Swimming upstream: competition and marketing amongst museums
One of the cultural priorities of the Anacostia Trails Heritage Area and the Town of North Brentwood has been the creation of the Prince George's African American Museum & Cultural Center, a facility that is supposed to focus on the history of African Americans in county, and serve as a cultural asset and destination for the town, heritage area, and county.
The article "African-American museum in North Brentwood hopes to build identity, overcome tragedies" from the Gazette acknowledges that the $20 million museum project will have to compete with the forthcoming Smithsonian African-American Museum in DC and the Reginald Lewis Museum in Baltimore (the museum gets more than half of its operating budget from the state), but the director sees the opportunity to cross-promote and tell a different story. From the article:
Brown said she is not concerned about competition as each museum offers a different perspective. “It’s a good thing,” she said. “The mission is different as our museum tells the story of African Americans in Prince George’s County from pre-Colonial times on, while the Baltimore museum tells the state perspective, and the Smithsonian covers the national scope. I see it as a beautiful triangle, and people can make a day of it.”
The Post ran a set of articles last week related to the groundbreaking of the Smithsonian Museum, and some of the coverage (" New African American museum inspires celebration, worries among competitors") acknowledges competition between museums for donations, support, and visitors.
Given the failure of DC's City Museum to compete with other museums in the city--an issue not just of an admission charge but also of the lack of breadth and depth of the offer--competition with other museums will be very difficult for the North Brentwood museum to overcome. (See the past blog entry, "Cultural resources planning in DC: In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king.")
Most visitors who come to the area come to consume the "National Experience," and they have little inclination and additional time for going beyond the National to experience the Local.
That doesn't mean that the Local Experience isn't interesting, just hard and expensive to market. And most local institutions lack the financial werewithal to invest in the level of marketing that is required--even if they have it within their skill set to do so.
And most people who do visit local history-related museums do so on education-related trips, school trips and such, and don't spend very much additional money while they are there, making revenue generation even more difficult.
Plus, other African-American related museums have a hard time maintaining interest and funding, as the Post article discusses. One advantage that the Lewis Museum has is that 1/2 of its operating funding comes from the State of Maryland.
Former Gov. Wilder of Virginia's National Slavery Museum in Fredericksburg, Virginia has never gotten off the ground (U.S. National Slavery Museum loses its tax-exempt status" from the Post), and the award-winning museum in Cincinnati, the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, has experienced a 2/3 drop in funding since it opened, and is now merging with the city's local history museum ("Money woes lead to Underground Railroad museum merge" from USA Today).