Six years ago, the Museum passed the reigns of leadership and almost instantly we began to look for a better and more innovative way to do things. It was evident with less than 5,000 guests visiting throughout the year that there was plenty of room for growth. We hit the ground running and thanks to a passionate team compiled of volunteers, board members, and Museum staff we began to formulate a plan that would stabilize the Museum’s financial stability and increase the awareness and reach of our programs. Some things worked, while others did not, and we continue to learn.
The museum industry continues to change and evolve as society is met with new and complex demands. It became evident that to thrive we had to change how we told the story of our history. The idea of casual guests browsing exhibits and reading text was no longer a business model that would sustain the museum. More importantly, after listening to community conversations it was evident that our county needed a space that blended arts and culture, history, education and creative play. We had to create a Museum that was interactive for all ages, that offered programming for the young and old alike, and that made experiencing history fun.
Sounds easy enough. To do this meant an entire shift in the mindset and culture of the Museum – something we continue to work on. Things are different at the Museum now. Guests are frequently visited with the sounds of kids playing and laughing, exhibits have new interactive technology, the Museum store is filled with educational toys, and programming is a mix of adult and youth focused. Staff and volunteers are more relaxed, often sporting shorts in the summer months, and rules are less structured. While this has not been an easy change for some, the key take away is that we never changed our history, we simply changed how we tell the story.
And as you know, and I am happy to share, these changes have worked. In six years our attendance has grown beyond even my expectations to now serving in excess of 20,000 guests per year. The Museum welcomes school field trips from throughout Northeast Indiana and we have become a destination for families locally and regionally. Other institutions visit from time to time to learn our “secrets” and in reality there was no magic formula. But here is what I share:
To be sustainable, museums must engage with a new, younger audience which means changing how we tell stories through technology, programs, and educational play. In doing so, there is an equal balance to still maintain the traditional Museum services of collecting and preserving items, allowing for research services, and providing adult learning opportunities.
Focus as hard on programs outside of the Museum as you do on programming inside the facility. The ultimate goal is not visitor counts but rather telling our story.
Don’t be afraid of kids! Really, this one is hard. Museums are terrified they will be too noisy or break things. Honestly, I love hearing their laughter, I love seeing finger prints on the glass exhibits, and I love when they enjoy an exhibit so much it needs repaired. This means we are engaging with them!
Execute, learn and change. Don’t overthink it, try things and learn from them and then continually evaluate and change.
Lastly, museums are a business and should be run as such. We can have the best exhibits and the best programs but if we can’t pay the bills then what is the use of having exhibits inside a shuttered building?
We are continually learning and growing. In fact, in 2020 you will see several changes coming the Museum. Notably, there will be major improvements including an expansion to the Parkview Wabash Education Center, the Wabash Goes to War exhibit will be refreshed along with many other exhibits, new programming for youth and adults will be introduced, and community partnerships will be expanded and strengthened.
All of this has been accomplished thanks to committed and generous volunteers and donors who have believed in these new approaches. Personally, I have often been overwhelmed by this support as we introduce new programs and new ideas. I know that many of these have pushed people out of their comfort zones and ended long standing traditions. I am so happy to report that it is worked – thanks to YOU! We continue to have a Museum that our community can be proud of.
And as I mentioned there is still a lot more to come and we will continue to need the support of you and others to accomplish the work at the Museum. Your support allows the Museum to serve as a regional destination for families, researchers, and educational partners, welcoming them to our communities and exposing them to all our county has to offer. As the end of the year approaches, if you haven’t supported the Museum yet, I would ask you to consider making a financial contribution to support our many programs and initiatives. You can do so by visiting the Museum, mailing a check or online at www.wabashmuseum.org.
Once again, thank you for all of your support and helping us not to change our history but rather to change how we tell it. With your support we will continue to engage new generations into the Museum.