Friday, February 1, 2013

PILOT Programs and Museums

By Dan Yaeger, Executive Director, New England Museum Association

So much of our civic conversation today is black and white. You’re either a winner or a loser. Pro or con. A maker or a taker. 

It wasn’t that surprising, then, to see a column in the Boston Globe recently that characterizes Boston’s museums as selfish tightwads because some resist participating in the city’s payment in lieu of taxes (PILOT) program (“Cultural institutions need to pay up,” Boston Globe, 1/12/13). Columnist Lawrence Harmon speaks for a school of thought within municipal government around the U.S. that puts nonprofit institutions such as museums firmly in the “taker” camp.

Museums, these folks observe, may serve noble civic roles, but they provide little or no direct revenues to the city’s coffers. This is especially galling to them because museums are tax exempt, with some situated on prime real estate. Were the real estate owned by an individual or company, its taxability would be much more productive to the city’s bottom line. This is the fundamental premise behind PILOT, in which a growing number of cities around the country seek to recoup a portion of those lost tax revenues by asking nonprofits, including museums, to pay up voluntarily. 
Money by Tax credits on Flickr

Nationally there are 117 municipalities with PILOTs in 18 states. New England’s PILOT communities include Boston, New Haven, Cambridge, Providence, 82 total municipalities in Massachusetts, and every New England state except Maine and Vermont. 

But the role of museums and cultural institutions in the lives of citizens is not a simple economic calculus. Certainly, economic impact is part of the equation. Museums contribute significantly to local economies through employment and spending, not to mention attracting thousands of out-of-town visitors.

Museums also play an essential educational function that complements primary and secondary schools, important especially in an era of restricted budgets that curtail anything more than core curriculum in public schools. Each month, museum education departments serve thousands of children from all points of the socio-economic spectrum with experiences that will help shape them into accomplished grownups. 

More important than all of these pragmatic benefits, though, is the fact that museums are transformative institutions. They are places where lives are changed through interactions with art, history, science, technology, and ideas that help define our humanity. In museums children are inspired to aspire. Adults learn anew. And communities benefit with an enviable quality of life. 

Museums provide these civic benefits without the benefit of funding streams that other nonprofits enjoy. Compared with colleges and hospitals often targeted by PILOT programs, museums do not charge tuition to confer degrees, nor do they collect payment for services rendered in making bodies whole. Rather, they charge admission, which typically underwrites only a small portion of museum expenses. If they’re lucky, they attract private donations to keep them solvent. Even the largest institutions do not take this for granted.

The problem for museums is not with PILOT programs per se, but the way Mr. Harmon and others seem to use PILOT as a litmus test for whether a museum is contributing sufficiently to the life of the community. PILOT is designed as a voluntary program, with municipalities asking museums to contribute to the cost of fire and police protection, snow removal, and so on. Some museums have contributed while some have not. 

Shaming museums that do not participate in PILOT and suggesting, as Mr. Harmon does in his column, that they may be seen as “parasites,” does great injury to those institutions and, frankly, to the civic conversation. It’s the bully’s approach, and one which fails to recognize the covenant a community has with its cultural institutions. 

Museums emerged in virtually every American city because leading 19th-and 20th-century citizens recognized that they were critical components to a well-rounded citizenry. In recognition of their important role, museums were bestowed with tax-exempt status. Many communities felt so strongly about their museums (and continue to do so) that they built and operated museums using public revenues. In all communities, the covenant was this: museums enhance the community’s quality of life, the community helps sustain the museum.

Now that municipal budgets are strained to the breaking point, it is understandable that some are eying museums and other nonprofits as potential revenue streams. And some museums are in a position to answer the call by volunteering to contribute what they can. 

But those museums not in a position to contribute to PILOT should not be castigated as deadbeats. They still contribute mightily to the community’s bottom line and to its quality of life. They are still major facets of what makes places special. If we construe the relationship between museums and their communities as merely a dollars and cents proposition, we are all impoverished.

