ST. ALBANS – As the world changes with each generation, so too must its museums.
That’s the logic driving the St. Albans Museum’s Vision 2027, its long-term plan for programming and funding that’s led the museum to request an annual $15,000 allocation from both St. Albans City and Town.
That funding, according to the museum’s director and sole full-time employee Alex Lehning, is necessary to keep the museum active in its community while maintaining the 158-year-old brick schoolhouse it calls home.
Residents and visitors in the greater St. Albans area may have noticed Lehning taking condensed forms of museum exhibits into classrooms and community events or participated in the museum’s swelled arsenal of programming, including touring exhibits and presentations held within its Church Street home.
“Today’s guests want self-directed learning and they want to engage in history the way they engage with other forms of media and memory,” said Lehning. “Rather than waiting, we’re taking the museum to them.”
In these ways, the St. Albans Museum has largely bucked some of the trends impacting museums around the country, where a combination of declining attendees and a loss of funding have thrown some museums’ futures into question.
A 2012 study conducted by the American Academy of Arts & Sciences (AAAS)’s Humanities Indicator found that attendance at historic sites nationwide appeared in decline. In 2012, 24 percent of respondents over the age of 18 had reported visiting a historic site in the previous year, a 13 percent decline from 1982 according to the AAAS.
How accurately this paints a picture is debatable, as “historic site” doesn’t perfectly translate to “museum,” and there are few – if any – studies actually mapping museum attendance nationally.
Meanwhile, cherry-picked examples from across the U.S. present a patchwork of museums that both gained and lost audiences over the course of the last decade.
A publication courtesy of the American Association of Museums, also released in 2012, reported roughly half of the country’s museums were experiencing some degree of “moderate to severe financial stress,” though much of that stress was anchored to the 2008 recession and gradually improving in the years immediately following the crash.
“The idea is that cultural organizations are in decline. It’s hard to find funding for the arts – for museums, for music and for theater and those sorts of things,” Lehning said. “We see elements that speak to that trend and then also go against that trend…
“I will say in terms of things that the museum has done to change is recognize the era of static museums is over.”
According to Lehning, the St. Albans Museum has, through more active engagement, managed to counter at least that former trend. If measured through program attendance and visitors, the St. Albans Museum reported record numbers in attendees since Lehning was hired six years ago.
Touring exhibits, like the popular Hamilton exhibit that stopped in St. Albans two years ago, have encouraged repeat visits to the museum according to Lehning, and last year the museum introduced “Lake Lessons,” a school program that brought roughly 500 students from both of St. Albans’s and Georgia’s elementary schools to St. Albans Bay for both history and STEM – science, technology, engineering and math – lessons.
The St. Albans Museum’s 2018 annual report estimated that 3,500 visitors attended the museum, a record for the museum.
It’s the question of funding, however, that’s raised concerns for the museum’s leadership, according to Lehning. Membership with the museum has declined in recent years, as have the occasional monetary gifts willed to the museum.
The museum maintains a somewhat healthy endowment of $330,000, from which the museum can draw 5 percent annually.
According to Lehning, the museum’s also stepped up fundraising efforts to bridge a widening gap between income and expenses, the latter driven primarily by new programs and the museum’s aging home.
“True sustainability is a challenge,” Lehning said. “[But] we’ve always, in the past, been able to close the gap or come close.”
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