Museums are in trouble

The government shutdown in Minnesota is now in its second week, with no end in sight, closing the Minnesota Historical Society and its museums, libraries, and historic sites throughout the state.  But as a colleague from Minnesota writes. “Actually, I think what Minnesota is facing now is just one version of what other states, cities, and the country are facing.”
A report from the American Association of Museums released in April 2011supports this observation.  The results of an online survey sent by AAM to 2300 museums in February 2011 (with almost 400 museums responding) indicates that that over 70% of American museums are in some kind of financial stress, “from moderate (39%) to severe (14%) or very severe (18%) –with very severe stress defined as ‘the very worst I have seen in at least 5 years.'”  The chart below reveals some of the reasons for the gloomy assessment: almost all funding streams are in a downward trend.  The reduced level of government support is particularly troubling, and has been reinforced by recent announcements of funding cuts for  NOAA  and proposed cuts for NEA and NEH.
Changing landscape of funding streams
Change from 2009 to 2010. Red=decrease; Blue = increase

The report also includes a useful breakdown of the kinds of measures museums are taking to address the budget crunch. IDEA provided the graphic below.


Between them these two charts provide an unsettling picture of the financial malaise of museums during The Great Recession.  Just last week we were all disappointed in the very low number of new jobs created during June – just 18,000 when economists were hoping for over 90,000.  If you look at the chart above, you can see these national statistics writ small in the museum world: most of the budget-saving measures listed, from hiring freezes to staff lay-offs to postponment of projects­, affect museum job seekers, current employees, and prospective consultants.  
My Minnesota colleague continues, “The course corrections that began in many museums in 2008 probably need to continue; they were understandably jettisoned as soon as things seemed to be easing up.”
AAM is addressing these challenges with an active Advocacy program, and it ran multiple Career Café sessions at the conference in Houston in May. Its opening general session was entitled “Tough Economy, Tough Choices.” But should there be more serious discussion of the implications of the recession at our professional meetings?  I just received the conference program for the ASTC (Association of Science-Technology Centers) conference in Baltimore this October. There are a number of sessions on marketing, governance, and fundraising, but no indication of the widespread problems described above.  One promising thread found in both the Houston and Baltimore programs – increased discussion of the public value of museums.  What are your thoughts – do we need more attention to the larger questions of the economy, the common good, and our place in it?  Or is more discussion a waste of time?  What if the AAM program next year really focused on these questions?  After all, AAM 2012 is in Minneapolis/St. Paul!

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