MMA's Story!

Reflecting on the early days of MMA, we’ve been struck by how much and how little has changed. This organization, like many others, has been through high and low points during its many years in existence. MMA has endured during all of these ups and downs and over the coming months we will be sharing information on the foundations of MMA to help you, our members and colleagues, paint a picture of what MMA was, what it has become, and what it can be. 
 
Founded in 1828, the Historical Society of Michigan (HSM) is the state's oldest cultural organization. For many years, HSM provided a place for history minded individuals and organizations to come together to learn. In the mid-twentieth century, HSM museum folks wanted to get together and talk specifically about how to run museums, since professional practice was front and center across the country. They create the Michigan Museums Conference as part of HSM and the first official conference was held in Kalamazoo in 1952. 
 
Registration fees to attend the first Michigan Museums Conference were $1/person, and 40 people attended. Seven sessions (click image to enlarge) were presented during the afternoon and evening of July 11. Topics included:

  • Methods of Museum Record Keeping
  • Public Relations for the Historic Museum
  • Preparation of Exhibits for Small Historical Museums
  • Purpose and Function of Historical Museums
  • Historic Houses and Buildings
  • Acquisition Policies and Special Interest Collections

After this initial meeting, the Michigan Museums Conference continued uninterrupted until 1969, when the conference was cancelled due to a variety of circumstances. This cancellation and subsequent conversations, would lead to the formation of the Michigan Museums Association.

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After meeting annually since 1952, the cancellation of the 1969 Michigan Museums Conference in Alpena set in motion the formation of the Michigan Museums Association. The deep disappointment felt by members of the museum community due to this cancellation also led to worries of future conference cancellations. To that end, motivated individuals met at the Canopy Restaurant in Brighton in 1969 and decided to begin the process to establish a new state association that would hold an annual conference. 
 
Over a series of meetings, a constitution and by-laws were drafted and a proposal created to become a separate organization, the Michigan Museums Association. The plan was approved by the membership at the 18th Annual Michigan Museums Conference (the last) in 1971 held at the Ella Sharp Museum. A board was selected (photo), officers appointed, and the Michigan Museums Association was born. The first official Michigan Museums Association Conference was held at the Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island in 1972. There were 14 different sessions; among them were four about funding, two related to education, one about collections and one for administrators. Registration was still $1/person and you could get a lake front room at the Island House for $4.50. 

“Few professional associations can boast a 20-year record of achievement prior to their founding. What an incredible foundation we had to build upon. And build we did. The new association moved forward boldly,
and so it has done ever since.” 
- Robert N. Bowen, First MMA President

This is MMA's first official logo from 1972 (image right). It depicts Ebmodaakowet (The Archer), one of the Sanilac Petroglyphs, and was selected at the time because it was seen then as reflecting the various types of museums comprising MMA: science, history, art, general museums, children's museums, zoos, aquariums, planetariums and nature centers.

Moving forward boldly, MMA started a quarterly newsletter - the Michigan Museums Review - in 1972, a monthly newsletter in 1974, all while continuing the annual conference around the state of Michigan. 

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Once MMA was established, the real work began to make this new organization run effectively. The board of directors focused on professionalism and best practice for museum personnel around the state. They shared knowledge through a variety of publications and expanded professional development programming. 

MMA typically offered six annual workshops around the state on a variety of topics led by board members and other professionals. In 1980, workshops focused on coordinating special events, exhibit and case design, education and outreach, care and conservation of metals, help for small museums and label writing. Topics discussed (photo) in late 1981 included, insurance, archives, computers and registration techniques. Although these workshops were well-attended, MMA board members realized that there was a chance to do more to support Michigan museums. 

In order to support this growth, MMA secured grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Michigan Council for the Arts (MCA, now Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs (MCACA)), and Dolores Slowinski started as MMA’s first executive director in 1979. Based out of her office at the Detroit Institute of Arts, Slowinski travelled around the state to consult with museums, started a conference scholarship program, and increased the number of workshops offered. She also implemented regional P.A.R.T.Ys — Proliferation of Answers, Resources, Techniques, and Yarns — that continued into the 1980s. 
 
