Behind the curtain
by Deborah Chessey, MOI Director of Marketing
During this COVID-19 shutdown, the museum staff is still plugging away. All of us are now working from home, except the crew that is remodeling in preparation for our new Way Out West exhibit is still on site, making dramatic changes to the exhibit space. (Remodeling is dirty work: they’ve been wearing masks and gloves for months – well before it became a global trend.) The education department is filling our website with activities for kids and adults that you can access right now, and the marketing team is brainstorming ideas and prepping for the big things we have planned for 2020. Check out our Programs & Events page for a preview of our summer.
My supervisor casually mentioned that I could try my hand at blogging and the idea filled me with delight. I thought about what I could bring to the museum community. As it turns out, there is a lot of great commentary on our site already – educational, intellectual, fascinating, and interactive information befitting a museum of our stature.
It occurs to me that what is lacking is information on how a museum runs. What makes it tick, the behind-the-scenes workings of what it takes to bring world-class exhibits to East Idaho. A peek behind the curtains into the collections and the staging of gallery spaces and the stories that go along with every artifact that we choose to display and the people that are responsible for making our museum someplace that YOU want to visit.
A well-run museum starts with a good collection and a team of experts that know the stories of each artifact or item. Much as you would suspect, there are historians and collectors and scientists (from every field from archaeology to zoology) that are all actively engaged in finding, preserving, and protecting these items. We have numerous individuals who donate their time every week, and others who arrive depending on the subject matter. Our “research and collections” page can get you in contact with one of these individuals if you have a “what the heck did my grandparents use this thing for?” question or a “you won’t believe what my grandpa used this for” item and story you want to share.
These are the people that museum staff go to for information. They are like Google, only better because they can show you actual examples of an object you are looking for… but they won’t show you an artifact unless you fill out the paperwork and get clearance from the curator and you are trained on how to handle an artifact. For the lay person, the proper way to handle an artifact is DO NOT HANDLE THE ARTIFACT. But, when you go through the proper protocol, you can be regaled for hours about every aspect of whatever has brought you to our establishment.
I often become tempted to wander through the archives and collections and peer closely at things in boxes. I freely admit that I have been tempted to touch on numerous occasions – but one time as I was reaching toward an object, I heard “you weren’t planning to touch that, were you?” and since then I am sure the curator is keeping an eye on me. Primarily because she has said, “we are keeping an eye on you.”
Besides collections, we bring world-class traveling exhibits to Idaho Falls. We are the smallest city in the nation to have hosted Bodies: The Exhibition. We have shown Titanic: The Artifact Expedition and many other exhibits that you have heard of. Go to our Exhibits pages and check out the variety of what we have had, and what we are planning for the future. These exhibits cost us hundreds of thousands of dollars and we show them to our community for a fraction of the admission cost of larger cities. For an example, Animal Inside Out is currently showing in Calgary for $26 for an adult. It will arrive at the Museum of Idaho this summer, and our adult ticket prices will be $12. I will tell you how we are able to keep the tickets affordable for our community, but first, let me tell you about the team that brings those exhibits to our area.
The short version of how we get those exhibits is that we have a team we call “The Experience Team,” or simply “The E Team.” They go to conventions (picture a stadium-sized convention filled to the brim with examples of every exhibit you ever wanted to see) and they are connected with the owners/creators of those exhibits. One of the reasons we get such great exhibits is because of those connections. It is daunting for a museum in a city of our size to assure companies with million-dollar artifacts that we can keep them safe. Our history has proven that we are worthy, because of the professionalism of the E team and the local community that values and supports our work.
I can’t tell you all of the details of what goes into setting up an exhibit because I am usually banned from the gallery spaces when such things are happening. These are the days when curators and exhibitors are behind locked doors wearing gloves and the rest of us know better than to bother them. Do you know what is scarier than walking into a room for a peek and seeing a member of the curation staff? It’s trying to peek and finding a room FULL of curators and historians and exhibition people. I am not that brave – I can only say I suspect they are having a lot of fun painstakingly arranging and lighting artifacts for the maximum enjoyment of the public.
