giovedì 16 febbraio 2012

In Praise of the Small Museum (Elogio del piccolo museo)

by Ron Chew

This article was published in Museum News, March/April 2002.

Riassunto in lingua italiana in fondo al testo originale

I love small museums. I love looking at old objects on display in sparsely populated galleries, where I don’t have to for the best viewing angle. I love engaging the front-desk volunteer in an extended conversation, getting lost amid the sometimes randomly assembled artifacts, and seeing “the fingerprints” of the institution’s staff and volunteers all over the exhibitions. A visit to a small museum can be an indescribably rich experience.

In the post-Sept. 11 environment, many museum-goers, seeking alternatives to the larger tourist-magnets, have joined me in rediscovering the charm and beauty of small museums. Why go afar—and endure the jitters of high security air travel—when there are interesting, unexplored museums, suitable for a family outing, just a car ride away.

In the post-Sept. 11 world, blockbuster exhibitions at big museums just don’t have the luster they once did. Exhibitions of Old Masters, hidden treasures, and artifacts from sunken ships seem repetitive and trite, the promise often not living up to the billing. For many museum visitors, the hefty ticket prices, long lines, and omnipresent security guards at those big shows make for a less than satisfactory experience.

At the small museum, there are no inflated expectations, no pretensions, and no awful waits. The exhibitions—exploring local themes, featuring the work of local artists—may be small and somewhat idiosyncratic, but they mirror the small, idiosyncratic world we know, close to home. These exhibitions have meaning and interest, even without the boost of the marketeer’s branding.

In recent years, many larger institutions, examining their relevance to a rapidly changing world, also have begun to look to smaller museums for examples of how to listen better to community constituents and engage them in the vital work of the institution. This is a happy trend. For years, small museums have been unfairly criticized for lack of professionalism and ignored by their peers—the opinion-shapers at larger, better-heeled institutions. “Operating a small museum is [different than] operating a big museum,” says Steve Olsen, assistant director at the Museum of Church History and Art, Salt Lake City. “There are qualitatively different approaches. There are remarkable innovations from small museums that large museums would do well to take heed of.”

According to Olsen, who is also an active member of the Western Museums Association, 75 percent of U.S. museums are small institutions with budgets under $250,000, usually staffed by volunteers or a couple of paid employees. “If you added up all the collections in the country, numerically, most of the artifacts would be found in small museums,” he says. “If we don’t help the small museums, we’re literally risking the fabric of our own heritage.”

The exact number of small museums is unknown; the count varies according to the source. There isn’t even agreement on what constitutes “small.” According to the AAM Small Museum Administrators Committee (SMAC), a small museum has a budget of less than $350,000. However, the federal Institute of Museum and Library Services sets the cut-off point at $250,000. Based on its own definition of what a museum is, AAM estimates that there are more than 8,200 museums in the country, a majority of which can be considered small.

In the opinion of Roger Lidman, director of the Pueblo Grande Museum in Phoenix, “AAM is not on small museums’ radar, and they are not on AAM’s radar.” He argues that there are nearly 16,000 museums in the country, most of which are small, far more than AAM accounts for. He bases this figure on a 1997 survey of state museum associations (summarized in a report that he co-authored called Are Museums Ready for the Year 2000, published by the Museum Association of Arizona).

Whatever the precise figure, it is clear that small museums are a significant force and help anchor the cultural life of communities across the country.

As a young boy, growing up in Seattle in the 1960s, I never had the opportunity to visit a museum. The schools never took us on museum field trips; my immigrant parents never did either. My first museum-going experience—in my teens—was to a tiny place: the Memory Lane Museum at the Seattle Goodwill store. While my parents picked through the second-hand goods, I roamed off to a back section, designated as a free museum. There, visitors could feast their eyes on hundreds of salvaged antiques, collectibles, and knick-knacks, crammed inside about a dozen large display cases, constructed with old windows from Seattle buildings. I moved among the cases for what seemed like several hours, spellbound, looking at old typewriters, model houses, baseball mitts, vacuum cleaners, suitcases, pennants, faded black-and-white photos, kitchen tins, model trucks, baskets, and toy robots.

