Guest Post: The City Mouse vs. The Country Mouse

The City Mouse Vs the Country Mouse

Rural Museums Vs Urban Museums

Operationally, rural museums (Country Mice) don’t function like other museums do. Resources are thin on the ground, there are a lot of folks scrambling to attract the attention of a rather short list of donors, everything you put up in your gallery has a political side to it (everything), and everyone has an opinion about how you should carry on about your daily business. In the big city museum (City Mice), things are very different. I will get very specific in a minute, but understand… this is something no one really wants to talk about at all, and it bugs the living heck out of me. It’s maddening, I gotta tell you.

The museum world is a very nebulous and over-inclusive industry. If it wasn’t so, I’d have capitalized “museum world”. I say it is nebulous with purpose. Even the folks who think they have figured out precisely how to define “museum”, haven’t done so. They say the zoo is now a museum. Maybe it is, maybe it isn’t. I have trouble with that. Then again, I have trouble grouping art and history museums together. Maybe I’m not the right person to weigh in on this, but it seems the trend is to group as many organizations as possible together into this one term. In much the same way, the rural museums of the world have been thrown into the same pool with the “others”. Sounds terrible, huh? It is. It’s tough.

City Mice, whether they are historically or artistically minded, have something in common. Usually.

They have a staff. A staff of more than one or two people, that is. In the rural hinterlands, a staff of three is something special… it is a rare thing, for sure. And vital to the continued growth of a museum. Simple survival is easy. Thriving is tough. We are talking about staff that get paid to do stuff, not volunteers. Volunteers are great (wow, so great), but there is a level of accountability you can only reach once you give someone a regular paycheck. So yeah, paid staff is really important to successful museums. You can do some good stuff with one person on payroll. Limited stuff, but good stuff. With two people, you can really get some things done that are really impressive. They might be very hard to maintain, but you can do some great things. Visible things. With three people, the whole game changes. Allow me to explain precisely why this is:

One employee has almost everything dropped upon them. Volunteers handle some things… maybe… but the real important stuff is thrown into the lap of the only paid employee. It is far too much.

Then a second employee comes onto the scene, and there is much rejoicing! All the big jobs can be conquered piece by piece, with different things being handled by one person or the other. Things you were already doing run better. Some of the other stuff becomes possible, the stuff you dreamed of doing. It seems miraculous!

For a time.

The limitations of even two people are extreme, and the demands of even a small museum are pretty mercenary. Two people can barely hang on, if you are committed to doing a good job. The reason is in the way a staff of two become firefighters instead of museum employees. They are so often responding to crises or immediate problems, there is less time for executing plans. Planning is easy. With a staff of two, an emergency of any kind could destroy plans for an entire year (it depends on the emergency, of course).

There’s more to it. When you have two staff members, it is difficult to divide responsibilities on a permanent basis. The smaller the staff, the more hats everyone has to wear. As a consequence, there is far less specialization of any kind, and every type of operation suffers from a lack of focused attention. Everyone has everyone else’s job and vice-versa. It’s difficult to maintain long term, and burn out becomes a real concern. With three people, the corner can be turned. That magic number is the difference between a museum that has captured the attention of everyone, and the museum that just struggles to keep its head above water. City Mice have cornered that market. It is easy to find an urban museum with three employees. I’d say it would be tough to find one that didn’t have at least that many or more.

Why is that? Because they have an enormous base of population to draw upon. No matter what urban area a City Mouse operates in, they should have zero trouble gathering support for themselves. It is merely a game of numbers. Let us look at the math…

Brenham Heritage Museum, Country Mouse, Brenham, Tx… local population: 30,000 county, 18,000 city

Museum of Funeral History (or any other museum in Houston, it matters not), City Mouse, Houston, Tx… Local population: 4.5 million (just Harris County… there are other counties served by this museum too)

The BHM can reach out to a number of people (for support) measuring approximately .67% of the number of people the Funeral Museum can reach out to. For every 100 people the Funeral Museum could solicit for donations, the BHM can hit up a thirteen-year-old. Of course, the Funeral Museum has branded itself the NATIONAL Museum of Funeral History. That gives them the entire population of the United States to represent. The BHM cannot do such a thing. They’re regional. Geographically limited.

