The Relevance of Co-Creative Museums

For the past few years, half of the final exam in my Museum Practices graduate seminar in the Museum Studies Program at the University of Memphis consists of responding to the following:

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 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?

 

This year, Amanda Shaffery, a graduate student in History and the Museum Studies Graduate Certificate Program wrote a compelling response that incorporates some of the ongoing discussions of museologists today, specifically around the issue of co-creation.  Here is her essay:

Over the course of this semester, I have become more cognizant of the role of the museum in the community, and how museums are meant to not only be a place of learning, but a place for community. For this reason, I would argue that John and Josephine Public are not experiencing just another example of wealth transfer, but can receive benefits from the funding of museums and libraries. Museums are not just static centers of research, or at least they should not be, they should be assets to their community.[1] In having, and supporting, effective programming to help the community discuss hard issues, learn from exhibits, and to provide safe and fun places where members of the public can explore their world, museums and libraries are meant to be active participants in the community. This means meeting the needs of people like John and Josephine, not just Mr. and Mrs. Bucksamillion.

The economic crisis and the needs of the public demand that museums and libraries adopt a more co-creative approach. In doing this, they are asserting their positions as vital assets, while helping their communities flourish. This is explicated by the various successful projects discussed within Positioning You Museum As A Critical Community Asset (2017). In each case presented within the work, the museums are faced with how to engage the community to ensure their survival, and make themselves relevant, and each museum does this in a slightly different manner. The C.H. Nash Museum chose to create an urban garden for the community of Southwest Memphis. This not only provided the community with something that they otherwise would not have had an opportunity for surrounded by various safety concerns, but also provided a space for the museum to feature traditional Native American crops.[2] The museum effectively brought one of its exhibits to life, and this would not have otherwise been done without the input of the community, and now the community has a resource for fresh fruits and vegetables.  This may seem like a large-scale project however, there are multiple ways for museums to reach out to their communities, such as free days, children’s’ activities, and internship programs with high schools and local universities. These smaller scale programs facilitate interest in the museum and allow for the community to become apart of it, thus creating a community within a community built around the museum. In addition to taking a co-creative approach, museums should evaluate themselves. Who is coming to the museum? Do they have a diversity of visitors in background and age? Do all visitors spend the same amount of time at the museum? Which exhibits do visitors gravitate to?[3] These questions will help make the museum more receptive to the needs of visitors and therefore the public, thus making the museum not just a place for the wealthy, but for everyone.

Lastly, I would like to address the first part of the question: “Isn’t your research or the position you aspire to a museum professional just another example of this wealth transfer?”. On a personal level, the salary I receive, I would not think of as a wealth transfer. Many museums across America, and I would argue the globe, are small museums, dependent on volunteers, with only a handful of regular staff. These are the museums that are reliant on large community events, ticket admissions, and yes John and Josephine’s tax dollars to stay afloat. But these are also the museums that are often the most willing to create programs for the community, and to work hard to give back to the community that supports them. My job at a museum of this caliber will in no way make me a Bucksamillion; I will do it out of my love for museums and my desire to share that with the visitors of the museum. Their tax dollars not only go towards the few, and often relatively modest salaries, of museum employees, but they go to things like fixing broken air conditioners, pest treatments, new curation materials, and the things that the museum needs to function on a daily basis.

In reality the museum cannot exist without John and Josephine, which is precisely why museums should strive for a co-creative and participatory approach, working with the community to better the museum and to better the community. Communities are where the volunteers come from, they are where the visitors come from, and they are the ideal supporters of the museum, for this reason it is the museum’s duty to ensure that people like John and Josephine have a place to go. A place where they can entertain themselves for an hour or more and feel comfortable there. If there is one lesson I have learned this semester it is that museums are not static places for the wealthy or the scholars, they are for all, and for this reason they must support their communities, and people like John and Josephine Q. Public.

 

Notes:

 

[1] Connolly, Robert P., “Museums Engaging with People As A Community Resource”, in Positioning Your Museum As A Critical Community Asset, ed. Robert P. Connolly and Elizabeth Bollwerk, (Rowman and Littlefield, New York: 2017), 121-122.

[2]Connolly, Robert P., 123.

[3]Diamond, Judy and Jessica J. Luke, and David H. Uttal. in Practical Evaluation Guide: Tool for Museums and Other Informal Educational Settings, (AltaMira Press, New York: 2009), 45-91.

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