The smell of the store—the odor of a musty attic, mingled with the smell of popcorn (there was a popcorn stand in the front of the store)—provided what we now, in museum lingo, would term a “multi-sensory experience.” The absence of explanatory label text diminished the bounty of the experience, but I couldn’t complain: admission was free. My mother had to shout loudly and repeatedly at me to get me to leave.

The visits to the Memory Lane Museum were, for me, the first opportunity to experience the special lure and awe of artifacts arranged for viewing pleasure in a museum. My youthful curiosity about what lay beyond the walls of my rather insular world—as well as my passion for small museums—was kindled forever in the modest setting. Over the years, I’ve visited dozens of little community museums, historical societies, college galleries, and public libraries, where I came to understand the particular skill and devotion of individuals who—without the lure of money—have made careers out of exhibition-making and caring for precious artifacts and documents.

Ten years ago, I became director of the Wing Luke Asian Museum, a small community-based institution rooted in a historically Asian-American neighborhood of Seattle. At that time the museum had three staff members and a budget of $150,000. Like the directors of other small institutions, I wore many hats. In addition to the usual managerial responsibilities of all museum directors, I also had the duties of the “small museum” director: I climbed a rickety ladder to change light bulbs, ran to the bathroom to unplug overflowing toilets, wrote label text minutes before the exhibition opening, led school tours, and sometimes staffed the front admission desk. Yes, I had the opportunity to taste, firsthand, the adrenaline-filled joys and agonies of working inside a small museum.

The Wing Luke is growing, and my responsibilities as director are evolving into new areas. But many other small museums have stayed the same size. It’s often not a bad choice. “Most small museums don’t want to be big museums,” says Janice Klein, director of the Mitchell Museum of the American Indian, a Chicago museum with significant Native American collections. Her institution, connected to a small college, has a budget of $150,000 and two staff members. “My current fear is that if we become better known—if we double or triple our visitorship—we’re in trouble,” she says. “The experience for visitors would be miserable.”

Klein also serves as the chair of SMAC. Like Olsen, she points out that small museums care for “irreplaceable” collections and adds that professional standards should be established for small museums that recognize the universe in which they operate. “Don’t make accreditation beyond the reach of the small museum,” says Klein. “You don’t want to give [me] pages and pages of ‘You have to do this.’ I might respond, ‘Yes, and I have to pay the electricity bill today, too. Do I want electricity or accreditation?’”

Most small museums run on such a tight shoestring that survival is a hand-to-mouth endeavor. Keeping regular public hours is a high hurdle. Many don’t have computers, much less e-mail or voice mail. Everyone does a little bit of everything, learning not from manuals but by looking over the shoulders of those who preceded them. Small museum staff don’t have time to dabble in the theoretical or the sublime. Just getting the job done is enough. Making time to travel to museum conferences for professional training, let alone visiting other small museums in the same region, is an unimaginable luxury.

Like Klein, Steve Anderson, supervisor of the Renton Historical Museum, Renton, Wash., a 5,000-square-foot museum in a former fire station, is part of a two-member staff. “It takes a schizoid person to do this kind of thing,” he says. “Here, you’re doing the policy stuff and the programming and the fund raising, but you’re also cleaning the toilets. And you’re trying to look several years down the road as well.”

Anderson, who has headed the museum for the past eight years, recently took over yet another responsibility—an additional job, really—as curator of collections, stepping in after the previous curator succumbed to a stroke. “How we often lose our staff at small museums is by death, stroke, and mental incapacitation,” he says. Another challenge is educating board members on how museums operate. Says Anderson: “I had one board member say to me, ‘Well, why don’t you accession all the items now? Then we’ll sort it out later and deaccession the stuff we don’t want.’ She didn’t realize the enormous amount of work that would involve.”

At the tiny (1,400 square feet with a budget under $100,000) Novato History Museum in California, Director Greta Brunschwyler struggles with similar board education issues. “Some of the older people, especially those who are collectors themselves, just don’t understand that we can’t keep everything,” she says. Her museum, which served as the home of the city’s first postmaster, once squeezed all its artifacts, related to the region’s agricultural and military history, on its walls. “I took one item down, a day at a time,” she says. “And believe it or not, board members actually thought there were more things on display because they could finally see what was on the walls.”

