Endangered Artifacts Create Buzz for Museums Group

An online poll asking the public to choose the top 10 endangered artifacts in Virginia drew over 181,000 votes in just the third year of the program—engagement numbers that any association would love to claim as their own.

Voting came to a close last week in the Virginia Association of Museums’ public poll to select the state’s top 10 endangered artifacts. Judging from the numbers, it’s an engagement campaign that’s caught the public’s imagination.

VAM collected 181,865 votes this year, the highest total in the poll’s three-year history and almost double the total from the poll’s first year.

The program is designed to raise awareness about items in the collections of VAM member institutions—libraries, museums, and archives—that are at risk of degradation and need to be conserved. “The endangered artifacts designation offers collecting institutions across the Commonwealth of Virginia and the District of Columbia the opportunity to share their significant stories while building awareness of the threats and expense they face in serving as stewards of their collections,” the group said on its website.

Last year’s winners included an 18th-century campaign rally sign, a family bible from 1798, and the early-20th-century records of an African-American midwife.

While the poll doesn’t determine the final outcome of the list—that is left up to an independent peer review panel of collection experts who take the poll results into consideration—the artifact with the most votes earns the highly sought-after People’s Choice Award.

“That seems to be the popular thing [for member institutions] to try for, and we’ve had several sites this year that are really pushing to be the People’s Choice,” said Jennifer Thomas, VAM’s executive director. “We wish it could mean money that we could give, but right now it’s strictly an awareness campaign and a feel-good public engagement thing.”

The People’s Choice winner, which will be revealed in mid-September, received almost 64,000 votes. Although people can vote more than once, the program had about 90,000 unique participants, “a huge amount of engagement for us,” Thomas said.

VAM uses standard statewide press releases to create buzz around the program, but it also encourages the individual sites that nominate an object to drive the engagement themselves. The group offers some training to help them along the way.

“At the beginning of the process we show them how to use Facebook and other forms of social media to get the word out and some ideas to build engagement in their community so that people who are actually living with these objects are the ones voting,” Thomas said. “We’ve had museums do all sorts of different things. One had a whole display right as you walk in their front door that talked about the object and had QR codes and things for you to learn about the object and why you should vote for it; there are a couple sites that are great at social media.”

Another site, located in a small community, convinced the one grocery story in town to let them set up a computer as a makeshift voting station for the locals to use. “They knew that’s where everyone in town went, and so they used that as their [engagement] hub,” said Thomas.

For the participating institutions, the public awareness that comes from the poll can bring big benefits, whether they make the top 10 list or not.

“The first year we had a train locomotive [in the poll], and they actually got a $10,000 grant from a train hobbyist magazine to conserve their train as a result of being one of the top 10,” Thomas said. “That was probably the biggest financial success.”

Several sites were able to connect with experts who unlocked the history of an item that might have never been known otherwise, Thomas said.

“There are little stories and big stories, but they’re all equally important for the museums,” she said. “That connection you make to one person in your community can have a ripple effect to everybody else.”

(courtesy Virginia Association of Museums)

Rob Stott

By Rob Stott

Rob Stott is a contributing editor for Associations Now. MORE

Got an article tip for us? Contact us and let us know!