The Institute of Museum and Library Services’ Inspire! Grants for Small Museums is a special initiative of the Museums for America program. It is designed to support small museums of all disciplines in project-based efforts to serve the public through exhibitions, educational/interpretive programs, digital learning resources, professional development, community debate and dialogue, audience-focuses studies, and/or collections management, curation, care, and conservation.
Projects are expected to focus on a key goal identified in the institution’s strategic plan, reflect a thorough understanding of current practice and knowledge about the subject matter, and generate measurable results.
Inspire! Grants has three program categories and goals. Prospective applicants should align their proposed project with one of these three goals and one or more of the associated objectives.
Inspire! Project Categories
Lifelong Learning supports projects that position museums as unique teaching organizations. The goal is to empower people of all ages and backgrounds through experiential and cross-disciplinary learning and discovery.
Support public programs, adult programs family programs, and early childhood programs
Support exhibitions, interpretation, and digital media
Support in-school and out-of-school programs
The Reher Center for Immigrant Culture and History was awarded $40,512 to create, pilot, and evaluate field trips and in-class lessons for over 500 2nd and 8th grade students. The Reher Center’s programming will connect students to immigrant experiences form local Mid-Hudson Valley communities, past and present as well as work with educators, teachers, and an evaluator to generate age-appropriate tours and digital lesson plans on the topic of present day and historic immigration in the Hudson River Valley. This will inform the Center’s development of future education programming.
Institutional Capacity builds the capacity of small museums to serve their communities by supporting institutional planning and policy development, supporting recruitment, training, and development of museum staff, and supporting technology enhancements.
Support institutional planning and policy development
Support recruitment, training, and development of museum staff
Support technology enhancements
The Old Stone House and Washington Park was awarded $20,000 to help expand its permanent exhibition to include a digital component that acknowledges the museum’s presence on Lenape land. The museum will develop, implement, and assess the impact of the digital exhibition and corresponding exhibition programs.
Collections Stewardship and Public Access supports the role of museums as trusted stewards of museum collections. This program category focuses on the desire to improve long term collection care. It funds conservation treatments, rehousing projects, cataloging, and increasing collection access via digitization.
Support cataloging, inventorying, and registration; collections information management; and collections planning.
Support conservation and environmental improvement and/or rehousing; conservation surveys; and conservation treatment.
Support database management, digital asset management, and digitization.
The Cayuga Museum of Art was awarded $50,000 in 2020 to implement “Processing the Past: Digitizing Cayuga County’s Photographic History” which is a comprehensive inventory and digitization project that will complete an unfinished inventory of the museum’s photographic collection of approximately 7,000 still images. The project team will catalog photographs and match them with existing records. The Museum will scan and digitize this collection to maximize the long-term preservation as well as creating a database that allows for increased online access to the collection by researchers and the public.
Grant amounts are between $5,000 to $50,000 for up to two years and there is no cost share requirement.
Inspire! Grants for Small Museums uses four performance measures as a basis for understanding how well the grant program is meeting its goals and how individual projects are being managed.
Deep Dive–The Whaling Museum & Education Center of Cold Spring Harbor
Project Category: Lifelong Learning
The Whaling Museum & Education Center received Inspire! Funding for their Reach! Initiative project that helped the museum expand educational programs to youth in underserved communities on Long Island. IMLS funding helped the museum reach a new audience and increased community impact.
This was the first IMLS grant The Whaling Museum has received since 2000. Executive Director Nomi Dayan said that the museum was waiting for the right type of funder for this project.
“I felt like this worked because when we looked at their priorities it just seemed to align, even though their [IMLS] priorities are broad...they put a spotlight on reaching underserved communities. When I looked at past funded grants to see are they funding exhibits or are they doing more programming and I felt that this project dovetailed with a lot of previous programs that they had funded. I think the biggest change was judging small museums on their own and it makes such a difference,” said The Whaling Museum Executive Director Nomi Dayan.
Museums for America v. Inspire! Grants for Small Museums
“For many years we heard anecdotally that IMLS doesn’t support small museums, which isn’t true, but we understand that a lot of museums find it difficult to go through the process of applying for a federal grant,” said Reagan Moore, IMLS Museum Program Officer. “Small museums have been successful with Museums for America but we changed certain aspects of the process to make it simpler...like the narrative isn’t as long and the cost-share requirements isn’t required like it is in Museums for America.”
“The cost share difference is a big think,” said Mark Feitly, IMLS Museum Program Officer. “I think places not only had the correct perception that they were too small to receive federal funding but they could not come up with the cost share and that it was too much of a challenge for them. We removed that barrier for them to request IMLS funds. [These institutions] can include staff salaries or whatever for cost share and that’s fine, but it is not required and will not affect their [grant] review in any way.”
