An all-volunteer museum was a great idea. Until it wasn’t.

The following is an opinion publishing in the winter 2023 issue of our newsletter  by the museum board president, Walter Neary:

It was a gift to be president of this museum board in the early 2000s and to return after a decades-long break in 2020.

One can see, very clearly, how some things change and some things stay the same.

Please allow me to reflect as someone who came, went, and then returned for a period roughly half of the museum’s life. There are lessons, and a genuine question: Do we want to be in 2040 the same place we were in 2020?

Regarding the birth of the Historic Fort Steilacoom Association: I imagine, in the 1980s, a volunteer organization sounded really good. One hears all the time about the government and the problems it can bring. One hears that state and local park services are full of bureaucracy. They make inefficient decisions, and make decisions that benefit bureaucrats, not the community.

This wasn’t just an issue in the 80s. For example,  I was at a Seattle forum just this fall of the Pacific Northwest Historians Guild where someone talked about how it was taking several years for a park agency to change one sign. One sign.

So in the 1980s, I am sure an all-volunteer organization sounded great. After all, our board is not beholden to any government. No one tells our board what to do. You can come on the Fort Steilacoom board and do things you could only dream of at a museum which is enmeshed in government bureaucracy.

There are no words for how free we are to do what we want related to Washington history. We only answer to ourselves. I would think many professional museum workers would think that sounds like paradise. 

So what has Fort Steilacoom done with this seeming advantage?

As it was years ago, our budget is about $20,000 a year. 

That’s a fraction of the budget of comparable sites of national significance. It’s 1.3 percent of the budget of at least one other museum I know of. 

If Fort Steilacoom was a family in Pierce County, we would be living $9,800 below the poverty line. 

And indeed, the fort community is a kind of family. But we’re not feeding mouths, we’re maintaining four 165-year-old buildings and trying to tell stories of the period 1849 to 1868. So maybe the poverty line is a poor comparison. Yet at least it’s a comparison.

Of our annual budget, the Lakewood lodging tax grant of $12,000 goes to marketing, which of course does not maintain buildings or buy insurance. 

If you remove the marketing budget, then Fort Steilacoom’s remaining budget is $8,000, which would be about $16,000 below the poverty line.

And this is after 40 years of momentum as an all-volunteer organization.

The present day

There is no question we punch above our weight. Hundreds of people tour the buildings through regular tours and special events. Our little band of volunteers works crazy hard to do amazing events in the moment, such as our annual Christmas at Fort Steilacoom.

But still. 

The one mistake we can make here is to blame ourselves. I know board members and other volunteers who take the fort very seriously. But it’s not us. There has been a complete turnover of board volunteers over 40 years, sometimes many times over. The issues remain the same. It’s ridiculous to think that’s coincidence or accident.

Can we blame ourselves? I don’t buy that. I think we’re like people who get into a car in the middle of a river, try to drive it, and blame ourselves when it’s not working. 

Maybe it’s not us. Maybe it’s the fact that the circumstances are wrong.

Now, I know what you’re thinking: “Walter, there are all-volunteer organizations that thrive.”

But most of the organizations I know like that are called to a mission that involves very popular themes with the public. We’re more like an elementary school than a museum with a sexy purpose. Fort Steilacoom has many important stories, but it doesn’t appeal to people the way that a community museum calls on the spirit of that community. 

If you’re in Lakewood, you surely go first to the Lakewood museum. If you’re in Steilacoom, you go to the Steilacoom museum. 

Who goes first to Fort Steilacoom? Which of the fort’s stories drives you to place it first among the museums you treasure?

We don’t have Ulysses Grant (Vancouver does). We are not the site of some big dramatic battle that gets mentioned in all the history books. Fort Steilacoom may have prevented large battles from happening. No good deed goes unpunished. For its role in working to avoid bloody conflicts, Fort Steilacoom does not provide a dramatic story that gets attention in 2023.

I do think if we market the fact that Fort Steilacoom is one of two U.S. Civil War sites in all of Washington, there’s a lot of potential.

All-volunteer or no?

I think the other challenge is the very nature of an all-volunteer group. You would think freedom is wonderful. But freedom is not as easy as it sounds. With freedom, we have the choice to do so many things. 

Or we have the choice to do nothing. We have the choice to do busy work or stand by and watch others work in seeming action without being driven to greater accomplishment. 

One way of describing this situation is called “paradox of choice.” 

This concept was coined by psychologist Barry Schwartz in 2004, and it describes the way in which having too many options can actually lead to decreased satisfaction and well-being. Schwartz argues that when we have too many choices, we become overwhelmed and stressed. We start to worry about making the wrong decision, and we may end up making no decision at all.

Imagine a world where Fort Steilacoom did have professional management. That would mean the government I spoke of, with rules and bureaucracy and employees who bring their own possibilities and limits. But the fort would have resources to help operate and tell its story.

God willing, I’m going to be fascinated to see how Fort Steilacoom is managed in another 20 years! I hope the fort is not still all-volunteer, because the car is going to be pretty darn soaked by then.