Tag: museums

Museums as Participatory Institutions

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, Paige Brevick, a graduate student in Egyptology and the Museum Studies Graduate Certificate Program wrote a compelling response that incorporates some of the ongoing discussions of museologists today, specifically based on her experiences on the staff of the Museum of Biblical History in Collierville, Tennesse, U.S.  Here is her essay:

The stereotype of museums as hoarders of wealth, both economically and intellectually, is an outdated myth in desperate need of revision.  While museums may have historically catered to the elite or academic, they have undergone significant reform in recent years to increase the transparency of their collections and develop their resources.  Today, even the most research driven institutions must find innovative ways to entice the public and interact with them through increasingly creative means.[1]  This level of social engagement encourages a dialogue between the public and academic that is rarely seen in other settings.  It is in this way that the museum leaves behind the stereotype of “elitism,” rather, it strives towards the ideal of the “participatory,” where a community may take an active role in all aspects of museum administration.[2]  Tax dollars then do not only fund high-brow research or support unethical wealth transfer.  Instead, the Public’s tax dollars go to fund museums who are increasingly aware of the needs of their communities, and who cultivate environments for learning.

As curator at the Museum of Biblical History, a small museum with limited staff in Collierville, Tennessee, my duties are highly varied.  Not only do I conduct research and work in the gallery, but I am constantly seeking out new ways to engage the public with our exhibitions.  The Museum of Biblical History has served the community for over two decades and has had to adapt to the needs of the changing community over time.  At its onset, the museum hosted lectures on archaeology that were free to the public.  Attending a museum lecture like this would provide John and Josephine Q. Public the opportunity to briefly leave behind the troubles they face in a hopefully inspiring way.  Though not necessarily problem-solving in itself, attending free lectures is a way for the public to better understand what museums in their town have to offer.  Attendance at a lecture like this may be the first step to getting involved in action-oriented projects within the community, as museum programming brings people from different social groups  together.

In an effort to better serve the community of Collierville, the Museum of Biblical History now offers Bible Story Time programming to children once a week.  Local members of the community, including the mayor and firefighters, volunteer to read Bible stories to  children in the museum.  The museum provides two crafts per program, which student participants make in the museum and take home.  Museum staff and volunteers supervise the event, with the support of visiting parents.  This program is provided free of charge.  Though the Publics are going through difficult times with reduced public services, turning to the resources provided by their local museums may alleviate small concerns and provide a degree of routine to their schedule.  Many museums offer similar free programming at least once a month.

Though the Museum of Biblical History is small, it adjusts to meet the needs of the community.  This winter the museum stored its entire Near Eastern artifact collection away, in order to showcase a highly requested display of nativities from around the world.  Even the crèche collection itself is on loan from a community resident.  As an archaeologist, part of me was hesitant to make such a dramatic change in our gallery.  The public, however, had spoken so the show was underway.  I curated the nativity exhibition and watched on opening night as over a hundred people packed into the small museum, doting upon handmade nativities.  The show brought people together to discuss culture, tradition, heritage, art, and the history of Christmas as it is understood from international perspectives.  The Publics tax dollars support experiences like this one.  Their funding encourages not only an appreciation of art and history, but of empathy across cultures, even in the small town of Collierville.

Museums should strive to become beacons of knowledge, and act as windows into other worlds, whether those worlds are a glimpse into an ancient culture or an exhibit featuring local artists.  A museum is not only a safe-haven for research or objects of the past.  If  museums are to remain successful in an economically turbulent environment, they need to continue to focus on making the information they possess accessible to the communities they serve.  The Publics, then, are not transferring their money into a disconnected or wealthy museum entity.  Instead, their tax dollars go back into their own community, creating educated generations for years to come.

[1] AMA, Word of Mouth Marketing, pg. 38-40.

[2] Simon, Nina.  “Chapter 7: Collaborating with Visitors,” In The Participatory Museum.

Service in Cultural Heritage

Elizabeth Cruzado Carranza (center) with students from the Maria Parado de Bellido Nº 88104 school in Nivín, Peru.

This past Sunday, my colleague Gustavo Valencia Tello, invited me to a Father’s Day lunch at his home in Casma, Peru.  I am spending a couple of months in the area this summer as part of a co-creative project organized through Culture and Community in Casma (see this newsletter for more details).  During our lunch, Professor Valencia and I had a wide ranging discussion not just about this summer’s work but also our collaboration that began in July of 2015.  After finishing our meal Professor Valencia raised a question that got me to thinking.  He asked:

“You are from a major university in the United States.  In Casma we do not have a university and in Nivín we only have a very small school.  Why do you keep coming back to Nivín?

