Cover Story

Exhibiting Resilience

Springfield Museums display determination
Cover 10/31/05

Cover 10/31/05

Museums everywhere are struggling to reinvent themselves and appeal to wider audience, while simultaneously coping with tight budgets and overtaxed staff. The Springfield Museums are not immune to those challenges, and face them everyday. But museums director Joe Carvalho is optimistic that the institutions have what it takes to not only survive, but thrive in the national marketplace.

“Have you ever seen a Samurai sword?” That was the question Joe Carvalho, director of the Springfield Museums, posed to a family he ran into recently while rushing off to a meeting on the museum grounds. The family had come to the museums specifically to tour an exhibit on black soldiers who fought in the Civil War, and, having completed their visit (or so they thought), were about to leave.

But Carvalho had other plans for the family, which included two young children whose eyes widened at the prospect of checking out a massive Japanese sword, like the ones they’d seen in movies and video games. Having successfully steered them away from the parking lot and toward the Asian art exhibit, Carvalho headed off to his meeting.

An hour later, he passed the same family, now with handmade Asian kites in their hands that they’d created at the nearby Art Discovery Center, and with plans to visit the science museum before leaving. “Now that,” Carvalho said, with a slap to his knee that was both emphatic and triumphant, “That’s great. That’s what it’s all about.” It was just a snapshot, he said, of the model the Springfield Museums have been cultivating over the past several years.

“Museums used to be purely visual,” he said. “You came to simply see. But we can’t be that anymore … you have to be able to see, do, touch, interact, learn, and have fun. More and more museums are realizing that’s what you have to do to survive, but I think we’re ahead of the curve. I think that’s our magic.” And one statistic would suggest that Carvalho’s optimism is warranted: Springfield Museums have logged record attendance levels over the past three years, bringing in the highest number of visitors in the facilitie’s history.

That’s in the face of financial challenges and staffing cutbacks, among other concerns, not to mention the museums’ central location in the heart of a struggling city. As part of its focus on the region’s travel and tourism sector, BusinessWest looks this issue at some of the initiatives that are working for the museums, and some of the new frontiers Carvalho and his staff hope to cross in the future, as they work to bring an historic quartet of buildings into the 21st century.

Curating the Ills Carvalho said the Springfield Museums aren’t unique when it comes to many of those ongoing concerns he mentioned. Museums nationwide face a common set of challenges, and it’s how those problems are tackled that determines the ultimate level of success. Museums are charged to continuously shake off the dust, sometimes literally, he said, within their halls and to not only change with the times but also translate those changes to the general public. They must update their collections, while maintaining existing ones.

They must appeal to general audiences, while still upholding high academic standards in the areas of archiving and historical or cultural relevance. They must perpetually seek out new funding sources in the form of grants or corporate support in order to maintain services, and must also make do with sparse staff and resources in the face of budget constraints.

“Keeping good people is an issue that all museums deal with,” Carvalho explained. “There is a major misconception that people who work in museums sit on their hands all day, when in fact, we have a team of professionals here that are increasingly called upon to broaden their skill base. “Staffs are getting smaller all the time in all museums,” he continued, noting that when money is tight, staff cutbacks are common.

But as the demands for new types of technology-based, multi-media exhibits and offerings increase, existing employees are often called upon to add a new line to their list of responsibilities. “The technological and cultural literacy required to work in this environment is staggering, and we’re lucky here to have people who have taken that component of ongoing education very seriously. In some cases, their creativity has translated into innovative, cost-saving ideas for us, and they’re constantly stretching their resources. I couldn’t ask them to do more … although I probably will.”

It’s not just creativity in the exhibit halls that leads to greater foot traffic, however. Increasingly, museums must compete with television, radio, and the Internet when recruiting new audiences, and constantly sell themselves to the public in an effort to explain why it’s better to visit a museum to see a given work of art, scientific marvel, or historical relic, instead of Googling the item from a home office desk. “In 1896, when the museum first opened, they didn’t have to worry about the Internet, the TV, and video games,” Carvalho said.

“Now we’re literally competing for people’s time.” He added that those museums that are not recognizing the need to reinvent themselves are those that are struggling the most. “Museums have to build toward the future as much as they have to preserve the past,” he stressed. “Some haven’t, and they blame their downturns on the attitudes of the public, not on their own internal issues. Museums need to recognize that we have to appeal to everyone, not just people with PhDs, to survive.

We have to be different, we have to be engaging, and we have to show people the value of seeing the actual object. That’s our purpose, and we have to do it well.” But that’s admittedly a tall order, said Carvalho, and one that is complicated by the need to woo local visitors to the museums as much as national visitors. He added that “convincing the community to come back” has been at the top of the Springfield Museums’ to-do list over the past decade, and, gradually, they are returning. A Seuss Boost Undoubtedly, one addition to the museums that gave the organization a needed boost was that of the Dr. Seuss National Memorial Sculpture Garden in 2002.