Monday, November 19, 2012

New England Museum Association — Annual Conference November 2012 in Burlington, VT

Guest post by Adriene Katz.
Read Adriene's blog here

Thanks to the funding from Vermont Humanities Council, I had the pleasure of attending the full annual conference of the New England Museum Association. This year’s conference theme was “Pushing the Envelope: Innovation and the Future of Museums”. The conference co-chairs describe the theme here.

With Mountain-Plains Museums Association annual conference in mind from last year, I missed my conference mentor that I was assigned for MPMA very much (Hi Jan!), to navigate my first ever NEMA conference. However, the conference smartphone app on my iPhone, made by TourSphere, provided me navigation literally at my fingertips.

Unfortunately, as an emerging museum professional, I noted well after the fact on the NEMA website that the career conversations were for emerging professionals. Fortunately, however, I was able to catch some of the conversation with Ann Lawless of American Precision Museum. (By the way, Ann was wicked amazing!) Sincerely, I wish I could have been in two places at once, and attended more of these unique opportunities to dialogue in a small group, about issues facing our careers.

While I caught the session Curatorial Authority with the Public, I am especially sorry to have missed Michael Taylor of Hood Museum of Art lead the chat for his own “Career Conversation.” Hood Museum of Art has been on my radar this year ever since the exhibits of progressive Canadian photographer Edward Burtynsky & the museum’s acquirement of Duchamp’s valise. The article about the valise in our alternative weekly Seven Days, here in Burlington, VT, actually inspired my personal visit to Philadelphia Museum of Art to see the Duchamp collection in May 2012.  I would have loved very much to hear Michael Taylor speak.

However, I ended up at that very time of the “Career Conversation” in another session, that was just as brilliant for me. In the second half, all the six states of New England were divided up into different groups. As a Vermont resident, I was able to hear regional issues and strategies in regard to collections management and the choices made for handling unclaimed property.

To my delight, I discovered post-conference that I was not the only Vermont professional who feels we need to do a better job of connecting statewide. Amy Mincher of Slate Valley Museum emailed Vermont museum professionals, saying she had set up a Google group for us. Whether it is once weekly or on occasion, now we can all check this single online location for requests for help, for networking, for general ideas, and for collaborations on grants and projects. It is a terrific improvement. Thanks, Amy!

It is also very nice to extend a listserve for Vermont residents who are actively involved with museums, but who did not have the fortune of attending NEMA 2012 in our home state. I definitely passed on the group information to a couple of contacts of my own, whom I thought might have interest.

As for another surprising element of the conference, I found it fascinating — and fitting — in the session “Conversations about Advocacy” to include social media. I wrote a 20 page social media procedures manual for a non-profit in the mountains of Colorado in 2011, and I presented for the session “Social Media 201: Marketing Museums” at Mountain-Plains Museums Association’s annual conference that year as session Chair. Social media advocacy — it’s something new to think about when crafting a procedures manual…

The handouts from the social media aspect, featuring ideas such as skillfully weaving in communication about what museums do, are worth a look. Discussing topics, such as social justice and equality, should go without mentioning that this is murky area for museums, and controversial. In fact, there is an entire panel being devoted to the discussion of this, and whether or not museums should be involved, at Seton Hall University in New Jersey this 27 November 2012. More about the Institute of Museum Ethics:

From perusing #nema2012 hashtag, I love scrolling through Twitter to see what professionals, especially with perspectives differing from my own, take away from the same conference. I aim for two things in writing my tweets: one, capturing ideas I wish to remember, and two, in case the reader of the tweet was not present, to communicate the gist of the idea.

Rarely, will you find any of my tweets about “meals I had last night” or other fluff. Primarily, I utilize my Twitter account for disseminating information, usually about museums, but I also use Twitter to get a multi-perspective scope of the museum field. I follow a LOT of accounts… I never know who or what might turn up useful.

As much as I advocate for the benefits of Twitter, I struggle personally with the idea of tweeting during conference sessions and presentations. It is important to disseminate ideas, but it is equally important to me to be fully present. I do not want to split my attention using a mobile device, and miss out on a point which is made in person. I also like giving my attention to the speaker. Politeness is important! On the other hand (haha – smartphone in hand), I captured and communicated information to many sorts and types of audiences, which was reaching far greater audience(s) usually than I or the speaker(s) could ever have imagined.

