By Caitlin Newman
When Mary Helen Dellinger began working as the curator of the Manassas Museum System in January 2012, she was charged with running the exhibition program and overseeing the care and expansion of collections for the system, which includes seven historic sites and a well-attended regional museum located in Old Town Manassas. She was no stranger to the museum world—before coming to the Manassas Museum System, Dellinger worked for twenty-one years at the Fredericksburg Area Museum and Cultural Center—but her new position presented challenges that she and her small but dedicated staff just couldn’t face without outside help. “There were parts of the [collections storage] room I couldn’t even access,” Dellinger said in a phone interview. “It was hard for me to wrap my mind around where to start, even though I’ve been doing this for a long time. The big picture was overwhelming.”
For small public museums, archives, and libraries in a similar predicament, the Circuit Riders program can help. An initiative of the Virginia Association of Museums (VAM), Circuit Riders is a traveling collections needs-assessment program that was started in 2009 with a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services. VAM also receives an annual partnership grant from Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, which has been an active collaborator with VAM since its early history. Apply successfully to the Circuit Riders program, and VAM will send a team of museum professionals to your site to perform what is essentially an audit. They’ll spend a half-day at your institution, evaluating your storage areas and interviewing your collections committee, key staff members, and board members. Then they’ll provide an honest, practical report identifying your institution’s greatest needs, prioritizing them, and suggesting concrete solutions. Based on best practices, these recommendations are intended to help the institution improve care and management of its collections. Museums that are part of VAM’s network receive all this help for free. Since 2009, the program has assisted more than thirty institutions, among those the Manassas Museum System.
In November 2012, VAM sent to Manassas a team that included Jeanne Niccolls, a retired collections manager with some thirty years of experience, and Bradley Wiles, an archivist. “Their storage space was on the third floor of a building and everything was pretty much jammed in there,” Niccolls remembers. “It was not at all an ideal environment. Things hadn’t been inventoried in a long time, and [the staff] knew things needed to be moved, but were having trouble getting stakeholders to recognize their needs.” Of particular concern was the museum system’s massive collection of paper items, much of which was not stored in a safe environment and therefore in danger of being ruined or lost.
Dellinger received a report with ten major recommendations that ranged from collections storage to improving security to raising the museum’s visibility. The Manassas Museum System was able to make improvements almost immediately. Based on the strength of Niccolls’s and Wiles’s report, Dellinger convinced the museum board to buy mobile shelving to house the entire paper collection “with room to grow,” she says. Two years later, Dellinger still keeps the Circuit Rider report close at hand. “It’s a work plan for me. It provided me with an objective viewpoint and allowed us to plan for the future, to get our collections in order.”
For Jennifer Thomas, the executive director of VAM, this objective, results-oriented feedback is where the real value of the Circuit Riders program lies. “Small museums are the majority of the repositories for objects in the care of the public,” she said. “Sixty percent of [VAM’s network of] museums would qualify as small. They can’t afford what big museums can afford—they really are relying on passion and loyalty and local care.” Circuit Riders is “opening people’s eyes to quick fixes that move them forward.”
Caitlin Newman is the former associate editor of Encyclopedia Virginia.