It makes keeping up with urban museums a challenging proposition, and complicates things further. When applying for grants, big donors, corporate philanthropy/sponsorship, the Country Mouse has his work cut out for him. Country Mouse has only the two employees, and his programming is severely limited by a conspicuous lack of manpower. The City Mouse has bigger programming. Our Country Mouse has far fewer local people to attract into the museum, and limited programming to boot. The reach of the Country Mouse’s programming is pretty small. City Mouse? He has 150 times the local population. His programming is designated to reach those people. With all of this laid bare, who would be expected to receive the support of a foundation? Every dollar expended on behalf of that City Mouse has the potential to impact four and a half million people. Who is going to enjoy the support of a corporation? There are four and a half million potential customers in the area around the City Mouse. The scales tip precipitously in favor of our friendly City Mouse, while our Country Mouse gets scraps. To make things worse, this state of things is absolutely fair. Donors have a right to see their money used carefully, and for the greatest benefit. Corporations have a responsibility to their stockholders to get the most bang for their philanthropic buck. Foundations have very limited resources, and cannot help everyone. They must-must-must be as selective as is humanly practical. So, this is not a long-winded judgment call. It is not a condemnation of people who perpetuate the “system”. This is just the way it is, and there is no getting around it. It is just a matter of “location, location, location”.

This is tragic. The Country Mouse has laid his roots in these hinterlands because he didn’t have much choice. The local rural history happened… well… locally, and didn’t have the kindness or forethought to erupt in a major metropolitan area. Sadly, this doesn’t mean the history for which the Country Mouse is responsible has any less value. It does not, not in the greater scheme of things. It carries less weight in some sense, because fewer people care about it… but it is not less important historically. Some rural areas have had some truly transformative events occur locally. You would think this would change the equation, but it doesn’t do so reliably. It comes back to the density of that local population. The lower population means less money. Less money means a smaller staff and less programming. It goes further… rural museums have trouble being taken seriously by our City Mouse cousins. They assume we are volunteers, or even assume we need their advice.

Let me use an example: I called the XXXXXX (anonymous) Foundation a couple of years ago to inquire about grant funding for a capital project. The XXXXXXX Foundation operates out of Houston, but funds stuff all over Texas at times, so it was a fair phone call. It is also common practice, as you know. I called, introducing myself and the museum right off the bat. The person answering the phone immediately began to explain to me the most basic qualities of a museum, and that I should call back once all of our ducks were in a row. This was before knowing anything at all about us. It was just assumed we were ignorant hicks because we happen to be out in the rural bits. This was done in the most condescending and “gee I’m bored with you, why are you calling” kind of way. I’ve never felt so utterly ignored and misunderstood in my life. I have a PHD. I’ve been working in this business for fifteen years now, only a small part of that has been in rural areas. It was insulting, in the extreme. Now, don’t go blame the XXXXXX Foundation. That person probably does have daily interaction with museums in rural areas that really do have those issues. I got over it. The point? We are undervalued, underappreciated, and under-served. As a result, we have trouble getting resources, and professionalizing a rural museum becomes very tough. Sometimes it’s impossible. The useless brochures provided by the THC don’t help. Mini grants don’t help much (they help a little).

Rural museums outnumber urban museums by an order of power. As many as 2% of the nation’s museum objects are in the rural museums of Texas. Yeah, as in the whole “US of A” nation.

Doesn’t matter. It won’t change.

Douglas Scot Price

Executive Director
Brenham Heritage Museum


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Coming Soon - First Guest Post! Also, a follow up on conversations and thoughts

I have been talking to friends, colleagues, and various social media acquaintances about my thoughts on public museology. Some completely get what I am talking about and agree, some see what I am saying and think I should continue to develop the idea if I think it is important, and others just see it as an extension of what they are already doing - which is kind of my point. I didn't event this evolution, I just think it needs a name. 

Isn't this just public history? In some cases, sure, you can clearly call it public history. Of the strains I have seen of public (insert liberal arts profession here) perhaps it comes closer to public humanities, because, surprise! - not all museums are history museums. I think that is what public museology is - a multi-disciplinary approach to engaging the public in museums as co-creators and collaborators in making meaning, and not just a passive audience. It is equal parts public history and public humanities, a few heaping teaspoons of public archaeology, a shaker of community education principles, and probably a whole lot more. 

