Reconsidering Museums, an introduction

Meaghan Patterson

The Canadian Museums Association (CMA) is extremely proud to work in collaboration with our provincial and territorial museum association (PTMA) sister organizations to support Canada’s museums. This includes reinforcing advocacy efforts and promoting the breadth, depth, societal and economic role that museums play in our communities.

Reconsidering Museums is an exciting national project of the consortium of PTMAs, in collaboration with the CMA, and under the administrative leadership of the Alberta Museums Association (AMA).

To learn more about it, we turn to Meaghan Patterson, Executive Director of the AMA and project lead, to tell Muse readers how and why this project came to be, why it’s so important, and what we hope to see as outcomes.

Meaghan Patterson speaking at the Alberta Museums Association Conference in 2019. Photo — Admire Studios

Why is the Reconsidering Museums project so important?

As professionals in the sector, CMA members have a strong appreciation for why museums matter. But what do Canadians see as the value of museums for them, their communities, and for Canada? How can our institutions evolve to better serve their interests and needs? Reconsidering Museums will explore these important topics to ensure that the museum sector can be more aligned in communicating our value, based on a deep understanding of what Canadians would like to see and hear from us.

Despite the abundance of tools and training materials compiled and created by museum associations across the country, preliminary consultation has shown that museum professionals, board members, and volunteers continue to find difficulty in speaking to community leaders, government officials, and the general public about the significance of museums and museum work. Supporters believe in what museums do and they want to be able to articulate clearly the importance of the museum as a public institution, but they often cannot find the words to explain succinctly why museums matter.

Over the last five years, the Alberta Museums Association has worked with its membership to deepen social responsibility and community engagement while simultaneously building the capacity for all museums to consider their future sustainably. Building on that work, Reconsidering Museums will allow museums to test their public presence and attempt to rebrand the idea of a museum in the public realm. Ultimately, we hope this project will help the national museum community modernize and rebrand, ensuring museums are designing services to have the most impact now and for coming generations. It will also craft a clear and persuasive message to align museum advocacy work and ensure stakeholders understand the value and impact of museums.

Especially in light of current events, museums need to foster more public engagement, higher visibility, increased public and private support, and sustainability not only for the next five years, but for the next generation. Museums are increasingly being asked to fill new roles and this project will allow museums and museum professionals to embrace these roles with increased ease and flexibility.

What does it involve?

This project, while led by the AMA, is national in scope and involves representation from all the PTMAs as well as the CMA. Over the last few years we have formed a coalition of sorts to pool our resources, insights, and expertise to drive this project forward and secure funding from the Department of Canadian Heritage.

The work itself will be carried out over several stages over the next few years. It begins with a thorough review of the existing data and literature around museum visitation and accessibility to determine a baseline of support and understanding of value. From there, we will be engaging Canadians from coast to coast to coast on the value of museums, both at the micro and macro level.

We have had to shift our tactics dramatically over the last few months as we originally envisaged in-person, roundtable conversations across the country, as public health restrictions due to COVID-19 will not allow that to happen. We will now be using online surveys, social media, dialogue sessions, and public opinion research. It is important that the data we collect is comprehensive, so we will actively seek out participation and perspectives from all Canadian regions and include those with a diverse set backgrounds and interests, to ensure we’re hearing from as many Canadians as possible. Stay tuned for more details on our launch plan and how you can participate.

Year two will take the findings from our consultations and research and distill it into a broad set of rebranding and marketing tools available via an interactive online hub for museums and museum professionals. Information and data that succinctly articulates the value of museums in relation to all aspects of society will be accompanied by a visual identity, online resources, letter templates (for government relations, advocacy, sponsorship, community engagement, etc), new messaging around the inherent value of the sector, implementation guides for the use of the tools, and social media campaigns. These tools will then be piloted in selected museums across Alberta to support their public and government relations work. As a capacity building organization, it is important for us to ensure the pilot sites are well equipped and able to support their own networks moving forward.

Year three will see any revisions to the tool and resources and the roll out of the project across the country. We hope to have Reconsidering Museums workshops across the country, led by the PTMAs using a train the trainer approach. Peer mentorship will give participating museums a chance to see themselves reflected in the successes and challenges of this work and feel ownership over its implementation. Finally, our goal is to have the online hub ready by fall of 2022.

What do you hope will be the outcomes/impacts?

Ultimately, the project has two primary beneficiaries. First, museums and museum professionals will have the tools, skills, and language necessary to increase their public profile on whatever scale is appropriate to them. This includes museum professionals, volunteers, and trustees acquiring tools and training that will inform them about Canadian attitudes now and in the next generation. It will also provide the resonant language to communicate effectively with their supporters, stakeholders, and funders.

Second, the public, through a national museum rebranding campaign, will have a deeper understanding of how museums contribute to community well-being and quality of life for all Canadians.

PTMAs know that effective communication and collaboration is the foundation for sustainability in the heritage sector, and the results of this project will make our consortium, including the CMA, more informed champions of our members, and better advocates for the heritage sector at all levels of government and more generally.

Through the Reconsidering Museums project, we hope to gain powerful new insights to strengthen the value proposition of Canada’s museums, as well as our storytelling and public engagement efforts. This process will not only generate great input to shape the way forward to sustain and grow the relevance of our institutions and make meaningful connections with Canadians, it will help build awareness and new appreciation for museums and the important role they play in our communities and society. We are excited to launch our consultations over the coming months and hope that many of you will become involved along the way. M

Meaghan Patterson is the Executive Director of the Alberta Museums Association, During her tenure, Meaghan has led several innovative partnerships, major program revisions and publications, and the AMA’s sustainability and climate change initiatives.