January 7, 2014

How Artists Can Help Interpret History

It’s a constant question for people in the preservation community: How can we make museums and historic sites most relevant to the communities they serve? The Sandy Spring Museum in Sandy Spring, Maryland, had a creative solution. Literally, creative. The museum opened its doors to cultural artists -- visual, literary, and performing -- who create new works inspired by the Museum’s historic collection or the history of the area.

We spoke with Allison Weiss, Sandy Spring’s executive director, to learn how the museum approached its reinvention, what happened as a result, and what tips other places can take away from Sandy Spring’s success.

1. Diagnose the problems you’re trying to solve. Since moving to its permanent home in 1996, the Museum had stagnated in terms of membership, programming, and attendance. Half its annual attendance showed up on one day (its annual Strawberry Festival), meaning that for the remaining 364 days, they served an average of 9 visitors. While those numbers remained stubbornly unchanged, expenses kept increasing until the board acknowledged that the traditional model of running a history museum -- with static exhibits and passive programming -- was not working.

In addition, the once-robust Museum membership no longer reflected the community it served. Members tended to be white and elderly, but the surrounding area was only 50% “non-Hispanic whites” and 85% below the age of 65.

2. Consider the community in your solution. Sandy Spring challenged the traditional museum model by allowing greater public access to its collection and facilities. This meant primarily two things: allowing different cultural artists the opportunity to work with the collection and opening the facility up to community collaborators -- people and organizations who want to use the museum to host programs that benefit the whole community.

3. Address the root cause, not the symptoms. Often organizations misdiagnose problems. For example, lack of audience means you need to offer more programs. Lack of money means you need to raise more money. But Sandy Spring Museum started with the idea that lack of money and visitors were merely symptoms of a much larger problem: lack of relevance to the community.

4. Answer the right questions. Sandy Spring posed three questions: 1) What community needs are unmet? 2) What can we do that no one else can do? 3) Where do those two intersect? Identifying that intersection led them to focus on what is unique to the Sandy Spring Museum, namely its collection and its facility.

5. Introduce the site’s history to new audiences. Doing so will widen your site’s reach, increase exposure and relevance, and deepen the human connection. For example, Sandy Spring began a six-month folklife field survey to document local folklife traditions, build relationships with new constituents, and identify artists and collaborators for future projects. This will help ensure the museum diversifies its audience and ensures everyone’s history is represented.

6. Use what you have. Ask, “What can our organization uniquely contribute?” Sandy Spring began with converting unused spaces into artist studios and then offering artists the opportunity to use the Museum’s collection to create new works of art. For example, visual artist Courtney Miller Bellairs photographed dozens of artifacts from the collection and used them in contemporary graphic photo collages, while enamel artist Sue Garten copied a pattern from a 19th-century sewing kit and reproduced it on an enamel bowl.

7. Translate programming into new business models. Revenue from artist studios will account for 6% of Sandy Spring’s operating budget in 2014, while art sales in 2013 increased four-fold.

8. Present ideas to local organizations. Sandy Spring Museum lets as many people as possible know it is open to collaborations. Now people approach them with ideas, such as a co-branded summer camp run by a private school and a teen band night run by the museum and two other nonprofits. Other programs include a winter farmers market and a planned partnership with a for-profit estate and antique dealer that will hold quarterly shows on museum grounds (otherwise unused about 364 days of the year).

Lauren Kingsland and Steve Bellairs at the Museum's fine arts and crafts holiday show

9. Co-curate exhibits with the community. Sandy Spring launched the Extreme Exhibit Makeover where they formed two teams of museum professionals and artists who are doing a makeover of sections of the permanent exhibit. This winter, they will start working with non-museum people -- folks from the local community who will have the opportunity to exhibit personal items at the museum.

10. Show history’s continuum. Often in the history museum field, Weiss hears people ask, “How do we make people understand that history is important?” The question should be, “How can we involve people so history becomes history?” History is all about personal stories, yet history museums often leave people out of history.

There’s a misperception that history began and ended during a certain time period. What’s happening today is going to be the history of our communities in the future. Art gives context to this history, and it helps involve people in what’s unfolding around them.

Need proof that this approach works? Sandy Spring Museum is on track to double its attendance this year.

Julia Rocchi was the senior director of digital marketing at the National Trust. By day she wrangles content; by night (and weekends), she shops local, travels to story-rich places, and gawks at buildings.

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