Changes in grant funding in 1981 forced the board of directors to look elsewhere for funding. Individual membership had been raised from $5 to $20/25, with increases for institutions as well. Without grant funding, MMA was not able to support an executive director, and Slowinski submitted her resignation. The board of directors then divvied up responsibilities to effectively manage the organization. They were able to fund existing programming, including the annual conference, change the logo, dip their toes into advocacy work, and update the Michigan museums locator guide.

During this era the publications were robust. The Michigan Museums Review (1972-1977) was a quarterly journal that contained news items and scholarly articles on all museum disciplines, with a Cumulative Index sent to the members in 1977. The Monthly Alert (1974-1977) was a simpler one page information sheet published 10 times a year that was eventually combined with the Michigan Museums Association Newsletter (photo above) that was started in 1977. Outside of in-house publications, the board created a booklet listing museum resources for ethnic and minority history around the state circa 1972. Finally, a Guide to Michigan Museums (1977) was jointly published by MCA, funded by Michigan AAA and prepared by MMA. The 1982-83 revision resulted in a glossy poster with a map on one side and list of museums on the other. 

Sharing expertise and best practice to help Michigan museums thrive is still at the core of MMA’s mission today. 

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In the early 1980's, the Michigan Museums Association (MMA) found itself at a crossroads. After a decade as an independent organization, MMA boasted a lively annual conference, a suite of publications, and a variety of workshops along with other educational and networking opportunities. Yet, the financial climate meant that MMA could no longer support paid staff, and the Executive Director Dolores Slowinski resigned, as described in the last installment. In the aftermath, MMA President Michael J. Smith explained in his “Message to the Membership” in 1982, “we struggled and argued, but in the end we joined together to preserve and continue this fine association.” Smith further declared that MMA had “matured” and was even more important in such a difficult economic climate. [1] 
 
Then and now, MMA sought to represent and serve museums of all disciplines across the state, comprising a considerable range in content and geography. Unlike today, the Board in the 1980's allocated specific seats to particular museum types, such as art, history, science, and nature centers. The Board also updated the bylaws during that decade and engaged in strategic planning. Goals and objectives articulated during the 1980's resonate with MMA’s purpose today: fostering communication among museums and with the general public; sharing expertise; collaborating with other organizations and agencies in the cultural sector; and advocating for the importance of museums. 
 
During the 1980's, MMA was able to offer a variety of programs and services, technical leaflets on a range of topics, and a lending library of VHS tapes covering issues like museum security and disaster planning. MMA leaders and members experimented with different workshop formats and regional gatherings, always striving to serve museum people across the state of Michigan. 

 
The annual conference was always a highlight. Session topics included perennial favorites such as exhibits, caring for collections, and managing volunteers, as well as growing attention to advocacy, the economic impact of museums, technology, and more. For example, the 1984 conference featured a session on how computers can aid in museum work and an invitation to imagine museums in the future by looking ahead to … 2020! (We doubt they could accurately predict what we would face in that eventful year!) Awards recognized those who had made important contributions to the field.
 

MMA also adopted a new mascot, a monkey, to replace the rubber chicken that had previously served that function. The “Monkey Off Your Back” award (photo right: presented by Nheena Ittner (L) to Mel Drumm (R), 2001) was presented annually “to the MMA member who has most successfully given a problem (preferably a major one) to a fellow member.” The announcement continued: “Unlike the ill-fated chicken, the monkey comes with curatorial papers—a loan agreement and condition report.” The monkey was even accessioned, “an act which assures him (or her?) a long and happy life with the MMA.” 
[2] 

Notes:
1. MMA Newsletter, Vol. 2, No. 8 (June 1982), p. 2
2. “MMA’s New Mascot,” MMA Newsletter, Vol. 5, No. 9 (August 1985), n.p.

