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Inside this issue:

If We Build It, Will They Come?: A Study of Attendance Change after Expansion

To Expand, or Not to Expand: Addressing the Question

Economies of Scale: Lessons from Successful Small Museums

The Little Science Center That Could: A Tale of Appropriate Growth

TEAMing Up: Collaborating for Leveraged Success in Exhibitions

Before You Build

Science in an Urban Enterprise Zone: Bringing New Opportunities to Naples


Browse Back Issues ASTC Dimensions: May/June 2003
May/June 2003
A Matter of Scale:
Fitting a Science Center to Its Community
Economies of Scale: Lessons from Successful Small Museums

By Mark Sinclair

Fifteen years 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 personal—my 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 institutions.

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.

  The Search for Queen Anne's Revenge
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 entrepreneurial—the 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 studies needed!

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 possible.

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 GSMC.

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 alone—not 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
in-house, versus 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 turnover occurs.

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 policies.

One area where a small museum must have help is in fund-raising. Make sure your board members—volunteers all—realize 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 fund-raising calls.

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 flexible—and 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:

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