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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