WORTH A THOUSAND
OPINION & OPPORTUNITY
Thankful for small museums like the Baker Heritage Museum
By Frederick A. Johnsen
On a recent museum-hopping trip, I paused at the Baker Heritage Museum in Baker City, Ore. Located in a re-purposed 1921 municipal swimming pool and community center building, the museum is the result of a last-minute intervention in the 1970s by the Baker County Historical Society to save the structure, which had become an abandoned eyesore and was earmarked for demolition.
Often the use of an existing facility is a financial necessity, more than a choice, for a museum. The city leased the old natatorium building to the historical society at no charge, providing the society would establish and operate a museum in it. The result is a series of galleries depicting everything from phosphorescent glow-in-the-dark minerals to vintage local stagecoaches, wildlife dioramas, and antiquities that once animated life in this part of Oregon.
Two things quickly became apparent during my visit: The small staff and crew of volunteers have a joyful passion for telling the region's history that is transmitted to visitors, and, they are doing this without a lot of high-tech, high-dollar exhibit hardware.
The Baker Heritage Museum exemplifies the joy of museums, pure and simple. Its displays and dioramas are evidence that much learning and enjoyment can be had in smaller museums in smaller communities. My visit reminded me not to overlook museums such as this one on my cross-country travels.
The Baker Heritage Museum strives to do things right. The museum is supported by a non-profit foundation. A brief history brochure of the museum says: "The creation, support and continued volunteer effort on behalf of this Museum shows a dedication and determination by the people of Baker City to make a unique history available to the public in perpetuity." That is profoundly simple, and simply profound -- when perpetuity is a stated goal, outcomes can be shaped to facilitate that.
It was my pleasure to meet museum assistant Kathleen Martin, who told me about ongoing efforts to enhance the environmental conditions in the museum --
another encouraging signal that the folks at the Baker Heritage Museum have their eye on the ball as they develop and operate this historical facility and care for the conservation of its collections.
I can't wait for my next road trip, when I plan to sample more local museums in other regions of the United States. See you there...
What defines a museum?
By Frederick A. Johnsen
A succinct definition of what constitutes a museum is as elusive as the end of the rainbow, and may never get universal buy-in. Some museum professionals note with a sigh that “anyone who has ever visited a museum thinks they know how to run a museum”.
The word, “museum” is bandied casually to conjure everything from a private individual’s collection of arcane stuff that is seldom seen by the public, all the way up to the methodical and wonderfully focused collections and themes of major institutions like the Smithsonian complex.
For decades, museum professionals have delved into ways to harness technology and entertainment in an effort to engage the interest and participation of diverse audiences. Although static collections of interpreted artifacts are still central to a museum's rationale, the modern museum offers more -- classroom experiments, museum sleepovers, flight simulators, special events, distance-learning, living history re-enactments, or other participatory opportunities for visitors.
Perhaps the best arbiter of the definition of “museum” is museologist G. Ellis Burcaw. He wrote the book, literally, that defines museums, and informs museum professionals. His Introduction to Museum Work (AltaMira Press, an American Association for State and Local History Series Book) is a thoughtful guide that threads its way through pitfalls and pinnacles of museum experiences. Burcaw’s observations steer the reader to a greater understanding of the obligations and the opportunities museums can offer society. His conclusions can alternately confirm and challenge the reader’s preconceived notions.
It’s an outstanding read not only for museum professionals, but for dedicated museum visitors, supporting board members, and volunteer docents as well. Burcaw, and others in the museum profession, argue that to be a genuine museum requires a deliberate and disciplined collection of material items that can be used to impart educational, entertainment, and emotional value to visitors.
Furthermore, that collection and its physical environment need to be enshrined and endowed in perpetuity. If we’re not in it for the long haul, we’re not really a museum.
While some museums, particularly of national or international significance, may aspire to preserve one-of-everything in a particular discipline, the professional staffs of most smaller museums know they can never afford to have, or care for, “everything”. Hence, museum directors and curators become masters of using well-placed iconic examples to tell their stories, and they don’t lose sleep over not having all 231 variations of sturmstrudel speed blimps when they have just one that can tell the story admirably.
A good museum has a succinct theme and story line that informs its collection policy and keeps it disciplined. Benefits are two-fold: the public gets a coherent presentation free from extraneous and confusing clutter, and the always cash-strapped museum doesn’t obligate itself to the perpetual care of items it doesn’t need.
