by Patricia Harris
This past February 26th marked the 5th Annual Museum Advocacy Day. I along with hundreds of other museum professionals traveled to our Nation’s Capitol to speak with government officials about the importance of museums. While museum professionals are very passionate about their work, Capitol Hill hosts thousands of other advocates who are just as passionate about their cause. So, why should our state and federal legislators care about what I and my fellow museum colleagues had to say? Today museums serve as a refuge for relaxation, a sanctuary for learning, vital cogs in our economy and, in an increasingly digitized world, a place where authenticity is valued. These are some of the reasons why I, along with five other museum advocates from Tennessee, made the trip to Capitol Hill last week and joined with hundreds of our colleagues from across the nation.
It’s very appropriate that Museum Advocacy Day takes place in Washington D.C. where our national government’s most important decisions are made and also the location of many of America’s premier museums. My visit to Capitol Hill began with a day of preparation with other museum staff from around the country. We formulated our message around three key issues: the importance of maintaining funding of the Institute for Museum and Library Services that provides matching grants for museums and other cultural institutions; opposition to cutting tax incentives for charitable giving; and recognition that museums are essential educational resources. Advocating for museums at the surface level seemed to be an easy enough task. I love museums; of course I want all of these things for them! But when speaking to our elected officials who must address our nation’s current financial state, I realized that I needed to advocate for museums as something Americans need to have, instead of something nice to have.
My fellow Tennessee advocates and I met with staffers from Senator Bob Corker and Senator Lamar Alexander’s offices. Both of the Senators’ offices were filled with art and artifacts! Senator Corker’s office had many pieces of fine art and Senator Alexander’s office contained many historic Tennessee artifacts. To me, this showed that our elected officials were already advocates of our cultural heritage. My last meeting of the day was with Congressman Cohen who serves district nine, which includes the greater Memphis area. Because I was the only Memphian attending Museum Advocacy Day, I was excited to talk with Congressman Cohen. I explained how many of the issues the city of Memphis currently faces can be addressed by museums. In Memphis, museums such as C.H. Nash Museum at Chucalissa provide participatory and hands-on activities for school children and community members alike. At a time when our city’s education system weighs heavily on the minds of parents and city councils, the informal educational experience that museums can provide can be a great asset. Chucalissa alone serves over 4 thousand students a year with close to 100 local schools participating in field trips. Through visits to museums such as Chucalissa, children participate in programs that are designed to meet current curriculum standards and provide meaningful lifelong learning experiences too.
Museums also inject money directly into the local and national economy while providing employment opportunities. In Memphis, cultural heritage sites including our world class museums attract some 2 million visitors annually. For every visitor that stays, eats and shops in Memphis, revenue is generated for our city’s economy. Education and economy are just two of the many important arguments for museums as vital threads to our nation.
Attending Museum Advocacy Day was a fantastic experience for me as an emerging museum professional. Not only did I have the opportunity to network with museum professionals, I was given the opportunity to speak to our public officials about my passion. Musuem Advocacy Day helped me realize that although I understand how important museums are, others may not. The mission of museums is public service, and we are constantly enhancing and expanding that service to our local communities. To be effective, advocacy cannot just happen on a national level, but must continue on local level. I ask that the elected officials and public alike recognize their own museums as economic drivers, educational pillars and community assets.
Patricia Harris is a Graduate Assistant at the C.H. Nash Museum and is enrolled in the Museum Studies Graduate Certificate Program at the University of Memphis