I also found my tweets were a conversation starter, as well as a way of presenting myself and my personal interests — sometimes well before I met the professional in person. Having tweeted during the conference connected me with professionals in the field that I might not have encountered at the conference in any other way. The tweet-up (the physical meet up of all the tweeters) was a terrific example.

While attending the conference, I truly appreciated all those who were posting from Museum Computer Network in Seattle on Twitter, who made it easy for me to find their thoughts with the hashtag #mcn2012. I am highly interested in digital humanities, new media, and “pushing the envelope” with new technologies. I want to stay informed. I hope at the NEMA conference next year, there will be a greater population of us who will tweet and who will see tweets as a valuable, interactive, and useful source of information.

During the conference, as I refilled my Shelburne Museum ceramic mug with tea during breaks, I strove to strike up a conversation with as many other attendees as I was able. My foremost goal for this conference was to absorb all the information as I could. I may never get to learn this kind of perspective, or meet this professional, ever again. (Good example: “Career Conversation” with Charlie Browne of Fairbanks Museum. He started as an intern way back when, but now he is retiring as director, This conference was such an excellent opportunity to engage on all things museum, and start envisioning the potential of museums for the future which I do not get to talk about in my every day.

Before the conference started, I read through the descriptions and I noted down exactly which sessions I would attend. Being that I am intellectually curious and an interdisciplinary thinker, I strove for a few things: to skip any session I could obtain information for, and to focus on sessions which could teach me new things. The sessions did not have to immediately link to a job, or to my career aspirations.

In a sense, I was “pushing my own envelope.”

As an emerging museum professional, I found it valuable also to attend the session presented by NEMA Director Dan Yaeger, “Your Best Foot Forward: Personal Skills for Professional Success”. I also learned how to put your best conference tag forward…or, more usefully, our museum-issued ID badges (-:

On a serious note, I got great tips about self-branding, project management, networking, work/life balance… this was all in an hour and a half. I could only imagine the benefit from his day-long presentation.

Professionally, one of the other most useful aspects of NEMA were truly the exhibitors in the exhibit hall. As my primary interests are American furniture and decorative arts, I was delighted to collect a stack of auction house catalogues to study, and to examine to see what exactly is on the market. This collection of catalogues was most magnificent to me, after several months this year at Shelburne Museum in Vermont, interpreting early American furniture (the colonies, until just after United States was an independent nation) to have a catalogue of Vermont Federal period furniture. What a treasure!

If only I had the luxury of unlimited funds — and I was not seeking to advance in the museum field and thereby not have a lot of stuff to move — oh, what I would purchase at auction! Perhaps, on second thought, given my great love of American furniture, decorative arts, and modern design, that would be quite dangerous!

On a realistic side, I have some ideas bubbling for a smartphone app of early American furniture.

In conclusion, I found participating in the New England Museum Association annual conference totally motivating, and energizing. I am crossing my fingers and toes right now to have the fortune to attend the conference next year in Newport! I hear that the Goddard and Townsend families of furniture-making had produced elegant pieces there…

Adriene Katz earned a MA in Museum Studies through the School of Museum Studies at University of Leicester, where she studied museum administration, collections management, exhibition design, social responsibility, and sustainability. Since 2007, Adriene has been involved with Shelburne Museum in Shelburne, Vermont, and is looking to advance in the field of museums. Her interests include early American furniture and decorative arts, and digital humanities.

You can find her on Linked In, and follow her on Twitter, @appleandthebee

Friday, October 19, 2012

YEPs Track at NEMA 2012

Guest post by Amanda Gustin, NEMA Young and Emerging PAG Co-chair. Read Amanda's blog here

I mentioned that I'm excited for NEMA, right?

I've combed over the program to create a track that I think would provide a good first time experience for a Young or Emerging Professional. This track will take an attendee from Tuesday night right through to Friday, but shouldn't be one-size-fits-all; you definitely will want to
take a good look at the full program to make sure that your dream panel isn't happening on the other side of the hotel at any given time.

