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.
As visitors are drawn into a museum, it is the job of that museum to interpret the artifacts in its collections, telling their stories, revealing their meaning, and clarifying their relevance to its audience. Book 5 of The Small Museum Toolkit explores ways of doing this that will truly engage and challenge the visitor.
In chapter 1, Stephen G. Hague and Laura C. Keim discuss the importance of committing to “audience-centered interpretation” (1) and then drawing upon the expertise of scholars, staff members, and many segments of the community to formulate an interpretive plan based on the museum’s best resources. Hague and Keim stress the importance of selecting clear interpretive themes. They emphasize that whereas tour guides were once the sole interpreters dealing with the public, other staff members and volunteers now have roles to play, as do new technologies. All interpreters must be well versed in the interpretive plan and able to execute it. Periodic evaluation helps. The authors use often amusing texts to illustrate their points.
Madeline C. Flagler writes in chapter 2 about the task of interpreting difficult issues. She describes her own experiences working at the Bellamy Mansion Museum in Wilmington, North Carolina, and the Mission Houses Museum in Honolulu, Hawaii. These museums presented opportunities to deal with subjects like slavery and marginalization in an ethical, honest, and effective manner. Flagler details each museum’s methods. Each had a goal to become inclusive in regard to staff, subject, and community. A related aspect of interpretation is covered by Teresa Goforth in chapter 3. She provides guidance in conducting research that will help find the truth about artifacts—what they are, how they were made, how they were used, and what they meant to the individuals who created them. She urges using primary and secondary sources—diaries and letters, photos, county histories, public documents, and oral histories—to establish and understand the context of objects.
Chapter 4, by Eugene Dillenburg and Janice Klein, presents a blueprint for creating exhibits, from planning to building. After defining what an exhibit is, the authors tell how to pick an exhibit topic, a target audience, and a main message. They offer tips for developing content, organizing the exhibit, preparing labels, and mounting the exhibit. The final chapter of book 5 addresses program management. Rebecca Martin gives important details to consider in program planning, audience identification, goal setting, scheduling, and site selection. She provides samples of a confirmation letter and a contract that can be used when engaging presenters. She includes a list of supplies needed to run a program and advises on setting a budget and identifying funding sources. Martin’s program management checklist hits all the important points covered in her chapter.
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 (illinoisheritage.org) 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.