For the Love of Museums

By: Kathy Kelsey Foley, director on February 25th, 2009

The wake-up call came at 5:45 a.m. Tuesday, February 24. We met in the hotel lobby at 7:00 sharp to coordinate cabs to Capitol Hill in anticipation of stringent security at the Capitol Visitor Center.

It’s the first official Museums Advocacy Day under the auspices of the American Association of Museums, and some 350 colleagues from across the country representing all manner and size of museums have gathered in Washington, DC.

Four of us comprised the Wisconsin delegation. I was joined by Ruth Shelly, director of the Madison Children’s Museum; David Dexter, director of the Neenah Historical Society; and Norma Bishop, director of the Wisconsin Maritime Museum.

Monday’s advocacy training encompassed a veritable A to Z of what to do, not to do, and most important, how to structure the “ask.” The Wisconsinites sat together and wisely used the time allotted for structuring our message and coordinating our visit schedules.

We were ready.

The Capitol Visitor Center program that kicked off Tuesday’s Hill visits began with remarks by American Association of Museums President, Ford Bell. Members of both the House and Senate welcomed us, including a powerful keynote by Georgia Congressman John Lewis. Referring to how Federal dollars are spent, Congressman Lewis opined that while it’s necessary to build and renovate our bridges and roads, for example, once these projects are completed other than functionality their impact is largely forgotten. His counter to this observation is that dollars invested in museums can inspire current and future generations.

With Congressman Lewis’ message in mind, we began the first of seven office visits at 10:00 a.m. with Representative Tammy Baldwin’s legislative assistant and concluded at 4:30 p.m. with Representative Steve Kagen’s legislative correspondent. In between, we met with Representative Paul Ryan’s legislative assistant, Senator Russ Feingold’s legislative correspondent, Senator Herb Kohl’s legislative assistant, Representative Dave Obey’s chief of staff, and Representative Ron Kind’s legislative assistant.

These meetings were excellent learning experiences . . . for us as well as for the staff members with whom we met. Each was gracious, generous with his and her time, and genuinely interested in what we had to say.

Our message was straightforward and focused on the FY 2010 budget for the Institute of Museum and Library Services as well as the upcoming reauthorization of the agency. The hope of the museum community is that IMLS will be funded in FY 2010 at the $50 million dollar level and that reauthorization will be completed before September 2009 and include funding up to $95 million over a five-year period.

These are ambitious and serious goals, also pragmatic when considering both the needs and the impact of our nation’s museums.

Museums Advocacy Day is an important step in heightening awareness among members of Congress. It’s just the beginning. There’s an enormous amount of work to be done. All museums have a story to tell about how their programs, collections, and exhibitions inspire. It’s up to all of us – museum lovers, including staff, volunteers, visitors, members, and patrons alike – to ensure that these stories and messages are heard.

Tuesday, February 24, was a long day well spent.

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