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Keynote Address by Marsha L. Semmel, Deputy Director for Museum Services and Director for Strategic Partnerships

May 23, 2009 ET

Marsha L. Semmel
IMLS Deputy Director for Museum Services and Director for Strategic Partnerships

Korean Museum Association Annual Meeting

Seoul, Korea
May 23, 2009

I want to express my deep thanks to the Korean Museum Association and the Korea Foundation for making it possible for me to address this important meeting.  It is a great honor to be here to discuss "Museums and the Public Trust." I bring greetings from our Director, Dr. Anne-Imelda Radice, who joins me in congratulating you on this meeting and on your historic 100th anniversary. I have enjoyed meeting many of you, learning more about your impressive museums, and, I hope that we will create relationships that will endure beyond my brief time here.  

It was also a pleasure to meet a number of you when you recently visited Washington DC, and to see Kidong Bae and other Korean museum colleagues at the recent AAM meeting in Philadelphia.  I know that you are engaging in some important discussions regarding the future of the Korean Museum Association, the nature of museum support from the national government, and policies and practice around accreditation, evaluation, and professional development. While I understand that we in the United States have a different model—starting perhaps from the fact that we do not have a single Ministry of Culture, I hope that my discussion of national governmental support for museums in the U.S. provides information you find of interest and of use.

I have been fortunate to be in the museum field for the past 34 years, working in art, history, and ethnographic museums as well as the Smithsonian Institution.  I have served on the Board of Directors of the American Association of Museums. My time working in museums has alternated with government service at each of the three U.S. federal cultural agencies, including the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and, now, the Institute of Museum and Library Services. 

I have a strong personal and professional conviction about the power of museums to change lives. Today, I’d like to draw on my experience to discuss how and why the federal government provides support for United States museums.  I will briefly describe the U. S. museum sector, the historical context for federal funding, and then focus on the agency I know best:  The Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS), created in 1996, where I have worked since 2003.

While IMLS is not the only source of federal funding for U.S. museums, it is the only federal agency with a mandate to support museums of all types, especially small museums,  in a full range of activities and for a variety of purposes.

I will then discuss four current areas of interest to IMLS that reflect priorities of the U.S. museum community and link to broader societal issues.

What does the museum ‘landscape’ look like in the United States?

A recent IMLS report, Exhibiting Public Value:  Government Funding for Museums in the United States (December 2008), identified almost 18,000 U.S. museums.  These include: aquariums, arboretums, botanical gardens, art museums, children’s museums, general museums, historic houses and sites, history museums, nature centers, natural history and anthropology museums, planetariums, science and technology centers, and zoos. Slightly more than 70% of museums in the U.S. are private, nonprofit entities; the rest are publicly owned and managed by various forms of government, including state departments of natural resources, departments of education, public universities, and city and county governments.

As you might guess, the U.S. museum sector is remarkably diverse.  Budgets, staffing, and disciplinary focus vary dramatically as do visitation and the geographic reach of museum services. As our report notes,  "Like the private sector, where businesses in the same service area can operate at dramatically different scales, museums within the same discipline may operate as small volunteer organizations in one community and multimillion dollar operations in the next."

This diversity is reflected in the variability of museum revenue streams. Our public financing report documented a ‘patchwork’ of financial support, with museums of all type reporting different combinations of revenue from earned income, private donations, government contributions, and institutional investments.  Only a fraction of that revenue comes from different sources within the Federal government.  Most national funding for museums comes from the three cultural agencies (the Institute of Museum and Library Services, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the National Endowment for the Humanities), the National Science Foundation, and direct congressional support.  In 2006, that support totaled approximately $150 million. Of these funding sources, only IMLS provides support for museums as a sector, regardless of discipline, and, only IMLS has awarded moneys to museums in all fifty of the United States in each fiscal year, from 2000 through 2006.

The Case for Federal Government Support for Museums in the United States

The legislative "parent" of the cultural agencies is the National Foundation on the Arts and the Humanities, created in 1965.  In that legislation, the U.S. Congress declared that "democracy demands wisdom and vision in its citizens. It must therefore foster and support a form of education, and access to the arts and the humanities, designed to make people of all backgrounds and wherever located masters of their technology and not its unthinking servants." The act also noted that "the encouragement and support of national progress and scholarship in the humanities and the arts, while primarily a matter for private and local initiative, are also appropriate matters of concern to the Federal Government."

Therefore, in the United States, despite the absence of a Ministry of Culture, there has historically been an explicit linkage between democracy and cultural pursuit.  However, there has never been an expectation that the Federal government would provide the majority of funding for our cultural or scientific activities.

