Taking “Small” Seriously

Jason Illari brought up a touchy subject in a recent AAM’s Small Museum Administrators Committee blog. He asks what “small” really means when it comes to museums. Do we automatically assume they are somehow less important or influential? Are their contributions any less meaningful? He wonders if we can look at our small museums from a different angle.

Jason notes that localism and sustainability aren’t just empty buzz words. We’ve embraced these cherished values and applied them all across society: “…from Main Street communities, local farmers markets, sustainable living and community supported agriculture,….alternative public education models, and eco-tourism.”

And smaller museums can ride that cultural wave. He believes it’s “time we ‘think big,’” redefine our meaning of “small,” and look at our museums in relation to their surrounding communities.

Steve Friesen has also tackled this idea in an excerpt from his chapter “Making the Case for the Small Museum” in the Small Museum Toolkit. AASLH defines a small museum as having a small staff and a budget of less than $250,000.

“But,” Steve says, “there is so much more to small museums” than using numerical criteria, such as statistics or staff size. “A big problem,” he maintains, “is the unspoken message that [small museums] are somehow less or inadequate” because of their budget size. He says:

I will admit that…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.

Quantity doesn’t always mean quality. Being “small” isn’t a matter of good or bad; it’s just different. Perhaps we can learn a thing or two in forums with our other community-minded neighbors. As our visitors associate the term “small” with well-crafted, responsive, creative and passionate, we can celebrate the best that money can’t buy.