We give tours to dozens of college students each year. Most of them come primarily to learn about Greenbelt history, but some of my favorite groups are here not just to learn about the history but also to learn about working in museums and historic sites and what makes some successful and others less so. These discussions go in many different directions, but I always eventually end up getting to what I call the Three R's: Responsibility, Relevance, and Revenue.
We have an essential responsibility when we work in museums to share the stories of the communities we serve as honestly as possible, including as many voices as possible, and attempting to assist the community in identifying what is important to them. History is not static, it is constantly shifting and changing depending on who controls the narrative. Ask the difficult questions!
Remaining relevant to the community you serve is also important. Share authority. Listen. What questions come up most frequently at programs and events? What kind of content are people looking for? Don't be afraid to take risks. Be creative - call that new program, event, or activity a "pilot." If it's a dud, move on. If you can't figure out what people care about and are interested in where you're located - why would those people visit your site or sign up for your newsletter? Does your community have an historic core? Don't forget to look beyond it. Be inclusive.
Last, but not least - Revenue! Figuring out ways to make money, whether through donations, tickets, memberships, shop sales, etc is one of the most important things you'll do. I learned this early on in my career as I watched a museum I worked for close for lack of funds. You must have revenue to support the first two R's! Don't be shy in speaking about money and the very real costs of running a museum, paying for programs, and maintaining collections. Educate your audience. Explain what things cost.
I just wanted to give you all a bit of insight into our thinking here at the Greenbelt Museum and hope that you can use these Three Rs at your own museum or organization!
Megan Searing Young is the Director of The Greenbelt Museum and Historic House in Greenbelt, Maryland. If you have questions or want to share more with us about Greenbelt's history, please feel free to send her an email or give us a call. You can follow her on Twitter at @msearingyoung.