Monday, November 24, 2014

Museums in rural America

From the Louvre in Paris, to the British Museum in London, to The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Guggenheim, and American Museum of Natural History in New York, I visit as many museums as I can whenever I vacation. Reflecting on my visits to my favorite museums, I realized they all have one thing in common: location. Many of the world-renowned museums are located in metropolitan cities. This realization compelled me to wonder: what about people who live in rural areas? Are they deprived of the culture and education that museums provide?

According to data from the Institute of Museum and Library Services, an independent government agency that counts the number and type of museums in this country, there are over 35,000 museums in the United States. Museums are defined broadly to include aquariums, arboretums, botanical gardens, art museums, children’s museums, general museums, historic houses and sites, history museums, nature centers, natural history and anthropology museums, planetariums, science and technology centers, specialized museums, and zoological parks. This comprehensive definition may help explain why the number of museums is so high. Although the places with the most museums are big cities, including Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, San Diego, and Washington D.C., rural areas are not devoid of museums. For example, Storey County, Nevada, population 3,942, has 11 museums. In fact, 43% of all museums are located in rural towns! For an interactive map of the museums all over the United States, click here.

Even though museums do exist in many rural areas, there are still many counties that do not contain any museums. Up to 175 counties, mostly in the South, do not contain any museums. One of the major reasons is a lack of funding. Unfortunately, funding is often a concern for current museums, too. Due to their location, museums in small, rural towns often have the fewest opportunities for funding or technical assistance, and they cannot afford to bring in the types of desirable exhibits that museums in bigger cities can afford. Because museums are important for a variety of reasons, including providing education and employing people in the community, keeping museum doors open is vital. Luckily, the Federation of State Humanities Councils and the Smithsonian InstitutionTraveling Exhibition Services understand the importance of keeping museums in rural America alive and have partnered together to create the Museum on Main Street (MOMS) program.

MOMS provides museums in rural areas with access to resources they wouldn’t otherwise have and helps them improve their current institutions. For example, MOMS circulates various Smithsonian exhibitions. Since 1994, they have served more than 900 communities with a median population of 8,000 in 46 states and Guam. Not only do rural museums benefit from the resources offered by MOMS, but the community is enriched with greater access to historical and cultural artifacts. To see if MOMS is coming to your area, click here.

Personally, I was happy to learn that museums are not limited to the bigger cities because every individual, no matter where they live, should have access to these educational opportunities. Next time you find yourself in a rural town, you should take the time to check out the local museum – you never know what you might learn!


Juliana said...

Interesting post! Though considering many rural communities are economically disadvantaged and lack basic social services, it is not surprising, and honestly expected, that they lack museums as well. Additionally, because rural communities are often remote and spatially isolated, it might be hard for anything larger than a community museum to attract a lot of visitors.

However, MOMS sounds like a great organization and providing important arts-related resources for rural communities. It also seems particularly important, because it allows access to cultural opportunities usually only given to rural-dwellers.

Ahva said...

The facts in your post regarding the relative shortage of museums in rural areas is consistent with my experience in those areas, limited though it may be. MOMS seems like a promising mechanism for increasing access to the arts in rural areas. In addition to bringing arts exhibits to rural areas, MOMS also allows for "small town" residents to contribute their stories online. The MOMS website states: "Our goal is to create an archive of stories that show the excitement, diversity, and creativity that exemplify life in America’s rural communities. One of our programmatic commitments is developing collections and programs to help the public better understand the experience of living in America."

Allowing rural and small town folk to share their stories with the public, including persons living in non-rural areas, seems especially beneficial. Being able to understand the experiences of persons living in rural/small town America through a forum like MOMS can only help efforts to bridge the rural-urban divide.

Kate said...

Another great post, Tiffanie. It is interesting to reflect on all of the ways that rural communities are afforded less due to the relative removal from urban monies. I have seen a few local rural museums. Specifically the Woodside Store Park ( Local museums have a unique, small-town feel. The staff are usually experts on the materials that they do have. MOMS sounds like a great program, that will keep this knowledge alive and perhaps foster expansion. Great post!

Desi Fairly said...

From a psychological stand point, bringing a museum to a rural area can have a positive impact on a community's self-image. A museum is a culturally rich and intellectual entity. Introducing even a temporary museum into an impoverished rural town can infuse a sense of worldliness and sophistication into the community members. Stereotypes and any negative self-image brought on by persistent poverty can be challenged if a community feels that it has funding for social structures like a museum.

Moona said...

This is a very interesting topic. I had never before considered or thought about the lack of museums and other such opportunities in rural areas. I can definitely see how a lack of funding is likely a big reason behind the lack of museums in rural areas. But I also wonder if the lack of museums in rural areas has anything to do with a lack of demand for such attractions in rural areas. Even if there were many such opportunities, I wonder how many rural residents would want to visit them. And as Julianna mentions, the signature geographic isolation of rural areas might lead to less visitors and less economic incentives to place museums in rural areas.

Kate Hanley said...

I am curious if rural museums receive proportional grant funds to urban museums. One of the funding issues that IMLS comes across is that museums may not be aware of grants, or might not know how to apply for them. (Museums need to apply for grants In order to receive them.) My speculation on this is that urban areas might have more people around and those people might be more aware of available grants and how to apply for them, whereas rural museums might need to reach out more to get this information.

I know IMLS offers many webinars, and much information is available online or through professional list serves. All this may decently reach rural areas... but I honestly don't know the ultimate funding breakdown off the top of my head.