Museum Studies at Tufts University

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What do free muffins and museums have in common?

I ask you, faithful readers: what do you think free muffins and museums have in common?

Your answer: both have an endowment.

At the Empire Grill in Skowhegan, Maine, one customer each day is given a free muffin before noon. Sure, you think – restaurants must comp food all the time. What makes this different?

In 2007, James Sham, a performance artist, was a student at the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture. He recognized that the diner was a community space where art students and locals were interacting, bringing together two seemingly disparate groups. He also recognized the power of an unexpected generous gesture, even a small one. So he led a fundraising campaign that eventually reached its goal of $9,000. Deposited in a savings account, that money earns $0.8 in interest each day – enough for one free muffin. He built a muffin endowment.

Most museums have endowments. Most are trying constantly to build them. Those funds are what keep the water flowing and the lights turned on. They have restricted funds for acquisitions, for education, for curatorial chairs. Some endowments are worth millions and millions of dollars.

James Sham was able to take a small, remote community, bring them together, raise the relatively tiny amount of $9,000, and he created something unique and special. Imagine what a museum could do along those lines. Could they endow one free admission each day, and celebrate the free attendee with fanfare? Could they surprise one child with a free toy from the gift shop? Could they give a free cup of coffee to their first five visitors each day?

These are objectively small things, but if they’re done right, then subjectively they can mean the world. I for one would always remember a place that placed a muffin on my plate and told me it was free, thanks to a community’s desire to make my day a little bit brighter.

The Empire Grill’s unique endowment was featured in Yankee Magazine‘s March/April 2010 issue. Sadly, the restaurant closed shortly after the magazine went to press.

Crowdsourcing History

Nice and timely, two very interesting and very different ways in which museums and archives are crowdsourcing their materials.

In case you’ve never heard of it, “crowdsourcing” is a term used to refer to the placement of a task – or more usually a very large series of tasks – in front of an audience, and asking that audience to complete the tasks. It’s used for commercial purposes in places such as Amazon’s Mechanical Turk software, in which users earn a few pennies per task.

More pertinently for us, it can be used with more intangible currency. Providing your audience (and the audience you didn’t know you had, thanks to the wonders of the World Wide Web) with small, engaging tasks akin to playing a game, with clearly defined benefits for the institution can pay off dividends in the long run. You’re giving your audience a stake in the project – a sense of ownership – and creating a sense of community. A really good crowdsourcing project harnesses all the flexibility and personal connections possible on the internet. (We talked a little bit about crowdsourcing in our posts about Historypin.)

Your first example is one featured on the Center for the Future of Museum’s blog: the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s Citizen History Project. Users are asked to help with a number of tasks, including tracking down children who went missing from the Lodz Ghetto in 1941.

Another project, and one that completely blows my mind, is the Ancient Lives project. Oxford University, the Egypt Exploration Society, and the University of Minnesota have teamed up to harness the power of internet users to help translate the Oxyrynchus Papyri. The most amazing part? They’ve managed to do so in a way that’s accessible to those among us who don’t read ancient Greek. The History Blog has a great overview of the process, so go, read up.

The Met and the Encyclopedic Museum

New York Times art critic Holland Cotter seems to be arguing for the death of the encylcopedic museum. What do you think?

Satire and the Museum

The always-interesting blog Asking Audiences, which is the voice of Slover-Linett Strategies, has a good response to the recent Onion article that cleverly (and painfully!) characterizes art museums as “art jails.”

The Onion’s art museum joke is worth taking seriously

Blue Avocado

Some thoughtful reading for you going into the weekend.

Blue Avocado is a very thoughtful newsletter/magazine/blog dedicated to solving issues in nonprofits. They tend to focus on “community organizations” but their advice is practical, timely, and spot-on for museums as well.

Enjoy, and hopefully you are all now craving guacamole right along with me…

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