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FY2017 Museums for America (MFA) Grants: How to choose a Project Category

September 26, 2016

By Office of Museum Services Staff

The Office of Museum Services recently published grant guidelines for the FY2017 Museums for America grant. This is part of a series of blogs highlighting the new grant guidelines and offering tips for applicants.

We are delighted that the official FY2017 Notice of Funding Opportunity for Museums for America (MFA) is now available for your consideration and, of course, for your autumn proposal-writing pleasure. MFA was launched in 2004, and since then, it has helped museums of every type and size strengthen their abilities to serve their communities, one project at a time.

When you begin to prepare an application to MFA this year, you’ll notice that we ask you to align your project with one of IMLS’s three programmatic goals identified in our strategic plan. These translate to project categories in the MFA guidelines: Learning Experiences, making it clear that IMLS supports the unique ability of museums to empower people of all ages through experiential learning and discovery; Community Anchors, reflecting that IMLS promotes the role of museums as essential partners in addressing the needs of their communities by leveraging their resources to identify and implement solutions; and Collections Stewardship, confirming IMLS support for the exemplary management, care, and conservation of, as well as broad access to and use of, museum collections.

Choosing a project category can be tough! Your project might have elements that belong logically in more than one. Practically speaking, how can you make the best choice for your project? Here are three things to try.

  1. Think carefully about what is “in the center” of your project. Is it the learner? Will people who engage with you as a result of your project to create a new exhibition and programming to go with it acquire new knowledge, develop a skill, or experience a change in attitude about the subject of your exhibit? Then you might have a Learning Experiences project.

    Or is it the community that’s in the center of your thinking? Is your project one that will address an important community need, and are you doing it because you believe your resources can be harnessed to make a difference? If the answers are yes, then you should think seriously about applying in the Community Anchors category.

    Or does the immediate problem you’re trying to address focus on the collections? Will your project result in a better managed, better cared for set of objects? Will it be easier for people to access your collections? Is it likely that a result of your work will be increased use of the objects you care for? Then you may well be most comfortable proceeding with writing your application for submission in the Collections Stewardship category.

    A quick check might be to ask “Where will the improvement be as the result of my project—learners, the community, or the collections?” They’re all good answers. You just need to figure out which one is the best for this particular project.

  2. A second way to go at this might be to think about who you want to review your application. If you apply under Learning Experiences, we are most likely to put it in front of educators, learning theorists, and professionals with deep experience in understanding how people learn in museum environments. Would you rather we put it in front of a combination of experts in community engagement, audience development, audience research and evaluation, and public discourse? If that sounds “right,” then it may push you toward Community Anchors. And if you apply under Collections Stewardship, you can be confident that your application will be reviewed by some combination of registrars, collection managers, curators, conservators, or collections information specialists.

  3. Still undecided? A third strategy to try might be to make a list of all the activities you plan to carry out. Maybe it’s something like hire and train project assistants; prepare work space; purchase and prepare new computers with software; create catalogue records; take digital photographs; enter results into collections management system; rehouse newly catalogued objects; update location records; post new information on website; write blog postings about project; invite the community to an open house; hold teachers’ workshop to promote using new information in curriculum units.

    You could easily make the case that collections will be better cared for and managed, the community will be engaged, and learning will happen among area teachers and students. However, by count, you can see that MOST of these activities relate to collections stewardship activities, and that’s where most the time and money will be spent. Thus while engaging the community by having an open house and inviting teachers to use this new material in their classrooms will be terrific, and no one is arguing that you shouldn’t do it, the project is probably best suited for the Collections Stewardship category.

Our best advice, then, is to choose one project category, study the instructions for preparing an application as well as the review criteria for that category, and write your proposal accordingly. To see excellent examples of MFA applications in each of the three categories from FY2016, visit our Sample Applications page. As always, if you have questions, call the IMLS staff to discuss them.

Good luck to you, and we look forward to seeing your application in December.

For more information about Museums for America grants and a list of program contacts for each category, click here.

Museums for America