Spearheaded by Gretchen Jennings, a timely Joint Statement from Museum Bloggers and Colleagues on Ferguson and Related Events has circulated on the internet over the past few weeks with follow-up Twitter discussions at #MuseumsrepondtoFerguson. Much of the discussion on this subject addresses the disconnect between museums and the communities they are meant to serve. (Note: I use “community” to include the spatial and other demographic dimensions of the term.)
A key component for museums to engage with communities to address issues such as Ferguson, or any issue for that matter, is to be at least perceived as a stakeholder and social asset of the affected community. If a museum is divorced from and does not reflect the community needs, there is no reason for that community to consider proclamations around Ferguson or racial justice as anything other than a jailhouse conversion. I suggest that the community engagement process must be in place long before the events such as Ferguson occur.
John Cotton Dana’s 1917 statement is fitting: “Learn what aid the community needs: fit the museum to those needs.”¹ In 2002, Ellen Herzy asked “How do we encourage museum professionals, trustees, and volunteers to engage with community in open and useful ways, as civic leaders but also as community members . . . Working together or diversifying audiences is not enough. What is needed are reciprocal, co-created relationships that connect the assets and purposes of organizations.”² More recently, Nina Simon articulates that co-creative relationship in a call for museums “to give voice and be responsive to the needs and interests of local community members; to provide a place for community engagement and dialogue; and to help participants develop skills that will support their own individual and community goals.”³
My takeaway from the above include:
- Co-creative processes are not museums functioning for the community but with the community. The distinction necessitates having a recognized and committed stake in the community’s expressed needs.
- The co-creative process must be part of the normative operation of the museum, not just in crisis situations. This distinction necessitates a museum to have a long-term commitment and co-creative action plan.
The Incluseum challenges to think of “What “right now” actions can museums do to show solidarity?” At the C.H. Nash Museum at Chucalissa in Memphis, Tennessee, we are emerging from a half-century of either ignoring or having a very limited engagement with the community surrounding our museum that is 95% African-American. Based on my admittedly limited experience, I offer the following:
- Hosting Black History month events provide an excellent opportunity for a museum to be of service to the African-American community. In February of 2015, such events can provide a forum for a discussion of racial justice and other issues raised by Ferguson. Over the past five years at the C.H. Nash Museum at Chucalissa, we have moved from a co-creative Black History month event to one where our museum serves as a host per Nina Simon’s Participatory Museum model.
- The C.H. Nash Museum sponsors and helps coordinate multiple community service learning projects that form a bridge between the community and museum. Our concept of community service learning aligns with Kronick et al where the museum “listens to the concerns of the group or person, lets the ‘other’ define the situation, and responds by trying to meet that need. In listening and learning, receiving and giving, the service-learning relationship is horizontal, lateral, parallel. It is not hierarchal”
- Today is the day a museum can begin a long-term commitment to the process. In so doing, museums will be better able to organically respond to current and future issues affecting the communities in which we serve.
A summary of our experience in community engagement at the C.H. Nash Museum is presented in this article.
¹ John Cotton Dana, The New Museum (Woodstock: Elm Tree Press, 1917), 38.
² Elizabeth Hirzy, Mastering Civic Engagement: A Report from the American Association of Museums. In, AAM (Ed.), Mastering Civic Engagement: A Challenge to Museums (pp. 9-20). Washington, DC: American Alliance of Museums.
³ Nina Simon, The Participatory Museum (Santa Cruz: Museum 2.0, 2010), 187.
4 R.F. Kronick, R.B. Cunningham, and M. Gourley, Experiencing Service Learning (Knoxville: The University of Tennessee Press) p. 23.