Monday, March 14, 2011

SMA and Museums Count!

SMA participated in the IMLS/AAM Museums Count surveys by filling out questionnaires, examining previous survey efforts, taking part in brain storming meetings and reviewing drafts of questions.  It is important to note that the Museum County census is truly aimed at attempting to identify all museums in America . This will help museums’ case that we deserve and need critical funding that will enhance our efforts to collect, preserve and display our shared cultural and environmental heritage; in the end, there is only so long that any of us can continue to do more with less.  In addition, SMA was an active participant to ensure that issues critical to small museums were included in the survey and that the survey would be designed with small museums in mind. - Mike DiPaolo, SMA Board President

(From AASLH's Dispatch): 

Last fall, the Institute of Museum and Library Services anounced a contract with The White Oak Institute and the American Association of Museums to develop a web-based census of museums in America , including standard data definitions and the collection of baseline data. I was delighted to be invited to participate on a panel of expert reviewers to help with the project, known as Museums Count. To date we have worked via snail-mail, email, Wiki, and at a recent convening held in Washington , DC .

“To be successful, this effort must engage a broad cross section of museums and provide useful data for practioners, the public, researchers, and policy makers,” said Susan Hildreth, director of IMLS. “Museums Count is an important step toward building a stonger evidence-based story about the integral role museums play in urban and rural communities across the United States .”

Developing a census of history museums is a tough nut to crack for a variety of reasons. First, there are a lot of them. Next, some very small, all-volunteer history museums are not on the radar screen for any of us, including state museum associations. Then there’s the issue of how to define a museum. IMLS authorization has a paragraph that defines a museum (see Sec. 9172. Definitions), then for granting purposes IMLS breaks it down even further to say that a museum must be open to the public a minimum of 120 hours a year.

AASLH has gone round and round for years trying to figure out how to afford to conduct a census of history organizations (not necessarily museums). We even applied for funding to IMLS and NEH, but the project was so large and complicated it didn’t receive funding. This time, with IMLS as a full partner in the project rather than acting as prospetive grantor, I believe developing a census of museums has a real shot.

Developing standard data definitions and collecting data is no walk in the park. The Museums Count panel of experts is making great headway on the data definitions. We haven’t, however, found the magic bullet that will ensure museums complete the data survey and keep it up to date.

The amount of information known about history museums in America is embarrasing. No other segment of the museum community has the problem—why is that? The answer has two parts. First, segments such as children’s museums and science centers are pretty small. It’s a lot easier for their associations to pick up the phone and retrieve data when a few museums simply don’t respond to surveys. Art museums have a different solution —money. There are a lot of art museums, no doubt. But unlike with history museums, states have a real incentive to collect data on art museums because of the federal-state partnership grants that flow from the National Endowment for the Arts. As I always say, when money flows down, data runs up. Does this ring a bell? AASLH and others have been working for years to establish federal-state partnership grants within IMLS, and have made some headway and you can read more on our website

Kudos to IMLS, et al. for this much-needed project. Its success is really up to you. When you get the call from AASLH or IMLS, I beg you to go directly to your computer and complete the data survey. It won’t happen for quite a while, so don’t get too excited. And I know you get lots and lots of surveys. But your participation will be essential if you want good benchmarks, or to be able to respond when a Congressman asks how many people are employed by history museums (or all museums), or when a foundation wants to know how many school children are impacted by museums, or when one of your family members asks how many museums there are in America.

As is true with most things in life, it’s only as good as you make it! Please, help us make the Museums Count data the best that it can be. After all, without data—museums don’t count!

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