In the face of funding cutbacks, a cultural heritage institution buzzword of late is being “relevant” to the public. Nina Simon has a new book out on this very topic. Quite often we view relevance from the perspective of getting folks in the door or demonstrating to public officials or other funders why an economic institution should maintain their cut of the economic pie. The short-term flurry of activity after the Florida Governor’s attacks on anthropology or reaction to the various “Digger” shows that have now been cancelled are problematic. Bluntly, our field seems stymied by a focus on self-interest – we tend not to get excited until our own little corner of the universe is attacked, despite our mission to act as public stewards, educators, and servants. I recollect the Art History graduate student in my Museum Practices seminar several years ago who calmly and confidently stated “Art Historians are not interested in what the public thinks.”
I have a dream, nowhere near as lofty as that of MLK Jr., but, my dream is that when cultural heritage funding or other resources are on the chopping block, it is not the professionals who immediately respond in protest, but rather the response comes from the public whose cultural heritage resources are being threatened. I dream that the citizenry would respond to such cuts with “We demand that you provide the professionals who work in our publicly funded institutions that preserve our cultural heritage adequate resources to do the job that our tax dollars are intended for them to do.”
To bring about this dream necessitates not a magical conjuring up of public forces to do the bidding for the professionals. Rather, I believe this dream can be fulfilled as a logical consequence of cultural heritage institutions engaging and sustaining long-term relationships with the public we serve. Or as John Cotton Dana noted 99 years ago “Learn what aid the community needs: fit the museum to those needs” (The New Museum, 1917:38).
What I think that all comes down to is demonstrating relevance to the communities that we serve. Several years ago I posed the following question to my Museum Practices Graduate Seminar as a final exam question:
Put yourself in the position of John or Josephine Q. Public. In the current economic chaos, the bank is foreclosing on their home, they have lost their jobs, and the city just reduced their public services. In referring to the National Endowment for the Arts and the Institute of Museum and Library Services, the House Budget Committee recently argued that “The activities and content funded by these agencies…are generally enjoyed by people of higher income levels, making them a wealth transfer from poorer to wealthier citizens.” Isn’t your research or the position you aspire to as a museum professional just another example of this wealth transfer? What do John and Josephine Q. Public get for their tax dollars that fund your research/position?
I have posted some of the responses on this blog. I like this question so much that I now use it as one of the final exam questions for all course I teach and as a question on all graduate comprehensive exam committees on which I serve.
This is a question is relevant because it directly leads to addressing Dana’s mandate of a century ago. Over the years, I have grilled students to go beyond vague sentiments of cultural preservation, we don’t know anything about this cultural period occupation in this particular region, to further scientific knowledge, and all the plethora of similar answers when responding to this exam question. Direct responses that directly engage public requests are what I find so relevant as in the Florida Public Archaeology Networks cemetery reclamation program or my colleague Elizabeth Cruzado Carranza’s work in Nivín, Peru that is a poster child for co-creation based on the specific community expressed needs to which she is directly responding.
How is your institution/project relevant to expressed needs of the community that you serve?