Now that I’ve been here at my museum job a couple of months, I’ve started to realize just how much work lies ahead. I was lured here to a small local history museum with the promise of what’s to come, the vision that strategic planning was well underway and that plans were being laid to get us from Point A to Point B – from a museum that presents outdated (and just plain inaccurate) history to one that will become a place for people to explore this region’s diverse peoples, cultures, stories, and communities. But now that I’m here, it’s clear that I stand on the edge of a vast chasm between where we are now and where we want to be. It’s hard to see how we can manage to raise the funds needed to completely overhaul all of the exhibits, expand our building with new construction, and become a “top tourist destination” (truly, that is an official strategic planning goal) when we rely on volunteers to kindly donate basic office supplies like pens and paper.
I wondered if the museum’s past could shed any light on this. Had the institution successfully overcome such daunting challenges in its past? The short answer: hell no!
I started my investigation by listening to volunteers. Some have been with the museum for over a decade and I learned a lot from talking with them. The biggest theme running through all of my conversations with them has been that they all long for the good ole days, the way the museum used to be. The way they described it, it was like where I stood was the site of a bomb blast and all I saw were charred remnants of what once was. It became clear that the museum they cherished had somehow changed dramatically, and they were skeptical of where the museum was going. While no one articulated exactly what had changed, or in what ways, I sensed that they felt that the museum had lost its way.
I wanted another point of view, so I went to the Boss. Her take helped shed light on specific events that rocked the institution. The museum always faced enormous financial hardship, but in the 1990s, things went from bad to worse. The museum’s then executive director wanted to spend his way out of irrelevancy. He took on a mountain of debt to finance a staff that grew to dozens, hired professional consultants for (incomplete) exhibit development and (poor) design, and boosted morale with extravagant staff happy hours, with the museum footing the bill. By the time of the executive director’s sudden death, all staff had been let go, and the museum was taken over full-time by unpaid volunteers. For years, these unpaid volunteers ran the museum and made enough headway on keeping collections agencies at bay that the board was finally able to hire a full time executive director (the Boss) in the mid-2000s. Since her start, the Boss has worked tirelessly to reduce the museum’s debt load, halting all purchases and expenditures save those deemed absolutely necessary. Which explains why we kept a wish list for basic office needs so that volunteers could provide our supplies, like paper for the copier and pens. And why the museum went 18 months as a staff of three before I was hired.
Things were getting clearer for me. The volunteers resented their loss of authority and power and felt displaced by paid staff after they had spent years running every aspect of the museum. The staff struggled to establish professionalism in a museum that had relied on well-meaning volunteers who, in reality, had no business running a museum. In an effort to re-draw boundary lines around responsibilities, tasks and duties that the volunteers had handled became staff-only and the staff began to exclude volunteers in strategic planning, branding, and institutional goals.
But things finally became clear to me after I stumbled on an institutional history of the museum. The museum was founded 80 years ago as a pet project by a woman who started a local Daughters of the American Revolution chapter. Her thinking was that any “real” American city should have a museum. While she meant well, she had no business running a museum. She ran off early supporters of the museum (who went on to found the Heard Museum) and struggled to garner financial and community support. She failed to establish a mission for the museum, and as a result, the museum never developed any identity or brand. At the same time, she wrote a museum charter that requires (to this day) that the museum maintain formal affiliation with the local DAR chapter. She failed to steer the museum in the right direction and ran it into the ground for 60 years before her daughter took over for the next 20 years, until the museum finally hired its first museum professional. It was run by professionals for only a few years before volunteers again had to pick up and dust off the flailing organization.
Is it any wonder that today the museum faces such enormous challenges? Today we want to escape the DAR image of celebratory Whitey history, a move that will alienate the very constituency that currently supports the museum. At the same time, the museum must escape this Whitey-centrist interpretation to gain any semblance of professional respect and to expand its base of support, increase its audiences, and be taken seriously. The stories that the volunteers hold dear are the very ones that construct this mythic narrative of conquering and “civilizing” the west. The museum that the staff envisions is miles away from the one that is, and the museum that the volunteers value is one whose time has passed.