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During the mid-1990's to early 2000's, the Michigan Museums Association (MMA) underwent significant changes in organization and staffing from 1993 to 2002. For most of the 1980s and well into the 1990s, MMA had no paid staff. Instead, volunteers managed the core functions of the organization, including membership, conference planning, and the newsletter. The success of MMA during this time reflects the incredible commitment of many people. But, it was not an ideal system to ensure the success of the organization. By the mid-1990s, the board recognized the need for a central office and paid staff. A new part-time administrative position was created, funded partially by a special assessment on board members. After two years, the budgetary model changed to an annual fund drive. Office space was provided at the Michigan Historical Center in Lansing. Ann Ashby (photo right, enlarge for full story) was hired and worked to consolidate MMA functions in one office. With this stability and efficiency of operations, MMA was positioned to grow even more. Ashby declared in 1998 that MMA was “no longer an infant” and in 1999, Vice President for Membership Nheena Ittner wondered how MMA had ever lived without the central office and dedicated staff. 
 
After several years at the helm, Ashby departed in 2000. In early 2001, LuAnn Kern (photo left, enlarge for full story) was hired as a full-time director. Kern was familiar to many in Michigan’s museum community since she had previously served as Director of Grants and Education Programs for the Michigan Humanities Council. In announcing Kern’s appointment, MMA President Steve Hamp noted, “LuAnn coming on board as full-time MMA director expands our capacity immensely—and will allow us to provide outstanding member services, dynamic programs, and strengthened cultural tourism and education initiatives. With her help, we will continue to position Michigan as a national leader among museums and in cultural affairs.” 
 
A major focus during the 1990s was cultural tourism. MMA received a substantial grant from the Institute for Museum Services in 1997 to help promote tourism in Michigan. MMA saw a need to articulate the particular value of museums as attractions to tourism professionals and to remind museums of the importance of visibility. In April 1998, MMA hosted a conference in Flint called “Culture and Tourism: A Template for Action.” More than 120 people attended. Additional programs, publications, and partnerships (including with Travel Michigan) advanced this initiative in subsequent years.
 
MMA also facilitated collaboration among Michigan museums, including regional meetings, an exhibit exchange program, and even synchronized exhibit planning across institutions (seven different museums scheduled exhibits on sports at the same time to create a special destination for visitors). All of this activity was on top of perpetual favorites like the annual conference and a variety of workshops on topics like collections care, photograph and document care, exhibits, museum accessibility, and more. 
 
MMA members were excited to attend the 2001 conference, slated for Detroit on September 12–14. That conference was canceled in the wake of the terrorist attacks on September 11. MMA re-adjusted quickly (just like it would almost 20 years later, facing the COVID-19 pandemic), and 120 members came together at the Henry Ford Museum & Greenfield Village at the end of November 2001 (photo right, click to enlarge). In addition to a business meeting and awards ceremony, this “Gathering of the Michigan Museum Community” provided an important opportunity to face challenging times together. 

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The Michigan Museums Association (MMA), like many other non-profit organizations, faced a challenging decade after 9/11. Even before the Great Recession, MMA confronted economic pressures in Michigan and those only intensified, including the end of critical grant support and a decline in memberships and donations. There were several staff changes and even the office moved to different locations in Lansing. The board and staff remained committed to serving museums and promoting their value to Michigan communities, but it was not always clear exactly how to best achieve those goals in the midst of such transitions and dire economic circumstances.   

In the spring of 2003, LuAnn Kern resigned her position, and MMA then hired Teresa Goforth. With experience in museums and historic preservation in the Lansing area, Goforth continued MMA’s focus on cultural tourism and collaboration. She helped develop a number of partnerships for MMA, including a cooperative venture with Cooley Law School that resulted in the Art and Museum Law Journal (photo right). While MMA continued its major programs such as the annual conference and workshops, finances were a perpetual source of concern as the economic climate worsened and government support for the cultural sector declined precipitously.

