Thursday, April 22, 2010

Making Judgements, Part 2: How Museums Do It

Read Part 1.

How do museums do it?
Obviously, most of us reenacting out here are not professionals, but professionals rate themselves all the time, in order to get grants, satisfy shareholders, attract consumers, make better products, so I was wondering if we can apply some learning from any sort of professional organizations to reenacting and living history. The first group that pops into mind is actually already included, at least in part, under the Living History umbrella and that is museums. I feel slightly qualified to talk about museums because I have worked at them and studied them in an academic setting. Heck, if I was still doing the school thing I could probably get a paper out of rating museums, but I’m not, so you blog readers are stuck with my ramblings. In fact, I’m going to throw in some terms that I’ve gleaned from my work in other not-for-profit fields that seem to apply to museums (thus, to Living History) as well.

Mission and Goals
Most business books for dummies start by making a big deal out of having some sort of statement of your goals. My Museums 101 course also started with a study of museum missions statements. It is good to write down or at least articulate your goals, what you are trying to do and, very briefly, why you are doing it. Since for most people LH is a hobby, very few of us do this individually, but it might be a good idea to ask ourselves, do we have goals we are trying to accomplish? LH Groups are more likely to have this sort of thing since having more people involved means you need to communicate more. How will a new recruit know whether or not they want to join unless you have something to tell them about the group?

Preservation and Education
Most museums have preservation and education as part of their mission statements. Children’s museums might only have education, and there are some history and art museums that might concentrate more on preservation, but most museums try to do both. It is my opinion that a Living History person or group should also try to do both, but in different ways than museums do it. Museums usually concentrate on preserving the artifacts of history, other than those concentrating on the last 100 years of history most reenactors can not afford actual artifacts, and are probably not as well set up as museums to care for those artifacts (I know there are exceptions to this rule, I’m speaking in huge broad generalizations here) but we do work to preserve the past by bringing it to life. For me, history has to be a part of why you are doing this, even if it is not the only part. I am also a big fan of education too. At least educating yourself and the other members of your group if you never plan on educating others, (but what a noble goal it is, to educate others!)

But how do museums judge their effectiveness? Well, most other nonprofits (a lot of businesses too) judge themselves by quantifying what they do, then comparing it to years past or to others in the same field. That is a really simple way to define benchmarking. There are entire industries out there dedicated to benchmarking, I’m no going to be able to do it justice in a few sentences, but I think it is a good thing to keep in mind as a LH participant we can up our goals or accomplishments into little chunks that can be measured. We can measure off our own numbers from years past, and many of us do this subconsciously or in passing conversation. It is also good to remember there are other folks/groups out there doing our same period, or reaching our same audiences. They may not be exactly the same, they might be in a different geographical area, have different types of participants, even be concentrating on a different time-period; but I bet if we break down what we are doing we can compare some if not all of the things that we do.

Audience satisfaction
For a museum this is the big one. How many people are coming through your front doors, how many visitors come back, how are you impacting the community that you are a part of? Museums spend a ton of time and money trying to figure this stuff out, and I think LH folks should not ignore it either. This can apply to those groups focused outward, did the public at the event seem to be having fun? Do they come back every year? Are you seeing more of the public at your event? Are they learning something? I think this applies equally to the inward focused reenactor: Are you having fun? Are you learning something? Is the hobby enriching your life?

I know that a lot of this might seem like more work than a hobby should take, but don’t we already take up tons of our vacation time, weekends and evenings working on our kit, our clothing and our next event? Maybe while you are hand-sewing your next undergarment you can take some time and think about this stuff, I think you’ll be amazed by what you learn.

Read Part 3.

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