Thursday, July 30, 2009

Smaller IS Better

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 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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  1. Though I'm possibly one of the "usual suspects," I love this post. I want to help. Let me know how I can.

    And I'll evangelize two places that are small, risky, and awesome (one of which I learned about through a friend from the very big and usual Science Museum of Minnesota):
    -The Machine Project in LA
    -The West Bank Social Center in St. Paul

    p.s. they aren't museums.

  2. Hi Nina,

    Thanks for your kind words.

    I guess the best way for you or anyone else to help in this effort is to identify people and places currently off the "radar screen of the museum biz" and to let me know about them so I can promote them via this blog.

  3. Small is the new big. Seth Godin says so!
    His books are always pretty good at pulling out some valuable nuggets.

    I admit that I'm in love with small places that engage people in science, of which many are not museums, but rather workshops, garages, afterschool sites, bar mixers, etc.

    My contribution to the mix:
    One example I'm a big fan of is the Community Science Workshop movement. Started out of a garage in the Mission District in San Francisco, but now has **small** workshops in various cities around California and the country. Funded through I think two rounds of NSF. I went to visit the one in Watsonville when I first moved out here, headed up by Curt Gabrielson, and they were doing AMAZING work with kids. You walked in, and it's the kind of place that you looked around and it just felt right. Tools (GASP - dangerous ones!) were available, projects were tucked in every nook and cranny, and you could feel the good energy and humor.

    I think one of the challenges of looking at funding models for small places is that in fact infusions of money from places like NSF aren't viable long-term solutions to their immediate and short-term needs. And in many cases overwhelming for smaller places to manage. What's needed for smaller places is not 1-2 year project money, but dependable streams of money over longer-periods of time, where they can count on building and retaining highly talented team, keep their flywheels going. I wonder how to think about those types of funding streams? And how do you bring together many smaller places that want to do similar work into larger initiatives that are more attractive to large-scale funders?

    Can't wait to hear about more of these places you uncover, Paul!

  4. Hi Sam,

    I think much of the current funding structure for museums is broken and disproportionately weighted toward a small recurring batch of institutions.

    So I fundamentally disagree that targeted funding for small(er) institutions and/or startups couldn't be useful. Think of this model as analogous to "micro grant" schemes (which have a proven track record of success) but on a slightly larger scale.

  5. A lot of interesting,important and challanging things in this.

    As someone thats been in a science centre for 30 years, as it grew from a single room in an abandonded school to a national institution I've had first hand expreience of the pro's and cons from both ends.

    In truth the risk is smallest for the small projects, yet the innovation in approach is at its greatest there - driven by need to be sure.

    I've just finished working with a group of new sciecne centre folk from south africa and lesotho, where there goverment has elected to create dozens of smaller centres. These folk primarily needed a little practical skills development, confidence building and mentoring, and they are at least now prepared to think they can make a start. One of the key outcomes from our discussions was to need to create some type of network for these centres/people so they could continue to exchnage knowledge, and ideas, and work together - rather than in isolation, reinventing things, and at least explore the ideas of collaborative development and production.

    Many of the smaller venues are much more community focused than the larger centres ( which operate more as tourist destinatins), and so often need to turn some material over to keep repeat visitation up. So one of the challanges is also having a suitable mass of exhibits that can be moved around venues with these smaller spaces, lower budgets ( and sometimes - less technical support).

    If funders ( such as NSF) are hard for these smaller venues to approach or get attention from, then they might see benefit in forming an organisation/network which approaches NSF. That body might also help support touring of exhibits/exhibtions. where's ASTC in this mix.

    From my perspective at the other edge of the world, a lot of great innovation and impact could come from funding these smaller projects.

    Put some mentoring, skills development and knowledge sharing into the mix, and I;d garantee that more of the funds would find useful expression than is the case with most of the larger projects.

    Stuart Kohlhagen

  6. Hi Stuart,

    Thanks for your comments.

    I think it's important to highlight one of your points --- forming networks for information and resource sharing (as well as support) first, rather than cobbling together a group of small unrelated museums just to try for funding.

    The motivations, and results, are usually much different.

  7. In Australia we don't have an equivalent of the NSF or as much of a philanthropic community. This has left us with either government or corporates for funding/sponsorship.

    These larger supporters have a national agenda, and so tend to favor projects with national reach. This has meant on various occasions getting the network of centers and museums to work out a common project, and take that to the sponsors, OR coming up with projects which our center can deliver nationally. Smaller centers in regional communities can normally only access local business - and so do well with "in kind" support - but free paint can only go so far. By getting a network organised, and either seeking to set up an exhibit exchange/ library, or producing cloned exhibits ( one development cost, multiple productions) could be flagged as one way to get a much bigger geographic ( and hence demographic) reach. projects of this moderate scale also can reach disadvantaged communities in a way a "blockbuster" never will.

    I recall that the Monthshire, Kathy kraft's center ( out cornell way) and one other have done a 3 way build then swap... It might be worth exploring their experience, and see if that's a model to promote and support.

  8. Wow. This post hits to the core of what is going on in Tucson, AZ on many levels. As larger projects here struggle to maintain themselves (Flandrau Science Center), or even get a foothold (Rio Nuevo Science Center), our small nonprofit is steadily growing.

    The Physics Factory is mostly a science-show-on-wheels, but we let students share in the fun with exhibit building and presenting, so in that way we are very similar to a community science workshop.
    (pics here:

    As rewarding as it's been to watch the PF evolve into the informal science hub of the community, it has been frustrating and demoralizing to watch loads of money get dumped into a broken machine. Meanwhile, we're building exhibits on a shoestring in our backyards and classrooms, coordinating everything off the clock of our full-time jobs.

    I guess we've been reinventing the wheel. I was psyched to find that these community science workshops exist, receive funding, and have been proven effective.

    Now begins the adventure of finding out how to start one.