With that in mind, here's my suggested schedule for a new museum professional at NEMA, keeping in mind that I'm speaking for myself, personally, and not for NEMA or the YEPs PAG. (Warning: really long.)


7:00 - 9:00 p.m.
PechaKucha Night
I didn't make this last year, but I'm hoping to this year. It sounds like a great icebreaker and a good way for a first timer to meet people even before the conference starts.


8:00 - 9:00 a.m.:
Welcome Coffee & Baked Goods in the Exhibit Hall
Absolutely essential. Eat early and often, especially if you're a broke young nonprofit professional. Bring your own reuseable coffee mug to keep liquids warmer longer and to have a way to seal them and prevent awkward spillage during a session.

9:00 - 10:30 a.m.:
Coming Back Stronger: How Museums Can Prepare, Survive, and Thrive After a Major Disaster
There are some good sessions in this time slot, but for my money this is the best for a new professional. It promises to be a good combination of theory and case study with lessons learned in recent memory. Disaster preparedness sometimes takes the back seat in planning, but it can be vitally important.

10:45 - 12:15 a.m.:
Keynote Speaker Michael Jager
Keynote speakers have been hit or miss for me, but you should still be there, if only to have talking points for the rest of the week. Check out Jager's invitation video to learn more of what he'll be talking about.

12:45 - 1:15 p.m.:
Opening Lunch
Definitely go to this. Stretch yourself a bit and sit at a table with people you've never met, and strike up a conversation. Opening lunch food is usually pretty good, too. Don't be like me and sit underneath the puppet performance, though. That was awkward.

1:15 - 1:45 p.m.:
Dessert and Coffee in the Exhibit Hall
My first rule of NEMA: always go to the dessert breaks.

1:45 - 3:15 p.m.:
Strategize Me: Making a Career Plan
If you're not going to come see me at the ECHO Lake Aquarium, then this session is a no-brainer. Linda Norris is behind the terrific blog The Uncatalogued Museum, she's smart and savvy, and she's a good person to know. This session looks like an ideal one for young professionals who are still figuring out the field.

3:15 - 3:45 p.m:
Snack Break in Exhibit Hall
Are you sensing a theme? Seriously though even if you feel like you couldn't eat another bite, take this time to explore the exhibit hall. Get your exhibit hall card signed off by various vendors - it may seem a little silly, but two years ago I won a free registration and last year I had friends who won other great stuff. Plus, the vendors are nice people who will give you free samples and will teach you about cool things.

3:45 - 5:15 p.m.:
Conversations About Advocacy
Making a case for your museum in your community is a really big deal, and with the trend toward decreased funding for museums, community support is crucial. This isn't going away anytime soon, and hearing about it from people on the front lines is a great opportunity.

5:15 - 6:15 p.m.:
Exhibit Hall Reception
Same as above. Eat and chat. This will be quite crowded though, so if you're feeling burnt out from the day and need to get out of the hotel or just be alone in your hotel room for a while, skip it.

6:15 - 9:00 p.m.:
Welcome to Burlington! An Evening at ECHO
The NEMA evening events are always a good time, and if you can spring for the $50 price tag, this is well worth it. Though the description says there will only be hors d'oeuvres, I've never left a NEMA event hungry.


8:00 - 9:00 a.m.:
Welcome Coffee in the Exhibit Hall
More free food. Take this opportunity too to get your exhibit hall card signed.

9:00 - 10:30 a.m.:
Sexual History: Exploring Interpretive Opportunities at Historic Sites
This looks like a great, balanced, researched approach to a tricky topic. As more and more research is done into the "alternative" histories of traditionally interpreted sites, sexuality and gender will become interesting and valuable topics to explore.

10:30 - 11:00 a.m.:
Coffee Break in the Exhibit Hall
Go grab a quick drink, take this time to connect with someone, or check email quietly. Mid-morning recharges are key.

11:00 a.m. - 12:30 p.m.:
Your Best Foot Forward: Personal Skills for Professional Success
No-brainer for emerging professionals. Dan Yaeger, Executive Director of NEMA, is presenting this session, which will be hugely valuable for YEPs especially.

