Museums as Community Development: Whiteville, NC

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jump2Museums can serve as community anchors, catalysts for revitalization, and vehicles for cultural preservation. One of the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences’ goals has been to extend its reach beyond Raleigh, with special consideration for historically underrepresented communities.  There is a large need to reach underserved populations that do not have the resources or accessibility to the Museum of Natural Sciences or similar programs. In November of 2013, the Museum of Natural Sciences saw a promising opportunity to take a major step forward and extend its presence to communities beyond Raleigh. 

Whiteville, NC, had a struggling Museum of Forestry in an underutilized former bank building, just north of its historic downtown. The Friends of the Museum of Forestry and senior staff from The Museum of Natural Sciences unanimously agreed to pursue a new vision for the museum and building.  Whiteville, a rural town of 6,000 in the southeastern portion of the state, is located in a Tier 1 county (Columbus County) indicating economic challenges and a relatively lower income area of the state. This provided a pertinent opportunity for the Museum of Natural Sciences to not only extend access to their resources, but also support a rural underserved community.  There was a vision to bring the best parts of the Museum’s experiences, programming and resources in Raleigh to Whiteville. Last year, the Museum underwent a pivotal mission, core values and visioning exercise to consider its future. The project in Whiteville became a key example and embodiment of their new goals and vision going forward.

The Whiteville Museum is modeled after the interactive programs at the Museum’s Raleigh-based Nature Research Center, Nature Education Center and Prairie Ridge Ecostation for Wildlife Learning.  Opening in March of this year, the 5,000 square foot space in Whiteville houses everything from an investigative lab to a distance learning classroom to link visitors and students to scientists in other locations. Watch this video from The News & Observer to learn more about the Whiteville mini branch and the audience that it’s hoping to reach. According to Museum Director, Dr. Emyln Koster and LuAnne Pendergraft of the Natural Science Museum, “This North Carolina project has positioned itself as a proof of concept that major museums can create microcosms
of themselves in communities two or more hours away
in driving time and with limited discretionary travel resources.” The successful establishment of the mini branch in Whiteville has prompted NC Museum of Natural Sciences administration to consider taking this model to other parts of the state. They are currently developing a strategy to partner with other communities in other parts of the state.

The local community is also anticipating transformative benefits according to Gary Lanier, Director of the Columbus County Economic Development Council:
”In today’s high tech world, having a workforce that is well-schooled in science, nature, mathematics, ecology, and technology
is critical to economic development. We will now be able to provide students living in our region with access to some of the same types of learning experiences that are available to their peers in Raleigh and other metropolitan areas of the State.”

Why are museums important for community development?

According to a study by an Australian researcher attempting to measure the impact of museums, she found three common threads in the participant responses from her research:

  • Museums build social capital – they provide opportunities for education and learning through visual and physical experiences.  They also allow for personal reflection that extends one’s worldview.
  • Museums develop and support communities – museums help to build a collective identity by encouraging reflection on shared values, common heritage, social connectedness, and providing public spaces for leisure.
  • Museums contribute to social change and public awareness.
  • Museums build human capital – they create social networks, personal inspiration and validation, encourage creativity and develop a sense of perspective.
  • Economic benefits – museums attract people, stimulating the economy and employment.  Museums also help create value through supporting a community’s “brand.”

Assessing Economic Impact of Museums

Perhaps one of the more important things for a museum to communicate is the economic impact that it is having on the community.  Many people may not realize just how much economic benefit museums provide to our national economy. According to The American Alliance of Museums:

  • Museums employ more than 400,000 Americans.
  • Museums directly contribute $21 billion to the U.S. economy each year. They generate billions more through indirect spending by their visitors.
  • 78% of all U.S. leisure travelers participate in cultural or heritage activities. These travelers—including visitors to museums—spend 63% more on average than other leisure travelers.
  • The U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis has found that arts and cultural production constitute 3.2% of the nation’s entire economy, a $504 billion industry.
  • The nonprofit arts and culture industry annually generates over $135 billion in economic activity, supports more than 4.1 million full-time jobs and returns over $22 billion in local, state and federal tax revenues.
  • Governments that support the arts see an average return on investment of over $7 in taxes for every $1 that the government appropriates.

These facts represent a national trend but the Alliance also has a website geared toward assessing and communicating the economic impact of museums in your community.  The website provides a simple template for creating an economic impact statement, in addition to a list of sample impact statements from a variety of museums.  These resources will help provide you with a base from which you can start communicating the economic benefits of your museum(s) to the community and beyond.

Ben Lesher is graduate student in both the Department of City and Regional Planning and the Kenan-Flagler Business School at UNC-Chapel Hill. He is also a Fellow with the Development Finance Initiative.

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