Friday, November 5, 2010

Philadelphia Story: the 2010 Mid-Atlantic Association of Museums Meeting

Douglas Kendall, Curator of Collections

Last week I had the opportunity to attend “Revolutionizing Museums,” the annual meeting of the Mid-Atlantic Association of Museums on the Delaware River waterfront in Philadelphia. MAAM is our regional affiliate of the American Association of Museums. Every fall, museum professionals from New York to the District of Columbia gather to celebrate each others’ successes, brainstorm common challenges, learn new things and take away good ideas that can be adapted and reshaped for use at their own museums.

Mid-Atlantic Association of Museums, Washington, D.C., 2010.

I attended several sessions related to museum collections care and access, since those are my areas of responsibility here at the Fenimore Art Museum and The Farmers’ Museum. Things That Go Bump in the Night…When Collections Strike Back focused on dealing with artifacts and artwork that are potentially dangerous. Fortunately, we don’t have a fluoroscope—an x-ray shoe-fitting machine of dubious use in getting the right fit that also bathed customers and clerks in radiation—or a large medical collection of “wet specimens” like Philadelphia’s Mutter Museum, but every museum curator needs to be alert to the possibility of folks wanting to donate antique guns and cannonballs that could still be loaded or early plastics and film that can spontaneously combust.

Museum of the Macabre®, Philadelphia, PA, 2008-2010.

Lots of museums are finding new ways of sharing collections online (see highlights of the Fenimore Art Museum’s here). At the conference, we heard about the Museum of the Macabre®, which for now is entirely online. The Museum’s founders spoke about the numerous free software tools available online that allowed them to create a website that showcases their collections, educates the public about “the historical significance of the afterlife,” and allows visitors to add their own comments and content to the site. Many traditional museums with physical locations but small budgets can take advantage of these same web tools to make their collections more accessible to the public.

Photo, 2007 by Jan’s Cat/Felix Gomes,
re-used with permission under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

Floating just outside the conference hotel is an illustration of some of the challenges faced by museums today: the USS Olympia. It is a National Historic Landmark, the flagship of Admiral Dewey’s fleet during the Spanish-American War. Decommissioned in 1922 and privatized in 1957, the ship is now part of the Independence Seaport Museum, which has spent $5.5 million on preservation since 1996. Unfortunately, at least $10 million is now needed to prevent Olympia from sinking at its mooring within the next 3 years. This month, the Museum is ending public tours of the ship due to its current condition.

I’ve returned to Cooperstown more aware than ever of the evolving nature of our museums—new virtual museums popping up, hoping to eventually have a bricks-and-mortar site—others struggling with the inherent disadvantages of physically preserving art and heritage for future generations. And now I’m back to trying to both preserve and share our collections from our little village in upstate New York.

If you want to find out more about the meeting, you can visit MAAM’s own blog on the Philadelphia conference.

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