12:45 - 2:20 p.m.:
PAG Lunches
I can't make a recommendation about these, as they're all very different. I've gone to several over the years, and always enjoyed myself. Choose the one most relevant to your interests.

2:30 - 3:00 p.m.:
Exhibit Hall Closing Reception and Raffle Prize Drawing
Definitely attend this. Make sure you turn in your filled out exhibit hall card to win a cool prize.

3:00 - 4:00 p.m.:
Career Conversation with Michael R. Taylor
These are a fairly new addition to the NEMA schedule. I attended one last year out of curiosity and really, really enjoyed it. This is a great opportunity to have a more personal conversation with a smaller group of professionals, all of whom are seeking some kind of career advice.

4:45 - 5:30 p.m.:
Newcomers Reception
This cocktail event is sponsored by the Tufts University Museum Studies program, and therefore I have absolutely no bias in encouraging you to attend. Seriously, though, this is exactly the kind of event that young professionals can benefit from. It's free, and it's a room full of people in the same place you are.

6:00 - ? p.m.:
Dinner Discussion: Set Yourself Apart for Success
This is an evening conversation at the Bluebird Tavern organized by the Young & Emerging Professionals PAG and co-hosted by yours truly. It's really planned with emerging professionals in mind and should also be a fun, informal meet & greet.


8:30 -  9:00 a.m.:
Coffee & Baked Goods in the Exhibit Hall
Breakfast is the most important meal of the day. Again, bring a reusable mug and fill up for the rest of the morning.

9:00 - 10:30 a.m.:
Is the Customer Always Right? Sharing Curatorial Authority with the Public
I was really torn on this session, I have to admit. But when I asked myself which session would be best for a new professional, this one stood out. Sharing authority is a big hot issue in museums right now and we're poised at the edge of a new way of doing things that could be really exciting. I attended a session based on the same source book - Letting Go? Sharing Historical Authority in a User-Generated World - at AAM this past spring and it was really terrific.

11:00 - 11:45 a.m.:
NEMA's 15 Minutes of Fame!
I didn't attend this last year, as I wasn't sold on the concept, but crowdsourcing the speaker this year seems to have worked well and there are some really interesting candidates. Based on the way they've chosen the speaker, it promises to be a clever, high energy session.

12:45 - 2:00 p.m.:
Annual Luncheon Meeting
Good way to wrap up a busy week. The food is usually pretty good, and it's always interesting to see how NEMA conducts business. Connect with everyone you've met one last time before heading back to Boston.

If you are able, try to stay in Vermont through the weekend. It's one of the greatest places on earth - no exaggeration - and it has some terrific museums. Drive down Route 7 to see the stunning scenery of the Champlain Valley, or down 89 on the other side of the mountains for some great museums in Waterbury, Barre, Montpelier, and Norwich.

Friday, October 5, 2012

The Boring Banished

Guest post by Ed Maloof, Principal, Content•DesignCollaborative LLC

The ocean’s edge on a fall morning in New Hampshire was the setting for “Banish the Boring: Developing Effective Presentations,” a workshop given by NEMA Executive Director Dan Yaeger and featuring Wendy Lull, president of the Seacoast Science Center. Dan began his presentation in a most bizarre manner, stating “The most important thing in public speaking is...”  and then just gazed at us, the audience, most intensely!

We didn’t get it, so he repeated the performance, and then queried us. What was he was getting at? Participant Jon Brandon thought he was trying to send a telepathic message. Others answered “The Pause!” or “Eye Contact!” Were these the lessons being demonstrated? No, the important thing was the fact we were all there, eager to become better public speakers.

In keeping with the spirit of the workshop, Wendy then demonstrated the “don’ts” of public speaking, but could not help keeping us amused nonetheless, “I studied snails, not whales, but since they rhymed...”

Credit must be given to the workshop presenters. We were not bored, and in the second half of the workshop we were tasked with putting what we learned into practice by creating a “do-it-yourself conference session.” I hope our presentations were half as fun!

