The World’s Gone MAD, Museum Advocacy Day That Is!

South Carolina History Advocates, including Katharine and Caitlin, with Ford Bell, the current president of AAM. Copyright of 2012 Risdon Photography

On February 27th and 28th, Katharine Klein and myself had the opportunity to participate in Museum Advocacy Day (MAD) along with several other members of the South Carolina History Advocates.  This was the second year the South Carolina History Advocates attended the fourth annual event hosted by the American Association of Museums (AAM) and was my first year in attendance. This two day event combined Katharine and my interest in politics and our work as graduate assistants at the South Carolina Political Collections, with our work in our field of museum studies.  What our week gave to us was insight into the exciting world of Capitol Hill and its interactions with museum.

Prior to Museum Advocacy Day training, Katharine and myself, along with members of the South Carolina History Advocates-Celia James, Caitlin Podas, Amanda Noll, and Shane Lesko-had the opportunity to enjoy a few days in Washington D.C. after driving up from Columbia on February 23.  One highlight of our first few days was a behind the scenes tour of the United States Holocaust Museum with a former USC Public History alumnae, Heather Kajic.  We were able to learn how they process, conserve, and interpret their collections, including the many documents which comprise most of their collections. One highlight of the tour an exhibit on Nazi Propaganda that used such materials as old political posters, film footage, and other campaign materials, to show how Hitler was able to influence a nation. In addition to the Holocaust Museum, both Katharine and myself were able to go to several museums and historic sites, including the National Museum of American History and the Capitol. We both took in as much as we could of D.C. before our first Museum Advocacy event, a Sunday night reception at the National Museum of the American Indian.

Our training day of Museum Advocacy, Monday the 27th, was certainly a busy day with programs from morning to night.  That morning all Museum Advocacy Day participants met at Georgetown University to learn how to advocate for museums.  After some opening remarks from the AAM president, Ford Bell, we began a day of training sessions.  Our first session that Katharine and I attended was one geared towards students. In this session, we learned how to advocate for museums from a student perspective, such as being able to talk about the economic impact of museums as a young professional in search of a job.  In other sessions, we focused on what influences members of Congress and how to customize what we are advocating for based on knowledge about them, including their political background and committee positions.  For example, we learned how to focus on the importance of charitable tax breaks in federal income tax to museums, in order to speak to legislatures who may not be so keen on private funds being taxed to be utilized by the government. We also were able to hear from several different agencies about their experience with museums and advice for advocacy, including a speech from former Iowa House Representative James Leach.

We also learned just what we were supposed to ask these legislatures for. In addition to focusing on tax breaks, our “asks” were for the maintenance of around $35 million a year to be given to the Institute  for Library and Museum Services, for greater cooperation with museums to be integrated into the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, and also speak about the economic impact of museums. This training day was certainly busy, but it was well worth it and definitely prepared us to speak to members of Congress, including giving us time to plan with our respective state delegations what we were going to say when meeting with members of Congress.  To conclude our day, we attended a reception and awards ceremony at the Cannon Congressional Office Building near the Capitol.  Here we were able to see Katharine’s House Representative Aaron Schock accept an a award for his support of museums.  Additional recipients of the award this year were Senator Daniel Inouye of Hawaii, Senator Richard Burr of North Carolina, and Representative Xavier Becerra of California.

After all of our training, we were fully prepared for meeting with members of Congress.  The entire South Carolina delegation, including the South Carolina History Advocates, were able to have a morning meeting with some of Senator Graham’s staff.  The meeting went well, with both current museum professionals and graduate students speaking about the importance of museums in South Carolina. We were able to give them some materials about museums and our legislative asks. Who knows, maybe some archival assistant will find them in the future!

Both Katharine and myself signed up to meet with members of Congress from our home states of Illinois (Katharine) and Iowa (myself).  As a result, the two of us were not able to meet with all Congress members from South Carolina, but other members of the South Carolina History Advocates and other members of the South Carolina delegation including Jill Koverman from the McKissick Museum and Catherine Horne from Edventure were able to meet with James Clyburn, Jim DeMint, Joe Wilson, and Mick Mulvaney.  In addition to Katharine and myself meeting with members of Congress from our home state,  other graduate students met Congress members from their home states of Florida, Ohio, and Iowa.

I personally was able to visit four Congressional Offices.  I first visited Senator Graham’s with the rest of the South Carolina delegation, but then spent much of my time on the Hill meeting with members from my home state of Iowa with our small delegation of fellow graduate student Shane Lesko and John Mark Nielsen, the director of the Danish Immigrant Museum in Iowa.  Together we met with members of Senator Tom Harkin’s staff and then later were able to meet directly with Senator Chuck Grassley.  Both meetings went well, with Shane and I both sharing our points of view as both Iowans and as emerging museum professionals.  I additionally had a personal meeting with my House Representative Tom Latham and one of his staff members.  I will admit, it was intimidating meeting with a member of Congress by myself, especially because I had just learned how to advocate only the day before. However, though the meeting was short (only 15 minutes!) because Representative Latham needed to leave to vote, I felt it went well, despite my nerves!  He was a bit curious why an Iowan was in South Carolina for graduate school, but I mentioned that USC had an excellent Public History program. In response, he said that he would have to pass that along and give his compliments to Senator Graham!

After such a long week in DC of advocacy work, good food, networking, and museums, we certainly were ready to head back to South Carolina.  Overall, this was a great experience that gave me a opportunity to witness the excitement of national politics, something that can only be vaguely comprehended from reading about it and from processing papers. If you are interested in learning more about the South Carolina History Advocates and even see our past tweets from Museum Advocacy Day, please follow us at @Hist_Advocates or like us on Facebook!

–contributed by Caitlin Mans

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