Monday, August 12, 2013

Is Small a Misnomer?

Whenever I am in the Napa Valley, I visit my favorite winery. As I drive through the valley, I admire all of the large, well-known wineries with their broad impressive gateways and interesting architecture. Tour buses fill their parking lots, and tourists photograph themselves in front of the buildings. Finally, I turn onto a gravel lane and drive through a vineyard to an unimpressive metal building. When I walk in the door, I see wine barrels stacked from floor to ceiling. In front of me is the tasting area—several upended wine barrels with polished wooden planks laid across them. It is the beginning of a deeply personalized experience, with conversations about weather and wine, food and fashion. The members of the small staff at the winery enjoy their craft, and it shows, even though they are probably not paid as well as the staffs at the larger wineries. Sometimes the owner is wandering about taking care of business and stops to chat. Unlike larger wineries, this place usually produces only six different wines a year. But those often take top prizes in wine competitions, beating out much larger wineries. As a consumer, I am also pleased because the prices are reasonable, and there is no charge for tasting. While I enjoy visiting the large wineries on occasion, I truly enjoy the Napa Valley experience here.
That is the way the ideal small museum can and should operate. It is personalized to the visitor and provides an accessible experience. The building may not be impressive, but the collections are. The exhibits are limited, but they are good. The staff is often underpaid in comparison to larger museums, but theirs is a labor of love. Visitation numbers are not necessarily high, but the constituencies are loyal. Returning to my favorite winery, I like it not just because it is small but because of what its smallness enables it to do. I like it because of the more intimate experience it offers. The same applies to museums.
The AASLH definition of a small museum establishes a budget of $250,000 and a “small staff” as its criteria. But there is so much more to small museums than a measurement of quantity or statistics. A big problem with applying only numerical criteria, such as budget or staff size, to small museums is the unspoken message that they are somehow less or inadequate. Many people have the idea that “small” is not confined just to size but also describes quality or ability. When it comes to staff, there is the belief that big museums can afford to pay for the best. This assumption implies that those who work in small museums are less than the cream of the crop. When it comes to collections, the best collections are at those museums that can afford to acquire them—in other words, the big museums. When it comes to exhibits, big museums put on the blockbusters that everyone wants to see, whereas small museum exhibits are forgettable. When it comes to trends, big museums set the pace in our field, and small museums simply follow their lead. These, however, are all mistaken assumptions
I will admit that some of them hold a bit of truth. Big museums can hire more staff and pay higher salaries. They can send staff for training at conferences and meetings. They can allow staff to take on leadership roles in the museum community. They can pay for fancier graphics and electronics, hire better-known entertainers for programs, and attract more donations. But as tempting as it might be to do so, we cannot assume that large budgets and staffs equal better museums. More resources enable quality but do not guarantee it.
If small museums lack anything, it is the big ego that is necessary to transcend the hurdles that encourage small thinking. Usually all that prevents small museums from thinking big are self-imposed limits. But small museums can and should think big. A small museum is a place where the public has the chance to feel completely engaged, encouraged by an enthusiastic and accessible staff. It is a very personal experience that is unimpaired by budget and often enhanced by staff size. A visitor’s question about an exhibit will frequently be answered by the person who installed it, and the director might stop for a chat. In a small museum, excellence is not measured by size but by the ability to provide a meaningful product.
Perhaps “small” is a misnomer; borrowing from the world of wines, cheese, and breads, many small museums could be instead regarded as artisanal. They are carefully crafted to meet a particular mission and provide a particular service. They are different from larger museums not so much because of their subject matter but because of how their size enables them to present the subject matter. And, like my favorite winery, they concentrate on limited production appealing to a certain taste.
Steve Friesen is director of the Buffalo Bill Museum and Grave near Denver, Colorado. He has worked in small museums since beginning his career in 1976 and, for twenty-seven of those years, has served as administrator for small muse- ums in Kansas, Colorado, and Pennsylvania. Friesen has a master’s in American folk culture and is the author of two books, A Modest Mennonite Home and Buf- falo Bill: Scout, Showman, Visionary.