The Value of Museums

How will my community be different/better in positive ways because this museum exists?

This is the central question for all museum professionals in the twenty-first century, according to John Falk and Lynn Dierking in The Museum Experience Revisited. Falk and Dierking argue that for museums to thrive in the present day, the field needs to reinvents its philosophy and practice. No longer can a museum claim it has value for simply existing; now it must document its value by proving it can meaningfully fulfill the needs of its community. They suggest every institution consider the above question when planning activities.

I posed this question to Gwen Miner, the Domestic Arts Manager at The Farmer’s Museum. She agreed that a museum must be relevant to its community, and said she often thinks about how The Farmer’s Museum can become more valuable to Cooperstown and the surrounding area. One method the museum has tried is holding workshops about topics such as raising chickens and composting. Through these workshops they hope to serve as an educational resource for local residents. Gwen also pointed out that the museum can teach people skills to survive without electricity (useful during power outages!). She believes The Farmer’s Museum can help people understand where they come from, in order to know where to go in the future.

What value do you think museums have to their communities? How can you measure that value? These are important questions to consider as we embark on museum careers.

-Emily Koehler-Platten

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9 Responses to The Value of Museums

  1. Katie Stofer says:

    I think it’s really important that museums be able to document and express their value to the public. However, I have a request for more details. First, I would have liked to know what the museum did to decide that workshops would be a good thing for their community. Also, I wonder if the museum partnered with the local university Extension office for Schoharie and Otsego Counties: http://cceschoharie-otsego.org/, which would seem to provide similar sorts of workshops, or at the very least additional expertise. An important part of proving value is understanding what the community needs and wants in the first place, before deciding what activities to do. I would also think that the museum would, like most, need to stretch their resources as far as possible by taking advantage of these other local resources, and it could benefit both organizations. Extension also works hard to provide communities with value and provide proof of that value.

    • emilykp47 says:

      Gwen did talk about the Cooperative Extension office; in fact. the museum did not have high attendance at their workshops because most people chose to go to the Extension offices for information. If the museum and the Extension offices could collaborate to offer workshops or other events to visitors, that would be great.
      Understanding what the community wants and needs is very important. Unfortunately, it can be difficult to collect that information and act on it. That’s something all museums need to strive to do.

  2. As a young museum professional, I am quite biased in thinking that museums are a great educational and entertaining resource for the public. Is the Farmer’s Museum reaching out to the community and asking, “What is our purpose here and what do you want to get from your experience?” Those inside the museum can have the highest regard for their own institution, but unless the intended audience agrees the museum isn’t really meeting its true purpose.

    • emilykp47 says:

      I definitely agree that museums are a great resource. However, they need to respond to the needs of their audiences. According to Gwen, The Farmer’s Museum could be doing better at asking people what they want from the museum and how they can add value to the community. That is an ongoing challenge for museums, and requires a commitment from all staff to assess how well they are meeting needs.

  3. maolsen13 says:

    As an emerging museum professional I do think museums are very valuable and serve an important role within the community. My question is whether the Farmers’ Museum is reaching out to the community to ask what they want to see in the museum. If they are, have they seen increased attendance? What are the pros and cons of going out to the community?

    • maolsen13 says:

      Emily – When I first posted this I didn’t see your response to Sammy but after the page refreshed I see your notes back to her, sorry for the double question! It seems like they are not utilizing the community enough. Did she mention an action plan to pull the community in more moving forward?

      • emilykp47 says:

        Thanks for the input, Melissa! From my conversation with Gwen, it seems like the Farmer’s Museum doesn’t really have a firm plan to reach out to the community. They do some community events, such as the upcoming Things That Go Bump In The Night tours, but don’t really ask for much feedback from participants. Unfortunately, reaching out to the community requires a commitment from leadership and all staff members, ad I’m not sure they have that institution-wide commitment yet.

  4. I’d be curious to investigate how the Fenimore chooses it’s exhibits and programming based on community needs. Cooperstown is a unique community in that it’s audience could be categorized in two groups: locals who support and visit the museum, and tourists visiting from out of town. Both are integral to sustaining the museum – tourists account for a lot of visitor traffic in the summer and fall, however faithful returning resident visitors with NYSHA memberships and local donors may be fewer in numbers but provide necessary support. How can a museum evaluate the needs of a community like this? They can reach out the local audiences, but what about tourists? Are they all looking for something similar or can a museum meet a broad array of needs at once?

    Another issue for museums is that they may stop further evaluation of community once they reach an “adequate” number of admission and membership sales. If visitation is steady, they might be satisfied, and won’t bother to reach out to a diverse audience. If their ticket sales are steady but their audience mainly consists of upper-class, white senior citizens, is it okay to stop there? Or should further research be put into finding out who else lives in the community and what their needs are?

    • emilykp47 says:

      I think a lot of museums, including the ones in Cooperstown, deal with the same issues you bring up. When your museum’s audiences include both tourists and resident, how do you meet all of their needs? And evaluating tourist needs can be trickier than looking at your community’s needs, since there’s a much smaller timeframe to connect to individual tourists. And when your audience is mostly tourists, there’s probably a temptation to mostly ignore local visitors, figuring most of your income comes from out-of-towners. Yet local community engagement can be so important to sustainability. I don’t have the answers to those questions, but I think we all need to work together to think of possible solutions.

      And I definitely agree with your point about “adequate” numbers. When do we say “okay, that’s enough diversity, we don’t need to do any more outreach”? My opinion is that there’s never enough; museums need to do constant outreach and evaluation. But that requires time, money, and staff, and not all institutions have the commitment or the resource to do so.

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