Like many small museum directors, Brunschwyler divides her professional career between two places: she works part-time at the museum and part-time as cultural arts supervisor for the city of Novato. She keeps the museum running with another part-time staff person and “30 really, really dedicated volunteers. . . . I’m happy if I’m making a little progress,” she says. “I have to remind myself from time to time that the collections will be there tomorrow.”

The Novato History Museum was founded in 1976, during the bicentennial fever that swept into the small towns of the United States. Like many of the small museums created in that period, Novato is grappling with life in the “post-founder” era. Brunschwyler is the second director in the life of the institution. “The founders did things their way,” she says. “Now we have to go in and keep the strong community roots, yet look at creating some standards and procedures. Last year, we did a complete inventory. Now we’re working on deaccessioning. Slowly, with some board turnover, people realize there are fund-raising responsibilities—that it’s not just a social club.”

While life at the small museum for those who work there every day is far from being a bed of roses, staff remain because the joys still outweigh the frustrations. They appreciate the closeness to visitors and community. The freedom from bureaucracy. Incredibly supportive volunteers. The flexibility to try out new ideas. The ability to, as one small museum director wryly put it, “actually see an idea come to fruition in your lifetime.”

Says Rebecca Snetselaar, interim director of the Mendocino County Museum, Willits, Calif.: “One of the rewards is that we get to be generalists. The whole staff gets involved in the full range of museum work. One of the best things that ever happened to me was visiting a much, much larger museum. Their budget was larger, but their problems were larger.”

At the Mendocino County Museum, which has an operating budget of $239,000, volunteers eagerly step forward in times of need. “If, for example, we have conservation needs,” says Snetselaar, “I know I could get on the phone and call someone to help out.” Brunschwyler puts it another way: “[In] a small museum, the volunteers know that if they don’t do it, it really won’t get done.”

At small museums “staff members treat the visitors almost more like friends,” says Janice Klein. “You get a much stronger sense of immediacy and why you’re doing it. At a big museum, you can arrive in the morning, take an elevator upstairs to your office . . . and take an elevator down at the end of the day and leave without making contact with visitors.”

At small museums, the development of a changing exhibition is an improvisational joy ride, fraught with nervous twists and turns. You’re never quite sure where you’ll land, never quite sure what you’ll finally assemble for display. Staff and volunteers dash through the research process, artifact gathering, writing, design, and fabrication, not necessarily in that sequence. Unlike larger museums, where the process is usually tidier, volunteers at small museums may emerge at any stage in the exhibition-making process—usually enriching the project, sometimes destabilizing it. Small museums rely on every low-cost, low-tech shortcut in the book, including reuse of panels, materials, and stock artifacts.

Occasionally, small museums will go all out and develop one ambitious signature exhibition. Last September, the Renton Historical Museum created “Century to Century,” an exhibition that marked the city’s 100-year history, decade-by-decade. Using the donated construction skills of retired Boeing employees, Steve Anderson was able to complete a $100,000 project using just $28,000. Centennial projects are a great way for small museums to “raise themselves up” and attract new audiences, but they also can be a source of great stress, Anderson says. “I was the designer, installer, curator, and painter. Over 250 people came to the opening, including the mayor. We made the city look great, but it killed us. I was exhausted.”

After the centennial opening, “we had people bringing incredible stuff out of their closets,” says Anderson. “But here I’ve already got 6,000 objects staring me in the face, saying, ‘Do me first.’ You’re trying to hold back the tide, but here’s all these little driblets.”

Describing the panicked frenzy of completing an exhibition, Klein says, “Half of my brain is working on public relations and the other half is working on creating the exhibition. I’m asking people to come to the museum, and yet I don’t have a clue whether there will be anything to see. Some people say, ‘Well, you could outsource it or get a consultant.’ That’s when you know they are speaking a different language.”

The Berman Museum of Art, Ursinus College, Pa., hosts 12 exhibitions a year. The offerings are closely linked to the curricula of instructors in specific departments of the school. “If there’s label copy, I’m lucky,” says Director and Curator Lisa Hanover. “For some exhibitions, we literally have just the identifying information and maybe a brochure with a few paragraphs of text. Unless we’re doing a tour, the viewing audience is left to do their own interpretation.” Hanover, who has been at the Berman Museum for 14 years, acknowledges that the institution “could do a better job of interpretation.” But with only three staff members, it’s hard. “It would be very refreshing to take a sabbatical,” she adds, which would provide an opportunity to focus on in-depth research.

