Museums Advocacy Day 2011

Debbie Ann Doyle, April 2011

The American Association of Museums (AAM) held its third annual Museums Advocacy Day on February 28 and March 1, 2011. More than 300 advocates representing 38 states traveled to Washington, D.C. for the two-day event, meeting with members of Congress and their staff to argue for level funding for the Office of Museum Services of the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS).

IMLS was reauthorized for five years in 2010, but like many other federal programs, faces cuts or even elimination in congressional proposals for the fiscal 2011 budget and related continuing resolutions. The president’s proposed 2012 budget reduced the modest outlay of $35 million funding for the Office of Museum Services to $32 million. Reacting to the proposed cuts, AAM president Ford Bell argued that museum advocates must combat at every hand the misconception that museums are luxuries and expendable amenities used only by the elite. Instead, he said, museums are vital to the civic and educational life of the nation and to the economic and cultural life of their communities.

Newly confirmed IMLS director Susan Hildreth addressed participants, noting that even in a tough budget climate the agency is in a relatively strong position, with a confirmed director and bipartisan reauthorization vote. She expressed optimism that legislatures will recognize that museums are “the civic fabric of our communities” and grants to support their work are “not quite as discretionary” as other funding. Panelists reinforced that message, noting that legislators support the competitive peer review process for IMLS grants because it is a transparent way of distributing funds across states rather than an earmark. Many museum representatives had prepared economic impact statements to demonstrate how a relatively small federal investment in museum programs can stimulate a community’s economy.

Advocates also discussed the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, otherwise known as the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001. One of the unintended consequences of that act was that its strong emphasis on reading, math, and standardized testing led many school districts to increase “seat time” devoted to preparing for tests and deemphasize experiential learning, such as field trips to museums. Schools also reduced time for instruction in history, science, and the arts, subjects enhanced by museum visits. Participants described these issues to members of Congress and urged them to consider strengthening partnerships between museums and schools while drafting reauthorization legislation. The AAM hopes that the next version of ESEA will encourage school districts to take advantage of the educational resources of museums to teach the curriculum.

Debbie Ann Doyle is the AHA’s administrative manager and public history coordinator.