The Wasilla museum and museum politics
For a small local history museum, the Dorothy G. Page Museum has been getting unusual amounts of national publicity.
The city-owned museum in Wasilla, Alaska has been spotlighted (or, well, mentioned in passing) in discussions of VP hopeful Sarah Palin’s record as mayor of the smallish town near Anchorage. After Palin took office in the late ’90s, she fired or asked for the resignation of many top city officials, including the museum director, John Cooper, and the library director (who was later spared). Palin also pushed through drastic budget cuts for the museum, whose mission is “to identify, collect, preserve, research, interpret and exhibit the cultural and historical heritage of Wasilla, Knik and Willow Creek areas,” cutting $32,000 a year from a museum with an annual budget of around $200,000. Additionally, three long-term employees were told that one of them must leave and all three resigned in protest. Media reports unfailingly describe these staff members as “septuagenarian,” “grey-haired,” “matronly,” or just “old.” For this I’ll excerpt an article from the Anchorage Daily News, August 1997, which has been making the rounds on the web (for instance, as well as this, and Jessamyn has discussed the library implications):
Opal Toomey, Esther West and Ann Meyers don’t seem like politically active types. There are no bumper stickers on their cars, no pins on their lapels.But the three gray-haired matrons of Wasilla’s city museum decided to take a stand last week. Faced with a $32,000 budget cut and the prospect of choosing who would lose her job, the three 15-year-plus employees decided instead to quit en masse. They sent a letter to the mayor and City Council announcing they plan to retire at the end of the month, leaving the museum without a staff. They also sent a message: They’d rather quit than continue working for a city that doesn’t want to preserve its history.
”We hate to leave,” said Meyers, who at 65 is the youngest of the three. ”We’ve been together a long time. But this is enough.” If the city were broke, it would be different, she said. ”If they were even close to being broke.”
Instead, the city is flush thanks to a 2 percent sales tax passed in 1994 that has left it with $4 million in reserves. There is no reason the museum’s budget should be cut, Meyers said . . . .
The women are only the latest to leave the city payroll, noted John Cooper, who was the museum’s director until Palin fired him last fall.
In addition to Cooper, Wasilla Police Chief Irl Stambaugh left last winter after Palin fired him, and planning director Duane Dvorak and Public Works director John Felton turned in their resignations this summer.
”People are voting with their feet,” he said.
Palin maintains she is doing what voters asked. To have $4 million in reserves is prudent. That’s not even an entire year’s budget, she said.
Much of the latest flap over the museum is a misunderstanding, she said.
All the council wanted was to cut back the museum’s hours in winter from seven days a week to five. The women made the decision to resign, Palin said.
West, Toomey and Meyers disagree. They say they were told that one of them would have to leave in September.
Unfortunately, when small museums have their budgets cut, it usually doesn’t make national news. And if it makes national news ten years later, as it has here in Wasilla, that’s too late for the artifacts and the dedicated volunteers and staff. The city’s website, though, shows the museum open six days a week during the tourist season, including a visitors center and museum with exhibits, and a historic town site with several preserved buildings. My hunch is that these budget cuts made continuing exhibits and programs more important than collections care, but that perhaps the funding has been restored by now. Wasilla also has several other museums, though the city only runs the Page museum and historic town site.
The lesson I draw from this incident, far from being a reflection on national politics, is that, on the contrary, local politics is far more influential for small museums. As I’ve said before, it just takes one county commissioner or mayor who doesn’t understand what museums do and thinks your museum is a waste of money to make decisions that will endanger the future of your museum. And on the local level, it’s much easier to find out candidates’ positions on museum and humanities funding and to influence those positions with your museum advocacy bloc. Susie at Museum Audience Insight notes that museum enthusiasts, a statistical group they call “museum advocates,” vote at a much much higher rate than the general public, 3.5 times more in the state of Connecticut this year. So, small history museums: you and your supporters can have a political voice.