ARLINGTON — Next year, the New England Museum Association celebrates its 100th birthday. NEMA has a membership of 500 institutions and 2,500 individuals. The latter include museum directors, curators, art handlers, and employees of exhibition and design firms.
Dan Yaeger, 57, has been NEMA’s executive director for more than seven years. A St. Louis native, he was previously director of the Charles River Museum of Industry & Innovation. He talked last month about the organization and the behind-the-scenes role it plays in New England cultural life.
Q. Do you have a first museum memory?
A. I remember the Saint Louis Art Museum. My aunt introduced me to museums. One of the first experiences when she took me there was getting yelled at by a guard for touching a statue, a Venus de Milo bronze. He was very kind about it, but he pointed out: “You don’t touch statues.” Subsequently, I was involved with the museum as a teenager, in its young-adult art history program.
Q. What does NEMA do?
A. Fundamenally, our mission is to inspire and connect people in the field and give them the tools to develop innovative practices and make sure that museums are relevant and powerful in their community. We have an annual conference, in October. This year it’s the 25th through the 27th. We have anywhere from 850 to 1,200 participants. We do a lot of sessions. It’s peer-to-peer learning: mostly folks within the field talking about issues and trends and practices.
We also have a spring and summer series where we do a variety of workshops throughout the region. I do a series of about six leadership events, on things like strategic planning and board development. We have a growing advocacy effort, where we work with a number of collaborators, such as the American Alliance of Museums and American Association for State and Local History, to have a presence on Capitol Hill. We’re also trying to create more of a sense of advocacy among our stakeholders here in New England. We’ve been organizing state museum days over the past few years, creating visibility for the museum community in each of the New England states.
Q. How did NEMA originate?
A. It started in 1918, as an offshoot of the American Alliance of Museums, which itself started a few years prior to that. That’s when museums were starting to professionalize. Prior to that they were largely cabinets of curiosities, run by the upper crust for the upper crust. At the turn of the last century, museums started to professionalize, focusing on education. AAM had a national conference each year. Back then it was harder to travel than it is now, so it started to spin off regional conferences. It started as an ad hoc thing, museums trying to learn from each other.
Q. Are there comparable organizations in other regions?
A. Yeah, there are six regions altogether. They were designated by AAM. We are the oldest and largest.
Q. Are there criteria for membership?
A. It’s pretty much self-defined. What actually is a museum? [Laughs.] We like to say we run the gamut, from A-Z: art museums and aquaria to zoos. So we have a real variety. History museums tend to be the most prevalent. They’re 53-54 percent. Art museums are roughly 25 percent. But we also have private museums, places like the Salem Witch Museum. We have large members, like the Museum of Fine Arts and Museum of Science, but also little historical societies. They do find value in learning from each other. The MFA, say, might provide case studies on how to handle lighting or art handling. People pay attention. By the same token, we have smaller places that are speaking about some of the things they’ve learned. It’s kind of nice to think that [MFA director] Matthew Teitelbaum is learning something he didn’t already know. [Laughs.] It’s that interchange that adds a lot of value.
Q. Are there museums that aren’t members?
‘I’m truly amazed at the number of historical societies and small museums and historic buildings [in New England], and sometimes they have world-class stuff.’
A. Oh sure. It’s a totally elective thing. Joining the association is elastic. A lot of folks come and go based on their economic circumstances.
Q. Membership fees are based on a sliding scale?
A. Yeah, for all-volunteer institutions it’s 25 bucks a year.
Q. I could join!
A. There you go, yeah. It goes up to $1,500 a year for the larger institutions, based on their self-reported budget size.
Q. How much has the cultural landscape changed for museums administratively?
A. Some things will forever stay the same. With the upcoming anniversary, I’ve been doing some research in our archives. What were people talking about at conferences in the 1940s, say? Similar kinds of issues: “There’s not enough pay.” “We’re overworked.” But things have also changed so dramatically, technology being the big one.
In a very broad way what we’re seeing is an emergence into a third era of museums. The first-era museums defined themselves based on their collections: We collect and preserve and interpret. That was the three-legged stool. Over the last century, museums were moving into educational mode: instruments of educating people, using their collections usually, but not necessarily exclusively. This third phase, museums are turning into more community-based organizations. The focus is: How are we relevant to our communities? That isn’t to say museums aren’t either [still] collection-based or educational institutions, but it’s morphing a little more into realizing we can’t just be for ourselves. It’s finding ways communities can interact with museums in manifold ways.
Q. Let me ask a question that could get you in trouble. Do you have a favorite museum?
A. [Laughs] Oh, they’re all favorites. The one thing that I’ve discovered having taken this job — as you can imagine, I’ve traveled the highways and byways of New England — everyone has heard of the MFA and MoS and Peabody Essex. But I’m truly amazed at the number of historical societies and small museums and historic buildings, and sometimes they have world-class stuff. I say this as a Midwesterner who’s adopted New England as his home: This is truly remarkable. For instance, where’s the oldest chair made in America? The Dedham Historical Society.Interview was edited and condensed. Mark Feeney can be reached at email@example.com.