New England Museum Redux

Old Sturbridge Village
As a follow-up to our post on museums, we subsequently came across this somewhat dated, yet still relevant article from the Wall Street Journal. We’ve decided to post it in its entirety, concerned that it may get permanently archived and its message lost.  It was written by Bruce Courson, Director of the Sandwich Glass Museum on Cape Cod. We soundly applaud Mr. Courson’s efforts and insights and wish to add a few more points.

We (our youth in particular) are losing the connection to our past. In order to have children visit museums, we need to have parents visit museums. We need to do a better job of engaging and teaching our children history, something that can be done both in school and outside of it – as a family or among friends.  There is no better place to do that than here in New England.  Once we fix our society’s connection to the past, our local museums will be the beneficiaries. What’s the contemporary challenge? Think about Old Sturbridge Village (a working museum) versus Grand Theft Auto (a video game). Fortunately, it only takes a brief afternoon to open up a whole new world. And that new world is in our own back yard.

-The Two Palaverers

Why Rural Museums Are Becoming Ancient History

by BRUCE COURSON
Tuesday, December 27, 2005 12:01 A.M. EST

It was disheartening to learn last month in the Boston Globe of Old Sturbridge Village’s recent layoffs and closure of several major facilities. The museum is a living history museum in central Massachusetts that depicts 1830s New England life on a 200-acre site with 40 period buildings. One thousand reservations for Thanksgiving dinner, a tradition since the 1950s, had to be canceled this year. A new tavern and motel, which were expected to generate much needed revenue for the Village when they opened in 2001, will be shuttered in January. Only 20 of the once nearly 70 costumed guides remain. A personally troubling fact, as I was a “tinsmith” there in 1971, a period when increasing attendance was a given.

It is a story increasingly common for rural Massachusetts museums within a day’s drive of major metropolitan areas. Many have current paid attendance numbers that are nearing 50% of what they were three decades ago. My own institution, the Sandwich Glass Museum, saw attendance drop from 84,000 in the early 1980s to 42,000 in 2000. Published figures and statistics I have gathered over several decades point to similar trends in nearby maritime and historical museums, not only in Massachusetts but along the Boston-Washington corridor as well. Considering all that we hear about “the museum boom” in major cities occurring during that same period, this might seem a surprising state of affairs.

Numerous causes have been cited for this precipitous decline, including the weather and 9/11. But one factor stands out among the reasons behind this consistent, decades-long trend: the 1978 deregulation of the airline industry and a new era of cheap air travel. Before deregulation, most vacations were taken in the summer and the automobile was the affordable, preferred means of travel. After 1978, however, inexpensive travel and free “frequent flier” tickets gradually became available. As a result, passenger counts more than doubled between 1978 and 1998. The vacationing public increasingly opted to leave their cars at the airport and, at any time of the year, fly to their destinations. Since 1978, the likes of Glacier Bay, Alaska, the Galapagos, or a Caribbean cruise have become affordable and popular attractions. Changing leisure-travel patterns among the American public are not a new phenomenon: A historic parallel occurred when Coney Island’s Steeplechase Park succumbed to the post-World War II “automobile vacation” in 1964.

How have most museums dealt with the financial downturn brought on by this decline in attendance? They’ve raised their prices. I know of one major, Sturbridge-like outdoor history museum in Massachusetts that, in 1971, charged the equivalent of $5.72 in 2004 dollars but, now, after its latest price increase, charges $21. Its many efforts to expand public programming have not kept pace with the 267% increase in admissions fees. This example is unfortunately not the exception but the rule. A museum will often raise its price slightly to help a sagging bottom line only to find that next year’s decrease in attendance requires yet another increase in admissions fees — a vicious cycle.

How many companies, realizing a serious decline in demand, merely raise their prices without substantially improving their product? Not many still in business. Unfortunately, a great number of museums are now perceived as too expensive, with potential visitors often choosing to go elsewhere.

Other institutions have tried a different tack, “improving their product” by means of major expansions. While some have been successful, all too often the results have been devastating. In many cases small operating deficits became large ones because of additional staffing, greater facilities costs and debt from insufficient capital campaigns. Increases in attendance revenues, if any, failed to meet unrealistic projections. Layoffs became necessary and some institutions ceased to exist altogether.

