A Vote of Confidence for the North Berrien Historical Museum

Strategy: Balance Your Budget, Emphasize Value, Enhance Your Product, Know Your Customer/Product, Make Your Case, Serve Local Community, Take Advantage of Tech

Type of attraction: Historical Society, Museum/Historic Site

Summary: In 1992, a dedicated group of volunteers from the North Berrien Historical Society created the North Berrien Historical Museum in Coloma, Michigan.

In 1992, a dedicated group of volunteers from the North Berrien Historical Society created the North Berrien Historical Museum in Coloma, Michigan. As the years passed and the volunteers got older, it became clear that it would not be possible to sustain the museum without additional outside help.

In 2006, a millage was successfully passed that dedicated a small portion of the property taxes for four townships and two cities to support the operations of the museum and help sustain the historical society. This millage currently generates $150,000 per year and makes up 90% of the museum’s operating budget. The millage was renewed by voters in August 2010, underscoring the value the local community places on this museum even in difficult economic times. 

Funding from the millage has enabled the museum to hire professional staff, and as of 2010 the museum has 2.5 full-time employees. Thanks to the efforts of this new staff, visitation at the museum has steadily increased each year despite the economic downturn, expanding from 1,500 in 2006 to 5,000 in 2009—impressive for a museum that serves a local population of 20,000 people. Alexander Gates, director and curator of the museum, notes: “As part of this process, the museum transitioned from primarily serving the historical society members to serving the whole community. It is important that the museum is not just a place to go once, but a place to go over and over again.” To increase the appeal of the museum for the local community, the museum staff is constantly changing exhibits and planning new programs. 

Gates credits the fact that most of the museum’s programs are free or low cost as being an important factor in serving the local community, where the last manufacturing jobs were lost in recent years.  “Our local economy is in a shambles, but we offer programs that all local families can still afford,” Gates observes.  Local day care centers are also invited to come as a group to the special events for children, offering an inexpensive field trip opportunity that helps to teach younger residents about their local history. The museum uses traditional mailings as well as Facebook pages and email to reach potential audiences, and Gates notes that the average age of their program attendees has been dropping in the past three years.