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David Grabitske

David Grabitske is the manager of outreach services at the Minnesota Historical Society in St. Paul, Minnesota.

The October issue of the Fridley Historical Society’s newsletter, the Record, has some interesting comments from past president Robert Christenson.

After visitors to the Fridley History Center who had just attended a Hayes Elementary School event, Robert marveled how blessed Fridley was to have a community history museum. “But are we really using this valuable asset to it highest and best potential?” he asked. The museum is used for storing the archives, creating exhibits, holding 36 special events, 12 board meetings, annual planning meeting, and occasionally is used by other local nonprofits for their events and meetings. But, the Fridley History Center also has lots of amenities like an elevator, a meeting room that can accommodate about 60 people, a kitchen (no stove), three restrooms, two floors of exhibits, and private parking for events. Robert concluded, the building could be more fully used because it “is in marvelous condition and has a large outdoor lawn area surrounding the building.”

That prompts the question: how well do people in the community use your facility as a gathering place? What are some other ways that the public might use your space? In what ways does the public currently use your facility?

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5 Responses to History Museums as a Gathering Place

  1. I have two opposing thoughts on this issue.

    The first is that, despite our focus on the past, history museums are for the living–therefore, we should do everything we can to get people into the building. For most of us, it is simply not possible to generate enough programming on our own to fully utilize the facility. I often view other groups’ use of the building to be “program”, particularly if it more or less relates to what we are doing, and gets people through the door. There can be a financial up side also to others using our facility. With a well-crafted building use plan, we can use the facility to generate revenue.

    The down side has a couple of parts. First of all, it is expensive to have people use your facility, especially after hours. You always need to have staff of some sort on hand, and if your building is used heavily, you may need to increase your insurance or pay increased utilities (you will be getting that back in your building use fees though, right?!). There’s wear and tear, and the inevitable expense of having the sorts of things that you might not otherwise have (lots of tables, for instance, or a huge coffee urn) that on your own, you would not need.

    The worst thing about bringing outside groups into your institution for their own events is the problem of the guests not really knowing (or worse, not really caring) where they are. Years ago, I heard of examples of a National Trust property that really functioned more as a party palace, and pretty much ran its budget off rental events. The staff spent all of their time heading off disasters with the collection (one woman actually set her rump down on a wall-mounted sideboard), and answering questions about features of the house that could be easily understood by anyone who knew where they actually were. It is not always possible for us to explain to the incoming group who exactly we are, and what we are doing. (I’m thinking weddings in particular.)

    Those things said, I think if we have a physical facility, we need to use it as much as we possibly can. Just as history museums teach history in a sneaky way, getting people into our buildings for any other reason has the potential to rub some history off on them (although most people believe that “history” showers off very easily!).

    Prior to our purchase of our building, this place was a community gathering place. In the 2 1/2 years that I’ve been here in the building, I’ve been working with community leaders to make it one again. So far, success has come with this audience though our participation in community celebrations. We’ve offered up our space to do kids’ activities, we’ve now hosted two pancake breakfasts (which gets a whole lot of people in here–I’ve had Boy Scouts giving tours during one of them and it was fabulous–one guy was rendered nearly speechless by the wonderfulness of it all), and I’m very receptive to other uses of the building.

    We live in our communities, no matter what our mission is. It is our mistake if we forget that and close ourselves off to opportunity for other things to take place within our walls or on our grounds. (Not that I think anyone here does that!)


  2. Discussions like this make me somewhat glad I do not have space in my facility for rent. We do rent out our photo studio for sessions, but only when there is staff available.

    The building I am in has a meeting room in the upper level that is rented out by the city. I can assure you three factors come into play any time it is used:

    Staffing – There is none. People pick up a key from city hall and drop it off when they are done. So if there is a problem, hopefully someone knows who to call. For the record, I have been one of those people called when the a.c. is not working on a hot Saturday afternoon in the middle of July.

    Damage – It happens. Thankfully there are no artifacts up there, but other items, like towel dispensers, clocks, chairs, etc., can take a beating.

    Cost – Amazing how some folks think because it is a public building, there should be no charge. “What? We have to pay?” Yup, you do. And why shouldn’t you? Cleanup, utilities, staffing (when applicable), and the general wear and tear are all part of the equation. Oh, and since we are a city building, we don’t allow alcohol in our meeting rooms (or parks for that matter), so we spare ourselves all the side-effects from those events. Rent the golf course if you want to serve something stronger than Pepsi or tea.

    It is seductively easy to see how room rental can be looked upon as a cash earner for an organization. But add up all the direct and hidden costs, and you have to ask yourself if it really worth it. This is especially true when renting time outside of normal working hours.

    I’m sure I am forgetting something, but that is all I can think of for now.


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  4. Joe Hoover says:

    Sometimes it isn’t just about rental but rather about having events that bring the public through the door (or use the grounds) to, as Claudia says, “teach history in a sneaky way” and might I add, to let people to know that you even exist. Non-history events like concerts/talks can also draw a different crowd to the museum it usually does not get but might be nice to try to expand to.


  5. Mary Warner says:

    Like Mike, our museum isn’t conducive to large meetings and gatherings. We have a research room that seats 24 people comfortably at tables, and maybe 50-60 without the tables. As this is our research room, most of the time we have visitors using the room, so we can’t schedule too many unrelated events or meetings.

    That said, we do have a policy about groups unrelated to the museum using the room. They obviously have to schedule ahead. There’s no charge to use the room, but museum staff have to be allowed to talk about our organization and mission at some point during each group’s meeting. We don’t want people to walk away thinking that we are a lovely meeting facility, but that we don’t do anything else.

    Just this week, someone called to request the use of the room for a meeting for an unrelated group because he has been at museum-related meetings in the past and remembered how nice it was. Now we have a chance to introduce a number of other people to our mission, which is a great way to build good will.

    Oh, and jumping off Joe’s comment about non-history events, every other year our museum is the setting for a three-day local quilt show. The show easily brings in about 300 people over the course of the event. People enjoy seeing the juxtaposition of the quilts with the artifacts and in off years, we often get visitors asking when the next show will be. (April 2009, for those who are curious.)


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