Jacquiline Touba, executive director of the World Awareness Children’s Museum, Glens Falls, N.Y., operates out of 4,200 square feet on the third floor of an old YMCA building. She and others who work at children’s museums face the special challenge of maximizing the interactive appeal of displays for young audiences. This isn’t easy, given the $120,000 budget. The museum’s exhibition designer does all the research, creates the displays, and also serves as the educator, says Touba: “We stretch our dollars like you can’t believe. If we didn’t have so many voluntary services, we couldn’t manage. Unfortunately, one effect of Sept. 11 is that we’re not receiving anything from the state legislature, most probably for the next two years, because all the monies are being directed to New York City.”

Since Sept. 11, small museums, especially those that have thrived on strong grassroots ties, have become natural focal points for community groups struggling with issues of cross-cultural tolerance and seeking healing and reflection. Many have hosted soul-searching dialogues on recent events. For example, at the innovative Pratt Museum in Homer, Alaska, a series of monthly community conversations is part of a long-range strategy to develop topical, story-centered changing exhibitions in the institution’s galleries.

Betsy Webb, curator of collections and project manager for the Pratt’s master exhibition plan, says the first conversation, attended by 62 individuals out of a community of 4,200, focused on the local issue of vandalism. “This summer and fall, a lot of vandalism has been directed at public installations of art,” she said. “One idea is to do an exhibit on graffiti. We would exhibit objects in the gallery and put up scratch board and let the visitors interpret it.”

When Webb first arrived at the Pratt 10 years ago, she was surprised that visitors, especially kids, would “scratch out and correct label captions” in the 3,950-square-foot gallery. But she realizes now that “this demonstrates the high level of comfort that the community has with the institution.”

The Ak-Chin Him-Dak Museum and Archives in Arizona also has created meaningful programs by linking its work to the most pressing needs of its community, a Native American tribe on a reservation in a desert region 40 miles south of Phoenix. The 650-member tribe opened its 8,000-square-foot museum in 1991 as a voice and platform for community issues, not as a magnet for tourists. It operates as a department of the tribal government.

Recently, the Ak-Chin Museum created an exhibition on diabetes, an illness that affects many Ak-Chin tribal members. The display unfolded in two phases. In 2000, the focus was on the disease itself; in 2001, it was on prevention. “We did interviews with tribal members, with pictures and quotes underneath, to show people, especially our young people, that diabetes was something that was affecting people they knew,” says Elaine Peters, the museum’s director. “If you’ve lived here long enough, and this is my home, you become aware of what the community needs are, and you try to provide a direct voice for them.”

In this way, as a voice for their niche audiences and as a connecting point between generations, small museums reap their greatest triumphs. In rural towns, in inner city neighborhoods, on tribal lands, at colleges, in parks, these institutions empower their residents, reshape cultural understanding, and challenge us to look at ourselves in new ways. Small museums affirm the value and character of their communities. Their work has been done quietly, steadily, and honorably for many years.

How can the field-at-large help small museums? First we need to properly value their existence. This may be an appropriate time, with AAM’s current focus on “museums and communities,” to help resolve the undercount of small museums, especially since many of those institutions serve a vital community role.

Second, we should make greater efforts to welcome their staff members as colleagues and professionals. We should find ways to make it possible for them to participate at
museum conferences, including the AAM annual meeting, opening the door to greater cooperation between large and small institutions.

Third, we need to recognize the particular needs of small museums. Many of our finest small museums don’t have the resources to vie for accreditation, even though they may be stellar institutions. Small museums cry out for a set of simple, basic professional standards tailored to their functional needs.

Fourth, the funding community needs to allocate greater resources to support their survival. If small museums are caring for the majority of this nation’s artifacts, there must be a way to make more grants and technical expertise available to support their work.

