Serving Northeast Ohio's Museums & Attractions

History of NEOIMC

The Early Years of Inter-Museum Council

History of NEOIMC

History of NEOIMC

Remarks made by Patsy Gerstner at the 25th anniversary meeting on October 20, 1992, at the Berea Historical Society.

In September 1967, the Northeastern Ohio Inter-Museum Council was born as the Cuyahoga County Inter-Museum Council. As an entity, and in name, however, the Council traces its ancestry to 1942, and in order to understand how the present Council came into being, we need to look at that earlier body, first known as the Cleveland Inter-Museum Committee.


The Committee was established to encourage awareness and cooperation among museums but especially between museums, libraries, and schools as educational entities. The Committee was the technical child of the Progressive Education Association, but its real parent was the Cleveland lawyer and philanthropist, Harold Terry Clark. Clark was then, and has remained, a familiar name in many of Cleveland's museums because of the strong financial support he provided to many of them. One of Clark's principal concerns was education, and he was a tireless promoter of activities that improved or enhanced educational opportunities. Museums were, in his view, educational institutions above all else, and they were poised to contribute essential ingredients to the overall educational program of the city. To bring them into a closer working relationship with other parts of the educational sector was his goal. 

The membership of the Cleveland Inter-Museum Committee spoke to Clark's purposes very well, for in addition to the Zoo, the Museum of Art, the Natural History Museum, the Health Museum, the Trailside Museums, the Historical Society, the Dittrick Museum, and others, whose representatives were, more often than not, the persons who were actively engaged in the museum's educational programs, membership included the Cleveland Board of Education, the Cleveland Public Library, the educational division of Nela Park, and the Cleveland Chamber of Commerce. 

The first meeting was held on June 15, 1942, at the Cleveland Museum of Art. By the early 1950s, twenty museums and cultural organizations had joined the Inter-Museum Committee and the Committee decided, on May 14, 1951, to change its name to the Cleveland Inter-Museum Council. Since this organization's whole purpose was to promote the educational activities of museums and to be sure that museums were fully utilized as educational institutions, the most important objectives of Council members were to become familiar with each others capabilities and activities and to work together toward the greater use of museums by schools. 

The Council met on the first Monday of every month at one of the member's institutions, sometimes in the late afternoon, occasionally over lunch. There were some lively discussions on the role of museums in education. But, nevertheless, by the mid-1950s, some members began to feel that there were too few of these and that the relevance of the Council had declined. Whether this was because it had proved difficult to forge the relationship between museums and other educational institutions that Clark had hoped to see, or because the relationship had already been forged, is a question for some other historian to answer. I can only say in passing that by the mid-1950s Cleveland was heralded by some as the city where there was an unusually close relationship between schools and museums. 

The time and day of the meetings were, for many, an immediate obstacle in the way of full success. Late afternoon is, perhaps, not the most rewarding time for a meeting, and Monday was generally a bad day because, as continues to be the case today, several museums in the city were closed that day. In spite of efforts to do more to promote the sense of cooperation and education that had been the original charge of the organization, efforts that included the reprint of a 1944 brochure in 1956 and again in the mid-1960s, attendance declined. Some members began to raise questions about whether the Council should even continue to exist, or if it did, if it should be radically overhauled. There were some who felt that it should continue, but only as a director's forum or as a forum for the very largest of the community's museums. 

For many years, the Council's activities had been sustained by its chairman, Ronald Day, of the Cleveland Board of Education, a teacher stationed at the Cleveland Museum of Art. Late in 1966, in response to an increasing number of questions about the Council and what it was or should be, Day asked four people to serve as a temporary steering committee to discuss the objectives of the group, its programs, and its membership. Members were John J. Beeston, Cleveland Health Museum director, Margaret Butler of the Lakewood Historical Society, Leonard Goss, director of the Cleveland Zoological Park, and William Van Aken of the Shaker Historical Society. According to Van Aken in a letter he sent to the Council membership, the Council had reached a crisis in its existence. The committee prepared a questionnaire which was sent to each of the twenty members in order to determine what the wishes of the membership were with regard to the Council's future. The response was disappointing; only eight questionnaires were returned, and considering that four of them were undoubtedly from the institutions of the steering committee members, the return was, indeed, small. 

