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Why is Your Museum Small?

(psst…. don’t say lack of time or money)

by Carolyn Spears

Absolutely, without question, the Stone Fort Museum in Nacogdoches, Texas, is a small museum. Museum professionals (especially those of us working in small museums) spend a fair amount of time asking what makes a museum small.  What’s your budget? What’s your staff size? It’s not always easy to draw a line.  If we’ve learned anything about the definition of a small museum, it is that it’s relative.  Recently, I’ve become more interested in thinking about why.

Is the Stone Fort Museum a small museum because it is a reconstruction of a small historic house?  Yes, it is a small building, and yes, the structure has meaning for the town and region, but it is not, and never has, operated as a historic house museum. As a university-associated organization, it’s physically possible to relocate the museum’s teaching and collecting functions to a larger building, and thus abandon this small stone building.  As I said, the museum is a reconstruction – albeit an old one – so we could call the building quits and call it a campus folly. Why hasn’t that happened? It has never been proposed to my knowledge, and I have no interest in making that proposal.  Why?

I’m not trying to ask the obvious, even if I am. By asking why we’re a small museum, I’m focusing on strategic planning.  I don’t assume that because we are small that getting bigger is best direction. The question of size is neither an end in itself, nor a conviction of guilt.  But it may be a question that will help us build a future in which we grow even if we stay the same size.

Let us hear from you:

Why is your museum small? Are you a small museum that wants to be bigger? If so, how?

Will 'getting bigger' further the mission of your museum?  How?

If your museum grows in physical or fiscal size, what will you gain and what will you lose?


Nina Simon to speak at the SMAC-AAM Annual Luncheon

Executive Director of the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History @ McPherson Center, Nina Simon will present, “The Rise of the (Small) Community Museum” at the Small Museum Administrators Committee annual luncheon.  Author of, The Participatory Museum, and the blog, Museum 2.0, Nina has a history of visionary thinking about museums. Join us for a discussion of how small museums are positioned to lead powerful community engagement efforts.


Today is the Early Bird Registration deadline for the AAM Annual Meeting & MuseumExpo, May 18-21, in Seattle, WA.  If you haven’t registered yet, today is the day.  Once done, direct your mouse to the purchase tickets link at Purchase Tickets and get your tickets for the SMAC Evening Reception on Sunday, May 18th, 6:30–8:30p.m. at the Pacific Science Center, and the SMAC Business Meeting Luncheon on Monday, May 19th, 12:15-1:30p.m.

What does small really mean?

by Jason Illari


In 2004, I was fortunate to find a job working as curator and site manager at a historic house on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. I was the only employee- curator, site manager, tour guide, fundraiser- we all know what this is like. Lately though, I’ve been asking myself, “What does small really mean?” Within the context of museums, how do we use or define the word small- as a noun, verb or adjective? I looked up small as an adjective and, quite frankly, did not get warm and fuzzy feelings.  “Limited in importance, lacking influence, narrow in outlook.” Small as a noun you ask? - “a part that is smaller than the rest.”-not so bad...I guess.

Why discuss this topic? Perhaps it will help administrators of smaller institutions explore ways to celebrate the greatness and uniqueness of their own museum without insistently comparing their institutions with larger organizations. I call it “bigger museum syndrome”, a terrible affliction which is marked by such phrases as “oh we can’t do that because we are not so and so” or “if only we had so and so’s budget we would be able to do that.”  This kind of reasoning thwarts creativity and stymies planning.  Perhaps another reason to discuss what small really means is to help expose the disconnect which often exists between smaller institutions and the general public when we try to define what museums actually do and what role they play in our communities. Below, a quick story to help flesh out this point.

One day, while working at the house mentioned above, a very nice lady came to visit to drop off some items she wished to donate. I offered to carry the items from her van and quickly realized our collections committee was going to have their hands full determining whether or not to keep or return the objects being donated, as many were in terrible condition, broken, and not at all related to our mission. During my last trip to her van, I noticed a small original 18th century Windsor chair in perfect condition-beautifully carved and constructed- the real McCoy! As she approached the van I naively remarked, “well I’ll just grab the Windsor chair and we should be all done.” She looked at me quite bewildered and said “oh my word no...that chair belongs in a museum…”

The experience was a real eye-opener for me to say the least. So we may also ask, how do our visitors define or classify museums and what part can we play to help level the playing field? I think one way is to have confidence in our ability to provide excellent programming and exhibits no matter what our budget or staff size.