Long-time small museum advocate Ellen Ferguson, director of community relations at the Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture, University of Washington, Seattle, acknowledges that this country has a variety of valuable museum advocacy groups, including AAM and regional and state associations. “But state associations really are the natural home for small museums and deserve support for the important frontline work they do,” says Ferguson, who also served as president of the Washington Museum Association. “They provide affordable, accessible annual meetings and hands-on workshops on topics such as conservation, registration, and simple exhibit techniques.”

Most small museums may operate beneath the national radar, but, says Ferguson, the “truly great thing about our profession is that for each of our institutions, there is a supportive place to belong.”

The Mendocino County Museum’s Snetselaar sums up the challenge for small museums in this way: “We take what we can get, but we don’t have all of what we need to get to where we need to go.” That may be true, but small museums go a long way on what little they’re given. With the support and encouragement of all of us, these institutions should be able to go a lot further, deepening the cultural fabric of our nation, community by community.

Ron Chew is executive director, Wing Luke Asian Museum, Seattle.

Riassunto in lingua italiana:

Elogio del piccolo museo

di Ron Chew*

Amo i piccoli musei. Mi piace guardare i vecchi oggetti esposti nelle sale quasi vuote, senza una particolare ricerca del miglior angolo visivo. Mi piace coinvolgere i volontari del museo in una lunga conversazione, perdermi in mezzo a insiemi di artefatti, a volte assemblati casualmente, e vedere "le impronte digitali" del personale e dei volontari del museo su tutte le vetrine. Una visita a un piccolo museo può essere un'esperienza incredibilmente ricca. Nell'America post 11 settembre molti frequentatori abituali di musei stanno cercando alternative ai grandi musei e questa nuova tendenza mi ha spinto a riscoprire il fascino e la bellezza dei piccoli musei. Perché andare lontano sopportando nervosismo e procedure di sicurezza molto rigide durante i viaggi, quando ci sono interessanti musei ancora inesplorati, adatti per una gita in famiglia? I visitatori non hanno un eccesso di aspettative nei confronti dei piccoli musei come avviene solitamente per un grande museo. Le mostre dei piccoli musei esplorano temi locali, per esempio il lavoro di artisti poco conosciuti che risiedono in quel luogo; artisti che possono essere a volte un po' stravaganti, ma che rispecchiano il nostro piccolo mondo, non lontano da casa. Queste mostre hanno un loro significato e un loro interesse, anche senza la spinta del branding e del marketing che caratterizza, invece, le grandi istituzioni culturali.
Negli ultimi anni, anche molte istituzioni museali più grandi, cercando di analizzare la loro effettiva rilevanza in un mondo in rapida evoluzione, hanno cominciato a guardare ai piccoli musei come esempio di come si possano ascoltare le esigenze della comunità e ci si possa impegnare in questoa direzione. Una missione che, in realtà, deve essere la principale aspirazione di ogni istituzione museale. 
Per anni i piccoli musei sono stati ignorati e ingiustamente criticati per la mancanza di professionalità. "La gestione di un piccolo museo ha un funzionamento diverso ripetto a un grande museo", dice Steve Olsen, assistente alla direzione del Museum of Church History and Art a Salt Lake City. "Ci sono approcci qualitativamente diversi. Ci sono anche notevoli innovazioni provenienti dai musei di piccole dimensioni cui i grandi musei farebbero bene a prestare attenzione." Secondo Olsen, che è anche un membro attivo della Western Museum Association, il 75% dei musei degli Stati Uniti appartiene a piccole istituzioni con un budget sotto i $ 250.000, e di solito sono gestiti da volontari o da un paio di salariati. "Se si sommano tutte le collezioni del paese, numericamente la maggior parte dei manufatti, delle opere artistiche e dei reperti antichi si trovano in musei di piccole dimensioni". E continua: "Se non aiutiamo i piccoli musei, rischiamo di perdere letteralmente il tessuto connettivo del nostro patrimonio culturale". Il numero esatto dei piccoli musei varia a seconda della fonte. Non c'è accordo nemmeno su quali musei possano essere definiti "piccoli." Secondo la AAM Small Museum Administrators Committee (SMAC), è un piccolo museo quello che dispone di un budget di meno di $ 350.000. Tuttavia, il Federal Institute of Museums and Federal Services imposta il limite a $ 250.000. Sulla base della definizione dell'​​AAM si stima che ci siano più di 8.200 musei nel Paese, la maggioranza dei quali può essere considerata piccola. Per altri sono molti di più.
Qualunque sia la cifra esatta, è chiaro che i musei di piccole dimensioni sono una forza significativa e possono contribuire a rafforzare la vita culturale delle comunità in tutto il paese. Essendo stato io un ragazzino cresciuto a Seattle nel 1960, non avevo mai avuto l'opportunità di visitare un museo. La scuola non aveva mai organizzato nessuna gita nei musei. I miei genitori immigrati, ugualmente, non hanno mai fatto nulla in questo senso. Il primo museo che ha fatto parte della mia esperienza di adolescente è stato un piccolo museo: il Memory Lane Museum presso il Seattle Goodwill Store. Mentre i miei genitori cercavano beni di seconda mano, io amavo girovagare in questo che era un museo gratuito. Qui i visitatori potevano rallegrarsi della vista di centinaia di oggetti d'antiquariato o provenienti da collezioni o recuperati ecc., stipati all'interno di circa una dozzina di espositori costruiti con vecchie finestre degli edifici di Seattle.
Le visite al Museo Memory Lane rappresentavano per me la prima opportunità di sperimentare il fascino speciale e il timore di osservare i manufatti esposti in un museo. La mia passione per i piccoli musei si accese da allora per sempre proprio in questo modesto contesto. Nel corso degli anni ho visitato decine di musei di piccole comunità, società storiche, gallerie universitarie e biblioteche pubbliche, e sono arrivato a comprendere la particolare abilità e la devozione di persone che, lavorando in questi ambiti senza alcun interesse economico, si sono dedicati alla cura di preziosi manufatti e documenti.

