In today’s budget conscious world I have heard more frequently than ever how museums are nice extras to have in a community but not essential. But once you get beyond the most basic food, shelter and clothing, and start thinking about what makes a community, museums are a necessary and integral part of that equation.
Part of our challenge in the non-profit world is that there are no easily and well recognized formulas for measuring our success. For the for profit enterprise we can look at stock price, return on investment or quarterly profit and have some sense about the value of the business. These types of measures do not exist in the non-profit world. We can generate numbers of visitors, employees, objects, etc. but these do not readily translate in to a recognized value like the numbers do in the for profit arena.
I would argue that trying to measure the value of our non-profit institutions using the same criteria we apply to the for-profit world is wrong. You do not try to play baseball following the rules of tennis, nor should we accept the application of for profit measurements on the non-profit world. We do use business tools, operate everyday like any other business, we pay bills, salaries and expenses and have income while producing a product or service. However, this is not done in pursuit of financial gain but to further our core mission.
The value of a museum lies outside of a monetary assessment and lies within those boundaries that prescribe a high quality of life. CCHS is currently working on two exhibits for this year that actively involve collecting stories, one about the community wide experience during devastating flooding in 1972 and the other about the impact and legacy of local artist Talitha Botsford who gladly shared her gifts with many people. People are sharing with us their stories and artifacts about their own past experiences and through the museum these are now becoming part of the community’s past experiences. As the institution that gathers and preserves this collective memory we add an intangible value to the community in general. The shared experiences of the community will be saved in the same way that family histories pass from parent to child. As the bridge between a personal experience and a community experience, the museum adds value by putting all of these together to create a bigger picture and greater understanding.
It is this intangible asset that is the greatest strength of a museum. As the institution that holds the collective experience of a community, museums move that experience from the private to the public realm and protect it for future generations. More importantly, museums share what they have in their collections and make them available to all. Through this dual mandate of preserving and sharing, by being the repository of community knowledge and experience, museums add value to the life of their communities.