Lean In and Let Go: Creative Team Building in Small Museums

By Dr. Stephanie Fuglaar Statz, Senior Historian

crossing-museum-houseMy first day as director of a very small museum in a rural town was unlike any first day I had ever had. There was a quick human resources meeting, and I got the keys to the museum. I was bubbling with excitement about being able to help the city resurrect this treasure trove of history. The museum housed thousands of stories that told a history important to the region and the nation. Sadly, it had slipped into an institutional coma over a couple of decades because there was not enough community involvement. I faced the massive job of organizing a large, uncurated collection and starting an educational program.

I walked up to the main building in the retired mining railroad depot that housed the museum collection and realized the old, dilapidated dock had already been removed. “Yay for safety and efficiency,” I mused. Then, I noticed there was now a six-foot distance in height between the ground and bottom of the front door. I thought, “It was an industrial facility; there has to be a ladder around here somewhere.” In the railroad car repair building (also used for museum maintenance), I found one wooden ladder. It was three feet tall and had seen better days … a long time ago. “Is this part of the collection or for maintenance?” I wondered.

At the front door, I discovered that with the ladder I could just reach the lock and open the door. I squirmed my way into the building, stood up, and surveyed my new assignment. “Where to start,” I pondered, looking at two large rooms that were a maze of four-foot piles of artifacts and manuscripts. Should I find out where that horrible smell is coming from? Should I begin taking down the tangles of “creative” electrical solutions to keep the building from burning down before I have a chance to even find out what is at the bottom of the piles? Or do I remove the flammable chemicals?

I have told this story to other small museum professionals. It gets a laugh, but also so much commiseration. I am not the first to have to choose between a bad infestation and an imminent building fire. This is the life of a small museum director.

crossing-museum-trainWorking in a small historical museum presents unique challenges that consistently pull a director in many different directions. From daily management (following a stringent cleaning schedule, historic structure maintenance, visitor care, volunteer care, reporting, managing a board) to projects (archive creation, accessions, exhibit design, research, and cataloging), the total skill set required to achieve it all is very broad. In tandem with the complex juggling act of the museum director, there can also be a looming threat of museum closure. Funding reductions at all levels over the last five years have been tough for the museum community as a whole, and small museums are making hard decisions to stay open.

I knew I had to act fast and make the museum a priority for my community to keep the doors open. I was the only staff member and had two part-time volunteers. I had to both lean in and let go. In three years, we turned the museum around and created a vital community resource for education, events, and family outings. We even created a local history research center. Creative team building was my way to accomplishing what had to be done at the museum. I began talking to everyone who would listen about the museum, its mission, and its needs. Over time, I was able to recruit many community members to the museum team.

Creative team building involves exploring non-traditional options for going beyond keeping up. It helps you to get ahead. Some of these are:

  • Collaborate with local groups
  • Join forces with the local library and parks department
  • Build a strong board
  • Use consultants to “finish off” projects to create high-quality professional products (such as exhibit displays)
  • Crowdsource research and history collection

The positive power of collaboration cannot be overstated. Join forces with groups in your community to meet both of your needs. I was fortunate to join forces with my local rotary club and scouting groups. The rotary club looks for service projects in their community. At my museum, they helped paint benches for the activity room we created in a retired army medical train car. The benches were built by the local school band, organized by a boy scout who needed a project for his Eagle Award. I worked with the local Girl Scouts to create a program where girls could come to the museum and earn a badge in a day. Part of that project was to plant hundreds of tulip bulbs around the museum grounds in preparation for future spring festivals. Another fun project was with a local art guild. I opened early a few days so they could hold plein air (outdoor) art days for their members. The museum also hosted a plein air art competition. In return, I met great artists who volunteered to create signs and art for the museum.

creative-yellow-concrete-plant-artThe museum where I worked was owned by the city, which provided great potential for collaboration. The city library director is a creative, productive woman who was happy to join forces with me on several projects. I designed a History of Christmas in Tooele activity for the library. The library educational director brought her regular activities to the museum, which resulted in several great storytime videos at the museum. The parks department recreation director—another accomplished, creative woman—agreed to hold some of their summer family events at the museum. All I had to do was provide logistical assistance. We also formed a team between the library, parks department, and museum that organized and held several large events that brought thousands to the museum. I was able to reuse the activities and handouts (such as coloring pages) prepared for these events at the museum for tours.

Building a strong board that reflects your community and has a wide array of talents is vital. Board members can become strong team members. Taking time to recruit board members and develop relationships is always worth the effort. Through the members of my museum’s board, I was able to join in on several grants, find people seeking service projects to work at the museum, and expand the museum’s social network by asking board members to engage with their own networks about the museum. I recommend having a few members who are great at networking and sales. Local journalists and writers are also great additions as they can help proofread your exhibit labels, website content, and press releases. Local builders and handymen were really useful on my board to help think through building projects and preservation plans for our historic buildings.

No one can be good at everything. On several projects, I was able to complete the groundwork of a project and bring in a professional to finish off the final product. This worked really well for museum exhibit interpretive signs. I wrote museum text and found photos, and then I had a professional graphics designer finish the signs. The result was a series of beautiful, educational interpretive panels inside and outside the museum. And the cost was much lower than if I had just hired someone to complete them from scratch.

Finally, use the power of the crowd to help with projects. While there have been several examples of successful digital projects using crowdsourcing for humanities projects, the projects do not have to be digital. I tried to work small projects into events and activities that gave the community a chance to help me with research at the museum. Once I made copies of photographs in which there were unidentified people and places and laid these out on a table with pencils. I asked people to provide identifications and then leave their contact information next to their comments. On another project, I enlisted the help of former miners to identify some of the stranger unidentified industrial items in the collection. These low-tech ways of involving the public provided a lot of answers and lead to questions about the collection.

In all the ways you creatively build a team, you are helping yourself get work done. A fortunate result was that I began the process of weaving the museum into the fabric of the community, thus increasing the long-term economic sustainability of the museum. People saw it as an asset worth protecting. By leaning into my community and letting go of some control over projects and initiatives, I gained a fantastic team at the museum that came up with ideas and events I would not have even imagined on my own. It is pretty amazing what a smile, a handshake, and a bit of conversation can lead to.

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Addison Williams

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