Last week the Virginia Association of Museums (VAM) held its annual conference at the Homestead Resort in Hot Springs, Virginia, and I was fortunate to be asked to speak at their historic house forum. It was my first time at their conference and I was so impressed by the quality of the sessions and the camaraderie of the participants. I wasn’t able to stop by every session, but I wanted to provide some highlights from a few I did attend.
The Nexus of Art and Science. Rebecca Kamen, professor of art at Northern Virginia Community College, talked about the ability of art to interpret historic scientific and medical collections found in museums and libraries. Rachel Carson’s The Sense of Wonder (1965) prompted her to work with such diverse institutions as the American Philosophical Society, Chemistry Museum, and the National Institutes of Health. A recent work, “Divining Nature: An Elemental Garden,” explores the orbital rotations of elements in the periodic table through sculptures. I’ve seen lots of examples of science being explained in new ways, but I’ve only encountered a few glimpses of it being done with history–anyone have any suggestions?
Using Social Media to Conduct Historical Research. Lynn Rainville, a professor at Sweet Briar College, discussed how she used Facebook, Tumblr, and other social media to study African American communities in a rural Virginia county. She’s been using these technologies to identify people in historic photographs, to reach people who are interested in the topic but don’t live locally, identify “mystery” objects, encourage family reunions, and to transcribe historic documents. Her session was packed with information but what stood out for me is:
- Be careful about offering services, such as genealogical research, because it can quickly overwhelm your capacity.
- Social media is time-consuming. To be effective, you need to both create content and respond.
- Research topics need to be focused. Not, “I am interested in old cemeteries” but “I am looking for information on antebellum graveyards in Virginia for both owners and slaves.”
- Do not use obscure or brand new technologies. Focus on technologies that are already actively used, such as Facebook and Tumblr.
The Future of Museum Funding. Gary Sandling of Monticello moderated a discussion with Susan Hildreth of IMLS and Ford Bell of AAM who both made the point that elected officials and foundations don’t understand the value of museums and either consider them to be non-essential luxuries or affluent institutions supported by middle-class taxes (so invite them to public events, not fundraising galas, to change their minds). Bell mentioned that while an unknown college is immediately associated with the broader field of higher education, museums are identified by their subject (e.g., science, art, and history), which dilutes their visibility. Hildreth suggested that museums need to emphasize their value and impact, not just their costs. Both urged the audience to emphasize compelling stories rather than statistics to convince the public of their value. Hildreth believes that federal funding for museums will be stable, but it’s far below what it was a decade ago. Although there’s not much support for “congressionally directed grants” (aka earmarks), they provided $15 million in funds for museums, which is significant when compared to IMLS’ $30 million budget. The trends we’ll need to watch most closely are revisions to the tax code that may affect charitable deductions and the growing popularity of “payments in lieu of taxes.”
Historic House Forum. After my presentation on the national trends, opportunities, and challenges facing historic house museums, Scott Harris of the James Monroe Museum facilitated a discussion with the audience. Among the issues raised were choosing between local or tourist audiences, the role of technology in interpretation, value of partnerships, the shift to rental income and its impact on mission, the decline of school field trips, and the potential formation of a statewide network. Interestingly, when Scott asked those in the audience about their recent operations, 50% experienced decline, 40% were holding steady, and 10% were improving, but few experienced reduced public hours or staffing.
In the last year I’ve attended lots of regional and national museum conferences, and they each have distinct personalities, which makes it great fun. At VAM, their dinner encourages black tie, and yes, about two dozen men had slipped on tuxedoes for the evening. This year’s conference was held at the Homestead, the venerable country resort, which offered tours of its historic facilities and a demonstration of falconry. VAM is one of the strongest statewide organizations I’ve encountered and its board and five staff members provide an amazing level of services both to museums and people who work at museums, including a certificate in museum management, a Ten Most Endangered Artifacts public awareness program, a circuit rider program that provides technical assistance to small museums, and discounts on various health benefits, including dental and prescriptions. Impressive! But VAM may be changing soon. Margo Carlock, who’s been the executive director of VAM for nearly twenty years, will be moving in May to Colorado to become the new executive director of the National Association for Interpretation. Congratulations to Margo and continued success to VAM as they seek a new executive director.