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Who visits small-town museums?

What is the reason for your visit? Two-year BU study takes a look at traffic through small-town museums

Two thousand people passed through the doors of the 1910 castle-like Hillcrest Museum in Souris this summer.

That’s a lot visitors for a museum its size, says Keven Bowie, treasurer at the museum.

“We were quite amazed at the traffic,” he said. “We were only open during July and August, mainly.”

Hillcrest is strategically located beside another popular local attraction — the Souris swinging bridge. But soon this museum’s operators as well as 20 others in small towns across the Westman region will have more insight as to why people come through their doors.

They are participating in a two-year visitor traffic study by two Brandon University professors.

Chris Malcolm and Doug Ramsey began surveying museums in southwestern Manitoba this summer, hiring a summer student to drop off questionnaires for visitors to fill out.

“We ask them questions like, ‘why are you visiting the museum today?’ and if they’re going to other community museums in the region, and how they found out about the museum, and how the sites met their expectations,” said Malcolm, a geography professor.

By gathering this info, they hope to explore ways volunteer operators can potentially widen their appeal and boost visitor numbers. Researchers expect to approach about half of the 40 museums in Westman, Malcolm said.

The team was approached by Manitoba’s Tourism Ministry after completing a similar study for the Canadian Fossil Discovery Centre in Morden.

These small-town museums are full of fascinating things and definitely appeal to a segment of the public, but a lot more could be learned about them, including their needs and challenges, Malcolm said.

The study will continue over the summer of 2016 and will also include asking the volunteer caretakers to share what they think is working for them, and where they need help.

“We’re going to be talking to them about where they think they’re going to be in the next five years,” Malcolm said.

The answer actually may be quite troubling. It’s no secret many of these keepers of the past wonder what the future holds. Older volunteers often ask who will care for these sites after they cannot.

“They get relatively little funding and they’re almost soley based on volunteers,” said Malcolm.

They also worry about how long their aging artifacts may hold up when many are kept in not-so-well-insulated buildings, adds Ramsey, with BU’s department of rural development.

“These museums don’t have displays from the 1960s,” said Ramsey. “They have displays of things from 1910 and 1895.”

Monique Brandt, executive director of the Association of Manitoba Museums, says members are keen to see the results of the surveys because it will help those running museums see what their visitors see. This can potentially help small museums tailor their exhibits, education programs and advertising based on visitor experiences, expectations and satisfaction.

Capacity to operate is always limited, but operators of small-town museums are also really passionate about what they do, she added.

“A lot of these really small museums, even though they have no funding and it’s all volunteers, offer some pretty unique programs,” she added.

Ramsey said it’s hoped a final overall report to be shared among all participating museums might facilitate development of a ‘heritage trail,’ or guide designed to direct more visitors their way. Once museums have a better collective idea of what’s drawing people to them, they could potentially work more closely together to attract visitors, he said.

“They know they’re all in the same boat,” he said. “To see this data collected this way and find their similarities and differences will help them. They can learn from each other.”

Recruitment of participating museums and some initial data collection occurred in 2015. They’ll begin again next spring distributing more visitor surveys and will carry on this study throughout next summer as well, Malcolm said.

They hope to present their findings at next fall’s Association of Manitoba Municipalities conference.

About the author

Reporter

Lorraine Stevenson is a reporter and photographer for the Manitoba Co-operator with 25 years experience writing news and features. She was previously a reporter with the Farmers Independent Weekly and has also written for community newspapers in Winnipeg and Manitoba's Interlake.

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