Dieci anni fa sono diventato direttore del Wing Luke Asian Museum, un piccolo museo legato a un'istituzione radicata in un quartiere storico asiatico-americano di Seattle. A quel tempo il museo aveva soltanto tre membri nel suo staff e un bilancio di $ 150.000. Come i direttori di altre piccole istituzioni ho dovuto assumere vari ruoli. Oltre alle consuete responsabilità gestionali di tutti i direttori di museo, ho dovuto svolgere anche i compiti che caratterizzano la direzione di "piccolo museo": sono salito su una scala traballante per cambiare lampadine, ho dovuto aggiustare i sanitari otturati dei bagni, scrivere un testo di una didascalia pochi minuti prima dell'inaugurazione di una mostra, occuparmi di visite scolastiche guidate e, talvolta, sostituire il personale alla reception. Sì, ho avuto l'opportunità di gustare, in prima persona, l'adrenalina della gioia e delle angosce del lavoro all'interno di un piccolo museo.

Il Wing Luke Asian Museum sta crescendo e, con esso, le mie responsabilità come direttore si stanno evolvendo, estendendosi a nuove aree. Tuttavia, molti altri piccoli musei hanno mantenuto le loro dimensioni. Non sempre è una scelta sbagliata. "I musei più piccoli non vogliono essere grandi musei", dice Janice Klein, direttore del Museo Mitchell of the American Idian, un museo di Chicago con importanti collezioni di nativi americani. La sua istituzione, collegata ad un piccolo college, ha un budget di 150.000 dollari e uno staff di due membri. "La mia paura attuale è che se diventeremo più conosciuti, se raddoppieremo o triplicheremo le visite, non sarebbe un fatto positivo", dice. "L'esperienza per i visitatori si impoverirebbe". 
I piccoli musei hanno anche molte difficoltà: è difficile mantenere orari di di apertura regolari. Molti non hanno un computer e tanto meno la possibilità di avere un indirizzo di posta elettronica o una segreteria telefonica. Chi lavora al suo interno fa un po' di tutto, imparando non dai manuali, ma dall'esperienza di coloro che li hanno preceduti. Il personale dei musei di piccole dimensioni non ha il tempo per dilettarsi nella teoria. Non c'è il tempo per recarsi a conferenze per la formazione professionale.

