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


  1. Well, I would agree staff often have big ideas, but we do defeat ourselves by thinking small...and even if we don't we often find that our boards do.

  2. My first directorship was at a smaller museum with fewer than 10 staff members. We had a superb collection of Native and Hispanic arts and a creative staff; the result was that we had an impact on visitors to the American Southwest that was much greater than our size would have suggested. Our internal motto was "Anthropology with style, Art History with substance" and if we could dream it and fund it we could do it, without lots of committee meetings and time spent building consensus among entrenched staff members. And, over time we became very competitive for state and federal program grants and corporate contributions as well.

    Later, when I was responsible for larger museums with 50-75 staff members and hundreds of volunteers, the need for constant fund raising and the distance that delegation of program responsibility required took quite a bit of the joy out of my museum work. Smaller museums are really in an enviable position compared to larger ones, where expectations can be quite a bit higher and aren't always reasonable. "Small" can be a state of mind that is used as an excuse for not trying so hard. Some of the best institutions in the US are smaller ones.

    Creativity and hard work are the requirements, freedom to innovate and the pleasure of personal involvement are the rewards!

    1. Well said, Art. The "largest" museum I've directed had 25 staff members and "smallest" had 3. I prefer the smaller because you have the time to stay in touch with the collection, the visitors and the volunteers.

  3. One unexamined aspect of this issue is the fact that the American Alliance of Museums–in one highly significant sense–makes absolutely no distinction between levels of capacity among museums.

    The AAM definition of standards for example reads: “Standards are generally accepted levels of attainment that all museums are expected to achieve”[no emphasis possible here for the last 6 words] (American Alliance of Museums 2013).

    Wow! Read that definition again.

    Think about the massive body of standards that the AAM promotes and consider the tremendously wide variety of capacities among all museum institutions!

    If an institution does not have the capacity to meet a particular standard, does that mean it is not a “museum?”

    If so, maybe we have many fewer museums than we thought.

    Indeed, perhaps we have no museums at all–small or otherwise.

    Surely, we must make distinctions among the various levels of capacities and we should stop expecting that all museums [emphasis added] will meet a particular standard.

    How about using the term “capacity 1, 2, 3, 4" institution" [abbreviated as cap 1 or c.1]. The numeral 1 should identify those institutions that are just beginning to build their capacity.

    References Cited:

    American Alliance of Museums, Standards and Best Practices, http://www.aam-us.org/resources/ethics-standards-and-best-practices/standards (accessed 3 August 2013)

  4. Excellent topic, Jason!

    I had a similar experience recently when attending a workshop at a larger institution nearby. Running into a historic-site peer on my way into the workshop, I commented on how nice it was to get off site for a few hours.

    She responded by saying how refreshing it was to spend some time in a "real museum."

    I almost fell over! Is my historic site--which has been open to the public in Georgetown for over 80 years--not a "real" museum? What is it then? A "fake" museum?

  5. We too have a confusion with the term 'Small Museum'. Does it refer to staff? We have 2 people that do everything, so then yes we are small. Does it mean facilities? We have 7 buildings, so maybe we are big. Does it mean drive to provide a quality program and connect with as many community members as possible? Then I guess that would make us huge! Sometimes I find that being small just means working harder to provide the quality and sometimes quantity that visitors come to expect from the word museum. Maybe size is a state of mind, as long as you don't let it damper your drive.

  6. I was pondering Jason's post, so I wrote a post for the AASLH Small Museums Online Community about it: http://www.smallmuseumcommunity.org/blog/2013/08/taking-%E2%80%9Csmall%E2%80%9D-seriously/.

    But Jason's response there about whether or not it is time to "rebrand" small museums with a less pejorative word is an interesting one.

    Words have an much power as each individual let's them have - but a brand is something that could really stick.

    We might end up dividing the current small museum community further - into the specialized museums (those of a specific interest, like ophthalmology, for example, that goes beyond geography) and those local or community-based museums that are very dependent on geography for their identity.

    And is that desirable or not?


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