In 1992, the New Bedford Whaling Museum was forced to close its two-year-old Whale Discovery Center in nearby Plymouth, Mass., after attendance fell short of what was needed to break even. “We had hoped to have 75,000 visitors each year. We had 36,000 over two years,” stated then-director Anthony Zane.

There are no silver bullets in the museum business, of course, and every institution faces a somewhat different set of circumstances. The Sandwich Glass Museum on Cape Cod, aware of several failed expansions in the region, chose a different approach to the problem of seriously declining attendance. In 1998 we launched our first-ever capital campaign, raising $2.3 million — four times the institution’s operating budget. We built a glassblowing arena, a high-tech multimedia theater and new retail space. The difference was that our business plan included holding general admission fees to 1970s levels, $4.50 in 2004 dollars, and reducing group admissions fees to $1. Staffing numbers and operating expenses were budgeted at pre-expansion levels and only a stabilized attendance was anticipated, not an increase. In short, more bang for the buck, not more bucks for the same old bang.

The museum is now in its third post-expansion year. The number of paying visitors increased by 26% over that period and is now holding steady at that level, while attendance at similar area institutions has fallen by 19% during the same three-year period. A sizable operating surplus will be posted for the second year in a row. While these numbers are encouraging, the museum still has regained only one-third of the attendance lost over the past three decades.

As residents of the Boston-Washington corridor continue to favor airline over automobile vacations, the possibility of a broad uptick in attendance at rural locations is highly unlikely. Until museums face up to the real market forces at play, and cease blaming the weather or 9/11 for annual declines, we shall be reading more stories of those in serious trouble or ceasing to exist. Decades of hard work have gone into building these institutions and presenting their accumulated knowledge to millions of people. It would be a tragedy to lose even one of them.

Mr. Courson is the director of the Sandwich Glass Museum in Sandwich, Mass.

Share

Museums, Museums Everywhere

History is representational, while time is abstract; both of these artifices may be found in museums, where they span everybody’s own vacancy.

Robert Smithson

I am sure they were always there right under my nose, all those museums – big and small – that dot the regional landscape. I just didn’t notice until I returned to New England from living in an area with fewer museums. Many of us are familiar with the larger, local, nationally-recognized institutions such as Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, Manchester’s Currier Museum of Art, MASS MoCA, Connecticut’s Mystic Seaport, Portsmouth’s Strawbery Banke, Peabody Essex Museum, Old Sturbridge Village, Plimoth Plantation, Portland Museum of Art, Vermont’s Shelburne Museum, and Newport’s The Breakers. These are all great destinations worthy of a lifetime of visits.

John Greenleaf Whittier House, Amesbury, MA
John Greenleaf Whittier House, Amesbury, MA

But what about those smaller places that aren’t quite so famous? I am referring to the many historical societies, college art galleries, thematic places, historic structures, conservation land, and other areas that are easy to miss and often difficult to find unless one stumbles upon them by accident or hears about them through a child’s class trip or from attending a friend’s wedding.

These are usually more intimate places, many of which are free and open to the public, operated by dedicated curators, staff and volunteers, and often constrained by limited funds and smaller scale exhibits. Charged with the monumental task of preserving our rich New England heritage, these innumerable jewels are rich in depth, not breadth, but their numbers compensate for the latter.

Are there really that many? Recently, a friend of ours from Massachusetts told us of a group of ladies from her church who visit a local museum every Wednesday. They’ve been doing this for five years and have never been to the same one twice! Wow. That not only says something about the group’s dedication and research, but about where we live.

John Greenleaf Whittier House Sign
John Greenleaf Whittier House Sign

The next time you’re passing through a city or town, take notice of that building with the “open” sign or the green space with the weathered plaque. Check it out because something interesting awaits you. It doesn’t need to be a long, planned process or a daylong adventure, rather a quick visit on the way to getting a coffee may suffice. Perhaps it’s even a respite from rush hour traffic, a visit with a friend before meeting for lunch, or a welcome lunchtime diversion from work stress. You may find yourself wishing for a longer visit.