The Museum Services Act provides IMLS with a broad framework to achieve specific outcomes linked to the civic purposes outlined through the National Foundation.   Federal funds allocated to IMLS are directed to museums for the following purposes:

    1. to encourage and support museums in carrying out their public service role of connecting the whole of society to the cultural, artistic, historical, natural, and scientific understandings that constitute our heritage;
    2. to encourage and support museums in carrying out their educational role as core providers of learning and in conjunction with schools, families, and communities;
    3. to encourage leadership, innovation, and application of the most current technologies and practices to enhance museum services;
    4. to assist, encourage, and support museums in carrying out their stewardship responsibilities to achieve the highest standards in conservation and care of the cultural, historic, natural, and scientific heritage of the United States to benefit future generations;
    5. to assist, encourage, and support museums in achieving the highest standards of management and service to the public, and to ease the financial burden borne by museums as a result of their increasing use by the public; and
    6. to support resource sharing and partnerships among [museums,] libraries, schools, and other community organizations.

    Through our grants, our leadership activities, and our publications, IMLS provides a range of support to museums, from basic technical assistance through national leadership projects. [We recently established an Office of Policy, Planning, Research and Communications that will handle our augmented research and data collection activities.] All of our work fits into three broad areas: sustaining culture, heritage, and knowledge [conservation, preservation, digitization]; enhancing learning and innovation; and professional development for paid and volunteer museum and library staff.

    Most of our museum funding is allocated through competitive grant applications submitted by individual museums, museum service organizations, and, in some cases, institutions of higher education. These grants are evaluated through a peer review process. In some cases, we create partnerships with other entities, who work with us on mission-related projects. For example, we fund two technical assistance programs: the Museum Assessment Program (MAP) cooperatively with the American Association of Museums, and our Conservation Assessment Program (CAP) is a partnership with an NGO, Heritage Preservation, Inc.

    Four Current Issues in U.S. Museums

    Accountability and Demonstrating Public Value

    In the mid-1990s, the U.S. government passed the Government Performance and Results Act that required every agency to establish specific performance goals for each of its programs. Since then, IMLS published Perspectives on Outcome-Based Evaluation for Libraries and Museums, created a series of planning and evaluation tools for the museum and library community, and has strengthened the requirements for applicants to explain how grant funds will support a museum’s public mission as well as document the qualitative as well as quantitative impact of the grant.

    Although we support a full range of museum activities (including such behind-the-scenes activities as conservation, documentation, and staff training—with the exception of construction), we ask that each applicant address: "How will your project build the capacity of your museum to serve your community more effectively."

    In addition, our agency has supported efforts by researchers and U.S. museum associations to craft standards for best practice and to evaluate the social, educational, and economic impact of museums. For example, in addition to the Museum Assessment Program (MAP) and the Conservation Assessment Program (CAP), we are helping to fund a re-thinking of the American Association of Museums’ existing Accreditation Program.

    We are also the principal supporter of STEPs, a Standards and Excellence Program for History Organizations, developed by the American Association for State and Local History as a voluntary assessment program for small- and mid-sized history organizations. [Standards have been developed in six areas:  mission, vision and governance; audience; interpretation; stewardship of collections; stewardship of historic structures and landscapes; and management.]

    IMLS has also helped to fund Why Zoos and Aquariums Matter, a national research study that has confirmed the contribution of zoos and aquarium visits to positive conservation knowledge, attitudes, and behaviors as well as the high value that the U.S. public—including families, teachers, political leaders, spiritual leaders, and scientists--places on the role of zoos and aquariums in family bonding, experiencing nature, and learning about animals and habitats.  

    The Association of Children’s Museums Good to Grow! Initiative (funded in part by IMLS) is a comprehensive effort to increase children’s museums capacity to promote and improve health and wellness in communities.  This project has created standards and benchmarks for "Good to Grow!" museums in the areas of organizational direction, knowledge of community, audience, educational services, operations, and management and governance.

    Another project, "Museums in the Neighborhood," is a research study on the economic impact of museums currently underway at the Center for Creative Community Development in Williamstown, Massachusetts.

    These efforts underscore ways in which the entire U.S. museum community is moving to address the impact and value of museums in response not only to our agency’s requirements but also to those of other funders, including private foundations, corporations, and other donors, who are looking closely at the value of their investments in an environment of limited financial resources and many competing worthy causes.

    The Power of Learning in "Informal" Environments

    Learning has always been central to the purpose of museums, but in an era when it is widely recognized that one must learn "wide," "deep, and throughout one’s lifetime," learning has vaulted to the top of our national priorities.  President Obama has made education, including early learning, school reform, and lifelong learning, a cornerstone of his administrative agenda.

    Throughout our history, IMLS has supported many projects on museums and learning, such as True Needs/True Partners:  Museums and Schools Transforming Education; Charting the Landscape, Mapping New Paths: Museums, Libraries and K-12 Learning; and Nine to Nineteen: Youth in Museums and Libraries: A Practitioner’s Guide .

    Our latest effort, Museums, Libraries and 21st Century Skills, recognizes the need to emphasize new skills and themes as essential for economic success, individual achievement and fulfillment, and vibrant communities, and the role that museums and libraries can play in promoting those skills. 

    The project responds to the calls of U.S corporate leaders, educators, and governing officials for a workforce and citizenry equipped for today’s challenges. 