Now the crown jewel of Springfield’s Quadrangle, the bronze statues depicting various characters created by Springfield native Theodore Geisel have brought some national attention to the city, as well as the museums’ four buildings and their collections:

• The George Walter Vincent Smith Museum, which houses the collection of its Victorian namesake, including several pieces of Japanese and Chinese decorative arts;

• The Springfield Science Museum with its African Hall, the Seymour Planetarium, an aquarium and live animal center, and Gee Bee airplane;

• The Connecticut Valley Historical Museum, which exhibits present decorative objects and domestic artifacts highlighting the history of the Connecticut River Valley, and

• The Museum of Fine Arts, featuring 14 galleries of important American and European oil paintings, as well as fine watercolors and other works on paper, sculpture, furniture, and decorative arts.

Carvalho said the sculpture garden has definitely captured the public’s attention, and drew in a new legion of visitors to all of the museums. But he was also quick to note that the museums will not be leaning too heavily on the memorial in the future. It gave the museums a much-needed shot in the arm, he said, but Horton and his friends can’t do it alone.

“It’s a gem,” Carvalho said. “It gave us the national brand we needed and some new recognition as a destination. But what the memorial also gave us was a way to reintroduce the other national collections we have here, something simple to open that door. Now that the momentum has started, we are going to continue to build on it by constantly rethinking how to draw people in.”

That could mean working with area schools to create programs for students, or capitalizing on the new branding of the Pioneer Valley, jump-started by the Greater Springfield Convention and Visitors Bureau, in order to attract more regional visitors to the museums for one and twoday trips. It could also mean revamping existing collections as well as procuring and promoting new galleries and exhibits, as Heather Haskell, director of Art Museums, explained. She said a number of unique art exhibits will be shown throughout the year, ranging from photography to colonial crafts to the realistic, often life-sized sculptures of world-renowned soft sculpture artist Lisa Lichtenfels.

A massive reinstallation of 10 permanent galleries is also currently underway at the museums, which will require months of painstaking work by museum staff. “We’re putting new or different objects in view, and highlighting some recent gifts to the museums,” said Haskell. “The objective is to make the entire museum more accessible to 21st century visitors.” The museums’ next national marketing push will be to promote its expansive collection of Currier & Ives prints, many of which will be unveiled on Nov. 18 in the Museum of Fine Arts.

The exhibit will include 175 of the museum’s 790 hand-colored, original lithographs, which represents the third largest collection in the country next to the Library of Congress and the New York City Museum, and the only permanent museum gallery in the world. What’s more, museum staff has taken to referring to exhibits like the Currier and Ives collection as ‘brands,’ underscoring the economic impact the art collections have on the business climate of the museums as well as the city.

“It’s possible that 10 years from now, we could have the largest exhibit of Currier & Ives prints in the entire world,” said Haskell. “The magnitude of this collection already elevates us to a new level as a museum.” Carvalho added that it will be a goal to continually grow the collection, in hopes of taking advantage of the notoriety, much like the museums did following the dedication of the sculpture garden in 2002. “It benefits everyone,” he said.

“The national attention will draw in more visitors who will stay longer, will raise awareness of the area and allow for increased cross-promotion here and across the valley and into Connecticut. And it’s all in keeping with the spirit of moving forward.” And with such a diverse set of collections on the premises, the Springfield Museums do indeed have the resources to cater to a wide spectrum of visitors, including several niche populations.

That diversity also makes for a complex marketing model, said Carvalho, explaining that the museums must strike a balance between their individual identities and their strength as a whole. “The question is, ‘Do we try to show the public that there’s something for everyone, and market all of the museums together,” he said, “Or do we try to target those audiences who are likely to visit specific exhibits?’ “The answer is yes,” he offered.

“There’s no one right way to get the sense across of what we have to offer. So, we do it all. We develop marketing for the masses and we target niche markets as well. Our strength is, regardless of how we got them here, that we do our best to show them once they are here how much we have. “The bottom line is we are not yesterday’s museum,” he continued. “There are three groups we are very serious about here: contemporary audiences, future audiences, and past audiences. We have a responsibility to all of them.”

Asian Wisdom He hopes that, in many cases, visitors to the museums will represent all three in the years to come. That’s why he and his staff are hard at work planning the next round of exhibits, researching grants and corporate sponsorship opportunities, and occasionally stopping a visitor in his tracks to ask ‘Hey … have you ever seen a Samurai sword?’ ?

Jaclyn Stevenson can be reached at[email protected]