Episode 104

104. What Large Institutions Can Learn From Small Museums


February 26th, 2024

14 mins 52 secs

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About this Episode

The Murney Tower Museum in Kingston, Ontario, Canada is a small museum. Open for only four months of the year and featuring only one full-time staff member, the museum is representative of the many small institutions that make up the majority of museums. With only a fraction of the resources of large institutions, this long tail distribution of small museums offers the full range of museum services: collection management, public programs, and curated exhibits.

Dr. Simge Erdogan-O'Connor has dedicated her studies to understanding the unique dynamics and challenges faced by small museums, and is also the Murney Tower Museum’s sole full-time employee.

In this episode, Dr. Erdogan-O'Connor describes the operation of The Murney Tower Museum, discusses the economic models of small museums, and muses on what small museums can teach larger ones.

Image: Murney Tower Museum

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Below is a transcript of Museum Archipelago episode 104. For more information on the people and ideas in the episode, refer to the links above.

Welcome to Museum Archipelago. I'm Ian Elsner.

Museum Archipelago guides you through the rocky landscape of museums. Each episode is rarely longer than 15 minutes, so let's get started.

Let’s say you sorted every museum on earth in order by the number of yearly visitors.

At one end, with yearly visitor numbers in the millions, would be large, recognizable institutions – places like the British Museum in London. There’s a cluster of these big institutions, but as you go further along the ordered list of museums, the visitor numbers start to drop.

At some point during these declining visitor numbers, you reach small museums. Exactly where in the order you first reach a small museum doesn’t really matter – one definition of small museums from the American Association of State and Local History is simply: “If you think you’re small, you’re small.” You could do the same sort by number of staff members or by operating budget – the effect would be more or less the same. The point is that once you reach the threshold where small museums begin, you still have the vast, vast majority of museums to go.

Simge Erdogan-O'Connor: You just realize how many small museums are there in the world. Unbelievable numbers, right? They're everywhere and they hold such an important space in local cultural landscapes. Even if I dare to say more than large institutions.

The sorting exercise illustrates a long tail effect – each small museum, while attracting fewer visitors individually, collectively hosts an enormous number of visitors. There’s just so many of them. The long tail effect was coined in 2004 to describe economics on the internet: the new ability to serve a large number of niches in relatively small quantities, as opposed to only being able to serve a small number of very popular niches.

But unlike the economics of the internet, where distribution costs are minimal, small museums face the challenge of fulfilling nearly all the responsibilities of larger museums without any of the benefits of scale.

Simge Erdogan-O'Connor: What fascinates me most about small museums is despite being so small, they offer almost everything you can find in a large museum, Ian. So do they have collections and do collection management and care? Yes. Do they curate exhibitions? Yes. Do they offer public programs? Yes. Do they organize special events and do marketing and digital engagements? Yes. They make these things happen.

This is Dr. Simge Erdogan-O'Connor, who studies small museums in her academic practice, and works at one.

Simge Erdogan-O'Connor: Hello, my name is Simge Erdogan-O'Connor. I am a museum scholar and professional, currently working as museum manager at a local history museum called the Murney Tower Museum located in Kingston, Canada.

Kingston, Ontario, Canada is a city of about 150,000 people and the Murney Tower Museum is Kingston’s oldest museum.

Simge Erdogan-O'Connor: It will turn 100 years old next year. The museum itself is based in a 19th century military fortification, which was built by the British government as a response to a territorial dispute between England at the time and the United States. And the building itself is called Murney Tower. So the museum, taking its name from that building, but also being based in this building, is very much about that history. Why this building was constructed, what's its relationship to broader Canadian, British, American relationships in the 19th century, but at the same time, the museum is very much about the local history of Kingston as well so we are very local in our focus.

No matter how you define a small museum, Murney Tower is a small museum.

