Saturday, June 11, 2016

One From The Vaults: Smaller STILL Is Better

Though I wrote the original version of this post back in 2009, it still rings painfully true today.  We, as an industry,  still seem to be preferentially creating institutions that are lumbering behemoths instead of small and nimble innovators.  As I mention at the end of this encore post, I'd really like to know about smaller, better cultural institutions doing great work to shine a light on them.  So call out great examples in the comments or contact me directly.   Thanks, and enjoy this post from the ExhibiTricks vaults!

So here's my two-part solution to solve the ever continuing museum money/funding crisis:

1) Stop building gigantic new museums.

2) Fund small "risky" projects instead of "safe" big projects.

Most big museums were unsustainable before the current "financial crisis" and even more so now. Not to mention that many gigundo museums are filled with pockets of mediocrity or just plain lousiness that gets ignored or excused or even overlooked because there are other flashier, newer segments of the rest of their elephantine museum building complex.

So why do people keep building giant museums? Sheer ego and "edifice complex" as far as I can tell. It's a lot sexier to say you're building the "world's biggest and best museum" than to actually set up the infrastructure to ensure a continually growing and evolving institution that makes best use of both staff and community resources.

If you really want to see Museum 2.0/3.0/whatever happen, then museum workers and museum organizations should advocate for more, but smaller, museums spread throughout communities like public libraries --- heck why not have every museum (that's not already doing so) partner with a local library or community center to work on exhibits and programs together?

Now, funding.

Here's a modest proposal for NSF, IMLS, NEH and the rest of the governmental alphabet soup of funding agencies: alternate every year between funding "big" projects and "little" projects.

This would have the benefit of breaking the cycle of perpetually funding "The Usual Suspects" of the same batch of museums/designers/evaluators who get funded every grant cycle.
Which would be fine, if the "The Usual Suspects" were turning out wonderful field-changing exhibitions. But mostly the funding process has turned into a gravy train for folks doing the same sort of mediocre exhibitions over and over again.

Why couldn't NSF, for example, deliberately fund 15-20 large exhibition projects one cycle, then 50-60 small exhibition projects the next?

I think part of this big vs. small dichotomy is also an issue of exposure. There are many amazing, innovative museums and museum workers doing their thing in remote or smaller outposts, so they don't get recognized in the traditional incestuous museum conference/funding world.

So, I'm going to do my part to help change that exposure thing, and I need your help. Do you know of some cool projects happening at smaller "non-famous" museums, or do you know an up-and-coming whiz kid who hasn't been able to find a real full-time with benefits job in the museum business yet?

Send me an email at so I can start giving these small places and some NOT the usual suspects some publicity and the attention they deserve.

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