of Scale: Lessons from Successful Small Museums
A Matter of Scale:
Fitting a Science Center to Its Community
By Mark Sinclair
ago, I made a career move that baffled many of my colleagues. After 13
successful years at Florida's Orlando Science Center (nine as director),
I left to head up a much smaller institution, the Catawba Science Center,
in Hickory, North Carolina.
My motivation for the move was partly personalmy
wife and I were looking for a quieter place to raise our two daughters.
But the real reason was that I truly love the scale of smaller
In my view, smaller science centers
and museums (meaning those with annual budgets of $1 million or less)
are just as important to our field as the larger, better known institutions.
And in many cases, these institutions, which comprise nearly half of all
ASTC science center and museum members, are absolutely vital to the rural
or special communities they serve.
During my 28 years in the field,
which have included site visiting for AAM's Museum Assessment Program
and private consulting, as well as my own museum responsibilities, I have
noted many similarities among successful smaller museums. From these,
I have distilled the following six strategies ("Mark's Maxims,"
if you will) that I believe can help make any small or mid-sized museum
even more effective.
1. Exploit the flexibility of your institution.
Catawba staffers install The Search for Queen Anne's Revenge, one of three or four traveling exhibitions the science center will bring in in 2003.
Photo courtesy Catawba Science Center
Smaller museums, almost by
definition, have fewer staff and shorter lines of communications than
larger ones. This makes them both flexible and entrepreneurialthe
sports cars of the field, rather than the stretch limos. Just as a sports
car can slip into a tight parking space in the city, negotiate narrow
rural roads, and rapidly reach new destinations, so, too, a small museum
can quickly change course to take advantage of niches within its market.
To give an example, the Multicultural Center of
Western North Carolina (MC) recently received an unexpected invitation
to host NASA's Benefits of Space traveling exhibition for three
days this April. Lacking a suitable space, MC asked if they could
place the exhibition at Catawba. As a small science center, we
were able to clear our calendar for April 10 to 12, marshal community
resources, and get the institutionwide buy-in necessary to say
"yes" almost immediately. No focus groups or feasibility
2. Stay connected to the needs of your community.
Many smaller institutions serve
a relatively limited area or constituency. Catawba, for instance, serves
a four-county area in rural North Carolina, but our real support comes
from Hickory, a town of only 35,000 people. As director, I have worked
hard to develop personal relationships with community leaders-a task that
is made infinitely easier because there are probably only 200 of them,
and many have lived here a long time. Contrast this with a place like
Orlando, where powerful people tend to come and go.
3. Make frequent changes.
Small museums, by their very
nature, don't have huge exhibition spaces or exhaustive programs. Yet
today's visitors seemingly need more and more to entice them to visit.
My rule has always been that a museum should have enough programs and
exhibits to support a visit of one to two hours. Equally important, a
museum should offer something new at least three times a year.
At Catawba, we bring in three
or four traveling exhibitions each year. This gives visitors an excuse
to come back. From the ongoing surveys, I know the strategy is working:
more than half of our walk-in audience visits three or more times a year.
For institutions with smaller budgets, a changing series of programs or
smaller exhibitions may be just as effective-and lots cheaper.
4. Collaborate whenever
When you are small, combining
forces with other institutions can create the critical mass needed for
success. Catawba has done this in two important ways. First, we partnered
with other North Carolina science centers 12 years ago to form the Grassroots
Science Museums Collaborative. GSMC, now comprising 20 museums (annual
budgets: $50,000 to $6 million), has been successful in gaining $2.8 million
in ongoing funding from the state of North Carolina. One of the main reasons
for its success is that, together, its members reach into each of the
state's 100 counties; thus, every legislator has constituents served by
Second, in 1996, we linked
up with several other excellent small museums to form the TEAMS (Traveling
Exhibitions At Museums of Science) collaborative. In this way, we obtained
funding from the National Science Foundation, plus national exposure that
would have been impossible had we acted alonenot to mention free
access to a group of excellent small exhibitions.
5. Expand staff capacity.
Small museums obviously have
small staffs. The loss of even a single member can cripple an entire sector
of the institution until a replacement is found. It is important to expect
staff turnover and build as much institutional capacity as you can.
To give a personal example,
I used to be a strong proponent of building exhibits
working with outside fabricators. Then I had a terrible experience: Just
as Catawba was getting into its first TEAMS project, our only exhibits
staff member resigned. Although we were eventually able to hire a splendid
replacement, the lag time and steep learning curve were difficult to overcome.
Today, we utilize a different
strategy: We still design our exhibits in-house, but the fabrication is
farmed out. If the only exhibit designer leaves, at least the capacity
to build exhibits is still intact. In departments where there is more
than one staff member, we cross-train to ensure continuity when the inevitable
6. Make greater use of volunteers.
Smaller institutions often
struggle with the basics of nonprofit organization. Why not expand your
volunteer program to cover services that larger museums must pay for?
Some small museums have found volunteers to do their accounting or audits.
Others have recruited volunteers to build exhibits or write personnel
One area where a small museum
must have help is in fund-raising. Make sure your board membersvolunteers
allrealize from the start that their main job is giving money to,
and raising funds for, your organization. Of course, the director must
be prepared to lead and to partner with board members as they make their
This is a challenging moment
for the science center field. In many places, unemployment is up and donations
are down. But by following these strategies, I believe we can make our
institutions more efficient, connected, and flexibleand thus increase
our chances of surviving, and even prospering, during trying times. Small
really is beautiful!
Mark Sinclair is executive director of the Catawba Science Center,
Hickory, North Carolina. The museum's web site is: www.catawbascience.org.