Monday, July 23, 2012

An Introduction to The Small Museum Toolkit: Book 1, Leadership, Mission, and Governance

Carol Bolton Betts, editor for the Illinois Heritage Association, wrote an overview of The Small Museum Toolkit as part of the IHA’s Technical Insert series.  The IHA has graciously allowed The Small Museum Toolkit to share this introduction in seven blog posts during July and August. The posts will help you to get to know about the content of the Toolkit from an outside perspective.

The first volume of The Small Museum Toolkit addresses ways that small museums and other history organizations can take stock of their strengths and weak­nesses, with the goal of moving their operations forward while adhering to the highest standards. These groups must have effec­tive and ethical leaders, wise governance, responsible budgetary oversight, and expert management and conservation of collec­tions. Book 1 provides guidelines for attaining these qualities, and it tells why it is important to attain them.

Cherie Cook, Elizabeth Merritt, and Sara Gonzales lay the ground­work in chapter 1 by describing several important initiatives, many of which were developed with funding by the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS). The authors describe, respectively, the Standards and Excellence Program for History Organizations (StEPs), a relatively new project of AASLH; the American Association of Museums’ (AAM) Museum Assessment Program (MAP) and the Accreditation Program, the latter funded by AAM; and the Conservation Assessment Program (CAP), which is offered by Heritage Preservation. These involve self-study and peer review, methods that can provide pathways to identifying and solving immediate problems in an organization—and sometimes preventing problems—while ensuring the organization’s long-term good health. These programs are also referred to in the other books in the set.

In chapter 2, Steve Friesen tackles questions that are important for the entire Small Museum Toolkit: What makes a museum small? How can we make a case for the small museum? While some might view the small museum in terms of its supposed dis­advantages, Friesen points to the many advantages of the smaller institution. Small museums may have small staffs and budgets, but the best of them can match—even exceed—the accomplish­ments of larger, better-funded museums with large staffs. Imagination, dedication, and the ability to turn on a dime characterize the effective staff members of a small museum. Small institutions can take advantage of the latest in training and technology to turn out well-conceived, well-mounted exhibitions. Reading about these qualities will make people associated with a small museum feel encouraged and proud of their work.

The authors of chapter 3, Harold Skramstad and Susan Skram­stad, define mission and vision statements and say that without well-reasoned, well-prepared statements—and without adhering to them—a museum cannot have adequate governance, plan strategically, mount meaningful programs, or attain best prac­tices. The Skramstads lay out principles that should inform the mission and vision statements, and they give sample documents that will aid staff in crafting their own. In chapter 4, Cinnamon Catlin-Legutko discusses a low-cost approach to developing the all-important strategic plan. She presents a step-by-step outline for economical, do-it-yourself strategic planning, along with checklists, worksheets, and ground rules that will be particularly useful to those who guide the small museum.

Teresa Goforth, author of chapter 5, asserts that a museum of any size can create a successful governing structure and can draw from several models to do so. She describes the makeup of a desirable governing board and uses case studies to illustrate how such a board can be composed, developed, and maintained. Goforth details board responsibilities and structure, stressing the importance of following an ethics policy. In the final chapter of book 1, Katie Anderson compares the relationship between board and director to a marriage: it involves asking the right questions before embarking on the relationship and keeping the lines of communication open. Anderson lists the tasks of a board and its president, along with tips for the successful director. By working together and meeting the highest standards, she says, board and director can ensure that their partnership lasts.

Adapted from Carol Bolton Betts, “An Introduction to The Small Museum Toolkit,” Illinois Heritage Association, Technical Insert 177 (May-June 2012). As a volunteer, Ms. Betts has done editorial work for the Illinois Heritage Association ( since 1982. She was an editor at the University of Illinois Press for twenty years, working primarily on books about art and architecture, film, women’s history, and subjects related to the history of Illinois. Earlier she served on the staff of the Philadelphia Museum of Art and taught art history at Villanova University and at California State University–Los Angeles. 

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