I have just read the latest post from the American Association of Museum’s (AAM) Center for the Future of Museums blog, titled “Should Museums be Thankful?” Their answer, in short, was “No!” Their lament is that federal government support for museums (ie, large museums) is likely to be reduced in the future. You can read their post here. Here is my response:
The federal tax deduction for charitable donations is irrelevant for most of the small museums I am familiar with. Their typical donor is giving $10 or $20 – or maybe $50 – a year. Their typical donor is the average American taxpayer, who takes the “standard deduction” on their income tax return rather than itemizing, and thus receives no tax benefit from a charitable contribution. The charitable-donation deduction only benefits wealthy individuals who itemize their deductions, and the comparatively well-funded largest museums in the country who are the recipients of these donations.
I find it ironic that the “liberal” politicians – who are generally accused of wanting to “soak the rich to benefit the poor” – are in this instance the leading advocates of giving breaks to the wealthy and supporting large cultural institutions at the expense of everyone else. And I am surprised that an organization such as the AAM – which claims to represent ALL museums – is expending all its lobbying efforts on benefits which will aid only the privileged few.
Thanksgiving is this week. While it’s been a tough year for museums – especially very small ones with limited resources – we still have much to be thankful for.
The economy appears to be starting its rebound, though individual and corporate charitable donations are still down. Community foundations that restricted their funding to basic human needs during the recession are resuming their support to cultural and educational institutions, including museums.
I sense an increased recognition at the state and national levels of the needs and problems of very small museums. Cost is no longer a factor for museums wanting to join the American Alliance of Museums (AAM), which now allows museums to join at whatever price they can afford to pay. The American Association for State and Local History (AASLH) has offered some excellent programs geared to small museums — both at its annual convention and through Webinars. Even the Federal government’s Institute for Museum and Library Services (IMLS) has expanded their free programming and made it available to anyone (though they do not yet offer any funding opportunities for very small museums – a topic for future discussion).
During this Thanksgiving week I am thankful for the increased recognition of small museums. I am thankful for the individuals, corporations, and foundations that have continued to support small museums. I am thankful for the excellent programs and support offered to small museums in my home state by the Wisconsin Historical Society, and for similar efforts in other states. And I am especially thankful for the tens of thousands of volunteers nationwide who do whatever it takes to collect, preserve, and share the stories of their local communities.
“All politics is local,” stated legendary former U.S. House of Representatives Speaker Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill many years ago. With the presidential elections finally behind us, it is an appropriate time to reflect on this famous political quote and how it relates to history museums.
Through years of rough-and-tumble experience, Speaker O’Neill learned that voters were more likely to be driven by local issues than the so-called “important” national issues of the day, though the latter received much greater publicity from the media. The same can be said of history. Local communities are not identical. Each has its own unique characteristics and culture. Each has its own unique reason for existence and development into what it is today. Local history is “real” and something the average citizen can relate to. It explains unique local traditions and institutions that residents deal with every day. While generally ignored by the mass media media, local history is nonetheless a vital component of our nation’s history and culture. I believe that Tip O’Neill would have agreed that “All history is local.”
As the custodian of local history, the community museum or historical society is an essential element in the effort to preserve the stories of our local communities. Our national history is well-studied and documented in multiple sources: books, universities, museums, etc. If one institution were to be destroyed, the important stories of our country would live on through other resources. But if a local historical society in a small community were to die, what other institution would step forward to take its place?
Our local historical organizations are essential and irreplaceable. Unfortunately, many (and I could probably say “most”) lack the resources to adequately carry out their roles. Most are very small, and nearly invisible to grantmakers and other funding sources. They are predominantly run by volunteers — hardworking and dedicated volunteers —but the pool of volunteers is dwindling. Unlike their larger brethren, small history museums have no core of paid staff to fall back on. If there are no volunteers – or no funds to hire staff – there is no museum. And if the museum dies, the collective memory of the local community dies with it. This cannot be allowed to happen.