It was clear at this point that the Council was moribund. The committee met several times to discuss what to do. There was discussion about whether the council should be abandoned and replaced with an active directors' group or even whether it should be a body representing only the larger museums in the area, the same questions that had been raised earlier. Margaret Butler was adamant in stressing the importance of its continuation, that it be a group representing all the museums, and a group for all those who worked in our museums. 

Gradually, the committee hammered out a plan for a new Council, one with a revised format that would encourage greater attendance from all the museums. 

They recommended a regular dues structure to support activities, something the old Council had never had. Quarterly dinner meetings were proposed as a basic forum. These would serve as educational and social functions for the museums and would create opportunities for a continuous exchange of ideas both within the Council membership and with those who would be invited to speak to the Council. The Committee also felt that the Council should be an agency representing museums in promoting legislation favorable to local history, that it should act as a liaison with funding agencies, and that it should be an information center to promote radio, television, and newspaper publicity for members. The main thrust was no longer education in the sense of the earlier Council, but education for members in ways that would improve our ability to work in museums and the education of the general community about museums and what they had to offer. With regard to the first, a very important premise of the newly proposed Council was that it should be an organization for all those who worked in the member museums whether they were volunteers or paid staff members. Although the need for a manageable voting structure would lead to the concept of three voting delegates, each delegate was charged with making sure that each staff member at his or her museum knew about the meetings and any other scheduled events and was invited to attend.

A formal meeting of the Cleveland Inter-Museum council was called for September 18, 1967, at noon, at which time members were to decide on the fate of the old Council and whether the proposed new one would take its place. Twelve museums were represented at the meeting which was held in the afternoon at the Cleveland Health Museum. The old Council was formally dissolved and the Cuyahoga County Inter-Museum Council replaced it. A logo was adopted to give us visual proof of our existence-a chain of twelve links representing the original twelve organizations present at the meeting: The Cleveland Zoological Park, the Garden Center of Greater Cleveland, the Cleveland Aquarium, the Howard Dittrick Museum of Historical Medicine, the Lakewood Historical Society, the Cleveland Health Museum, the Natural Science Museum, the Cleveland Museum of Art, the Shaker Historical Society, the Western Reserve Historical Society, the Auto-Aviation Museum, and the Dunham Tavern Museum. It was only a matter of two years until the membership area was expanded to include not only Cuyahoga County but all contiguous counties as well, although it was 1974 before "Northeastern" replaced "Cuyahoga" in the name.

The first Board of Trustees was appointed at the meeting on September 18 so that the new Council could begin business. A short time later the Council was incorporated and the first trustee meeting was held. Mr. Van Aken was elected president, Leonard Goss, vice president, and John Beeston, Secretary-Treasurer. Patricia Moore, the first woman to be made a member of the Board, became the secretary the following year and served the Council in that capacity for eleven years, longer than any other officer. The new council, with all its youthful vitality, came into being with a roar, figuratively and literally, when the first annual meeting was held in January 1968 at the Zoo on one of Cleveland's nasty and snowy winter nights. Nevertheless, nearly twenty persons representing twelve institutions were on hand. It was, from the outset, the plan to have a meaningful exchange at each meeting, and that first night, the directory of the Ohio Historical Society came to Cleveland to speak to the Council. The new structure of dinner meetings, an informal atmosphere, punctuated by lectures, discussions, and presentations of information about each of the members was immediately successful. Museums soon began to ask for admission, and although the requirements for membership were stringent and strictly enforced, membership climbed steadily, reaching the thirty mark within eight years. 