So as you drive through New England, take notice of those signs by the road and get off at that next exit to visit these little treasures. You’ll find there’s a good deal more behind the sign. Please let us know what you find next time you pull over and explore a small, New England museum.

-Laura Ciampa, Palaverer Too

Share

How about this New Year’s resolution? Explore New England.

Old Sunoco New England MapIt’s January 1st and we know what that means: introspection time and goal setting for the new year. We’ll find the inevitable weight loss, career advancement, home improvement, etc. Yawn. Yes, we have those too. Had them last year and will have them next. They’re motivating until about January 3rd. How about we (you and us) do something different? How about a resolution that goes the entire year? How about a resolution that makes us feel good? Don’t despair; we’d like to help.

Resolve to explore and discover one new thing in New England in every season. Visit a small museum in a neighboring town. Hike an interesting trail that reveals regional geological qualities. Eat at a small restaurant whose fare incorporates some local ingredients. Take a boat ride down a river or around a bay. Visit a farm. Sit on a town common. Catch a production at a local playhouse. Read a book about New England and meet the author. We could go on for hours. Need more? Check out our regular stream on twitter.

Those of us who live here are lucky because it’s easy to explore. Those who visit from out of New England are lucky, too, because we pack so much into a small area. So, what’s stopping you from getting out and veering off the beaten path? Over the year, share your experiences and you’ll realize how fortunate we are in the northeast corner of the country.

Don’t know where to start? Take a ride around your town and check out something that you’ve driven by on numerous occasions. Planned or spontaneous, the possibilities are endless.

See? No stress, very stimulating, and fun. Please keep us abreast of your travels!

Happy New Year,
-The Two Palaverers

Share

To Palaver in New England

Strawbery Banke Portsmouth, NH. Photo courtesy of Roger H. Goun.Strawbery Banke, Portsmouth, NH – Photo by Roger H. GounThe scene is a cold, December night in 2007 in Portsmouth, New Hampshire.  A biting wind cuts across the Piscataqua River, scattering the few snow flurries loitering in the air and shaking the Christmas lights that adorn the trees in historic Strawbery Banke. We enter The Dunaway Restaurant, a contemporary dining establishment inside a classic New England saltbox-style home, and are welcomed by a warm fire in the hearth. We sought out this restaurant because its chef, Ben Hasty, a local who grew up on a farm in South Berwick, Maine, very much embraced the use of regional, New England ingredients all the way from legumes to lobster.

Ben’s creations were superb, ranging from his Maine oyster embellishments to his vanilla infused poached lobster. During dinner, we looked up at one another and said, “It’s good to be back in New England.” In fact, we had moved back the previous month after several years in Atlanta, Georgia. When we moved away, we knew that we would someday return. Little did we know, however, how much we would miss the many things that collectively and uniquely make New England home.

Many of our family members, friends and colleagues leave the area and never return, while others make the occasional visit back. Surprisingly, though, we’ve found growing numbers who – consciously and intentionally – make their way home. Our chef Ben Hasty, like us, came back to New England.  He stopped by to chat when our meal was done and shared his similar passion for the region.  That’s the characteristic, a deep-rooted connection to place that continually calls to those destined to return – and to those who enjoy living here.

For the past two years, we’ve been reconnecting with all six New England states. Fried clams in Rhode Island. Historic ships in Connecticut. Mountain top meadow views in Vermont. Politically-inspired breakfasts in New Hampshire. Slow walks around Walden Pond in Massachusetts. Scenic drives along the coast of Maine. Barely a week passes that we’re not enlightened by something old and something new.

We’re not sure whether it’s because we were away or that we’re just a little bit wiser, but nonetheless we’re happy to be back. And we’re equally glad to palaver about New England.

-The Two Palaverers

Epilogue: The Dunaway Restaurant closed after being sold last fall and will reopen in 2010 under another name. After the purchase, Ben Hasty joined the restaurant scene in Portland, ME, but has recently returned to Epoch Restaurant & Bar in the newly-renovated Exeter Inn in Exeter, NH.

Share