IMLS expected between 100 - 115 applications for the first round of Inspire! grants, but received over 200. They funded 30 totaling more than $1.1 million. This strong response confirmed the need for grant funding opportunities specific to small museums.
Operating through a national lens, it is difficult for IMLS to define “small.” A small zoo differs from a historical society -- or a museum in Kansas may differ not only in collection size but in metropolitan area population and demographics from a museum in New York State with the same physical plant footprint. “We’re asking museums to make the case for why they are small,” said Reagan.
Museums can use the following attributes:
“We identify as a small museum...our tagline is Small Museum—Big Story and we’re the smallest whaling museum in the country,” said Executive Director Dayan. The museum also specified their budget size, staff, and collection size. “Our collection is the smallest. We have 6,000 objects and the largest whaling museum has 3 million.” The Whaling Museum also incorporated public perception into their small museum identity. “A lot of our visitors who leave online reviews will write ‘small museum but…’ or ‘this place is small but with a huge knowledge of whaling.’ In half of the online reviews, people mention our size because our physical building is small and people are surprised by how small we are when they come, but there is a lot packed in here...so not only do we think we’re small but that’s the public perception too,” said Dayan.
IMLS funding can support salaries for those working on the project. This can include existing staff or hiring new staff. A majority of applicants request funds to hire temporary staff for the project. For example, a museum could hire a curator for a two year contract position to help them execute the project.
Peer reviews will comment on the sustainability for salary costs.
"Reviewers will ask questions about the hire rate and what will happen to that person when the project is over. Successful applications discuss sustainability to keep that person on staff for as long as necessary," said Moore.
Other examples of this include travel expenses for key project staff and consultants, equipment to improve collections storage and exhibit environments, staff and volunteer training, publication design and printing, program evaluation, adaptive and/or assistive technologies and other resources and services to improve accessibility for persons with disabilities, and indirect or overhead costs. All proposed expenses must be explained in the budget justification.
IMLS does not fund construction costs, general operating expenses, contributions to endowments, the acquisition of collections, general advertising or public relations costs, social activities, ceremonies, receptions, or entertainment, and research projects.
Advice from IMLS for First Time Applicants
“Successful applicants are the ones who have reached out to us...it’s not always the case but those who take the time on the front end to set up conference calls or email us to get feedback are more successful,” Feitly said.
“We’re happy to help. We can’t read full narratives...but we’re happy to answer as many questions as possible,” said Moore.
Moore also suggests having someone from outside the museum read through your application. “Often the application will use insider language, museum jargon, and if it gets to the panel stage in review, those reviewers from different disciplines might not understand.”
IMLS recommends looking at their website, joining a webinar, and reading project descriptions. Reading through other successful applications is also helpful. “If you read a description and there is something that you want to know more about, you can submit a FOIA request, the Freedom of Information Act, using a form on our website to access that information,” Feilty added.
He commented that the IMLS website is dense but it has a lot of resources. “We’re sharing exactly what we’re asking our reviewers to do in their assessment. You can see at what we’re asking our reviewers to evaluate and incorporate that into your narrative as well.”
The Whaling Museum focused on a well-rounded project and looked at the needs of the community. Director Dayan was also a peer reviewer for IMLS for three years.
“I would encourage anyone to do that because it helps you get an insider’s view into the application process. When you read proposals side by side you start to see how applicants write a compelling case whether it’s the language they use or the content and approaches that they are taking," said Dayan.
Director Dayan added that judging applications improves your writing and grant planning. Dayan also recommends looking at examples. “Under the Freedom of Information Act you’re allowed to request copies of any funded grant...Don’t go at it alone. Look at what other museums have done successfully and try to use that as inspiration in formatting your own grant.”
Other advice to a prospective applicant? “Communicating why the project matters and what community need it meets. A stranger will be reading this who has not been to your museum. For me it’s not enough to say kids will learn about whaling history but why it’s important for kids to learn about whaling history,” said Dayan.
The Whaling Museum connected its strategic plan to the project and cited data. Supporting your narrative with research also strengthens an application.
“The first thing we do when we have a grant idea is we call and pitch it to the funding organization… ‘is this something that you would fund? How can we strengthen this?’ Reaching out is so important to help you do the best job you can,” said Dayan.
Other helpful tips?
Make sure your application components are consistent
Place the narrative questions into your word document when answering
Incorporate project impact throughout the narrative
Use your supporting documents and help drive the reviewers to your supporting documents
Inspire! Grants for Small Museums
FY 2021 Notice of Funding Opportunity
IMLS Apply for a Grant
NYS IMLS Funding Report