Monday, February 28, 2011

Being Local: Not Just For Food

Fresh from the garden; Edible School Yard at Greensboro Children's Museum

Examples of how important fresh and local has become for food are as abundant as zucchini in a Minnesota garden in August. They are absolutely everywhere. Grocery stores have local produce sections. CSA’s (community supported agriculture) are popular and growing more so. Cookbooks focus on locally foraged food. Some restaurants advertise local and seasonal menus (a bit challenging in Minnesota in winter). Farmers’ markets apply more qualifiers to their fare: locally grown, seasonal, sustainable, and organic. Friends rhapsodize on the eggs from Donald Popps’ happy hens. House guests arrive bearing gifts of huckleberry jam from western Montana.

If being local instills pride, pleasure, and a sense identity around food, does it have a comparable value for museums? To a certain extent any museum is bound to be somewhat local. Can it be expressly and intensely local? Is there an equivalent terroir–the special characteristics that geography, geology, and climate of a certain place bestow upon particular varieties of grapes and sometimes are applied to other foods–for museums?

Being Local Matters for Museums
Museums need to matter. We can go back to John Cotton Dana who pronounced that, “A museum is good only in so far as it is of use.” Stephen Weill insisted that museums matter in his books, essays and articles. Emlyn Koster and others have lent their voices to a call for relevancy.

If museums need to matter, it follows that they need to matter in the places where they are located; they need to matter locally. Otherwise, why would a museum exist where it does in the first place? How does being local matter? What does being local mean? And what are the many forms that being local takes?

Locals Walking Through the Doors
It’s hard to overlook attendance as a very basic factor in why being local matters. Because of proximity and drive times, a museum’s local market is usually its greatest source of on-site visitors. At many museums residents are more than 90% of visitors. For school groups and families with young children, proximity is an even more relevant consideration in visiting a museum, zoo, or aquarium. Once at the museum, a visitor's experience may be enhanced by seeing a friend, neighbor, or former neighbor or recognizing the friendly cashier or museum director.

Attendance is also the source of members who contribute to earned revenue by purchasing memberships and, in some cases, by contributing as donors. Visitors feed traffic to museum programs, events and films. Attendance provides customers to the museum store and to the restaurant or café. Visitors are also the source of word-of-mouth advertising responsible for getting the word out to potential visitors. Not surprisingly, the very local nature of weather also affects some patterns of attendance, for instance, bumping up attendance in the north during cabin fever days and in the south during stretches of high temperature and humidity. And finally, what can a museum do without the people who step forward to contribute to their community by volunteering?

Local Dollars
For some museums, local funding comes from city or county budgets or grants from school districts to support field trips or teacher professional development. Some cities provide annual financial support to their museums. In communities like Denver, funds from a voter-approved city tax district are distributed to museums to strengthen them and to increase museum access for residents. In Phoenix, a voter-approved bond fund helped with the purchase and partial renovation of a historic school for the Children’s Museum of Phoenix’s new home.

Museums not currently receiving city or county funding persist in the hope they will. Building a successful case requires clearly conveying how the museum matters locally, how it aligns with community priorities, makes an economic impact, or contributes to local quality of life. Especially during a time of economic challenge, recognition of being locally valuable becomes even more critical.

Learning on the Spot
Learning is local in very real ways. As infants, we are all learning in very immediate and direct ways–with mouths, touch, and the grasp of tiny hands. While most museums are not hosting thousands of infants, direct sensory experience continues to nourish learning for children certainly through eight years old. Age-related development affects children’s understanding of concepts like place and time. Seven-to-ten year olds begin to grasp faraway and long ago, but they have difficulty learning about both at the same time. Throughout childhood, learning remains local for children.

Simply by virtue of their daily lives, adults are well-informed about what is “here.” They constantly use everyday and every-season information that is deep, personal, and experienced. They develop and use mental maps with short-cuts across town and potholes to avoid. Seemingly specialized knowledge like the average date of last frost and when the smelt run is second nature even in cities. Locals don’t need an app to know the best view of the river, where the eagles nest, or where to find the most spectacular maple tree in October.

Most of us like to feel smart. When we encounter something we know in our hometown museum–that the only place the Mississippi River flows east-west is through the Quad Cities–we are pleased with ourselves. Local knowledge gives us the confidence to stretch to less familiar territory. Novelty may keep us involved, but familiarity is the start we need for exploring more broadly. 

Doing Good Locally
It may be evident that a museum matters locally because a city, metropolitan area, or region is the source of its audience and, hopefully, funding. A museum also matters because it contributes to the community becoming stronger and safer, or it makes an economic impact, or it helps build social cohesion.

Museums, historic sites, and nature centers that are fundamentally about a community asset have a basic connection to being local and are also sources of identity and pride. They draw from a physical connection to a local place, person, event, or a unique environmental or landscape feature. By their very presence and location, they are about here: objects found, made, or used on this spot. They change with these seasons, grow what grows here, and gather stories about here, shared by locals.

Many museums without inherently local roots, however, find being local a compelling direction to follow. They actively pursue ways to contribute to community good. Aligning resources, strategies, and partners, they build a sense of community, increase social interaction, and increase civic engagement.

Working towards greater community impact Pittsburgh Children’s Museum and its partners have been collaborating to create a “vibrant, attractive, accessible” Northside through The Charm Bracelet Project. In countless other communities, museums help educate school children in their area by taking active roles in the local education system. They sync their school field trip programs to local curriculum standards and provide professional development in STEM for teachers. McWane Science Center (Birmingham, AL) conducts science labs that are part of the required city-wide high school curriculum.

Being local is also a way for museums to live out their values and express their identities. Madison Children’s Museum, California Academy of Sciences (San Francisco) and ECHO Lake Aquarium and Science Center (Burlington, VT) are just a few of the museums known locally (and nationally) for well-developed local-only, green, or sustainability policies and practices. The mission, educational, as well as financial motivations for being green also advance the museum’s whole-community thinking.

Being grounded in and connected to a community also help a museum accomplish its broad organizational and strategic goals. Effective stakeholder engagement relies on deep and varied local connections. Knowing the audience or, more important, being known and trusted by residents, neighbors, and visitors, can help build community traction and reach underserved and non-traditional audiences. Bringing learners and citizens into a planning process or involving them in exhibit and program development brings diverse local perspectives, shares local stories, and enriches museum experiences with lived knowledge of the community for other visitors.

This is a very basic start to exploring how being local matters. I’m hoping it might set the stage for exploring some related questions on this topic. Do you see other ways in which being local matters or do you have a different take on being local?

I am also interested in several other questions. I hope you will comment, suggest, or contribute your thoughts to a continuing discussion on being local.
  • How do you define being local?
  • What are some of the many forms that being local takes in museums?
  • How can being local bridge with national or global issues or interests?
  • Can being local become a value model, perhaps with economic benefits, that being local has become for food? 
  • How will the importance of being local change as museums become more connected in more ways on-line?

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