One significant initiative during this period was the Connecting to Collections project (image left), for which MMA received a $40,000 grant from the Institute for Museum and Library Services. Additional support was provided by the Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs (Michigan Arts and Culture Council today) and the Johnson Center for Philanthropy at Grand Valley State University. In this ambitious project, MMA surveyed more than 1,500 collecting institutions in the state of Michigan to gain a better understanding of holdings, needs, and challenges, and to support the development and use of best practices in collections management. The resulting report provided a wealth of information about the amazing range of resources being stewarded by Michigan’s collecting institutions, including libraries and archives; art, history, and science museums; aquaria, zoos, and botanical gardens; and historical and genealogical societies. The report highlighted challenges around collection management, such as a need for clear collections policies and disaster planning, and access, with an obvious need for assistance in digitization planning and implementation. 
 
At the end of 2008, Goforth announced plans to resign, and Susan Steele (photo right) was hired as MMA’s new executive director in the spring of 2009. Steele adopted new tools to manage MMA membership and event information and to communicate with members, streamlining these processes and making it easier to see trends over time. MMA continued to offer a mix of workshops and member events throughout the state, facing a perpetual challenge of serving a large geographical area with diverse museums. In 2010, board president Nancy Bryk hosted a “President’s Lunch” in Alpena. This event, like the PARTYs earlier (Proliferation of Answers, Resources, Techniques, and Yarns), showed the important role that MMA continued to play in facilitating connections among Michigan museums in a variety of ways. Today, MMA continues to foster and amplify potential opportunities and resources in museums through virtual programming, in-person workshops, and the Annual Conference.

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In the early 2010s, MMA and the entire cultural sector were still feeling the effects of the Great Recession. With new staff — Lisa Craig Brisson (photo L-R: Sarah Waters, Lisa Craig Brisson, Emily Fijol), came in as Executive Director in 2012 — MMA took the opportunity to reassess and rebuild. The board was restructured, and roles clarified toward the goal of streamlining operations. Brisson gained project management expertise which improved efficiency and communication. The Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs (Michigan Arts and Culture Council today) invited MMA to apply for a "Services to the Field" grant. The success of that application marked a new era for MMA — the award doubled MMA's budget in the first year.

Nina Simon giving keynote address next to podiumWith that infusion of financial resources, MMA was able to continue and expand its most important functions — facilitating connections in the Michigan museums community and amplifying the expertise and commitment of MMA members. The annual conference grew in attendance and energy. In 2016, MMA hosted a joint conference with the American Association for State and Local History in Detroit. Three years later, MMA members met in Grand Rapids with the Association of Midwest Museums. There, attendees were inspired by Nina Simon's keynote (photo) address and enjoyed many other informative and thought-provoking sessions.

Museums Advocacy Day graphic of the capitol buildingMMA also took a leadership role in advocating for museums, participating in Museums Advocacy Day at the federal level and in Lansing to convey the importance of museums to elected officials at all levels. MMA also conducted a thorough census of museums across the state yielding important data about the breadth and variety of Michigan museums and their contributions to Michigan's cultural, social, and economic life.

In the last few years, the MMA has taken steps to expand capacity and plan for a sustainable future. The organization added a second staff person in 2017 when Claire Johnston joined as Membership Assistant, which grew into the Membership and Communications Coordinator position in 2019. The board conducted strategic planning, developed a systematic fundraising strategy, and continued to refine programming and operations.


When the COVID-19 pandemic began MMA, like the rest of us, had to adapt to a radically different world. With a nimble staff that was used to working remotely, MMA responded quickly and efficiently, providing virtual programming and opportunities for engagement that served as critical forms of professional support and camaraderie for Michigan's museum community.

As we are — we hope — emerging from the worst of the pandemic, MMA looks optimistically toward the future. The organization has survived tough times before and emerged stronger than ever, and we can do it again. One sign of this steady, determined growth is the addition of a third staff position: Yitzack Balmaceda has joined MMA as Programs Assistant (see below). And, just this month, MMA staff, board, and members were thrilled to celebrate our first in-person gathering in more than two years. There, MMA launched an endowment campaign that will ensure the organization's success for at least the next 50 years.

The Michigan Museums Association is supported in part by an award from the Michigan Arts and Culture Council

Thank you to our Partners!

Michigan Museums Association       313-334-7643       PO Box 5246, Cheboygan, MI 49721      lcbrisson@michiganmuseums.org

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