Programming for a small museum in a small community has its challenges. The Monterey County Agricultural and Rural Life Museum is located in a county park in King City, California. King City has a population of 13,100 people. For almost 200 years agriculture has been the economic backbone of Monterey County and our museum focuses on this heritage through exhibitions, a successful school fieldtrip program, and special events. As much as we publicize these events, we have found that the museum is just not necessarily on the community’s radar. Our continuing challenge has been how to get people in the door, engaged and then hooked on our programs.
Our museum recently participated in a Community Engagement/Public Dimension assessment as part of the American Alliance of Museum’s Museum Assessment Program (MAP) which we found to be tremendously beneficial. Through this program we not only had a peer reviewer evaluate what we are doing and offer great suggestions, but we also benefited from the self-study process that brought the board, staff, and community members together. By putting our heads together we were able to really focus on our community’s needs. The majority of residents in King City are farm workers and their families. Most are low income; many do not speak English and this language barrier makes literacy a major issue. Through interviews we found that many local people visit the park every weekend but few felt comfortable visiting the museum. Our challenge was two-fold: 1) Getting people past the threshold and 2) Helping with the local literacy issue.
A program suggestion that we received from our MAP evaluation was to investigate the possibility of offering a weekend reading program. As the Program Director, this struck me as a wonderful way to engage the community. Like most small museums we have a very limited staff—but what we don’t have in numbers we make up with enthusiasm and commitment. We have one young woman on staff, Angelica Martinez, who works as a part-time tour guide. Recently she graduated from college with a minor in Child Development and will eventually pursue graduate school. She has always been very quiet and unassuming, however, due to her background, we gave her the opportunity to develop and implement this program.
The museum held our first Storytelling and Crafts program on the first weekend of September. It was a rousing success! We anticipated attendance would be low and expected eight children at most. Were we pleasantly surprised when twenty children, four toddlers, and eleven parents showed up! We first read a farm story then transitioned into a craft activity. Finally the children visited the museum where we have plenty of hands-on activities for children. Because the story featured chickens, the children were able to hold a baby chick—a first for many of them! The outcome far exceeded our expectations, showing us that the community will respond to this type of program and it’s worth pursuing.
Another benefit was the personal growth of our tour guide (and now storytelling program coordinator). Given the opportunity, Angelica took our suggestions and ran with them. She personally blanketed the community with flyers and talked it up with King City residents. She showed an amazing amount of resourcefulness and enthusiasm and made the program her own. It was exciting to see her grow and exciting to see the community response.
While the museum has many more programming plans for the future, it is gratifying to provide an activity for local children and perhaps instill an interest in reading as well as an interest in the museum. This is but a great start. Participating in the MAP program helped to reenergize our focus and opened our eyes to future possibilities. We look forward to where this and other programs will go to help our community and our museum strengthen their bonds.
Here are some tips that might help you develop your own programs:
- Look at your untapped resources. Often staff members or volunteers have talents or interests that aren’t being utilized for various reasons. Sometimes all it takes is opening a door for someone to allow them the opportunity to find or use their passions to aid in an idea.
- Research what your area needs. Do a survey or simply ask your community about how you can fill a need. Whether it’s providing a program targeting a problem area like literacy or providing a service that isn’t being offered in your area, thinking outside the box about how you can endear yourself to the community will help you become invaluable.
Participate in a program like AASLH‘s StEPs or AAM’s MAP. Doing self surveys should be routine in most organizations. Taking a look at what is being done and how to improve is a way to keep your focus moving in the right direction and having someone review and provide a fresh perspective about your organization can open your eyes to areas that you might not have noticed before.
By Jessica Potts, Published in American Association for State and local History’s Big Ideas for Small Museums