Does Bigger Really Bring a Better Bang?

Today I received my first text book for my graduate studies, only once before have I been so excited to begin reading a textbook. The other time was for my undergraduate Museum Studies class. The book I received today was The Manual of Museum Exhibitions edited by Barry Lord and Gail Dexter Lord. I opened the package and immediately began reading the list of contributors and “The Introduction: The Exhibition Planning Process”. I only read the first 10 pages but it is already very interesting, perhaps more so to me because my background is primarily in quite small museums. Reading about the grandeur scale on which people design exhibits and the numbers of people is always a little shocking to me. I noticed a bit of this same shock when I worked at The British Museum. There are an insane amount of employees and it takes a large amount of people to produce exhibitions there.

Working at the University of Northern Iowa Museums it took six. Six extremely hard-working and motivated women to put up some of the most interesting exhibits I’ve ever seen. I realize this is all a matter of scale; that the BM puts up some major exhibits with MAJOR artifacts and MAJOR money in comparison to the small area the UNI Museums use for their space.

I’ve often battled with myself about what size of a museum I would IDEALLY like to work at; of course where I end up working will be a matter of opportunity to some extent. There are obviously pros and cons to both.

Size of the museum – In a small museum workers know every nook and cranny, my first day at the BM I almost got lost trying to find my office. Apparently this is not uncommon. My supervisor, when taking me to get my BM i.d. asked a coworker how to get there because she thought we may get lost. We managed to regardless of our given directions.

Size of the staff – In a small museum you know everybody you work with and they are not only your colleagues but also friends. Working in an enormous museum you will likely not meet half of the people you work with everyday. In fact you may never meet the people who work right across the hall from you, except through e-mail. My second observation is a fairly obvious one; working in a small museum you take on a multitude of tasks, not just one specific duty. This is an aspect of small museums I particularly like. It gives you the option to learn new things but to also step away from a project if it gets boring or tedious.

Funding – I ’d like to say this is a conceivable argument but it is variable. Stereotyping, I’d like to say many small museums suffer from a lack of funding, but some are backed by very wealthy people interested specifically in their mission. This leads to a lot of interesting improvisation in exhibits which can sometimes be very innovative.

“Operating a small museum is [different than] operating a big museum,” says Steve Olsen, assistant director at the Museum of Church History and Art, Salt Lake City. “There are qualitatively different approaches. There are remarkable innovations from small museums that large museums would do well to take heed of.”

On the other hand most small museums don’t receive large amounts of corporate funding as the BM does from BP Oil. This allows larger museums to have blockbuster exhibitions utilizing some of the most noteworthy artifacts from all over the world, very cool. The potential plus side of working at a large museum is that you have a better chance of raking in a bigger salary with better benefits.

Visitors Many employees (not all, but many) in VERY large museums are fairly removed from their guests. They don’t talk to them or meet them on a personal level. What information they get from their guests is through a select few employees or satisfaction surveys. I feel in a small museum you know your repeat visitors and you take the time to talk to most every person coming in to enjoy your museum. This is one thing I think makes a museum experience more personal and memorable for a person as opposed to wandering through galleries full of hundreds of people and waiting in extremely long lines to get into an exhibit.

Many people truly want to relate to a museum or an exhibit and they want to share their story, to feel like they are being heard and have a reason for being there. How often does an employee of the Art Institute of Chicago walk up and ask how you relate to a painting? Or take the time to listen to a farmer share a story about a tractor just like the one in that painting his father had when he was a boy. My favorite thing about working in a small museum is that I actually GET to talk to my visitors and share an experience with them. It is beneficial and meaningful to the visitor but also to the museum. It lets us know we’re inspiring people and connecting with them, that our exhibits are doing what they are supposed to.

Quality – ANOTHER variable thing you can’t necessarily stereotype in the size of museums. Many museum snobs, as I call them, complain about how unprofessional exhibitions may look or how text panels are written in small museums. I, myself, have occasionally complained about the way things are done in some of the museums I have worked in. Collections aren’t kept properly, accessioning is behind, text panels aren’t professional or you can see the tape all over the walls, but I’m learning that so many of these museums are run by volunteers. People who are passionate about the mission of the museum and that more often than not these small museums would cease to exist without their help and dedication. Everybody wants things to be as neat, tidy and as well done as possible but sometimes we should be thankful that we are seeing these collections at all. It is easy to create amazing and pristine exhibitions when you have more grants and funding than you know what to do with.


“What counts is not necessarily the size of the dog in the fight – it’s the size of the fight in the dog.” – Dwight David Eisenhower


I love all kinds of museums and because every single museum has a different set of situations and a different set of artifacts/art/lessons to offer it all comes down to a matter of visitor preference. I might be willing to give up the larger salary and record-breaking exhibition attendance numbers for getting to do a little of a lot of things I love and for getting to know my visitors and my community a little bit better. What other differences and distinctions do you notice between the spectrums of museums? Do you have a preference?

One response to “Does Bigger Really Bring a Better Bang?

  • Jenni Schwartz

    I love your passion for museums. It just goes to prove that you are striving for the profession you belong in.On a slightly less professional note, I want, nay, NEED that dog in that picture. He would be a good friend for Kaiah and is huge and beautiful.

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