While everyone loves a good museum, according to Florida’s leading museum director, an excellent museum draws people through its door over and over again and becomes a treasured destination.
Dr. William Marquardt, curator of the Florida Museum of Natural History and a long-time friend and supporter of the Marco Island Historical Society’s drive to build the $4.5 million Marco Island History Museum – now under construction on Heathwood Drive – said the truly great museums attract visitors time and again through expansive and evolving visions for collections housed and on display inside the museum’s walls.
“Operating a museum is a lot different than building a museum,” said Marquardt, also one of the world’s leading archaeologists and expert on the ancient cultures of Southwest Florida. “There are a lot of historical societies in Florida and throughout the world but they don’t all build $4.5 million museums. This is fantastic.”
The Historical Society is in the final days of accepting applications to be part of the Marco History Museum’s Founders Circle. To become a member of the Founder’s Circle, a $1,000 pledge – spreadable over the next four years – must be submitted to the Historical Society by May 15. Call 239-394-6917 for more information.
All museums, Marquardt said, tell stories about the past. Some simply collect artifacts. Some collect and exhibit artifacts. Some museums focus on research, others are interactive. It is important for any museum to define itself and remain focused on its primary mission, whatever that mission might be.
Marquardt, who has been conducting archaeological digs in Southwest Florida – including in the Ten Thousand Islands and the Lee Coast Islands – since the 1980s, said a vital process for any museum is how it goes about acquiring and caring for exhibits on display. The museum and its curator, he said, must know or learn how to acquire, catalog, store, protect and effectively display any collection of art or artifacts. It is an important and sometimes pains-taking process and rarely an easy one.
“Curation means ‘caring for’,” Marquardt said. “Collection management is vitally important.”
But even more important than the quality of collections and the care taken to safeguard and display those collections, he said, is the process an excellent museum, its staff and supporters, will undertake to learn from visitors what is important to them
“The challenge is to ask yourself and then answer, ‘why would anyone want to come to our museum?’,” he said. “And that question can only be answered by asking (the visitors).”
He said a series of evaluations can help answer those questions, evaluations based on answers provided by visitors themselves.
“You must first decide, ‘who is our audience?’,” Marquardt said. “What do they want to know? What special needs might they have? What do you want them to learn? How can you connect with them?”
He said the Florida Museum of Natural History in Gainesville, part of the University of Florida, always undertakes a formal survey of early visitors to any new exhibit to learn from them how to alter the new exhibit to make it more effective or understandable or even more fun.
“We find out information like, ‘is the exhibit understandable?’ Are people getting the message? Is the exhibit engaging?”
The reason, he said, for this much attention to detail is because any exhibit or collection must be able to draw people through the doors and the only way to know that is ask the people drawn through the doors.
Even before acquiring, building and displaying any exhibit the museum’s core planning staff must sit down and develop a one-sentence “big idea” about what the exhibit is intended to convey.
As an example, Marquardt drew on his own experience building the Florida Natural History Museum’s most recent permanent exhibit and collection, the Hall of South Florida People & Environments. The exhibit draws on Marquardt’s nearly 30 years experience uncovering evidence of 7,000 years of human life in Southwest Florida.
The “big idea” developed by his team and expressed in a profound single sentence: “The rich environments of South Florida have supported people for thousands of years and are now endangered.”
In addition to the Florida Natural History Museum, Marquardt and his team manage the Randell Research Center in Pineland on Pine Island in Lee County.