If this article piques your interest, please consider reading Ellis Burcaw’s eloquent book. And enjoy your next visit to a museum with a new set of expectations and understanding.
Notes on crew dynamics in the small museum
By Frederick A. Johnsen
For a number of years, it was my distinct pleasure to be involved as director/curator with two museums in the U.S. Air Force field museum program, starting in 1982 at then-McChord Air Force Base, near Tacoma, Wash.
The 1980s were awash with optimistic base-level start-up museum efforts throughout the Air Force. We met, collaborated, and occasionally competed for the same scarce aircraft.
The very DNA of Air Force field museums was infused with the need to establish a non-profit supporting foundation. The Air Force did not have funds or staffing to meet every need of the burgeoning field museum program, and it was incumbent upon those who wanted to see a field museum flourish that a foundation be created to raise capital and other assets to enable the Air Force professional staff to execute the museum plan.
In theory, the museum/foundation relationship in the Air Force system was simple: the Air Force staff made and executed museum plans and operations; the foundation enabled this with funds and assets. The foundation's role was not to acquire artifacts or set museum policy.
It was a pleasure to work with some remarkable and selfless individuals on both the McChord Air Museum Foundation, and later the Flight Test Historical Foundation at Edwards AFB, in California's Mojave Desert. But just occasionally, an enthusiastic foundation member might push for an artifact, a program, or a policy that were outside the realm of the foundation's charter, and it fell to me to have a discussion about roles and responsibilities.
Each museum has its own set of circumstances that shapes its dynamics. If I may, I will opine on some generalized staff and support observations that helped me nurture budding museums:
DIRECTOR/CURATOR: In an ideal world, museums would have sufficient budget to hire a professional director as well as a curator. The director has the big picture -- he or she often creates it -- to move the museum forward. The director creates alliances in the community, and works with support groups to achieve the museum's goals. Meanwhile, the curator is the museum professional who has ultimate stewardship of the museum's collection. Curators typically are subject-matter experts as well as museum technical experts who know how to achieve the best way to protect, display, store, and restore, the collection.
But let's get real -- for many small museums, especially when just starting, the functions of director and curator must reside in one person. If a curator can afford the luxury of being a social recluse, the director cannot -- so the combined director/curator needs to be able to deal with the public and the media, and also have a working knowledge of the museum's subject matter, as well as fundamental museum best-practices.
Now that the museum has its director/curator in place, at least one other staff slot is worth addressing. The position may be called CHIEF OF STAFF, chief of operations, chief of maintenance, or something similar. If only one other person is available to help the director/curator create and operate the museum, let it be this chief who may do everything from answering the phone to coordinating the volunteers, to arranging tours, to ensuring the old jet fighter outside the front door is periodically washed and painted.
With these two people creating and running the museum, the presence of a non-profit FOUNDATION is crucial to museum operations. At their best, foundations capture the interest and assistance of community leaders who can help. Foundation members might provide everything from pro bono legal advice to construction and moving assistance.
The devil is always in the details, and both museum staff and foundation board members need to be clear on the roles and responsibilities of each. The Air Force field museums spell this out in a memorandum of understanding (MOU) between the museum staff and foundation leadership.
VOLUNTEERS are a vital way to expand the museum's capabilities. Though they are not paid, there is still an important, and worthwhile, cost associated with volunteers. Volunteer appreciation events, awards, name tags, and printed shirts all let the volunteers know they are appreciated. Additionally, some museums provide tools and equipment to enhance the volunteer experience, as well as training to help them perfect their duties. (Remember that pro bono lawyer on the ideal foundation board? He or she may have some suggestions on volunteer agreements that define the limits of a volunteer's service to avoid misunderstandings on responsibilities and expectations.)
Volunteers typically come in two species: DOCENTS and other workers. Docents greet the public and help ensure visitors have a good and meaningful museum experience. Other volunteers may do everything from tend the museum garden, to restore artifacts, to construct display fixtures, to general building maintenance. Some volunteers are so enthusiastic they make the leap from docent to other volunteer tasks frequently.
Like foundation members, volunteers need to have a clear understanding of their duties and limitations so they do not, in well-meaning zeal, obligate the museum to something beyond their power to offer.
