Friday, July 31, 2009

Life in the Attic

A museum colleague passed on an email report about how the Ohio Historical Society has redefined itself in response to a 42% cut in state funding in the past two years. The key information in the report is this statement:

“In direct response to what the public has said they want the Ohio Historical Society to offer, the Society will be transforming the state history museum at the Ohio Historical Center to focus on collections learning. In studies that have taken place over the past three years, the public has said they want more direct access to the collections, more opportunities for hands-on experiences and ways to explore stories of interest to them using current technology and the resources of both the museum and library.

Plans call for public labs and workspaces in which activities that are usually carried out behind the scenes will be front and center. In addition, collections that are normally stored off-site will be brought to the facility for easy viewing. A distance learning studio, spaces for new exhibitions and technology enhancements are also among the innovations under development.

“The collections learning center will be created in phases, beginning with the removal of current exhibits, many of which are more than 20 years old. Development and implementation of the first phase is scheduled to begin in January 2010. OHS Director Bill Laidlaw was quoted as saying, "the collections-learning-center concept will help make Ohio's story personally relevant and engaging to today's audiences. We will be creating more exhibitions and programs for traveling to OHS sites, libraries, historical societies, community centers and other museums across the state. In this way, we are redefining the concept of 'state museum.' We will be a museum with a presence all over the state-not just in Columbus."

I have added boldface to the report I received. Reporter Tim Feran, in a July 24 blog for the Cleveland Plain Dealer, used the well-chosen word, “attic,” to describe the collection of the Ohio Historical Society: With 2 million objects in a wide-ranging collection, the society is known as "Ohio's Attic." That characterization is followed in the blog by a direct quote from OHS Director, Bill Laidlaw, "We have to protect the collections first. That's why we were founded. We would never sell anything to cover basic operating costs. Never have, never will. If you lose it, it's gone forever."

I gather that the state historical society is saddled with an ungainly mission. Although it has existed since 1885, it has been charged with the management of a network of local historic sites. For the past 50 years it has also been designated as the archive for the state’s three branches of government. Apparently, it serves a large number of people interested in genealogy, too. This “mission creep” is a familiar feature of historical organizations large and small. The financial difficulties of the Ohio Historical Society provide a case-in-point. The organization has to redefine its mode of operations to use much less money and have a much more compelling effect on its visitors/clients/users.

I can see in the quotations above a certain tension between an “object-centered” approach to museum management and a “learner-centered” approach. The fault of most mission statements in the nonprofit world is that they fail to talk about the nature of the transformation they cause within the served population. In the field of education, the key result of an organization’s activity is “enlarged intelligence.” Stewardship of intelligence is the primary function of education, and yet you won’t find it in the statement about “protecting the collections first.” You won’t find it in most museum mission statements.

Of course, anyone in Bill Laidlaw’s position must say that the collection won’t be auctioned off. There are a lot of people who believe that collecting and preserving objects is a complete and sufficient statement of the mission. "Collect and preserve;" it rings in my ear like a lead bell, I've seen it so often. Bill Laidlaw has to honor a swath of influential people who have not yet thought beyond "collect and preserve." Everyone in his position has to say what he said while doing everything in his power to enlarge the vision of what a museum’s true purpose might be.

The media want to spin the stories of big museums around the money theme. They take the easy way out. Money stories are easy. The reports talk about staff furloughs, reduced hours, etc. Laidlaw plays into the media’s chosen spin with a “protect the objects” refrain. He, or his PR person, should have played the unexpected “learner-centered” card.

If only he had spoken of a museum’s social function rather than its “collect and preserve” function, he could have made the kernel of the case for restoration of all that lost funding. Over $7 million is at stake! The money-winning function of a museum is to engage people in a richer story than they would ever devise on their own. The museum exists not for the sake of its objects, but for the sake of nurturing the intelligence of the population, no matter what the mission or the statutes say. People are not hungry for bigger and bigger attics. They do not mourn the loss of an attic, they just make another one and put it out of mind. They are hungry for meaning. In nonprofit life, money always follows meaning.

In some of the boldfaced passages above, you can see the public hunger for more interesting learning experiences in a museum. They want more hands-on experiences, more opportunities to explore stories of interest to them. But I am disheartened by what I read next. The response to the public’s desire for more engagement is to focus on the object-centered work the conservators do, to bring it “front and center.” They’re going to create a living exhibit of museum staff work!

People of good intent will differ on whether that is strategic thinking. I hope OHS reconsiders that idea. It looks to me like “see how interesting life is here in the attic?”

1 comment:

RobbieFish said...

I enjoyed your essay & agree for the most part. On the other hand, one of the reasons I think KCMO's "Steamship Arabia" is the most exciting museum I've ever visited is the fascinating way the story of the collection's discovery & preservation is integrated into the exhibit. It's not just old stuff, it's old stuff that has been transported through time by an extraordinary process that makes the whole experience that much more interesting.