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Museums Are a Source of Wealth

by Tom Lidtke


Each year museums around the globe set this week aside to celebrate the wealth of contributions they make to society. Some deal with the trivial, like the Mount Horeb Mustard Museum here in Wisconsin, while others deal with the profound, such as the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington D.C.

Museums teach us many things about our history, including the wonderful diversity found in various cultures both past and present. They tell us about the wonders of nature. They give us insight into the lives of people of interest, as is the case with historic homes, presidential libraries and halls of fame. Now that spring is upon us, the Baseball Hall of Fame comes to mind as a popular example.

Museums collect, preserve and document items that are important to humanity including everything from the mundane and common to the rare and unique. They present collections, exhibitions and educational activities that delight and stimulate intellectual exploration, creativity and dialogue.

They provide many other things, including reflective recollection and profound experiences. Such was the case several years ago when the West Bend Art Museum presented a nationally touring exhibition of war art created by Vietnam veterans who later became artists. The artists represented in the exhibition were fighting in Vietnam for their countries: Australia, New Zealand, America and Vietnam, both North and South. Regardless of whose side the artists were fighting for, the artwork had one chilling thread that ran through all of it -- the human tragedy and brutality of war. While the artists' chosen media and styles were vastly different, the message of anguish was the same.

Today the internet, casinos, movies, TV and other leisure-time activities have taken a bite out of museum attendance in the United States. Some have even said that the internet would erode attendance even further and diminish the need for museums. After all, some contend, the internet is less expensive and easier to access than a museum and not everyone is interested in museums.

While this last sentence is true, the real value of museums is far deeper and more important than simply gathering facts and viewing thumbnail images on a computer screen. The real reason society needs museums are because of the intrinsic value they offer.

Take for example, the Vietnam War art exhibition. The visitors' emotional connection and response to the material presented was profound, and it brought the viewer experience to a new and deeper level. High school tour groups came in droves. Some teenagers of both genders, kids who were not even alive during the war, wept at the images they saw and experienced.

Some veterans who had long since buried their emotional scars broke down and veterans' counselors had to be brought in during some of the weekend showings. Soon word of mouth traveled through veterans' groups about the power of the exhibition.

Veterans from as far away as Oregon and Washington, D.C. came specifically to see this exhibition. One Australian businessman, in America at the time, heard about it. A veteran himself, he flew from Houston to Milwaukee to experience the exhibition.

These are the type of experiences that make us human and help us understand who we are. These museum experiences help us to come alive and cannot be replicated in any other way.

Human interaction that provides a corporate experience, a deeper intellectual and emotional understanding, physical interaction with exhibition objects, provide a multi-sensory experience that cannot be had sitting in solitude staring at an image on a 17" monitor. The internet is an extremely valuable tool, but to compare it to the reality of a museum visit is like comparing a picture of a strawberry to tasting a fresh, sweet and juicy strawberry. The subject is the same, but the experience is a world apart.

As important as they are, the intellectual and emotional value museums offer are not the most important things they provide. A museum's most important value is its first priority. That is to collect, preserve and document. Museums do this so that we, and future generations, will get to see and understand the world around us.

While the intrinsic value of museums is apparent to most, economic impact of museums is also worth considering. Not all public facilities and resources provide direct economic benefit, but museums do. Museums attract tourists and other business interests. Not too many people go on vacation to a city that is a cultural desert and, all other things considered, no business is going to relocate its workforce, or at least its management, to such a location.

I think most people understand that museums, like parks and libraries, are a valuable investment for any healthy society to make. Several surveys have shown that Americans from all income and education ranges visit and value museums. The studies ranked museums in the top three family vacation destinations.

Museums as tourist destinations in Wisconsin brought in over $6 billion per year during the 1990s. Without tourism dollars, taxpayers would have to pay more, or do with fewer tax supported amenities. We need to remember that tourists spend money and then leave. When tourists go to museums they also shop, eat at restaurants, buy gas and stay at motels. Then they go home. They don't require most, if any of our tax- supported services that residents need. For the most, tourism dollars are net dollars for the community.

Museums are truly priceless, but they are not free. They require our financial support. Most museums have always done a fine job of resource management, but today, museums like most other nonprofit organizations, have begun to examine if and how they can do better. They have to, or they will not succeed in their mission to serve the better good of society.

Recent problems with wasted tax dollars and the rapidly rising costs of some economic sectors has caused major donors and nonprofit granting organizations to be far more demanding when it comes to accountability, efficiency, value and results. This is a good thing. It makes these organizations, including museums better, but it takes time away from the core mission of the organization. That is a necessary downside.

I think the majority of people want to sustain a certain quality of life in their communities. After all, who wants to live in a city that has no library, parks, museums, soccer fields or baseball diamonds? I think the majority of tax payers would say that as long as these resources are well-managed then, let's support them.

With the cost of gas on the rise this summer, why not take a vacation close to home and visit the many museums that are available in our own back yard. And, while you are at it, why not consider volunteering or making a financial contribution to strengthen one of our truly important institutions.

To celebrate International Museum Day and Wisconsin Museum week, the West Bend Art Museum invites the general public to tour the facility and have free use of audio tours as well as free access to displays and children's scavenger hunts. On Wednesday, May 18th fro 5:30 ­ 8:00 p.m., the West Bend Art Museum will host a "get to know your museum" evening for all its Friends. The Friends of the West Bend Art Museum is a group of over 1,000 people who support the museum with annual contributions. Guided tours for adults and scavenger hunts for children will be available to showcase the museum's collections, exhibitions and educational opportunities. Anyone wishing to become a Friend of the West Bend Art Museum may do so prior to or during the event.


About the author

Tom Lidtke is past president of the Wisconsin Federation of Museums and Executive Director of the West Bend Art Museum

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