Museums are the “invisible sector.” This statement came from Tim Delaney, President and CEO of the National Council of Nonprofits as he briefed a room full of museum professionals on what to expect when we traveled to Capitol Hill the next day for American Alliance of Museum (AAM) annual Museum Advocacy Day. He added that museums are doing amazing work, but we need to be more vocal about what we do. This statement rang true to me.
According to AAM, museums sustain more than 400,000 jobs and directly contribute $21 billion to the US economy each year. Museums log approximately 850 million visits each year to American museums, more than all major league sporting events and theme parks combined. Despite all of this, I often find myself in conversations with people outside our field who are unclear about what I do for a living. “Do you work with children?” is the question I get most frequently. Yet, we do so much more in museums. Of course, it’s hard to know exactly what people do for a living; but why, when so many people visit museums, is there such a lack of understanding about what we do and the positive impact we have on people’s lives every day?
This year fifty percent more people participated in Advocacy Day than last year, with representation from every state in the country. We descended on D.C. on Monday, February 27 for a day of training and preparation, hearing from speakers from IMLS, NEA, and NEH, among others. The next day we all headed up to Capitol Hill to speak with our Senators and Congressional representatives. We set out to share the impact of museums on the national economy, education, research, innovation and more. As Tim Delaney stated “If you are not at the table you are on the menu.” This memorable statement reminded us that we need to make sure we had a seat at the table and our legislators heard our stories or funding and support for museums would be offered up for cuts. Walking around Capitol Hill is a great day of camaraderie, wearing our AAM badges with ribbons for each of our states. People saw each other across the busy streets and yelled “good luck” and “go get em’.”
This is the second year that I’ve participated and it is always thrilling to share with legislators the work that we do on a daily basis. This year, I offered a story from a colleague about how attendance by immigrant families from Boston has increased in after school programs because parents are looking for ways to relieve the stress their children are currently experiencing. Colleagues shared with legislators the impact that cutting NEA and NEH funding will have on smaller organizations. We all emphasized the importance of charitable giving to our institutions and how this philanthropy allows us to accomplish our missions.
It was a powerful day of stories, impact statements and advocacy. It made me realize how strong our voices are about our work when we offer them as a group. But, as AAM representatives so keenly reminded us—advocacy cannot be achieved in just one day! Nor should it be done just in Washington, D.C. Reaching out to local government officials and sharing the work that we do should be accomplished throughout the year. This work is even more important given the current charged political environment. For me, this event became a call to even more action. I hope everyone reading this will think about the advocacy work you can do in your community.
You can get started by checking out the helpful advocacy resources that AAM provides. Another early step could be inviting a local legislator to your museum to see a program or exhibition that you are working on. Consider writing for the Journal of Museum Education and sharing the impact of your work with colleagues, an effort that will provide you with written material to give to your legislators. I hope you will share what you do—it’s important and vital to your community!
Brooke DiGiovanni Evans is the Head of Gallery Learning at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. During her career, she’s worked in history, science, natural history and art museums in New England. Brooke currently serves as President of the Board of the Museum Education Roundtable and as a peer reviewer for the Journal of Museum Education. Her first children’s book on art titled “Are you an Art Sleuth?” was published in 2016.
Photos: (1) photo of Capitol Hill by Meg Winikates, shared with permission of the photographer. (2) photo of Lotte Lent, Brooke DiGiovanni Evans, and Meg Winikates at Advocacy Day by Dan Yaeger, shared with permission of the photographer.