    Twenty-first century skills build on basic content (such as science, mathematics, art, and history) and include learning and innovation skills, such as creativity, critical thinking, problem solving, communication, and collaboration; information, media, and technology skills; and life and career skills, such as flexibility and adaptability, initiative and self-direction, social and cross-cultural skills; accountability; and leadership and responsibility. Among the 21st century "literacies" are global awareness, civic engagement, and understanding of such pressing and timely topics as the environment, health, and finance.  Museums are well poised to impart these skills.

    The IMLS effort responds to other U.S. initiatives that focus on the school and the workplace.  Today, 13 of our fifty states have made formal commitments to become a "21st Century Leadership State," and others are in process. Several corporations have also funded 21st century skills efforts.

    The IMLS project will produce an interactive, online self assessment tool for museum and library professionals that will enable them to determine where they "fit" on the continuum of 21st century skills, as well as a report for policy makers, corporate leaders, and civil society. Our goal is to increase the visibility of museums and libraries in the learning landscape of 21st century skills and to promote effective partnerships and collaborations among these organizations and with other sectors.

    Redefining Stewardship

    A signature initiative of Dr. Radice’s leadership at IMLS has been Connecting to Collections: A Call to Action, an effort to marshal and disseminate the best current thinking about collections care throughout the museum and library community and to communicate the urgency of sound collections care policies to political leaders, funders, and the public.

    Connecting to Collections builds on the first-ever (and IMLS-funded) comprehensive survey of the scope and conditions of holdings in U.S. museums, libraries and archives.  The survey, The Heritage Health Index, unprecedented in scope, revealed that our collections of objects, documents, art works, and digital materials, are in urgent need of attention.

    The Heritage Health Index made four major recommendations:

    Provide safe conditions for the collections held in trust; Develop an emergency plan; assign collections care responsibility to staff members; and increase public and private support for collections stewardship.

    Connecting to Collections has included new grant opportunities, include statewide collaborative planning grants; a series of five national meetings (free to all and focused on small organizations) addressing such topics as preserving our diverse cultural heritage; preservation issues among living collections; collaboration in the digital age; and training and resources for collections care.  Each meeting’s proceedings is available on the Web.  In addition, conservation "bookshelves," compendiums of texts and other resources on conservation, have been distributed to 3,000 museums and libraries; and a robust online resource is available to all through the IMLS web site and that of our main NGO partner, Heritage Preservation.

    This effort has attracted support of the other U.S. cultural agencies and a number of foundations and corporations.

    In looking forward to the future, we will continue to support projects that explore the impact of new technologies on collections care and preservation—such as Web-based tools to monitor environments, international databases that document the conditions of global plant and animal collections, sophisticated digital surrogates that lessen handling of  fragile artifacts, and tools for responsive, community-wide disaster planning
    Connecting to Collections will go global later this year with a  Salzburg Global Seminar devoted to Connecting to the World’s Collections: Making the Case for the Conservation and Preservation of Our Cultural Heritage.

    A Global Museum Community: Bridging International Boundaries

    On May 15, IMLS invited a group of museum, library, and education leaders to begin a focused exploration of ways our agency can more effectively advance global understanding. Our purpose was to recognize the exceptional capacity of museums and libraries to anchor communities, engage youth, promote dialogue, and strengthen global understanding and to discuss ways in which IMLS can help our museums and libraries become even more powerful partners in linking the global community.

    It was a day full of excitement and rich conversation:  all agreed that this is a propitious moment in our country’s political history, one ripe for enriched cultural exchange. Common themes were the importance of creating new models that are based on partnership, parity, reciprocity, and rooted in true collaboration; the need to include and even privilege the voices and passions of youth; the challenge of addressing linguistic barriers;  and the importance of equally emphasizing building  face-to-face relationships and programs and leveraging the enormous possibilities of digital technologies.

    We will be issuing a ‘white paper’ on this meeting this fall, and are eager to move forward in this area.

    What do these topics—accountability, learning, stewardship, and global understanding—have in common?  Five Points:

      • They recognize that we live in an ever-shrinking world where museums have much to contribute, yet they also respond to the current economic crisis, the  narrowing of resources, and the challenges for museums to demonstrate their value. 
      • They acknowledge the power of museums—educational, economic, cultural, scientific--at all levels of society.
      • They draw on research about learning, especially out-of-school learning (including breakthroughs in neuroscience), scientific findings about preservation and conservation, and changes in human behaviors resulting from the global spread of new media.
      • They stress the necessity for collaboration and partnerships, with other museums, schools, civic organizations, the for-profit sector, and,  increasingly, with our audiences and our  publics.  
      • They acknowledge the power of new technologies to transform our work and our structures, to create new solutions to pressing problems, and to tap the citizen knowledge and curiosity that resides in our audiences and patrons.

    In conclusion, museums and libraries are trusted and valued centers of community life and national heritage. They can be places of social inclusion that promote curiosity, learning by doing, and discovery. In them, we learn about ourselves and meet and learn about others. As such, they generate enormous emotional resonance that contributes to empathy, tolerance, and understanding. Let us work together to tap their power in the service of our countries, our citizens, and the public good of people throughout the world.

    Thank you very much.