By Sean Blinn, Programming Director, Heritage Trail Association, Bridgewater, NJ
“When I was growing up, there was a beautiful historic building at the corner. There was something going on every weekend, whether a Thanksgiving celebration, a Fourth of July picnic, or just a place to sit and talk.”
“You mean where the mini-mall is?”
“Yes, but before then…”
It’s a familiar refrain to anyone who works with history museums, historic houses, or in historic preservation. We face the daunting task of doing our work while simultaneously explaining why it matters, not just to our audiences, but to local governments with the power to help.
Why does local advocacy matter when it’s already being done at the federal and state levels? Many decisions that affect our museums are made by municipal and county government. They often have grants, which can be significant for smaller museums. They control zoning laws that strengthen or weaken historic preservation efforts. They can work with (or manage) local and regional tourism offices that promote our museums, or make introductions for us to other organizations, such as a Chamber of Commerce, with which we can partner.
Advocacy matters because it helps government see the value in what we do, which makes it easier for them to support museums and our missions. The proposal for better directional signs to the museum? That’s local government. The badly maintained municipal parking lot, so small it deters people from trying to visit? That’s local government. The increase in county government grant funding for small museums? That’s also local government.
State and federal level advocacy generates headlines and interest. But local government is closest to the people, and it is where we can have the most influence. Especially in smaller jurisdictions, few people attend public meetings, and an even smaller number speak up.
Of course, this means that the people who do take part can have outsized influence – including museum advocates.
The bad news is we can’t entirely rely on others to do this work for us. If we want to make sure everyone knows the good work we do, we have to tell our stories ourselves.
The good news is we can tell our stories better than anyone else. We can tell the stories of the communities we serve. We can explain how our museums are vital contributors to the local economy, and the critical educational role we play.
That, in short is advocacy, and why it matters.
In The West Wing, President Bartlet said that decisions are made by those who show up. My personal corollary to that is that decisions are made by those who show up, about those who don’t. Over the next couple of blog posts, I hope to explain more why this work matters, and most of all, how to be a success at shaping the decisions that affect us.
Stay tuned for more on this essential topic!