From the Editor: Museums face tough decisions

Our cover story this week represents what will be remembered as a stormy era in our nation’s heritage.

Tom Squires, president of the Manawa (Wis.) Telephone Company, is working to find a new home for hundreds of antique telephones stored in a warehouse after the Harris G. Allen Telecommunication Historical Museum closed five years ago. The museum has been forced to sell some telephones to pay for the insurance coverage on its holdings. (CLICK HERE to read the story.)

Although the H.G. Allen Museum may be small, it is but a thundercloud in a storm ravaging our country’s important museum landscape. Dozens of museums have been forced to closed, some as famous as the Roy Rogers-Dale Evans Museum in Branson, Mo. Small museums are the ones usually hit hardest by the swift and deep downturn in donations and admissions.

In the case of large museums, most invested multimillion-dollar endowments in vehicles tied to the stock market. When the Great Recession hit nearly every major facility, from Chicago’s Field Museum to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, was forced to cut staff and services simply to keep buildings open.

The result is an ever-growing trend of deaccessioning, or the act of a museum selling its holdings. In many cases deaccessioning is necessary to refine a museum’s collection, direction or focus. Sometimes it’s needed to keep exhibits current following new research or discoveries.

However, forced deaccessioning to simply pay the bills is a frightful scenario that is now a reality for large and small institutions alike.

Squires himself has had to face the prospect just to pay the insurance on a century’s worth of antique telephones and equipment. The old phones, obsolete switchboards and equipment all have monetary value but as a group they speak to humanity’s ceaseless innovation to bring everyone closer together.

Rather than give up and sell the museum’s contents, Squires and his fellow board members are hoping they will find an organization willing to tell that story.

It is impossible to fault museum boards across the country for the problems they face and the solutions they have at hand. I disagree with those who say museums must not look to their holdings to preserve its core exhibits; the show must go on, as the saying goes.

However, if the public cannot provide money during this time, then surely we can provide time, ideas and our talents. It may not be much but it might be a ray of hope through the clouds.

Eric Bradley


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