Monday, July 16, 2012

Rhody Ramble: A Road More Traveled

Guest post by Morgan Devlin, Marketing Manager for Historic Sites Coalition of Rhode Island, Preserve Rhode Island

This summer, my son and I have a new way to explore Rhode Island. We are following in the footsteps of a colorful, cartoon rooster named Rhody the Rambler. It just so happens that I also spend my days at work with Rhody. He is the mascot for a new summer adventure for families at historic sites in Rhode Island.

Historic sites, like all museums, need to engage younger visitors with programs that will attract them and their parents. The good news is that many sites are already doing programs and events for families. The challenge is that most sites have limited staff time and budgets to market these events to their prospective audience. Enter Rhody the Rambler.

Rhody was born out of a desire to increase the reach of members of the Historic Sites Coalition of Rhode Island. The coalition, a program of Preserve Rhode Island, is open to all historic sites in the state which are accessible to the public. The sites range from large oceanfront mansions to historic farms to smaller historic homes. Formed in 2007, the Coalition has worked together on collaborative marketing projects in the past such as joint open house days, but this is the largest marketing initiative it has undertaken to date.

The Rhody Ramble did not require participating sites to create new events. Instead, we asked them to submit all existing summer events for children 5-12 and their families. We anticipated 8-12 places would participate in this new program. So, we were delighted when we ended up with 21 sites! Despite our familiarity with the organizations, it was eye-opening to see how many were offering programming for kids. During the process, some did get inspired and added new events. The resulting activities range from Breakfast in the Barnyard to a Favorite Doll Tea to a Concert under the Elms to a Civil War Re-enactment Weekend. For a complete list, visit

From small to large, the participating organizations were all enthusiastic about being part of this new program. As so many in the museum field know, the collaboration model is a wonderful way to expand your traditional audience and cross-market with other sites. Since the programming was already in place, the sites’ role was primarily to help market the program by sharing it with visitors and members, as well as assisting with program evaluation. The centralized marketing relieved the burden from individual sites of taking a piece of the project in addition to their list of other responsibilities.

Rhody is based on the iconic Rhode Island Red rooster. He is truly a representative of his home state and its unique historic treasures. However, both the graphics and the name Rhody Ramble were designed to conjure up a playful, family program. While we do not hide the historic nature of the participating sites, we chose to create a look that is very different from most historic house marketing. By creating a brand that did not present history first, but focused on the family theme, we could leap beyond the perceived boundaries of those who do or do not ‘like’ history.

We need to be clear that not all historic sites or museums are a good fit for young children. Simply repackaging those experiences in a ‘family-friendly’ brochure will not change the visitor experience. Instead, we need to focus on what works for families and offer them good ways to visit our sites and engage with them. Visitors who come to a family concert in the garden and get to peek inside the house may decide to come back for a tour. They may become members. They will most likely tell their friends about their experience.

So, how do you connect with families? From Facebook and ‘mommy bloggers’ to libraries and neighborhood coffee shops, the network for reaching families is there. With a very modest marketing budget, the Rhody Ramble had to focus on the most cost-effective ways to spread the word. Working with talented graphic designers and a web developer, we created a passport-style brochure and an event web site. We reached out to local media, tourism partners, and family web sites. We put up posters and dropped off brochures. We talked to friends. We posted on Facebook and we even Tweeted about it!

As I write, we are one month into our three month summer program. There is still much work ahead of us to spread the word, raise awareness and build future partnerships. However, the response has been great. At a recent weekend concert, I walked around handing out brochures to families. Some had heard of the program and many had not. But the response was almost uniformly enthusiastic. Parents are always looking for fun activities to do with their kids. Most of us would like share meaningful experiences with our children, where we can both learn about our culture and our community. We often just need someone to point us in the right direction. Who better than a cartoon rooster named Rhody?

