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Troubled Museums Like Twain House Must Plot Path To Success

By KATHERINE D. KANE

July 06, 2008

Recent eye-popping stories on museums in financial trouble are the public face of a national epidemic. Edith Wharton's Massachusetts home, The Mount, and The Mark Twain House's fiscal challenges are examples of a national trend attracting notoriety and questions. There are no simple solutions to long-term sustainability. But there are lessons from other sites that can shape the community conversations about the viability of our cultural institutions.

Today, as executive director of the Harriet Beecher Stowe Center, neighbor to the Mark Twain House, I find myself fielding questions from the public and community leaders: "Are you going to save the Twain House?"

That is not a question that I can answer. No one person or organization can "save" the Twain House. The issues are long-term sustainability, excellent programming, meeting and exceeding audience expectations, and rebuilding community trust and support.

Museums across the country are wrestling with these issues. Many find themselves unable to meet expenses while competing for attendance, attention and income with a host of other attractions. Building projects, and their capital requirements and subsequent operating expenses, can add overwhelming financial strain.

In Massachusetts, The Mount, Wharton's home, is trying to raise $3 million by Oct. 31. A year ago, Virginia's Colonial Williamsburg, suffering declines in attendance and revenue, sold one of its sites, Carter's Grove. In Philadelphia, 300 historic sites are competing to survive, some with annual attendance as low as 200.

I've been in the museum business for 30 years. I was drawn to Hartford nine years ago by the compelling story of Harriet Beecher Stowe, the most famous American woman of the 19th century. Stowe wrote to change the world; the issues she struggled with still shape it. The Stowe Center's mission is to use her story to inspire positive change.

The center's ambitious programs are rooted in Stowe's activism and directly relate to contemporary issues. Our Salons at Stowe series responded to people's interest in being part of the discussion on how history connects with their lives. Institutionally, the Stowe Center is fiscally prudent and programmatically strong. Community partnerships local, state and national have been key to our success.

Stowe and Twain were friendly neighbors for decades; both are towering figures in literature and American culture. Their homes are Hartford treasures and international destinations.

When I arrived in Hartford, I was excited about the possibilities of collaborating with a complementary site. The prospect of cross-promoting two literary giants seemed irresistible. In the past two years, the Stowe Center and the Mark Twain House have grown shared programming and marketing, including joint programs for school groups and a teacher institute this summer.

Last spring, I was invited to a conversation convened by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the American Association for State and Local History and the American Association of Museums. We looked at ways to sustain historic sites where attendance has slipped, financial challenges are growing and the public feels exhibits and programs are irrelevant and unresponsive. The conference concluded with a call for change, especially:

Museums need to be more flexible and adaptive to audience expectations.

Sites must look to the future rather than the past.

Communities and foundations should refocus support from short-term giving to building the long-term capacity to survive and thrive.

As an accreditation commissioner for the American Association of Museums, I have taken a long look at sustainability and excellence for museums. Successful organizations have vision and prioritize activities and resources. They bring their communities into the thinking about their future.

There are no quick fixes when a museum faces significant operating shortfalls. Emergency funding keeps the doors open, but does not ensure long-term or even medium-term success.

In Hartford, Stowe and Twain represent two key figures of the 19th century arguably the most famous American authors of their time. They are international attractions for the region, places of pride for the state and community anchors in the neighborhood. They provide historical context for audiences eager to understand the foundation for contemporary life. Both are important cultural resources, as tourist attractions, as educational venues and as places for community programs.

The Stowe Center welcomes the opportunity to continue to work side by side with the Mark Twain House for our mutual benefit and, more important, for the benefit of Hartford and Connecticut.

Katherine D. Kane is executive director of the Harriet Beecher Stowe Center.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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