Crafting an Elevator Pitch for Preservation

Originally published at rebeccafifieldpreservation.com.

If you’ve ever taken a management or marketing course, you’ve probably heard of the elevator pitch. An elevator pitch is a short, 30-second statement about you, your business and goals, and what you can do for your potential client or employer. Recommendations for crafting such a statement include “make it about the audience” and “don’t use jargon or acronyms.”

We can also make elevator pitches for the preservation work we do.

I've even heard collection management called a "red herring". Preservation supports the organization - full stop.

I’ve even heard collection management called a “red herring”. Preservation makes the mission possible – full stop.

Preservation professionals (that’s collection managers, conservators, registrars and others who oversee or heavily contribute to care of collections) can despair that colleagues don’t get the need for managed preservation systems in cultural heritage institutions. “But exhibitions/programming/keeping the doors open/day-to-day…” can be the reply to our suggestions for a better system for managing all the risk mitigation strategies we use to keep the Agents of Deterioration at bay. Our work can be described as “make-work.” I’ve even heard collection management called “a red herring.”

Could one of the problems be that we try to overwhelm our audiences with the bulk of work we do, rather than a concentrated pitch about preservation’s importance?

Agents of Deterioration

Agents of Deterioration (Michalski, Waller), clockwise around the object from the top: pests, light and radiation, fire, water, pollutants, criminals, incorrect temp and humidity, physical forces.

When a colleague or member of the public asks you to explain your profession (see my post The Crazy Things We Do for Cultural Heritage), do you start listing things? “Well I work with Facilities, Security, Conservation, I manage exhibition installation, I oversee maintenance of the galleries, construction projects impacting collections, integrated pest management, I manage documentation of the collection, I prepare objects for outgoing loans…” While this slew of activities may sound interesting and/or overwhelming to your audience, are you winning them over to the importance of collection care? Are you asking them to support or buy-in to systematic preservation management?

Probably not.

Why is it difficult, even for preservation practitioners, to distill the importance of their work? I have a few ideas:

  • Preservation takes place over a long time. While the average museum project has a 1-10 year life span (say, short-term object rotation to a long-term construction project), preservation’s time horizon is 200-500 years. Humans have difficulty grasping results and goals that are beyond their lifetimes. It’s difficult for us to show the consequence of skipping environmental monitoring this month, even if repeated temporary excursions may cause more rapid deterioration and impact future access.
  • When preservation is suitably managed, we don’t have anything to show for it. Great collection care maintains high levels of access to collections.
  • Collection care tasks are seemingly simple. When removing dust from a sculpture, how many times have you heard “Can you come do that for me at home?” What is not apparent within each single preservation task is how the application of the network of risk mitigation strategies counters a specific risk profile for that collection. Preservation doesn’t happen on a “here and there” basis.

So, what does an elevator pitch for preservation management sound like? What components should be included?

  • Consider audience for your pitch. Is your audience the president? Your registrar? Your curator? Your educator? A member of the public and potential supporter that sees you checking a datalogger in the gallery? What are your shared goals? What words and phrases help your pitch make that preservation “sell” to specific audiences? Organizational sustainability? Public outreach? Accountability? Reputation?
  • Think big picture and think about your organization’s mission. Don’t talk about laundry list of preservation activities, talk about the ongoing goal. “Preservation protects access to collections.” “Our preservation work prevents damage, lessens the need for conservation treatment, and makes collections more readily available for exhibitions, loans, and projects.” Or make it about what access to collections can mean. “A better preservation management system allows our collections to more readily inspire and educate our audience by lessening the need for expensive and time-consuming conservation treatment.”
  • Add a dimension that demonstrates the importance of differing segments of staff working together for a common good. “We strive to make practical preservation systems in partnership with our colleagues from across the museum. An inter-museum committee would help us make those connections more readily.”
  • Paint a picture if you can. Bring to mind an incident that will help your pitch’s audience visualize how your idea is better than the status quo. For example, “Remember the fire? An emergency response plan would help us recover and re-open more quickly.”

Do we have too much for an elevator pitch for better preservation systems? Let’s bring it together:

“A new preservation management system would help us mitigate the greatest risks to collections, facilitate exhibition preparation, and clearly prioritize preservation investment spending so we can achieve the greatest benefit for our audiences. This approach can support our sustainability initiatives and save money in conservation treatment for damage that could have been avoided. Existing preservation working relationships could work more effectively through a new preservation committee.”

Phew! This still needs streamlining. Then practice, practice, practice. Re-work it. Pitch it in the lunch room. Re-work it. The hallway. Re-work it. The staff meeting. You get the idea.

I’d love to hear your preservation elevator pitch!

About Becky Fifield

Becky Fifield is a cultural heritage professional with 25 years experience in institutions large and small. She is currently Head of Collection Management for the Special Collections of the New York Public Library. An advocate for preventive conservation, Ms. Fifield is a Professional Associate of the American Institute for Conservation, Chair of the AIC Collection Care Network, and former Chair of Alliance for Response NYC. She is also a scholar of 18th century female unfree labor and dress. There's a bit of pun in the title The Still Room, delineating a quiet space brimming with the ingredients of memory, where consideration, analysis, and wordcraft can take place. Ms. Fifield’s interests include museum practice, dress history, historic preservation, transit, social and women’s history, food, current events, geneaology, roadtrips, and considerations on general sense of place. Becky and her husband, Dr. V, live in the Hudson Valley.