There has always been a particular person to lead the way at critical stages in the Council's history. In the 1950s and early 1960s, Ron Day kept the old council alive. At its critical turning point in 1967, Margaret Butler was a strong voice for its continued survival as a general representative of all museums. The new Council was served well and faithfully by one of its founders, its first president, and long-time trustee, William R. Van Aken. He guided our initial years, providing administrative wisdom, legal advice, and, most important of all, a steadying influence that made the Council truly a council for all museums.

The following years were busy ones as the Council moved toward fulfilling its new ambitions. Education of the public about museums was a critical issue. An active public relations effort on behalf of all the members began in the late 1960s, carried on by Richard and Evelyn Ward who volunteered their time as public relations coordinators for the Council. A regular column in the Sunday Plain Dealer entitled "At the Museums" listed each member, hours, and special exhibits, and each week on of the members was highlighted in the column with special coverage. TRW-sponsored public radio broadcasts of the Cleveland Orchestra included a series of interviews with Council members in 1973. That same year, a series of half hour interviews with members, a different one each week, began on radio station WWWE. Television spots for members were included in several local shows, including the popular Paige Palmer Show and a Sunday spot hosted by Tom Haley. Mary Strassmeyer was frequently persuaded to feature our members, especially on a radio talk show that she hosted toward the end of the 1970s and in the early 1980s. Special exhibits about all the Council members were done for the Home and Flower Show for several years; and special exhibits on members were featured a the large downtown Cleveland department stores. For a short time in the spring of 1968, an attempt was made to make some of our member institutions more accessible through bus service, but there were few riders, and the bus service was consequently dropped.

Through the first years of the 1970s, concentrated efforts were made to publish a new brochure, finally resulting, with the help of some grants, in a 1976 brochure, the format of which is still used in today's council brochures. School education was not forgotten as part of the Councils heritage, and care was taken to provide information for schools in the brochure.

The many efforts to inform the public about our museums represented animportant aspect of the Council's activities. The other major thrust was toward the education of the people who worked in the museums. The lectures and discussions that occurred at the regular meetings were one way this was done, and a number of talented and informative speakers addressed the membership, including, in addition to the director of the Ohio Historical Society, the director of education at Greenfield Village, the director of the American Association of Museums, and a representative of the Department of Labor and Occupational Safety. A chance to see some of the behind-the-scenes activities of our members during meetings was another way of keeping ourselves informed and aware of new ideas and new methods. One of the great beauties of the Council was the simple fact that it brought us all into contact in a relatively informal setting, allowing us to get to know each other and feel comfortable in calling on one another for help or ideas. In keeping with the importance of our access to each other and to our museums, free admission to each other's institutions was established in 1973. Still another aspect of our self-education was a series of how-to workshops that were held throughout the 1970s, that included such topics as book and paper conservation, creative problem solving, exhibits, and cataloging.

Meetings have always been fun as well as informative-dinner with the great apes at the Zoo, a clam bake at the Lake Erie Nature Center. Often the fun part was itself educational as many museums put forth great efforts to recreate historical settings and foods for us to enjoy as part of the meetings.

The Council has done many other things through the years, some successful, others not so. We never got much into the legal or legislative arena, but in the mid-1970s, we became, by virtue of who we are, a combatant in the local museums' struggle to prevent the Ohio Historical Society from establishing a museum in Cleveland, a museum that many people felt would be an unnecessary drain on already established programs and funding. We investigated group retirement plans and group purchasing to no avail, but a program was established in the 1980s to provide financial assistance for our members to attend professional meetings. In 1979, we helped with the arrangements for the American Association of Museums annual meeting in Cleveland, and we have had close relationships with many other professional organizations through the years, including the Ohio Museums Association (whose first proposed name was, incidentally, the Ohio Inter-Museum Council, a similarity not by chance since the OMA's founder was once president of the IMC).

I've tried to concentrate on the early years of the Council in these few remarks for two reasons. First, many of you are familiar only with the more recent years and activities of the Council and secondly, I think it is important to remember what the founders had in mind and how much effort was put into shaping the Council.

Surely the legacy will see us through another twenty-five years.


The foregoing comments are based on the IMC Archives, personal recollections, and a discussion with Patricia Moore.