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News & Press: Professional Development

Building Capacity

Thursday, May 8, 2014   (0 Comments)
Posted by: Karen Stark
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The job description for my position with the Utah Humanities Council as Museum on Main Street (MoMS) Program Assistant lists “capacity-building” as a goal of the program. Building the capacity of small museums was also a goal of the Museum Interpretation Initiative (MII) which I participated in a few years ago. I have been pondering about “capacity” and what is involved in building capacity in small museums.

Often capacity is viewed in terms of quantity, with the implication that more or larger is better. Are numbers really the important thing? We do look at numbers to assess improvement, but increasing capacity does not necessarily mean adding more objects to the collection, finding more space for more objects, using more technology, doing more things, getting more staff, or even getting more money. There is a qualitative aspect of capacity, which is ultimately the real issue - greater “ability” to do “better” things.

Toward the goal of “capacity building,” the MII provided training, mentors, resources, and equipment, in the expectation that capacity would be increased, yet there was frustration. A statement in the MII Report sums up issues that became apparent:

“Despite this success, the challenges faced by these small museums are monumental, and while the MII program provided transformational tools and support for participants, many capacity-related problems persist. In fact, some interviewees noted that their prevailing challenges were in some ways exacerbated by their newfound knowledge of best practices. They expressed a sense of feeling overwhelmed in meeting new, higher expectations learned at the MII in the face of consistently limited resources, including time, capable staff and volunteers, and funding. The positive feedback from interviewees suggests that the MII program has the potential to expand to meet the ongoing needs of small museums throughout the state.” Source: (page 10)

The following are capacity building blocks that museums should consider when embarking on “capacity building”. The reality, despite all well meaning intentions, might sometimes mirror the sentiments of the MII report above, as I experienced in a building project I was involved with. But these building blocks are crucial in thinking about what our museums are all about.


Commitment to a Higher Standard

The MII imposed upon participants a higher standard. No growth or progress or capacity building is possible without expanding or stretching. Yes, it does take effort - even more effort when resources are limited. But the first and essential component is desire. People don’t generally put forth the necessary effort when it is simply suggested or expected by someone else, but are more likely when they desire the result enough to make a commitment to make it happen. There are a number of programs promoting standards of excellence for museums. I think it is very significant that AAM begins with a “Commitment to Excellence.” Capacity is built not simply by taking on more, but by striving to do better.

A Foundation of Best Practice

State Performance Goals and similar programs can be a guide to create a solid foundation based on best practices. Assessment is a first step because it is necessary to know where we are as well as where we want to be. These programs provide a pattern and systematic approach to improvement. This is a process which can seem overwhelming unless approached gradually, but it is critical to do so as a foundation upon which to build.


Desire and commitment must work together in an organized way - according to a Plan. The Plan is the “blueprint” which shows not only what the end result should look like, but what steps must be taken to get there. The process of creating the plan, though it may seem time consuming and resource draining, is as essential as the plan itself. I recently taught some self-reliance classes and a big part of developing self-reliance is learning this process. It starts with identifying needs and setting goals; assessing what we have in terms of needed knowledge, skills, and resources; then with a specific plan we can approach others for help with the things that we need beyond our resources. This is essentially the same process of applying for grants or seeking funding for museum projects. Being able to clearly outline what you want to accomplish, the benefits hoped for, and demonstrating that you have put time and effort into planning, will go a long way in convincing those with money that it will be well spent. Developing skill in planning not only increases our capacity to produce quality programs, it can increase our ability to gain the increased funding or publicity we seek.

Knowledge & Training

Gaining knowledge is like acquiring the tools and materials needed to build capacity. Training is gaining the skill to use them effectively. Information can be offered or provided but must be accompanied by an attitude of willingness to learn and apply. Yes, education, training, books and resources do cost money and take time. Education is an investment and like any investment more is put into it in the beginning with the hope of a greater payout later on. Gaining knowledge first can save time and effort and even money in the long run because we become more efficient with training, it is easier the next time around, and there are fewer problems to have to fix.

Free and low cost educational and training opportunities are available through state and national organizations. Why do some take advantage of these and thereby build capacity, while others do not? Some may not feel they have the “capital” to make the initial investment. Maybe some lack the foresight and patience to wait for a payoff, wanting instead instant solutions. Some may actually not know enough to know that they have so much more to learn. Their experience with a small museum doing so little may limit their vision so they are unaware of possibilities or even expectations of what they should be doing. Gaining a little knowledge, like with the MII, may expand those horizons and become a first step toward something better. But it may also result in a retreat back to a minimal comfortable level, with some accompanying guilt.


