jobs Roundup!

Here’s our weekly roundup of new jobs. Happy hunting!

New England                                                                                                                     

Mid-Atlantic        

Midwest

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West                                                      

Weekly Jobs Roundup!

Here’s our weekly roundup of new jobs. Happy hunting!

New England                                                                                                                     

Mid-Atlantic                                                                                                             

Midwest

South                                                                                                                             

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Incorporating Sensory Experiences in Historic House Museums

This week’s contribution comes from Laidy Saenz, who is a current Museum Studies Certificate Student at Tufts. 

Incorporating Sensory Experiences in Historic House Museums

Museums are incorporating new trends in display and exhibition methods to enhance the overall visitor experience. Some of these methods involve interactivity and sensory experiences. These heightened sensory experiences may incorporate a combination of, “multimedia presentations, hands-on interaction with artifacts, the use of scent, the presentation of “living” displays, and interactive exhibits in which one may, for example, try on clothing related to the artifacts on display.[1]” Exhibitions that incorporate sensory experiences would be very effective in historic house museum.  Stories of the house could be brought to life in a way that is more interesting and engaging. Imagine walking into a historic house and smelling a particular meal that was cooked in the house or trying on replicas of clothing that were worn by people that lived in the house. The Dennis Severs’ House in London is an example of a historical house whose owner has created an immersive experience for visitors. This house, “provides a “rare thing to experience first hand: the warm, smoky light captured by the Old Masters; the creak of footsteps on wood; whispers and opening doors; arresting reflections, mixtures, textures and smells; the ticking and chiming of clocks; a cat and a canary.”[2]

I recently visited an exhibition that incorporated different sensory elements at Le Laboratoire Gallery in Cambridge, Massachusetts.  This particular exhibition incorporated animation, photography, and sculpture and used sound to heighten the overall experience. This sound created an immersive experience that brought to life the other displays and created a distinctive atmosphere. In the same way a historic house could use sound to bring to life aspects of the house. Something as simple as music playing in the background to highlight the family’s taste in music, or music from an instrument that was played by one of its owners would enliven the visitor experiences and connect them to the aura of the home.

Selecting what type of interactive display or what sense to engage should be done carefully and in line with the interpretation and history of the house. Historic houses could partner with other artists to create displays that highlight a particular sense and highlight a particular story of the house. The leaders of the historic house museum should stay abreast of trends that may be relevant to their particular historic house, evaluate them and implement those that are appropriate for their audience. Understanding the audience and providing relevant memorable experiences is important for the long-term sustainability of the historic house museum.

 

[1] David Howes, “The Sensory Museum: Its History And Reinvention,” http://www.david-howes.com/senses/SensoryMuseum.htm.

[2] “The Tour,” Dennis Sever’s House, accessed June 18th, 2017, http://www.dennissevershouse.co.uk/the-tour/.

Living in the Past: The Heritage House Program at Strawbery Banke Museum

This week’s contribution comes from Emma Cook, who is in her second year in the Masters of Museum Studies/History program, and  is the Collections Department Intern at Strawbery Banke Museum in Portsmouth, NH. 

In a transitional world, museums face the pressures to stay relevant to society. Change has redefined the public’s idea of museum experiences and definitions of patriotism. Public demand has grown for museums to reinvent themselves in ways that will increase public engagement and relevance, while maintaining sustainability in historic preservation and financial affairs. Strawbery Banke has many traditions and has relied on many traditional practices, but the museum understands its need to adapt and remain flexible in an ever-changing society. What separates Strawbery Banke from other outdoor museums is its preservation of one of the oldest neighborhoods in urban America, spanning a lifetime of nearly four centuries that has been brought back to life by the museum and the city of Portsmouth, New Hampshire. The Heritage House Program creates the opportunity for community members to live and work within a historic American neighborhood, while providing financial sustainability in the preservation of its historic houses.

Strawbery Banke consists of 39 preserved historic buildings, with many on their original foundations. These historic houses interpret the past culture and lives of individuals who resided in Puddle Dock from the 1690s to the neighborhood’s decline in the 1950s. The Heritage House Program was designed to revitalize underutilized buildings on the Strawbery Banke Museum property for rental space and museum revenue. The program not only preserves the historic structures and restores them to a specific period in time; it provides residential and commercial space to the local community, and a substantial income for sustainable pursuits. The Heritage House Program contains 15 buildings that, when completed, will provide contemporary residential apartments and offices. So far there are seven completed apartments and six buildings containing 31 offices. The work is funded by individuals, corporations, grants, and in-kind contributions with a percentage of the annual rental income from each unit reserved for the preservation fund to ensure continued maintenance and funding for all historic houses on the museum campus.

Presently, the Penhallow House is in the workings of a complete restoration with Heritage House Program funding. This historic house is a site on the Portsmouth Black Heritage Trail and the only “saltbox” house remaining at Strawbery Banke Museum. Further planning and communications are underway in developing the future role of this historic house at Strawbery Banke Museum.

Since its rescue from the 1950s city renewal projects, the Strawbery Banke Museum has not only found control of its own site and economy, but also shared authority with its community and city history. The vast changes in the museum’s look, function, and internal structure, over the years since its establishment in 1978, demonstrate an ever-changing dynamic of a reinventing museum. The ability to not only find funding through modifying excess space, but also including the community to utilize this space, is a unique strategy worth learning from, as the Heritage House Program exemplifies historic preservation with an outcome of community inclusion through rental space and revenue to support museum operations and exhibition space.

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