Mini but Mighty: Why Small Museums are Superheroes

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The most intriguing thing about superheroes isn’t that they leap tall buildings in a single bound or change into capes and spandex tights inside phone boxes. It’s the fact that they help save the world every day – without most people ever realizing it.

That’s why we think small museums are real-life superheroes.

As much as we love the Louvre and go gaga for the Getty, smaller, lesser-known museums provide unforgettable experiences and unique stories for visitors of all kinds – and they’re actually in the majority. More than half of all museums in the United States have three staff members or less.

The Mµseum in Somerville, MA. Credit: Joseph Curtatone, Trend Hunter.
The Mµseum in Somerville, MA. Credit: Joseph Curtatone, Trend Hunter.

Small Museums Definition: It’s Not Just About Gallery Size

So what exactly is a small museum? It’s all relative, but small museums can come in many shapes and sizes.

Small can mean the size of the building and workforce. There is surely no better example of this than The Mµseum, which showcases local art in an 8 x 16 inch case next to a Massachusetts bakery.

Small can also mean the size or scope of a museum’s collection, like the quirky Bata Shoe Museum in Toronto, Canada, or the Pen Museum in Birmingham, UK (and yes it’s exactly what it sounds like). Ink-redible! Write on! The pun possibilities alone make the Pen Museum worth a visit.

Credit: Meguro Parasitological Museum.
Credit: Meguro Parasitological Museum.

Finally, small can refer to the target audience of a museum’s subject matter. For example, I would personally love to visit the Meguro Parasitological Museum in Tokyo, but it’s unlikely that the Human Body Parasites gallery has mass market appeal.

Why Small is a Superpower

Small museums have the ability to take visitors on unique or downright quirky journeys, like the Avanos Hair Museum in Turkey, where female visitors can add a lock of their own hair to the collection. If tresses don’t tickle your fancy, the Sulabh International Museum of Toilets in Delhi not only features “thrones” from medieval times to present day, but also promotes the benefits of public sanitation. There’s a small museum for every interest, no matter how unusual.

Sulabh International Museum of Toilets. Credit: Arkaprava Ghosh/Barcroft India.
Sulabh International Museum of Toilets. Credit: Arkaprava Ghosh/Barcroft India.

Small museums can connect visitors with their communities by engaging with local stories, artefacts, and issues on a deeper level. For example, the Tenement Museum in New York tells the story of the Lower East Side apartment building in which it is located, connecting locals and tourists with the working-class immigrant stories of the community’s past and present.

Small museums can have the freedom to take more risks than larger institutions. With smaller workforces and visitor numbers, they are nimble enough to experiment with new or challenging ideas. Small museums can be real game changers for what’s possible at a museum.

The Tenement Museum in New York. Credit: Jim.henderson via Wikimedia Commons.
The Tenement Museum in New York. Credit: Jim Henderson via Wikimedia Commons.

Very large museums can often seem overwhelming or even intimidating, especially for those who don’t often visit museums. Smaller sites can be less stressful, and are often less expensive too.

Small museums offer a more personal touch, and unique insights into a local culture. At Hulihe’e Palace in Hawaii, visitors remove their shoes before entering (a common practice in Hawaiian homes), and passionate guides give tours of the house spiced with personal anecdotes and local knowledge. There’s nothing quite like walking barefoot around a historic home to make you feel connected with the past. Such unique experiences are just as unforgettable as a blockbuster exhibition or state-of-the-art display.

The Big Challenges Facing Small Museums

Life is by no means easy for small museums. Niche subject matter and a smaller brand profile can make attracting enough visitors and funding difficult. The Museum of Inuit Art in Canada was one of many museums to close last year due to financial issues, despite a loyal following and notable exhibitions. In 2015, one in five regional museums in the UK were forced into partial or full closure. But despite these challenges, small museums continue to punch above their weight when it comes to offering amazing stories and visitor experiences.

A former museum colleague once gave me this advice: the best thing you can do is stay small. And with all the great small museums these days, it’s hard to disagree.

Hulihe’e Palace in Kona, Hawaii. Credit: Ashleigh Hibbins.
Hulihe’e Palace in Kona, Hawaii. Credit: Ashleigh Hibbins.

Bigger isn’t always better, and mini can be mighty. Large museums are awesome and awe-inspiring, but let’s remember to give props to all the small museum superheroes around the globe.

Do you have a favorite small museum? Share its story in the comments below!

BY: ASHLEIGH HIBBINS

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