March 27, 2017; Roanoke Times
How are small museums and the historic societies that run them staying relevant—and more importantly, solvent? For Western Virginia’s historical society, a deep debt meant combining two museums into one…and, in an all-too-familiar scenario, cutting staff.
These nonprofits are facing the same challenges as larger institutions like the embattled Metropolitan Museum of Art, with declines in sponsorships, attendance and membership. But can they stay true to their missions and also adapt to the demands of the digital age?
As reported by the Roanoke Times, the Historical Society of Western Virginia was forced to consolidate its history museum and O. Winston Link Museum of photography into one space last fall, eliminating 17,000 square feet and nine employees. The cause of the crisis? A cautionary tale of falling dominoes. The society didn’t meet its $1.7 million capital campaign goal and took out a $1.1 million loan to finish a new exhibition. The debt led to layoffs and caused the society to spend nearly 75 percent of its endowment to pay off the loan.
Naturally, the society is now trying to put those bad decisions in the rear-view mirror, and leaders pointed to other familiar challenges, like a dwindling pool of donors and local employers’ corporate headquarters (where giving decisions and corporate giving are typically focused) moving away from small communities.
The changes have been painful, but some society members see it as an opportunity. “It’s kind of a shot of adrenaline for both museums,” Sandra Kelly, co-chairwoman of the society’s programs and events commit, told the Times. “It certainly puts us in a more efficient operations situation.”
Meanwhile, in a wealthy town in New Hampshire, the story is much the same. Last month, the Exeter Historical Society cut funding for two employees due to a $30,000 debt. Members and supporters were outraged, according to the Foster’s Daily Democrat, although the board of trustees said it had warned for years that funding was a problem.
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Several trustees said due to inadequate funding they’ve used their own money to put on events that often don’t break even. But bowling nights and bake sales are not enough, several young people said at an emergency society meeting. Societies and museums are at a crossroads where they must morph themselves into an attraction in order to thrive, or for some, survive, while conveying to the average person that history is crucial for the future, and worth investing in.
The outcry resulted in the formation of a “Save Our Society” committee that pledged to raise upwards of $70,000 a year to support the organization and the trustees agreed to keep the employees until mid-May.
The article pointed to several other successful small history museums in New Hampshire, including the Strawberry Banke Museum and the New Hampshire Historical Society.
Here are some of their more fruitful strategies: New events catering to different demographics, such as a wine tasting or family-friendly Halloween stroll; capitalizing on times of low attendance with creative offerings like winter ice skating; highlighting historic issues that are seeing a renewed interest, such as immigration; and creating new revenue streams from venue rentals or publishing books.
It seems the only thing that these small nonprofits can count on is the continued battle to stay afloat. Now, more than ever, we need to grab our wallets and support what we value.
“People seem to think, you come to a museum once every 10 years and then they’re shocked when it closes,” Elizabeth Dubrulle, director of education and public programs at the New Hampshire Historical Society, told the Daily Democrat. “Well, you never bothered to support it. These are the stories of people. We all go see movies and a lot of movies are history.” Dubrulle said if a new generation doesn’t step up to fill the shoes of those leading the way now, the resources will be gone.