Sandra Nordland: Museum needs to be under new management

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SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y.— I've been following this travesty of the Berkshire Museum's attempt to sell off collections to make up for the operating deficits and [Williams College professor of economics] Stephen C. Sheppard is absolutely correct. Not only is the museum overstating its so-called emergency (Eagle, Sept. 1,) but it seems that it is horribly mismanaging the museum and its collections on a much larger scale than could be imagined.

A look at their staffing on their website is an immediate "tell" to the mismanagement. As a public historian, one who facilitates historical knowledge to the public, I have never seen staff positions in a museum or any such history institution with titles such as Collections "Experience" Manager, Chief "Experience" Officer, Chief "Engagement" Officer, Chief "Support Services" Officer, Marketing and "Brand" Manager, etc. This reads more like a for-profit corporation, certainly not a museum. Where are the curators with years of experience with collections or the archivists with even more experience with collections, accessioning and deaccessioning, the exhibit designers? I'm shocked by these titles that are listed as actual museum staff, which are not a part of any museum staff listing that I've ever seen.

These days in public history institutions, the overall mission has changed to more inclusiveness of all collections within a museum. Where all parts of a collection, whether they be in art, history, or artifacts are combined with other varied parts of the collection to create a better understanding of the collection as a whole. Meaning one would utilize a work of art in conjunction with other artifacts so that they all join together to form a more full educational experience. What this museum wants to do is eliminate the works of art so that it can focus on their aquatic exhibits and historical artifacts, which, in this "New Vision" plan seems more like an amusement park plan rather than a museum plan.

Its financials look quite dismal in that the museum has obviously not been working toward locating more donations and grants for its annual operational expenses. I'd like to see its fiscal year plan, forward plan, collection management plan, performance measures (quantitative/qualitative data, both current and future), project management assessment for this "New Vision" and for the restoration of an existing museum building, and its cash flow projections. Where are they?

The museum also seems not to have much in the way of fundraising projections, which is a major part of any museum management plan. This is how a museum funds its operating costs for the year so that they do not have to use any of their endowment, which the museum has obviously been tapping into inappropriately. The museum is using its one-off expenditure, the capital budget, to renovate the existing building and expand the "New Vision" but it doesn't have a capital budget currently. The museum is looking to acquire that by selling off collections, which is not where a capital budget is supposed to come from.

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This is what the endowment is for, along with grants and fundraising. But given the museum has been using the endowment over the past 11 years to cover operating expenses (which should have been accounted for in its annual budget and management plan), it has squandered that away, and is now left with less for any improvements needed.

The museum has made huge errors in the management of its funds and is trying to hide it by claiming it is broke and needs to release works of art to raise cash. What the museum should be doing is what it should have been doing the past 11 years — working hard to raise funds like every other museum does annually.

Mr. Sheppard is quite right in his assessment that the museum is overstating its emergency. But more than that, it is understating its shortcomings in causing the predicament it is in. It is a self-inflicted wound caused by gross negligence by upper management and a Board of Trustees that either does not understand the gravity of the situation or is equally complicit.

It is perfectly clear that the institution is in need of a complete management replacement to save the museum and its collections for public use.

Sandra Nordland is a public historian


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