Canned Programming for Museums: Healthy?

Free Fritos (or witnessing a Fritos free for all--imagine!) could certainly draw an audience. So can "canned programming." Image courtesy of the Nebraska State Historical Society
Free Fritos (or witnessing a Fritos “free for all”–imagine!) would certainly draw an audience. So can “canned programming.” Image courtesy of the Nebraska State Historical Society

I recently read an article on the benefits of collections-based research. The author stated the following: “A canned program* performs a social function. It brings together members and visitors for an enjoyable experience, adds to attendance figures, and may promote repeat visitation. It is often educational, and at its best truly thought provoking. But its benefits are often illusory. Perhaps the organization has advanced its mission . . . However, another museum, public library, or social club will offer the same program in a few weeks. Thus, the program has done little to distinguish the organization that hosted it in the minds of the attendees, much less garner support for the museum and its collections.”

(*I had never heard the term “canned program” before but it appears to mean programs-for-hire carried out by non-staff for a fee.)

The article goes on to argue that canned programming doesn’t directly connect to the host museum’s collections and, therefore, doesn’t present opportunities to emphasize the significance of the collections (central to their purpose) to audiences.

The author calls on museums to take measures to ensure that scholarly research and cataloging of collections continue and to use the information gathered in these endeavors to inform programming.

I can’t argue with that! Programming based on solid research and thorough investigation of a museum’s collection would serve to educate the public on the unique history that museum holds and potentially translate into financial support for preservation (and other) efforts.

I think canned programming can do that as well.

Admittedly, the museums I’ve worked in have not relied heavily on outside programming. When they have, however, I’ve thought it’s worked quite well. Generally, it’s gone something like this:

  1. We have a collection of Buffalo Bill items and put them on exhibit
  2. We hire a scholar/living history practitioner to do a program on Buffalo Bill
  3. Audiences come to enjoy the presentation/exhibit and learn something about the topic AND our collections

The independent museum professionals/historical interpreters I’ve known have, by and large, been extremely dedicated to their craft and are often far more knowledgeable about their subject matter than others. I’ve also found that they are mostly thrilled when a museum has collections that tie into their efforts and welcome opportunities to emphasize the importance of these items.

Perhaps my experiences represent a programmatic sweet spot: outside professional comes in to do programming that supports the collections/mission of the museum, audiences get something new and exciting, stretched-thin staff get help attracting audiences, and everyone is happy.

But those are only my experiences. I’d like to hear about yours.

Have you been to or worked at a museum that relied heavily on outside programs and, if so, how did that affect the museum (positively or negatively)?

Does your museum have rules on when it is appropriate to use “canned programs?”

If you are an independent professional who provides these programs, how do you prepare to work with museums and what represents a positive experience for you?

–Deb Arenz




2 thoughts on “Canned Programming for Museums: Healthy?”

  1. I HATE the term ‘canned’ Please don’t use it. As an historical program presenter, as you have stated, I LOVE when I get to tie into collections and / or mission of the historic sites where I present my 19th century and early 20th century programs. I even arrive early to look through relevant collections / exhibitions and incorporate appropriately into my presentation. Members and staff of these sites really do appreciate the tie-ins, and as you say, it can often get the visitors to see collections in a new way.

    “canned” indeed. Ugh. Nothing could be further from the truth. There is NOTHING canned in my living history presentations.

  2. I am guilty, or culpable in canning. As a blacksmith I often am called in by museums for special events simply because people like watching blacksmiths. I go out of my way to make my demonstrations fit in. However that often calls for say, using a goat skin for a bellows, or even a great set of double chambered bellows instead of my highly portable blower fan. My hosts almost always go for the least expensive option (blower fan) and I am left making a white board drawing of a bellows or goat skin to make the most of the teaching moment.

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