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From the News column of the April 2009 issue of Perspectives on History

Museum Professionals Gather for First Museums Advocacy Day

Debbie Ann Doyle, April 2009

On February 23 and 24, 2009, more than 300 museum professionals from across the United States gathered in Washington, D.C., for the first Museums Advocacy Day. The event was sponsored by the American Association of Museums (AAM). The American Historical Association was one of the 37 partnering organizations. Participants from 43 states attended sessions outlining key legislative issues affecting the field and met with their representatives and senators to educate them about the mission of museums and their role in the economy, in adult and child education, and in national culture.

The first day of the meeting was dedicated to policy briefings and training sessions designed to teach attendees to be effective advocates. At an evening reception at the U.S. Botanic Garden, the group honored three members of Congress for their commitment to supporting museums: Senator Michael Enzi (R-Wyo.), Senator Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), and Representative Carolyn McCarthy (D-N.Y.). Congressman John Lewis (D-Ga.) was the keynote speaker at a Tuesday-morning congressional breakfast in the new Capitol Visitor Center. Attendees met individually with their members of Congress throughout the day on Tuesday, which was a busy day on Capitol Hill as Congress prepared for President Obama’s address, scheduled for that evening.

Advocates highlighted three key issues as they spoke to members of Congress. First, they requested that Congress increase the fiscal year 2010 budget for the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) to $50 million. The budget for IMLS, the primary federal agency making grants to museums, has remained relatively flat since 2003.

The proposed budget would increase funding by $19 million over fiscal year 2008. Advocates also asked legislators to consider including an incremental budget increase when IMLS is reauthorized in September 2009. The increases would allow IMLS to strengthen its current programming, establish new grants for conservation and traveling exhibitions, and launch a program to help small museums compete for federal grants. IMLS would also explore the feasibility of a proposed new federal-state partnership to distribute grants to museums at the state level. This program would be based on funding models that have proven effective for libraries and historic preservation. Finally, advocacy day participants reminded legislators of the educational value of museums, urging them to ensure that future versions of the No Child Left Behind Act encourage experiential learning and remove barriers that prevent schools from taking advantage of the educational resources available through local museums.

Because the current economic climate makes budget increases a tough sell, speakers at the policy briefings encouraged participants to stress the educational importance of museums as well as their vital role in the economy. Participants were encouraged to present legislators with one-page statements documenting the economic impact of their museums. Advocates also stressed that museums serve a large and diverse population. According to a fact sheet prepared by AAM, there are 850 million visits to American museums a year, a visitation higher than that of professional sporting events and theme parks combined.

Preparations for the events in Washington included an advocacy training webinar on February 10 at which more than 220 participants learned about tools for effective advocacy. Those who could not travel to the meeting were encouraged to write to or call their senators and representatives and to send economic impact statements developed using a tool posted on the AAM web site.

The importance of advocacy became evident to the museum community in the weeks leading up to the event. On February 6, an amendment was introduced into the economic recovery plan stipulating that “None of the amounts appropriated or otherwise made available by this Act may be used for any casino or other gambling establishment, aquarium, zoo, golf course, swimming pool, stadium, community park, museum, theater, art center and highway beautification project.” AAM helped coordinate a national response to this amendment that implicitly equated museums with frivolous expenditures on entertainment. According to AAM President Ford Bell, the amendment “illustrates the fact that we need to educate our legislators about how museums serve as economic engines and are a vital part of our nation’s educational infrastructure.” On Friday, February 13, 2009, Congress approved a conference report that removed the language barring museums from competing for stimulus funds (though still excluding zoos and aquariums). Said Bell, “The unity and cooperation in the response is a testament to the impact the museum community can have when we work to make our voices heard.”

The American Association of Museums represents professionals in all types of museums, including history, art, science, military, maritime, and youth museums, as well as aquariums, zoos, botanical gardens, arboretums, historic sites, and science and technology centers. The association has 15,000 individual members and 3,000 institutional members. In addition to the American Historical Association, partners in Museums Advocacy Day included the American Association for State and Local History, the National Coalition for History, and the National Humanities Alliance.

For more information on Museums Advocacy Day, see www.speakupformuseums.org.

—Debbie Ann Doyle is the AHA’s public history coordinator.