Museums of the Future: Part 2

Community engagement is essential to long-term success

After I wrote this post, I realized it was very similar in theme to a previous post inspired by a Q&A with museum professionals in London, Ontario – hence the title “Museums of the Future: Part 2.” However, this post does not follow directly from the first and can be read without having seen Part 1.

MS Norgoma

The Norgoma docked at the St. Mary’s River. From sootoday.com.

If you have ever been to my home town of Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, you have likely spent some time near the St. Mary’s River. A short walk along the riverfront is all you need to reach the Norgoma. This ship used to be one of several passenger and freight carriers that travelled between Owen Sound and Sault Ste. Marie. For decades this was the only method of travel between Eastern and Western Ontario, making the ships instrumental in the development of Ontario’s rural communities. Retired in 1963, the Norgoma is the last surviving example of these ships. It has been a floating museum since 1977 and offers tours, exhibits, and rental spaces.

Three days ago I watched a news report stating that the City of Sault Ste. Marie is no longer prepared to sustain the long-term activity of this museum ship. After the end of the upcoming tourist season, if the institution cannot prove its future viability, the City will cut off its funding, the museum will be shut down and the ship will be dismantled. The Norgoma staff and volunteers will have a lot of work to do in 2014 if they want to keep the museum open for years to come.

Such stories have become the norm for museums the world over. It’s no secret that governments are increasingly requiring museums and cultural heritage institutions to take on more responsibility for sustaining their activities and generating their own revenue. Whether we like it or not, the world of museums is in a transitional stage.

But is this really such a bad thing?

Of course I’m no fan of cutbacks, and I certainly don’t like to see services removed, admissions prices raised, or museums closed. Furthermore, I do believe that cultural heritage is something worthy of government spending. But it also strikes me that there’s no better time than now, when cultural institutions are under more scrutiny than ever, for public historians and museum professionals to make changes for the better – and that is something to be excited about.

In the face of challenges, cultural institutions are being prompted to take stock and re-evaluate their approaches to every aspect of their operations. One thing that has become clear: the new museum cannot afford to assume that its continued operation is justified solely by its existence, its collection, or its exhibits. These things are all important, but it is dangerous to think that their importance is self-evident. People need to know why it’s worthwhile for them to notice a cultural institution when so many other things are vying for their attention and time.

In short, public service and outreach are as important to a museum mandate as exhibitions and collections. Without the public, there is no reason for cultural heritage institutions to exist. I believe that the museums which will succeed in the future are going to be characterized by how they act on this fact. If public interest in your organization is flagging, it’s time to do some serious introspection. Can you demonstrate your museum’s positive impact on the community? What will be lost if your museum closes? When was the last time the public was consulted on a new program or exhibit? When was the last time you reviewed your mission statement, vision statement or mandate? How has the community and its needs changed since then? What portions of the community are you neglecting? Is it time to rehash your strategic plan? Diversify your Board? Transform your branding? Create a new collections policy? What about the way your messages are being conveyed – are they narrated in such a way that anyone wants to hear them? Effective education does not occur in places where people are bored, confused, or (in the worst case scenario) offended. Do your programs and exhibitions spoonfeed a curator’s interpretation to visitors, or do they offer opportunities for visitors to engage with the past and construct their own meanings? Is your museum a shrine to dead artifacts or an exploration of living stories and memory? How are volunteers being recruited? And when was the last time anyone evaluated the museum’s social media or website? (I can’t stress enough how vital it is to keep your online presence active, current, and relevant to your audience – for many people, the virtual side of the museum is going to be the very first contact they have with your institution. Make it something they’ll remember, in a good way.) Museums need to engage people in every aspect of its operation, whether this is through programs, exhibits, online, special events, or branding.

I won’t attempt here to predict the fate of the Norgoma. However, I do believe that in the current state of declining government funding, the only way public museums – especially small museums – can move forward with confidence is if they have strong public support behind them. For this reason, I think that the future of cultural heritage is bright. While it may be a struggle to identify and implement the changes needed to maintain public support, I am optimistic that museum professionals will rise to the challenge – and that our country’s cultural heritage institutions will be better for it.

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