Sure, this is a simplistic view of an idealized small museum. But it conveys a quick overview of the roles and responsibilities of typical museum workers. The director/curator must call the shots. The chief of staff can keep the museum up and running. The foundation needs to understand its importance is in being "the ATM for the museum", as one board member eloquently put it. And volunteers need to know they are appreciated, and also that they are not the museum director -- in a future column, perhaps we'll talk about the need for diplomacy on the part of the director!
Next time you visit a small museum, please contemplate and appreciate that they may be chronically understaffed and underbudgeted; anything you can do to make it easier for the staff and volunteers will surely be appreciated. And happy museum visiting!
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MUSEUM NEWS BRIEFS
14 NOVEMBER 2015
Los Angeles Museum Getting F-106A
A Cold War air defense fighter is on its way from Texas to restoration in California before a new career as a museum display. Convair F-106A Delta Dart serial number 58-0786 is destined for the new Samuel Oschin Air and Space Center at the California Science Center in Los Angeles, following offsite restoration. Orchestrating the project for the museum is Dennis Jenkins, who reports the airframe is remarkably corrosion-free. He said the crew's marching orders were to disassemble the aircraft as little as possible to make the trip, removing some parts along production joints to facilitate tidy reassembly. (Dennis Jenkins photo)
JANUARY 25, 2015
Scrapping historic Washington ferry Kalakala
The famous art-deco streamlined ferry Kalakala is to be demolished near Tacoma, Washington, as seen in this January 24, 2015 photo. Kalakala plied the waters of Puget Sound from 1935 to 1967 as a ferry before moving to Alaska as a cannery after retirement from ferry duty. (Photo by Kenneth G. Johnsen)
The historic art-deco streamlined ferry Kalakala is being scrapped near Tacoma, Washington after many years of efforts to restore and preserve the boat did not achieve that goal.
Once known for moonlight cruises with a live dance band in the 1930s after its daytime ferry runs to Bremerton, the futuristically rounded Kalakala could still be seen shuttling across Puget Sound as late as 1967. The Kalakala's fate shows how fragile the net for historic preservation can be. Many people made ongoing efforts to save the Kalakala, including providing low-cost moorage near Tacoma for years, but it has been said restoration could have cost $25 million.
JUNE 26, 2014
National USAF museum new gallery animation
Animation depicts the fourth gallery building of the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force, now under construction. It is scheduled to open in 2016. Fight test, presidential aircraft, and airlift will be featured in the new building on the museum's campus at Wright-Patterson AFB near Dayton, Ohio.
UPDATE - AUGUST 2014: The Flight Test Historical Foundation announced it has successfully met the matching grant requirements. Plans call for the acquisition and relocation of large steel hangars for the museum outside the gate. Further phases of the capital plan are envisioned for completion of the museum.
Flight Test museum matching grant deadline is near; museum relocation in the balance
The Air Force Flight Test Museum at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif., is the beneficiary of a capital matching campaign by the Flight Test Historical Foundation. The goal is to relocate the museum outside the main gate to Edwards AFB, enhancing public access and allowing for future growth of the museum. Such access is deemed vital to the growth and service potential for the museum.
The matching campaign must be accomplished by July 1, 2014 according to website information from the Foundation. About $176,000 is still needed to achieve the matching grant obligation, according to a Foundation document.
The first phase of the relocation plan envisions a 12,000 sq. ft. building erected on the west gate site near the existing Century Circle aircraft displays. Cost is estimated at $1 million for this phase.
Contact information for the Flight Test Historical Foundation (FTHF), as listed on web documents, is
Phone: (661) 258-1658
Flight Test Historical Foundation
P.O. Box 57
Edwards, CA 93523
Rex Moen, FTHF Capital Campaign Chairman, announced in June: "The Flight Test Historical Foundation has just received a $50,000 grant offer conditioned on the FTHF raising $50,000 of new contributions received on or after June 1, 2014. We need a super-human effort by all Directors, Trustees and Friends of the Flight Test Museum to achieve this grant."
Moen adds: "...the successful matching of this $50,000 conditional grant will meet the Phase 1 goal of $990,000 of the Capital Campaign and will secure the $300,000 Hilton Foundation grant. Please help!"
Atlanta History Center presents Eighth AF
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