Wednesday, March 27, 2013

The Challenge of Small Museums

If you are a public historian or museum professional you might be interested in Geraldine Fabrikant's recent New York Times article on the ways small museums are trying to stay afloat.  Here is a taste:

ON a recent Sunday afternoon, 13 people gathered outside the Merchant’s House Museum on East Fourth Street in Manhattan. Each had paid $15 for a guided tour of the surrounding NoHo neighborhood, once a tony section of the city. Their guide: an expert from the museum. 

The neighborhood tour is just one of the ways the Merchant’s House’s longtime director, Pi Gardiner, has sought to raise funds and build audiences for the museum, housed in an elegant town house that belonged to the Seabury Tredwell family for three generations until 1933. 

The museum holds an annual Valentine’s Day concert of 19th century Romantic music, and Ms. Gardiner ran an annual New York City oyster festival until the city banned the sale of alcohol at street fairs some years back. “You can’t serve oysters with milk,” Ms. Gardiner said ruefully during an interview at the museum.

Ms. Gardiner’s efforts reflect the pressure that small museums are under to build attendance, especially in the fragile aftermath of the recession. From promotional efforts via Twitter to city walks, they are seeking to encourage what experts now call “museuming,” or spending time with an institution whether in person or online.

But the challenges are plentiful. “Some museums are owned by municipalities and counties, and sometimes that lower level of government is the first to cut spending,” said Michael DiPaolo, former president of the 500-member Small Museum Association and now executive director of the Lewes Historical Society in Delaware. “A museum is not as essential as trash collection or utilities.”