Jacob Thomas was awarded a Small Museums Scholarship to attend the 2016 AASLH/MMA Annual Meeting. You can learn more about the AASLH Small Museums Scholarships here.
If there is one impression I can take away from the 2016 AASLH/ MMA Annual Meeting, it is this: there are “Small Museums”, and there are small museums. I attended several of the sessions that were specially geared towards small museums and making the most of limited resources. Invariably, these sessions would always start with the presenter telling the audience just how small their hometown is. And I would be sitting there, with just the tiniest smile on my face, thinking, “Oh, your small town of 30,000 people. That’s cute”. Once session even started with the ever-popular, “Ok, put your hand up if your museum is in a town with less than 100,000 residents. 50,000 residents? 25,000 residents?!”
My guess is that had the presenter kept going down, my hand would be the last in the air. I come from Charlevoix, Michigan, a tiny town on Lake Michigan with a year-round population of 2,500. Granted, my little resort town swells to 3x that in the summer, making my needs for fundraising, membership, and outreach quite a bit different than those of my fellow conference attendees.
When I started at the Charlevoix Historical Society in June 2015 as the Curator of Collections, my early efforts were directed at bringing the exhibit space into the 21st century: creating a themed exhibition, expanding the small retail operation, and getting rid of all of the 200 word, Times New Roman exhibit labels that were up on the walls previously. Unfortunately, because nearly all of my time was focused on the front-of-house, not much has yet been done to fight the enormity of backlog needed to address the museum’s collection.
In the years BM (before me), the accession process at this museum was inconsistent, to say the least. Some artifacts were numbered, but only in the order by which they were acquired ( A.1, A.2, ecc.). Others were accessioned but not assigned a number. Still others have no documentation at all. So I was particularly struck by the Friday session, “Out with the Old? Preserving Institutional Knowledge During Renumbering Projects.” Of course, I will have to tailor their wonderful suggestions to my own staffing realties, but their knowledge will serve as a good jumping-off point. I also really enjoyed the session, “Shaping the Future of Museum Collections.” I learned many skills and ideas that will help me ensure that the difficulties I am facing will not follow me or my organization into the future.
As limited as my resources are, I know for a fact that my institution was not the smallest represented at the 2016 AASLH/ MMA Annual Meeting. There were organizations at the conference represented by volunteers, which I found incredibly impressive. It just goes to show that whatever the size of your historic organization, we are just different-sized fish swimming in the same pond.