Join the ramble this summer at

A few logistical details…
  • Preserve Rhode Island (PRI) secured a grant from the Rhode Island Foundation to cover most of the administrative costs of the project.
  • PRI hired a marketing consultant and an evaluation consultant to manage the new program.
  • Each site joined PRI as an institutional member to support the joint marketing effort.
  • A steering committee reviewed site event submissions and provided guidance on the program.
  • A unique identity based on the program concept, and not the group name, was selected to help broaden the potential audience.
  • A graphics set was developed that could be used for all materials. The marketing campaign includes a ‘passport’ brochure, a web site with event calendar, a poster, email communications, a Facebook page and Twitter account.
  • Each site was surveyed about their experience with evaluation and the data they collect about visitors. They are responsible for recording data about the events participating in the Rhody Ramble.
  • The evaluation consultant and a summer intern are traveling to a sampling of the summer events where they are conducting brief surveys about visitors’ familiarity with the Rhody Ramble and the site.
  • At the conclusion of the campaign, each site will be surveyed about their experience with the marketing collaborative.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Small Site, Big Reward? “Successfully” Managing Functions with a Staff of One

Guest Post By Craig Tuminaro, Regional Site Manager for Maine and New Hampshire, Historic New England

Gov. John Langdon House Gardens with a tent
that is used during events, Historic New England
A little over a year ago, I started in my current position as a Regional Site Manager with Historic New England. Having spent most of my career working with historic sites, I was excited about working with an amazing and varied collection of sites in programming, marketing, and operations. One aspect, however, that had me less than enthused was that one of the sites I was to manage hosted a number of rental functions, and I was expected to work with and develop this earned income endeavor. Up until this time, I had successfully avoided working with weddings or corporate events, and had seen them as potentially at odds with the traditional visitor experience, or at best, a “mission-enabling” enterprise whose earned income potential allowed for “mission-driven” programming.

After talking and meeting with several potential clients, I began to realize that the success of weddings and other functions at a historic site abided by that often quoted maxim of “attitude, not just aptitude.”  If one went into offering functions seeing them only as “a necessary evil,” then undoubtedly that would influence the result. However, if functions could be seen as another avenue for visitor engagement, albeit not the one most tried-and-true museum folk saw as ideal, then there could be a different result.

So, in my one long year of working with functions, these are some Rules of the Road I’ve discovered that have guided me in my effort to make functions successful, with a staff of one:
  •  If You are Going to Do It, Then Do It! Don’t go into the process kicking and screaming. I’m a big believer of doing something all the way, not half way, so if you decide to offer functions as part of your overall program, then make the commitment to do it right.
  • Remember the Importance of Customer Service. Potential and actual clients are visitors to your site, and your dealings with them—on the phone, via email, and in person—are a reflection of both you as a professional and your institution.
  • Streamline the Process As Much As Feasible. Have easily customizable responses ready to go when inquires or common questions come through. It’s also important to figure out what information is best to share when.
  •  Set Limits, Both Realistic and Reasonable. I am fortunate that the number of functions offered each year is limited by the city in which my site is located. But if you are doing functions and feel overwhelmed by the number, or are just getting started, consider a limit—by month, season or year. Be careful though, not to “no” yourself into getting no business—by making it so difficult or costly to have a function at your site, potential clients look elsewhere.
  • Know When to Be Flexible, and When Not to Be. Sometimes rules can be broken, especially if doing so poses no harm to visitors, the site, or the collection. For example, we have a “no limousines down our driveway” rule but when I looked up to see a limo, with the bride and bridal party inside, halfway down the driveway, I decided to just let it roll. Sometimes towing the line just to tow the line isn’t worth it.
  • Learn As You Go, Adjust, and Evolve. I see the guidelines and policies for functions at my site as a constant work in progress. In my first year alone, I changed things around five or six times, many as a result of things I observed or experienced during a function that I thought should have been clearer. It doesn’t help in the moment, but does help from making the same mistake twice.
  •  If You are Going to Do It, then JUST DO IT!  Again, I would stress the importance of not just making the commitment, but following through on it as well. Not all brides are the scary “bridezilla” and not every wedding is going to be as over-the-top as Kim Kardashian’s. The best result we can realistically work toward is a wonderful event that puts a spotlight on some of the best features of your site and creates an experience that lives long in the minds and hearts of those that attended. And isn’t that the best we can hope for in all of our visitors?