It isn't just a research and writing principle, or just an exhibit design principle. For me, it is the foundational philosophy behind how I direct my local historical society museum. I think that it is a movement in the museum field that can be lead by small museums - partially out of the flexibility smaller institutions are capable of producing (less moving parts to the machine), and partially out of necessity due to an aging volunteer base, and lower staffing levels. 

This blog is a place for me to explore all things public museology, public history, public archaeology, small museums, museum education, and more. The opinions in this blog are solely those of the author, whether that be me, or the person posting. They are not necessarily the opinions of our institutions (or they could be - that will vary topic to topic). I will occasionally have guest posts, which brings me to the main point of this - to introduce Doug, a dear friend and colleague who upon learning what I am doing here, immediately said he wanted to write for me. The next post is his, and makes sharp observations concerning the struggle of small town museums in gaining access to funding, resources, and support. 


On the "public" in public museology...

As I am going through this process and thinking over this content, I am reaching out to friends and colleagues on their thoughts on the concept or phrase public museology.

I would like to start off by stating that these are ongoing issues and conversations in the museum field. I did not invent this concept of democratizing museum curation and content! I am simply proposing a name for it that allows those of us engaging in this practice to identify ourselves and give it an identity perhaps. Amazing work is being done with pop up museums, art in the communities, temporary public exhibitions, Main Street programs, social justice programs, and more. As a former student and current practitioner of public history and public archaeology, I am approaching museology mapping over concepts from these fields.

One friend challenged the concept, essentially, it boiled down to the fact that the practice of museology has a public audience, so why did I feel that adding public to the practice mattered? A respected former professor of mine discussed it along similar lines, that the previously academic centered approaches perhaps made it necessary to separate out a public form of the disciplines, and that since museums have a public audience, maybe the “public” is assumed. I hope I have understood their comments completely, and I am grateful that I have friends that I can trust to ask these questions. A friend that makes you think is a friend to treasure.

So if museums address a public audience, is not all museology—to an extent—public?

I would answer that yes and no. I think you can look to history and archaeology – there are forms of each that I would look at as more “academic” vs. “public.” Of course, especially with archaeology, there is archaeology with neither an academic audience nor a public audience in mind, such as some of the CRM work out there. As an aside, I hate calling it academic, as if public history or public archaeology were less rigorous (they aren’t), but I am struggling to find another term for it – what do you say internet?

To some extent, that “public” describes audience – a more academically written historical work is markedly different compared to public history writing. The biggest difference though, is the practice. In much of my public history work, and in all of my public archaeology work, the public is an intrinsic part of the process. My paper, “Setting the Tone for Higher Education: The Blanco Star School of Hays County, Texas” published in Intersect: Perspectives in Texas Public History an online journal publication of Texas State University, is drawn from just that kind of public interaction. A group of students donated their materials to the University Archives, because they did not want their story to disappear. I set aside my own research interests, because I cannot resist a good story. I worked with that former student body to collect the oral histories that became the paper.

This is what I strive for in my museum work, to at all levels of museum functionality be transparent, work both with and for the community’s needs, and develop exhibits alongside the various members of the community. Nearly every single exhibit that I have created at the museum here is based on a deep connection with the public. I have an open door policy. I know it is a luxury that larger museums may not have. My door is both figuratively and literally open, and over the past three years, the community around me has realized that I really enjoy folks stopping by to ask questions or talk about history. My goal is to have people leaving the museum with the message that history is always being made, and that their story matters.

It is one of the reasons our museum’s collections have finally started diversifying to reflect more of the community around us rather than focusing on a romanticized vision of the mid-19th century. One of our missions, set with the last Board President, was that we would work to make this museum the cultural center of the community and that we would demonstrate ourselves to be a repository that was interested in and capable of preserving the history and culture of our community. Individuals and groups have approached me with interest in creating exhibits. Likewise, I have approached individuals and groups to help create exhibits. I often reach out to the membership and beyond to help make these hyper-local exhibits happen.

In an upcoming blog post, I will discuss my current exhibit, and how I have made use of traveling exhibits from Humanities Texas to start ongoing conversations with the community that turn into future exhibits down the road.