Thursday, November 15, 2007

A Heritance caper, does it pack a punch for you? - - by Maureen


At last, with a lot of help from friends and colleagues, Heritance has an executive summary. The purpose of this document is to explain the organization's mission, vision, goals and programs in a way that is clear, concise and compelling to the uninformed newcomer, as well as, the inveterate supporter.

Like a culinary caper, an executive summary out to pack a distinctive punch which lingers long after the reading. Tell us what you think and whether or not what we are doing strikes your fancy!

Heritance Executive Summary

Heritance coordinates a network of museum professionals who provide skills, knowledge, and services free of charge to museums in some of the poorest and most remote regions of the globe. Heritance’s mission to provide seed grants and professional services to at-risk museums presents a unique opportunity to influence the institutional culture of museums and the values of the communities they serve.

Museums are generally thought of as stewards of culture and heritage. But history is not a simple mirror of the past. Our perception and interpretation of history, and our place in it, is constantly reconstructed through a social process of collective recollection. This continuous reinvention of the past is part of the process by which communities define and shape their present and their future. We at Heritance believe that museums can and should be beacons of openness, inclusiveness, transparency, and self-determination in their communities.

Museums lacking resources cannot promote and protect the history and the collective memory of the people they serve. The disappearance of community-based museums and the displacement of their objects threaten the community’s historical identity and sap its power for self-determination. About 99% of the world’s museums fall between the cracks of the existing network of heritage organizations. Heritance is designed to help museums survive and flourish in even the poorest and most remote regions of the globe.

The expertise of trained museum professionals we mobilize represents a treasure trove of skills, knowledge, ideas and financial resources that are typically not available to museums at risk. Heritance brings together professionals from a wide variety of museums to find solutions to specific problems and to create a network for sharing “best practices” worldwide. Additionally, Heritance provides seed grants to museums to implement specific projects with well-defined goals and time frames.

Unfortunately, museums lacking resources almost invariably also lack the institutional culture and practices that would allow them to use the resources effectively, even if they had them. Simply providing “helicopter aid” to museums without any corresponding process improvements is frequently unsuccessful and even counterproductive.

To avoid the dysfunctional outcomes typically associated with ‘handing out fish’, Heritance grants and professional expertise are never provided in a vacuum. Professional assistance and seed grants are always provided in conjunction with management skills workshops or by dual-trained consultant-managers in the context of a Heritance-sponsored, collaboratively managed project. Partners are required to participate actively in project planning, coordination and evaluation of all interventions using a web-based project management system. This provides a cost effective form of distance learning, permitting partner museums to learn essential project management skills and to practice transparent and inclusive communications. Much like Doctors without Borders, by bringing first aid to museums, Heritance gains a foothold for its broader mission: changing museum culturefrom the inside out.

We believe that museums can serve a vital role in community evolution, both as catalysts in the process of self-definition and self-determination, and as role models in the transparent and inclusive processes essential to open democratic societies.

Heritance Executive Summary (available along with other Heritance corporate documents:



AJ said...

I found the statement inspiring, approachable and confident. It gave me a great deal of food for thought. I don’t want to just slather on praise, so here are a few comments:

I realized one of my confusions about Heritance - What is its definition of a museum? Here, I found “museum” to mean a historically-based museum, a cultural museum -
“Museums lacking resources cannot promote and protect the history and the collective memory of the people they serve.”
But for myself, the word “museum”, even “small museum” is a broad term that encompasses marine biology museums, sculpture parks, children’s activity centers, quasi-galleries, quasi-libraries, cult-figure museums, satirical museums, collections of old photos in library basements. There are beer museums, fashion museums, farm museums, botanical museums, sex museums, design museums… This might be moot because Heritance has goals to serve at-risk, remote and poor museums, but I think a clearer definition might help potential supporters better understand the unique institutions this is aimed for.
Does Heritance serve art museums that are not mainly historical? Does it serve science museums that are not archaeological? I’m not saying it should, but I think if the focus is mainly on historical and cultural museums that might need to be clarified. I think “museum” gives authenticity to a place, so its common definition and use has been in flux.
(Forgive me if these points are addressed elsewhere in the documents and I haven’t reached it yet).
More thoughts soon - and thanks for the chance to contribute!

AJ said...

Thank you for your thoughtful comment. You make a very good point: museum is a broad term that encompasses many very different kinds of organizations, only some of which are concerned directly with history and collective memory.

The defining characteristic of a museum is the “collection”. If an organization has as its primary mission to preserve (and presumably study, interpret and present) which its keeps a collection on behalf of the public, it is a museum. You could say that by this definition, a library is a kind of museum. (And perhaps, inversely wherever information is given or objects are loaned to the public, such as in a science museum or interactive children’s center, the museum is a kind of library.)

So, any organization that 1) has a collection and 2) makes (parts of) the collection available to the public for study (i.e interpretation) is a museum. Depending on how you feel about animals, zoos could be considered a museum. (And experimental schools?)

Concerning the function of the museum according to Heritance, because museums 1) have collections (on behalf of the public) 2) which they share with the public (via a variety of means: exhibits, archives, publications, access to collections), I would argue that every museum is involved in the activity of “promoting and protecting the history and collective memory of the people they serve”. Even the science museum. Even the library. Even the public garden.

But only in so far as they actively preserve — and perhaps, present — collections for the public good. An abandoned box of rare books in anybody’s cellar, including a library, is not necessarily a collection.

So what do I think makes a collection? The act of declaring it so or treating it as such. An object becomes part of a collection once it is declared part of the collection, either implicitly (through the process of preservation, recording, archiving, etc.) or explicitly with a declaration to do so. ( It is unfortunate when objects wander about the premises, perhaps never attaining the formal status of “collection”. Wandering objects can make for potential confusion about ownership, lost opportunity and bad public relations.)

The question of collection is tricky when talking about a science museum. Nonetheless, it has a collection: comprised primarily of information and objects constructed to convey that information (interactive displays, machines). It may also have an environmental component, which includes the building itself and its grounds.

What kind of museum is invited to work with Heritance? Any kind. At this point, we are working with a science museum, anthropology museum, natural history museum, historical society, consortium of museums including fine arts and ecomuseum. These classifications, however, are fuzzy, which is the direction museums are taking. Did you see the Hood Museum’s exhibition on Inuit art last year; it included artifacts from a hundred years ago and a documentary on climate change. What kind of museum is the Hood?

Heritance works with museum realize their implicit dual mission (which they sometimes discover through the process of our partnership) as keeper of history (its stuff and stories) and as a birthing room for the reinterpretation of the present in light of the past.