“Local”, “sustainable”, and “community-based” are some of the buzz words we hear today. Everywhere we turn we read about Main Street communities, local farmers markets, sustainable living and community supported agriculture, home-schooling and autonomous learning, co-ops, alternative public education models, and eco-tourism. Smaller museums are sitting pretty in the midst of all of these trends and activities. I think it’s time we “think big” and contemplate what small really means for our museums and also the museum field in general. 

SMAC wants to hear from you! How do you define small? What is your institution doing to take advantage of being smaller? Any other “big ideas” to share about this topic?

If you’d like to join in the discussion in a big way by posting an article here, contact blog moderator, Carolyn Spears, at stonefort@sfasu.edu

New SMAC Board

Congratulations to the newly elected Board of the Small Museum Administrators Committee of AAM!

Peggie Stromberg, Chair
Tamara Hemmerlein, Vice-Chair

Janice Klein, Program Chair
Carolyn Spears, Membership Chair

Jason Illari, Fellowship Chair
Keni Sturgeon, Secretary

These individuals were elected by SMAC members on April 30, 2012 at our annual Business Luncheon.  Terms of service will last until 2014. 
Thank you to all SMAC members who participated in the 2012 Annual Meeting in Minneapolis.  The Board looks forward to a productive year and seeing you at the 2013 Annual Meeting in Baltimore MD!

AAM Annual Meeting

Are you joining SMAC at the AAM Annual Meeting in Minneapolis? If so, please consider purchasing tickets for any of the following SMAC events! Tickets are on sale until March 30th

Sunday, April 29: SMAC/CurCom/Compt Joint Reception at the Goldstein Museum of Design
Monday, April 30: SMAC Business Luncheon
Tuesday, May 1: Small Museum Network Reception

Already registered for the meeting? Then follow these instructions to add events:
- Login to AAM Member Center at www.aam-us.org

- Select "Edit Account" then "Update Profile."

- Your profile page contains your contact information, membership status and committee information as well as any upcoming meetings you have registered for.

- Select "2012 AAM Annual Meeting and MuseumExpo" to view your registration information.

- Under the Events section, select "Add Events/Workshops."

- You will now be able to choose the events you would like to add to your registration and the quantity of tickets you would like to purchase.

- Once you have selected any events you’d like to add, select
“Proceed to Checkout” at the end of the list.

Museum Assessment Program Applications Due Soon!

Flavia Cigliano, Executive Director of the Nichols House Museum, has participated in the MAP program four times! She encourages you to apply now:

I noticed that the Museum Assessment Program (MAP) has another application deadline coming up, at the first of next month. I know I’ve been quoted as a strong supporter of MAP in many vehicles before, but I wanted to send one more personal message to small museums to consider a MAP application. It did wonders for our museum, the Nichols House in Boston.

We did our first MAP in 2000, and have done a total of four, the most recent in 2010. Our results speak to the value of the program.

Since that first MAP, we have been able to more than triple our staff, receive 4 grants from the IMLS ( 2 CPS; 2 MFA) 5 Preservation Assistance Grants from the NEH, and numerous grants from state agencies and private foundations when previously the Nichols House had received less than a handful. We have catalogued, digitized, and put on-line our entire collection (previously undocumented). With recommendations from our Institutional MAP, we developed our first strategic plan, setting the ground work for considered long term planning for the museum.

MAP is a marvel. It made us better stewards of the historic treasure we are charged with managing, made our board better able to fulfill their responsibilities, and made Nichols House a more important entity in the community. MAP helped make our museum investable. I cannot overestimate its impact on our museum.

The deadline is December 1, 2011.
To find application materials, go to:
http://www.aam-us.org/museumresources/map/apply.cfm