Another essential ingredient of a good museum is an education program that engages and entertains both the young and the old. Our education team is comprised of talented and creative educators. Look through the programs that are offered on our “for educators” page and you will see exactly what I am talking about. They create educator guides that go with each new exhibition, as well as information about our Idaho exhibits, and share additional learning resources to make the experience something that can be taken home. These resources are geared for every age group, from toddlers to high school.
In the past few years, we have started Museum After Dark (MAD), which is for people 21+ and is history and science for adults. It is a date night with an intellectual twist and it is a great place to learn things you didn’t know you wanted to know. We include alcohol and give away prizes. Sometimes those prizes are de-accessioned items from our actual collections that people didn’t know that they wanted – until they got to take them home – actual treasures (in that “the treasure is in the eye of the beholder” way).
And now we can talk some financials, because our museum is expensive to keep open and we don’t get a cost break when we host world-class exhibits. The “Bodies” you many have witnessed in Las Vegas is exactly the same exhibit we showed in Idaho Falls. We paid the same price to display, it and we changed 1/3 the ticket price. How the heck can we do that?
If you go to our About page, you can read all about our finances. In a nutshell, we are a non-profit who receives most of its support through donors, sponsors, ticket sales, and granting organizations. We aren’t a government-funded operation. This means that we have a team of people who love the museum and can talk about it and its mission for hours. I mentioned our historians and their ability to talk about their collections for hours and hours. Oh boy. Get in a room with one of our fundraising team and they can talk about all of the collections, all of the exhibits, all of the programs – whew. These people are like cheerleaders with jazz hands, except that they take it up a notch and have PowerPoints and brochures. If there was a group of us with a confetti cannon, these guys would be the ones to find a way to finance it AND they’d take it on the road trips.
Speaking of confetti cannons, it is now time to talk about my team. We call ourselves the A Team, but it hasn’t caught on in the other departments. They call us the Marketing Team to our faces, and I suspect that’s exactly what they call us behind our backs. Our first goal is to market the museum: where do YOU find out info about the museum? Social media? Radio? Billboards? Television? Word of mouth? (No, really – where? We have stats people who would love to know your answer.) We do market studies and gather stats and create advertising campaigns. There are professional aspects that are exactly like work – but let’s gloss over that and talk about funner things.
The A Team’s secondary gig is events. We host a couple big events every year with the goal of bringing people to the museum for a different kind of museum experience. We have a Maker Faire, a Street Party, Haunted History Tours, a Gala, and we get all caught up in openings before each exhibit. We are like the carnies of the museum. We want to show off the exhibits… and also have a party. We love the other teams like a five-year-old child loves their older siblings. We want to be in their stuff and show our friends and they tolerate us until they have to report to our leader that we are being annoying again. Have you ever thought about how cool a party at a museum can be? SO HAVE WE. Give me a call, I’ll hook you up.
Our leadership is an Executive Director and a Board of Trustees. This team of people loves museums for the cultural and historical diversity that we bring to a community. In my years at the museum in getting to know members of the board, I find that many of them have eclectic interests and amazing collections of their own. They come from all parts of the world and what they bring to the table is a diverse array of talents, including savvy financial planning, clear goals for future projects, and a childlike wonder in discovering new interesting things. They are professionals at the top of their respective fields that know how to run businesses and community organizations and how to keep operating at maximum efficiency.
Behind the curtain at the Museum of Idaho, there is a large team of people that are working toward a little bit of magic every day. We are all here because we believe in our mission to “bring the world to Idaho and Idaho to the world,” and each of us is delighted when we watch visitors learning and engaging with amazing things.
During this time of self-isolation, it is business as usual for many of us, albeit we are working remotely. We are implementing plans for the future with solid guidance to lead us. Our education department has hours of activities online to engage you and your children when you are looking for something for them to do while they are locked inside. Our E Team is bringing Animal Inside Out and construction hasn’t slowed down on Way Out West.
And the A team. Well, we’re hatching grandiose plans including trapeze artists, animals without their skin, and people showing off their unique skills and abilities. We are working with all of the teams to plan tours that will make you say, “there is NO WAY this is true” and then we will have historians ready to say, “WAY. Here’s the provenance.” We are going to pull back the curtain during the next few weeks and give you a peek at what’s coming. Trust me, it’s going to be an experience.
2020 is starting out roughly, but we will be closing out the year with a museum unlike anything you have ever seen before.