Simge Erdogan-O'Connor: We hold about 1300 objects in our collection and we are seasonal. We are only open to the public from the end of May through September. And I'm the only full time staff member that the museum has, which can also show, I think, many people what small museums are in terms of operational capacity. And then we almost entirely rely on volunteers, interns, and seasonal staff members that we hire in the summer.

Ian Elsner: Right, I was going to make a joke about your, your staff meetings being super quick, but I guess you do have to have meetings nevertheless.

Simge Erdogan-O'Connor: But sometimes I make a joke about that too Ian, meaning, yes, of course, we have board meetings, I constantly have interns, every semester through universities, and in the summer I have three full time staff members. Regardless, sometimes I'm like, I'm the gatekeeper, I am the security guard, I clean the museum, I run the museum, right? I do all of these cool things, like I write the strategic plan, but then there are times that I'm on call waiting for a maintenance person to come to the museum and I just need to be there to open doors to him.

Ian Elsner: I can already see the challenge of having one person do all of those things that you described, but what are some of the other challenges of a small institution or your small institution specifically?

Simge Erdogan-O'Connor: Simply because a big part of Ian, my professional, academic, personal life is concerned with this question of challenges, right? Whether understanding those challenges or finding solutions to those challenges. All my colleagues mention in any conversation that are very common to museums worldwide, big or small, and these challenges certainly affect my own institution as well, like the challenges of colonial and elitist legacies of museums, issues of reconciliation, repatriation, or funding limitations, or reliance on government funding, or contemporary challenges like COVID 19.

So all of these challenges that are very much common in the museum world. But then when I look at his lens of small museums a little bit further, I identify in two major challenges that are much more specific to small museums.

The first one is limited staff resources. I know I already mentioned that, but I still want to explain that a little bit further.

While you have 40, 50, or hundreds of people doing these things in a large museum, you have only, like in my case, one or two people carrying out very similar activities in a small museum. This is a huge challenge because, yes, you can maybe carry these out in some form and capacity, with several people.

But how can you make these activities really effective and impactful, with only a few people? This is a very important challenge that does not exist in large institutions.

And there is a second challenge related to this, is what I refer in my own practice as this incapability mindset. And I found myself in this mindset when I started my work in a small museum four and a half years ago, it took a while for me to get out of this way of thinking. This limitation creates a mindset both in the institution as an institutional mindset but a mindset also in staff members and team members that's very much based on incapability.

So you find yourself being almost conditioned, Ian, inherently to think small. Right? And this way of small thinking poses such a huge challenge to actual capacity of these small museums to grow and to make something meaningful. And, for example, you want to create a new website. You have the idea. You're excited.

And what's the first thing you think? Oh. But I cannot hire a webmaster. I don't know coding and I cannot hire a website designer. I will never be able to make that happen. Or you want to create new exhibits, new exhibitions, nicer panels. And then you're like, but I cannot hire a graphic designer or exhibit designer. I don't know graphic design.

And this kind of, this creates a chicken and egg situation where an idea comes and instantly a door closes. , this is another huge problem, Ian, simply because it took a while for me to get out of this way of thinking. And then the moment I did, I realized a huge potential.

Small museums could do the things they want to do. They can do it, right? Maybe not in a big scale, but you can still make these things happen. You can find a way to make these things happen, but it starts with that mindset. And that's, I think, a huge challenge that exists.

The manifesto writes itself – small museums, not small ideas.

Having only one staff member or not being able to hire somebody to make a website are downstream of not having enough resources. And it’s not obvious how a small museum could take advantage of internet economics because there’s no way to get enough scale such that the marginal cost of each visitor approaches zero. But there is a way to take advantage of internet economics on the production side.

Simge Erdogan-O'Connor: What you said about the internet or digital world is actually, it's a solution to these two problems in a way that I mentioned meaning there's so so many digital resources out there that you can really run a museum on a budget. Of course you cannot hire a webmaster, but there's so many custom made website platforms that allow you to build your own website at a very low cost and quite easily.

