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  • Writer's picturePhillip Ratliff

New Voices. Old problems. A dispatch from the Alabama – Georgia joint museums conference.

Updated: Feb 14, 2020

Cover art from the 2020 AMA-GAM joint conference program.

The annual state museum conference is a tough sell that just gets tougher. On the face of it, getting away for three days to hear from nearby presenters isn't that urgent, especially not in tiny states like Alabama. You either see the would-be presenters regularly or, are connected to by two degrees of separation, three, tops. If you're looking for advice, why not just ring 'em up, find 'em on Facebook, shoot 'em text?

It gets tougher because the lack of “thereness" cascades. Small attendance doesn’t just mean a pittance of registration revenue. It also means that exhibitors, sensing insufficient ROI, pass you by. And that in turn means fewer perks for attendees (a dearth of not only grits bar toppings and branded lip balm, but of that ineluctable feeling in your gut that you're at the party.) Don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t buy je ne sais quoi. You’re a museum professional and you know full damn well that memorable experiences require both a good idea and the shelling out of cash.

This year, Georgia and Alabama may have figured out how state conferences can avoid such death spirals. January 26 to 29, organizers from the two states’ respective museum associations joined forces in Columbus, Georgia, for a joint conference entitled New Voices.

The conference's content mirrored the approach itself. Many of the sessions addressed the needs and interests of underserved sectors of the museum-going public. There were sessions on outdoor learning spaces for children on the spectrum, the collection of Alabama's queer/trans history, and the reframing Civil War history for modern, diverse audiences. It was pretty smart.

It so happened that I was near Columbus on January 27 and had the good fortune to attend the conference's first full day. To be clear, I was en route to other business and fulfilling a half dozen personal commitments – otherwise I would have taken in the conference in its entirety. But my brief stay did give me a chance to conduct a casual, non-scientific survey of who was in attendance.

Yeah, I eyeballed it. But I can still confidently report that attendance was robust and the sessions were lively and well populated with a mix of Boomers, Gen-Xers, Millennials, and maybe even a few newly minted Gen-Zers.

The Columbus Georgia Convention and Trade Center

While I was there that day mainly for the networking, I was able to attend one session, “Building Membership and Programming in a Free Museum.” I'm glad I did. The session chair, Marissa Howard, and co-chair, Rebecca Selem, offered the 50 or so attendees several case studies drawn from their work at the DeKalb History Center in Decatur, Georgia.

Here is what stood out:

To fund an exhibition of dresses and textiles from the DHC collection, Ms. Howard and Ms. Selem devised an ingenious scheme: Adopt-A-Mannequin. For a fee, DHC members as well as the general public could having naming privileges for one of the exhibition’s several mannequins. The naming rules were clearly devised with the Boaty McBoatface debacle in mind.

Courtesy of the Dekalb History Center.

The financial response was encouraging. According to the DHC Facebook page, the campaign exceeded their $10,000 goal. And the emotional response was ... unexpectedly poignant. Donors named mannequins after departed loved ones and were moved to see the honoree's name prominently featured in the exhibit.

DHC marked Halloween 2019 by inviting paranormal investigators to lead a haunted house tour of the DHC building (a courthouse at one time). They gave the tour a plain Jane name, "Spooky Tour," and proceeded to sell it out. DHC will offer multiple iterations next year, the presenters said.

Ms. Howard and Ms. Selem peppered their presentation with strategies for capturing donations and membership renewals. They’re fond of the online platform, Square, but were careful to also offer old-school print mailers and Vistaprint rack cards, in keeping with the demographics.

The subject of demographics came up often. DHC was formed in 1947. In 1968, the DeKalb County Commission reorganized DHC and moved their offices into the historic DeKalb County Courthouse. Today, DHC serves as a museum, with free permanent and temporary exhibits. And as an archive, where researchers can access periodicals, photos, maps, cemetery indices, and more.

DHC membership spans back to the 1968 reorganization. That's fifty-plus years! (Math.) Attracting new members from Decatur’s youthful population to a history museum with a loyal membership that is nonetheless in slight decline has become the question of the day. I don't think there's any museum that isn't swatting away at some version of this problem. (I offered a primer here, but I should stress these are infrastructural basics.)

So how do you keep the old guard engaged and reach new audiences at the same time? The answer isn’t just about social media vs. print production because the question is about more than just platforms. It gets at the heart of content, as the staff at DHC knows full well.

In the what to do column, DHC has expanded exhibits and programming to address textiles, African American history, and pop culture nods like the Spooky Tour (which, to my ear sounds a little bit like something off of TLC).

In the what not to do column, they've made difficult choices to pull or reframe sensitive content. As an example, DHC took down an exhibit on Civil War history (a move that I can only think was unpopular with some of the old guard) to make space for other topics and to create a better balance. In keeping with state law, DHC left standing the Civil War monument in the front of their building. But they devised a workaround, inviting the NAACP to interpret the monument.

The session was a microcosm for what state museum associations and the profession itself will face in coming years. So far, the issue is little more than a complicated question about how to run both toward and from the center (according to a recent explainer in the New York Times, akin to the trick Democrats must pull off in the 2020 Presidential election). But it’s the right question. DHC and the museum associations in Georgia and Alabama are asking it, and apparently feeling their way toward some useful answers.

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