Mini but Mighty: Why Small Museums are Superheroes

Museum Resources
Museum Professional
Museum Resources November 20, 2022 Mini but Mighty: Why Small Museums are Superheroes

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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!

written with 💖 by Ashleigh Hibbins

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Comments & Reactions

  1. Connie
    January 25, 2020 at 4:50 pm

    Yes, we have a small Victorian House & Museum in northern Illinois. I am a member and volunteer. I sincerely appreciate any information on getting attendees and volunteers. I only have two (2) seasons to increase both or it will be sold. The place resides in a small village but is within driving of 15 minutes to 1 hour bigger towns. Thank you

    • Lakshmy Nair
      Lakshmy Nair
      October 16, 2020 at 10:57 pm

      Where are you located ? I may be close to you. I like to take a look at your facility, although not sure you are open because of Covid.

      Thank you,
      Lakshmy Nair

  2. Cedric
    February 2, 2020 at 4:57 am

    Hi Ashleigh,

    We are 3 people in Europe working on a project to help small museums to digitalize and have more visibility. Because we strongly believe in their super powers, and their potential to spread their knowledge about culture and history. And it’s a shame that not more people know about them and visit them.

    Keep the good work, (strong arm smiley)

  3. Ceren Karadeni̇z
    Ceren Karadeni̇z
    June 3, 2020 at 4:24 pm

    I am a staff of a small museum which is in the body of Ankara University. Our museum is also the first toy museum in Turkey. Our staff generally volunteers, our collection is also small but we have enjoyable educational activities and so many books, educational tools and etc. Small is exiting and sustainable i think and yes digitalizing is very important, we hope also we can find someone to help..
    Keep valuable work…

    November 4, 2020 at 6:05 pm

    hi Ashleigh,

    i am in Newcastle, NSW, Australia. I have just been bequeathed an art collection and artefacts. I run my own art school and studio at my home. I am contemplating opening my garden to visitors in 2021 to view the artefacts and working studio space. I am a public speaker however I am not familiar with Oceanic artefacts. At first I felt this could be a major stumbling block but people are not expecting a University lecture; the simplicity of wondering through the garden and viewing interesting items is enough to sooth the soul. Newcastle are building a 6 star hotel only two blocks away from me and I am within walking distance to the most magical Australian beaches, wine bars, restaurants. I am looking forward to hearing from you. Kind regards, Sophie

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