There are digital design platforms like Canva graphic design, which has free subscriptions to non profits and they allow you to create really beautiful designs and two platforms, quite frankly, that I'm using in my work. You can leverage that digital world, take advantage of it and then make these things happen at such a low cost.

And then on the flip side, it also opens all of this range of audience engagement, allowing these museums to go out of their localities and becomes something bigger, like you said, at no cost. This is what we have been doing, like using social media, internet, and YouTube. Last summer, we were visited by 12,000 visitors, which was very impressive for us. And 7,000 of those visitors were local or international tourists. And they got to know us through the internet.

So I'm now curious, what, what can big institutions learn from small institutions?

Simge Erdogan-O'Connor: I'm so glad you brought that up. The first thing, Ian, that I really believe, and I'm really, really, really passionate about this, when it comes to small museums, is local connections. I think the biggest impact of small museums is their local connections. How they leverage these local connections to create local impact, but potentially global impact. And I think this is something that larger museums can really learn from them. These museums, they already hold a very important place in the local landscape, local memories, and local stories.

So they have a greater potential to connect with local audiences in a much more efficient and quicker way. And the way they connect with their local audiences is something I think large institutions could really learn from small museums. Because I know large museums that I work with on different capacities, they of course have local initiatives, community initiatives, of course they do, but I think that really understanding local connections and local concerns and histories, it's much different in a small museum, the way the small museums work that out.

And I will give you an example again because I know what I mean could be a little bit vague sometimes. Back in 2020, COVID time for all of us. At the Murney Tower Museum, we really wanted to do something to address the needs of people living in Kingston during the global pandemic, especially find a way to address their issues of social exclusion and isolation and foster connections in our community.

So we launched a local photo contest. We placed ads on local newspaper, TV, and basically we asked people living in Kingston to go back to their cameras, check their photo albums, and then check their childhood albums, and then check their family albums to see if they could find Murney Tower Museum, anywhere, right? And if they did we ask them to find the story behind it and send those pictures to us. So over the course of three months, I think we collected about 120 Incredible, Ian. Photos from 1920s, photos from, yeah, like 1940s,

It also speaks to the advantage of the scale that small museums are operating on, because it's so much less interesting to have that same idea with a big institution. If the British Museum says, everybody send us your images, I'm sure you'll find some great images, but the scale actually isn't meaningful because of course people were going to the British Museum 50 years ago. But having it be that local connection of actually we have 120 pictures and like, I really see that point. The bigger the institution is, the less interesting that exercise is.

It's, yes, absolutely, and the connection part of it becomes much stronger, and it in a way becomes much more intimate. It allowed us to leverage this local connection and I think large museums can really take that local focus from small museums. I think sometimes they can be lost in their big ideas and big collections and big audiences, which are equally important, I get that. But I think sometimes it starts with their neighborhood. Look at your region first, to create something global and bigger, go from there, much more focused perspective, rather than coming from something global or large and big into small.

This has been Museum Archipelago. I have two quick announcements about Club Archipelago, our bonus podcast. I've been having a lot of fun making Club Archipelago, which is kind of a mirror image of Museum Archipelago. While the main show examines the landscape of real museums, Club Archipelago is the podcast that examines museums through the lens of popular culture, like movies and video games.

We've built up quite the collection of episodes from the Night at the Museum series to Toy Story 2. And honestly, I think more people should listen. So I've just added a seven day free trial to the Patreon. You can sign up, listen to as many episodes as you can and cancel before the trial is up completely absolved of any guilt.

Of course, you're very welcome to hang around too. To get access to the free trial, just go to join the museum.club.

And finally I'm discontinuing the sticker rewards of the Club Archipelago membership. It's just too much of a logistical challenge to ship things from Bulgaria. And I want to focus all my time on the much more scalable podcast production. But if you're interested, regardless of whether you're a club member or not, just send me an email and I'll let you know where the closest museum is, where I've left a pile of stickers for you to collect.

For a full transcript of this episode, as well as show notes and links, visit museumarchipelago.com.

Thanks for listening, and next time, bring a friend.