It makes sense that combining the skills, knowledge, experience, resources - capacity - of individuals will in turn increase the capacity of the group or organization. Within an organization, capacity can be increased not only by educating and training ourselves, but by recruiting capable people with specific needed skills or knowledge to join the “team”, even if for one time-limited project. Workloads can be eased through sharing with others, but other issues may arise without clearly defined goals, roles and responsibilities. These kind of internal, organizational conflicts showed up with the MII experience. Good teamwork requires an atmosphere of trust, confidence, and good communication. It works best with the foundation of good written policy, job descriptions, and strategic plans - the outcome of striving for those professional standards. If those kinds of goals are worked on first, creating that solid foundation, capacity will build incrementally and gradually as teams are built, plans made, and projects undertaken.

Successful programs, such as MII and MoMS are collaborative efforts, combining the resources and expertise of multiple organizations and individuals to accomplish something that any one of them alone could not do. Sometimes it just makes sense to “sub-contract.” Collaborations and partnerships of small museums with stronger museums could also be very helpful in building capacity of small museums. Larger institutions might not see the benefit of a collaborative partnership with a small museum, but in the long run, the capacity building that can take place within small museums can be a huge benefit to the whole community.

Mentors were an important part of the MII experience and can be so valuable in building capacity. They become an added resource for information, but probably most important is the support and confidence-building potential. Alone, we tend to question our abilities and become discouraged as difficulties arise, but the added confidence of a mentor’s encouragement - “You can do this” - can make a huge difference.

Evaluation and elimination

How do we know if our efforts are indeed building capacity? The statement from the MII evaluation quoted above reminds us that even successful programs may bring to light other capacity-related issues. Continued evaluation of our efforts helps us see progress and problems for which adjustments can be made. Evaluation should be measured against those foundational best-practice standards and the Mission of the museum. As we determine which programs are effective in meeting our goals and which may be a waste of time and resources, we may need to consider eliminating things to free up time, space, and resources for other more important things. This may seem a very quantitative issue - a simple matter of math -removing something creates a place for something else. But it also needs to be qualitative - an opening created so that a well thought-out plan for something better can be implemented.


A few years ago I was faced with a great challenge and opportunity for capacity building. The move and renovation of an old museum building provided an opportunity for increased capacity in a very literal, physical, quantitative way. A new larger foundation would be laid, creating additional basement space as well as improving previously dangerous conditions. Excited for this physical capacity increase, I also sought to use this as an opportunity to increase the capacity of the museum to do what museums should do - improve the care of the collection and through greater interpretation provide better experiences for the public. I had a vision of what this museum could become. I wanted to begin building upon a firm foundation of sound best-practice policy. I developed plans to utilize the increased space for better artifact storage, a large meeting room suitable for public programs and traveling exhibitions, and much needed office space. My plans included training in interpretation and proper care and handling of museum collections for all who would be involved. I recruited knowledgeable, skilled people - a retired museum director, recent museum studies graduates, University interns among them - to create teams to work on various aspects of the plan. I initiated a partnership with another historical organization to assist with plans to obtain more funding. I articulated the vision and specific plans to present to those who might provide funding.

What actually happened? The best-practice foundation was removed, the plans were discarded, available information and training was rejected, the teams were disbanded. What was left was a few untrained, uneducated people filling the expanded space with more random, meaningless, unsafe displays of artifacts which did nothing in the way of increasing the capacity of the museum to provide public value.

In this article, I present the value of Capacity Building Blocks without a necessarily glowing organizational success story. But sometimes it is these examples that can teach us why and how these Capacity Building Blocks can be so important. Capacity building is not necessarily about increasing the size or improving the condition of physical facilities. It is not even about acquiring more stuff - equipment, tools, or technology. Capacity, especially in small museums, really comes down to people. Capacity building is ultimately about empowering individuals. It requires making an investment in those individuals with the hope that they will stretch and grow, form committed teams, do productive planning, and build better upon a strong foundation.


Karen Stark works with the Utah Humanities Council as the Museum on Main Street Program Assistant. Karen is a member of the UMA Board and is a passionate advocate for small museums incorporating engaging and professional museum practices.

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