Small Museum, Big Experience

November 26, 2013
BY Melissa Gerr
Key to survival is creativity, change and staying relevant
The Jewish Museum of Maryland (above) and the Reginald F. Lewis Museum are among a cohort of smaller museums striving to stay agile by offering innovative programming. (Melissa Gerr)

The Jewish Museum of Maryland (above) and the Reginald F. Lewis Museum are among a cohort of smaller museums striving to stay agile by offering innovative programming.
(Photos by Melissa Gerr)

During any economic downturn, philanthropy and government funding for arts and culture contracts. For smaller museums, which already face challenges in remaining visible and relevant enough to attract adequate visitors, shrinking resources become even more impactful.

According to national museum experts, and a multitude of media reports about struggling centers of arts and cultures (including those in this region), even without a downturn, many smaller museums still struggle with the same issues. The ones that survive — and thrive — are those that stay agile and work to create inventive programming.

“For a smaller museum, you have to spend more energy making sure you’re on the map, sometimes literally getting on people’s radar screen,” noted Marvin Pinkert, director of the Jewish Museum of Maryland. “But smaller museums have a better opportunity to take risks and innovate.”

112913-Small-Museum-Big-Experience2In his 16 months as director, Pinkert has taken creative risks. For example, in collaboration with the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History & Culture, he and its director, Skipp Sanders, have created events surrounding superheroes — real and imagined — and invited visitors to draw comparisons between the Lewis Museum’s exhibit on African-American hero illustrations by Brian Collier and the JMM’s exhibit Zap! Pow! Bam! of comic-book heroes by Jewish artists. They’ve also offered events comparing the similarities and differences of Sabbath meals such as Shabbat and Sunday dinners.

It’s worked well, Pinkert said, noting that the museum goes to great lengths to be in touch with its constituency. Being smaller, he said, it can more nimbly respond to the desires — and shifts — of its audience.

Does it work?

According to Heidi Glatfelter, who serves as administrator for the Greater Baltimore History Alliance, offering programming, lectures, family days and behind-the-scenes tours make people return.

“Some places experiment by offering other popular interests and weaving them into the museum experience, such as photography,” said Glatfelter. “The museum offers a class on photography; then you get to photograph around the museum.”

Tamara Heimmerlein, chair of the American Alliance of Museums’ small museum administrator committee, also emphasized the need for small museums to think creatively in order to remain relevant.

“If you can’t change your exhibit, change the way you ask people to view your exhibit,” said Heimmerlein. “You have to learn to change. You have to learn how to look at your exhibits and look at the things you can change, point out the different themes. Museums are working on this.”

“What I run into all the time is, ‘I’ve seen the stuff,’ ‘I’ll come back when you have new stuff,’” said Sanders. “But museums now are so much more than being repositories for ‘stuff.’ They’re telling angles of the stories that you haven’t heard, the back stories [of] how incidents affected very ordinary people.”

Ordinary people, just like the visitors who fill the galleries.

Hearing a compelling story is where a powerful connection can happen for a visitor, and personal storytelling has surfaced as another nationwide trend. People respond to stories because it’s a learned childhood activity, and the shared listening experience translates across all cultures. A story more directly connects a visitor to the exhibit’s time period, event or personalities than a long list of facts and dates.

A volunteer force is crucial, and even tapping that resource reflects a change in behavior for many small museums.

“Retirees are working until they’re older so there is less time they have to offer,” said Heimmerlein. “More women are busy working and prefer evening hours. And instead of asking them whether they can be here Tuesdays from 1 to 5 p.m., we’re learning how to ask for volunteers on a per-project basis. More common is someone saying, ‘I want to do marketing; can I help with that?’”

Those volunteers make a difference, both in terms of human resources and in helping a small museum embed into a community. Small museums do that better than larger museums, and being perceived by one’s constituency as part of the thread of the community gives the small museum an edge.

“One of the things is that folks feel as if the smaller museums in their area are more accessible,” said Heimmerlein. “They feel more comfortable there, they don’t have to drive long distances … it’s just down the street. Because smaller museums are in smaller spaces, they don’t feel as intimidating. They can be really good entryways into what a museum is and what a museum does.”

And in 2013 — a continuing era of information overload and accessibility (any image, video, research paper can be found on the web) — the need to demonstrate the value of the in-person experience is significant.

What does that look like?

“What museums do is provide the spark, the information,” said Pinkert. “The power of real things and the power of experience, they cause people to want to know more [and] to be curious to explore. And that to me is what makes museums powerful.”

Melissa Gerr is JT senior staff reporter and digital media editor —