Tuttavia, se lavorare in un piccolo museo non è semplice, si può dire che le gioie siano ancora superiori alle frustrazioni. Si apprezzano soprattutto la vicinanza ai visitatori e alla comunità, la libertà dalla burocrazia, l'apporto dei volontari, la flessibilità di sperimentare nuove idee, la capacità (come un direttore di un piccolo museo ha detto ironicamente) "di vedere veramente un'idea giungere a buon fine nella tua vita". Rebecca Snetselaar, direttore ad interim del Mendocino County Museum, a Willits, in California ha commentato: "Uno dei vantaggi è che si arriva ad essere generalisti. Tutto il personale viene coinvolto in una gamma completa di lavori museali. (...) I musei più grandi hanno un budget più grande, ma anche i loro problemi sono più grandi."

"I membri dello staff dei piccoli musei posono trattare i visitatori quasi come amici", dice Janice Klein. "(...) In un grande museo, si arriva al mattino, si prende un ascensore per salire in termine della giornata si riprende l'ascensore e si esce dal museo senza aver avuto nessun contatto con i visitatori."

Come si è detto, dopo l'11 settembre, i piccoli musei sono diventati dei punti focali per le comunità, le quali devono confrontarsi con il multiculturalismo, la tolleranza, la ricerca della guarigione dell'anima e la riflessione. Molti picoli musei hanno sollecitato un dialogo sulla ricerca interiore. In questo modo, essi sono diventati gli interpreti e la voce delle piccole comunità, ma anche un punto di collegamento tra le generazioni, e in ciò essi raggiungono il maggior successo della loro missione. Nelle città rurali, nei quartieri del centro urbano, nelle terre tribali, nelle università, nei parchi, queste istituzioni rafforzano l'identità dei loro residenti, rimodellano la comprensione culturale e ci sfidano a guardare in noi stessi in modo nuovo. I piccoli musei affermano il valore e il carattere delle loro comunità. Il loro lavoro è fatto in silenzio ma è costante e onorevole nel tempo.

Abbiamo bisogno di valorizzare adeguatamente la realtà dei piccoli musei. Questo può essere un momento opportuno, grazie alla particolare attenzione dell'AAM (American Association of Museums) per i musei e le loro comunità, cercando di superare quella sottostima che si ha ancora, in generale, nei riguardi dei piccoli musei.

In secondo luogo, dobbiamo compiere maggiori sforzi affinché i professionisti museali che lavorano nelle grandi istituzioni riconoscano come colleghi coloro che lavorano nei piccoli musei. Dovremmo trovare il modo per favorire la partecipazione dei responsabili e del personale dei piccoli musei alle conferenze importanti come il meeting annuale di AAM, aprendo la porta ad una maggiore cooperazione tra le istituzioni grandi e piccole.

In terzo luogo, dobbiamo riconoscere le particolari esigenze dei piccoli musei. Molti dei nostri più bei musei di piccole dimensioni non hanno le risorse per ottenere l'accreditamento, anche se possono essere istituzioni validissime. I piccoli musei chiedono una serie di semplici norme professionali di base adeguate alle loro esigenze funzionali.

In quarto luogo, i finanziatori devono stanziare maggiori risorse per sostenere la sopravvivenza dei piccoli musei. Se i piccoli musei si prendono cura della maggior parte dei manufatti di questa nazione, ci deve essere un modo per offrire più finanziamenti e per mettere più competenze tecniche a loro disposizione per sostenerne il lavoro.

Già da tempo l'avvocato di un piccolo museo, Ellen Ferguson, direttore delle relazioni con la comunità del Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture della University of Washington, Seattle, riconosce che questo paese ha una varietà di gruppi e associazioni a difesa dei preziosi musei, comprese le associazioni AAM e quelle regionali e statali. "Ma le associazioni statali, in realtà, sono il punto di riferimento naturale dei piccoli musei che meritano sostegno per l'importante lavoro che fanno in prima linea", afferma la Ferguson, che è stata anche presidente della Washington Museum Association. "Essi forniscono, a prezzi accessibili, incontri annuali e workshops su temi come la conservazione, la movimentazione e le tecniche espositive semplici."
I musei più piccoli possono operare sotto il controllo nazionale, ma, dice la Ferguson, "la cosa veramente importante della nostra professione è essere consapevoli che  dietro ogni piccolo museo c'è un territorio e una comunità di appartenenza."

* direttore esecutivo del Wing Luke Asian Museum, Seattle.

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