February 26 marked the American Alliance of Museums’ fifth annual Museums Advocacy Day. I, along with hundreds of other museum students, staff members and enthusiasts, traveled to Washington D.C., to advocate to the government for our profession and passion. As a graduate student asked to attend by my institution, I was beyond excited for the opportunity to travel to Capitol Hill to network with and learn from the leaders of our country and within my field. During the conference, the Alliance laid out three main “asks” to discuss with our state representatives:
- Ask that funding be maintained for the Institute for Museum and Library Services (IMLS) that provides matching grants for museums and other cultural institutions
- Ask for opposition to cutting tax incentives for charitable giving and donations.
- Ask for museums to be written into and not left out of the language in bills such as Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA)
We divided the “asks” among our group of Tennessee advocates for the meetings with our state governors and congressmen. I was responsible for “ask” number three: museums as an educational resource. The main goal of this “ask” was to ensure that our state representatives know that museums are first and foremost educational institutions. We are a part of the educational system and essential to the educational experience. Therefore, we would like to see museums included in the applicable sections of ESEA.
When I arrived at Congressman Steve Cohen’s office, the representative for the Memphis city district, it began to sink in just how important my “ask” was. Talking with Congressman Cohen about the current education crises Memphis currently faces and providing museum resources as a solution to those problems confirmed me as an Advocacy Day believer. More and more we are seeing the formalized education system falling short. I believe that the museum experience can serve to fill the educational gap.
Even the most fantastic museum education program can be considered unsuccessful if it is kept quiet. How can your congressman or senator approve bills and laws that would help museums if they don’t know all the great work you’re doing? Here are some tips for showing off your education savvy:
1. Curriculum Standards: Work with your local school and teachers to ensure that your programs meet the state required curriculum standards. Most of the time current programs can be brought up to standards with only a few tweaks. Government representatives can more easily endorse and support your institution if it is in tune to state laws.
2. Invite and Write your State Representatives: Has the Congressman for your district ever visited your museum? Why not? If your museum hosts an event, invite your Senators and Congressmen – especially if the event is relevant to their special interests. Make certain to shake hands and be friendly so they will remember you in a positive light when it comes to signing certain bills or budgets that would directly affect your institution.
What if they don’t come? Keep inviting! The worst they can say is “no”.
3. Education Newsletter: Your institution may already distribute a newsletter weekly, monthly or even annually. Consider adding an issue that tells your audience and enthusiasts about your educational programming. Bonus points: ask your state and local representatives to sign up for the newsletter-get on their radar!
4. Motivate your Staff: Is your staff aware of museum advocacy? Do they know how it can directly alter your programming? (Example: sequestration) Bring advocacy and education up at the next staff meeting and encourage them to think of your museum as an essential educational pillar.
While you and your staff may recognize how much museums matter to education and the community, others may not. Education isn’t nice to have, it’s need to have! Your job isn’t only nice to have; it’s definitely need to have! Use these tools to advocate from home for your museum as need to have and join us in 2014 for the 6th annual Museums Advocacy Day. See you on the Hill!
Patricia Harris is a graduate assistant at the C.H. Nash Museum at Chucalissa in Memphis, TN. She is currently attending the University of Memphis for a Masters in Liberal Studies as well as a certificate in Museum Studies.