Last summer, a fire overwhelmed a museum, destroying thousands of "irreplaceable artifacts" and leaving "devastation inside." Things "gone." A "disastrous list" of losses. And a major hit on the memory of a place.
Am I talking about Brazil's National Museum? Nope. I am referring to the loss of the Aberdeen Museum of History, here in Washington State. This small community was devastated by a fire that consumed not only their museum, but also a senior center and low-income assistance offices.
The words used to describe the loss, however, are fascinating, as they convey the idea that the objects of a community's past are part of its memory and what make a place, well, a distinctive place.
When loss makes palpable what we take for granted, it becomes much easier to articulate value. In my work, I call this the "loss aversion" line of inquiry (which is quite useful for sussing out the impact of museums, as we have recently seen).
But communities don't lose museums very often, so how museums do (or do not) contribute to that sense of place is hard for most people to articulate. I suspected this to be true, which is why in the 2018 Annual Survey of Museum-Goers, I had a lead-in question about sense of place when traveling.
So what did I find when I asked museum-goers to share if they thought their local museums contributed to the sense of place of their own communities? Four out of five respondents said yes, their local museums contributed to their community's sense of place. So that is great news, right?
Well, sort of. Yes, it is great news that there is pretty universal agreement here. But here's the thing: many respondents couldn't back it up with why. They had comments like:
There were also a lot of simple "yes" responses, but nothing else. Nothing to say how, or why. Responses, overall, were far less detailed than for the first question about sense of place when traveling.
So let's pick apart what people did say, and then come back to what people didn't.
First, history organizations were overwhelmingly given credit for helping create a sense of place, with art museums on their heels. Comments like these two illustrate this (one rather thoughtful, one more typical):
But whose history creates that sense of place? One respondent noted that a place is shaped by "what it chooses to preserve about its history," which gives us a wrinkle that is, of course, rather important: what we choose to preserve. Thus, it shouldn't surprise us that we also had a few comments like this one:
While there were only a handful of comments like this, that it was only a bare handful also likely reflects that the vast majority of respondents were white and not necessarily noticing that the history being preserved isn't sharing a complete story of the past. (Stay tuned for more on this topic in 2019.)
How museums contribute to a sense of place also depends on the type of museum. While some felt that all types of museum contributed, there were a handful of comments that said things like this one:
And a few, a very few, just said nope.
So what does this all mean? First, the vast majority of museum-goers do think museums contribute to their community's sense of place. But … only a fraction can articulate why.
And if our best friends, our regular museum-goers, cannot articulate it, that means casual and non-visitors surely cannot either. When residents cannot articulate our value, our impact, then it makes it harder for us to make our case for support so that we can do more of this work that benefits communities.
Instead, we have to do a better job of articulating how we contribute to our communities ourselves, in this case through a sense of place (but in all ways we contribute, of course). We need to use language that our visitors and the residents in our communities can then pick up and use as well. Otherwise, if we are not sharing the how, the why, and the value of our work, how can we expect others to do so?
Do you value this research? Does it help you in your work at your museum? Do you want it to continue to help you and our field?
If so, consider how useful it would be to know how your museum's stakeholders feel about your museum, lifelong learning in museums, and more. By enrolling your museum in the 2019 Annual Survey of Museum Goers, you can easily benchmark the visitation rates, motivations, attitudes and preferences, and demographics of your stakeholders. Additionally, you can compare your results to your peers, begin to track them over time, and gain far more contextual information through your custom results and report. The fee for 2019 is only $1,000 per museum.