At first, I was not certain how to respond.  I thought about how the project is interesting.  I thought about how the project is the most “co-creative” in which I have ever been involved in addressing community needs in a collaborative manner.  But I realized those responses were really after the fact reasons.  After a few seconds of thought, I replied:

“Because you asked us to come.”

We then discussed how one year before our first visit, my colleague Elizabeth Cruzado Carranza and Professor Valencia had communicated on Facebook where he had invited us to come to the small school museum.  (I posted here about that first visit.)  I recalled how when we first arrived in Nivín, after touring the museum, school grounds, and the surrounding archaeological sites, we asked Professor Valencia what we could do to help his project.  He responded with a shopping list of needs.  At the top of the list was museum management texts in Spanish.  (Here is a link to our Annual Report for 2016 that details our completed projects to date.)

We are currently working with the school and community of Nivín to develop a five-year strategic plan that will guide our co-creative work in the future.  Gustavo’s original invitation for Elizabeth and I to visit Nivín has led to very meaningful professional projects for all of us.

The “why did you come” question this past Sunday got me to thinking more.  I thought about my first trip to Peru in the summer of 2013.  That visit was also based on a request for me to come to help start a small museum and cultural heritage center in the village of Hualcayán to supplement archaeological research in that community.  I learned much over the four years I spent on projects in Hualcayán.

My visit to Debbie Buco’s classroom in 1997.

I then thought about other times when I had just shown up after being asked over the years.  I thought about my time as the Station Archaeologist at the Poverty Point World Heritage Site some 15 – 20 years ago.  I often received requests from schools and libraries in Louisiana and Mississippi to just come and visit.  One of the most rewarding requests was when I said yes to Debbie Buco, an elementary school teacher in Baton Rouge (described in this post).

Over the length of my career, without question, the most meaningful professional experiences have always come when I said “yes” to requests to be of service – often after a great deal of initial reluctance on my part.

I fear that we are in a time when such requests for service too often go unheeded.  I am surprised by the reluctance of emerging professionals to share their successful and not so successful experiences with others in form of blogs or public presentations when asked to do so.   I remember how odd it sounded to me during my first field school in 1986 to hear someone with their BA in Anthropology fresh in hand announce as they visited our excavations that he would never again do archaeology for free.  Years ago advisors cautioned me against engaging in service because publications and grants were the name of the game when seeking faculty tenure.  Just recently, the editor of a major peer review journal lamented to me that it was hard to get younger professionals to agree to do peer reviews of articles submitted for publication.

I appreciate too that one cannot, and should not say yes to every request that comes along.

I don’t intend this as a holier than thou piece.  In fact, saying “yes” to requests, whether peer review, sharing experiences, or in a variety of community service opportunities, is really quite self-serving from the “in giving, you receive” perspective.  The simple fact is that by saying “yes” to Professor Valencia a couple of years ago, my colleague Elizabeth and I each have at least another five-year project that will likely prove the most meaningful in both of our careers – Elizabeth as she works to complete her doctoral studies and for me as a post retirement project till I turn 70!  Without question, those aspects of my career that I consider the most significant and meaningful would not have occurred had I not said “yes” to being of service.

The Proposed Funding Cuts & the Impact on Small and Rural Museums

Mr. Trump’s draft budget blueprint eliminates many environmental, cultural, human services, and science based programs.  I will address two of the programs with which I have direct experience – the Institute of Museum and Library Services and the Corporation for National and Community Service.

In 2007 I was hired as the Director of the C.H. Nash Museum at Chucalissa, a small prehistoric venue in Southwest Memphis, Tennessee.  The Museum had fallen on “hard times” as it were.  In essence, my assigned task was to rejuvenate the place or the Museum would likely be shut down.  Over my nine-year tenure, we eliminated the Museum’s operating deficit and made up past deficits.  Also, the annual attendance doubled.  The C.H. Nash Museum began to play a critical role as a cultural heritage venue in Southwest Memphis, became an integral educational resource for the University of Memphis, and a national model for co-creating with a local community whose tax dollars supported the Museum.  Both the IMLS and CNCS were critical to that process.  Simply put, the successes of the Museum would not have occurred without the support of these two institutions.

The Institute of Museum and Library Services

The C.H. Nash Museum was able to take advantage of several services offered by the IMLS:

  • Connecting to Collections, of which IMLS is a founding partner, awarded the C.H. Nash Museum a set of books valued at over $1500.00 to help us become better informed on the best practices necessary for curating our 50 years worth of collections, many of which had not been properly cared for in decades.  The book award is no longer offered because now the IMLS provides that scope of resources online, a more cost-effective means for distributing the information.  Connecting to Collections also hosts regular webinars on a diverse range of issues.  All Connecting to Collections services are provided free to museums.  This service is absolutely critical to small museums throughout the U.S. that are operated by either volunteer or small staffs.  Specifically, small museums such as Chucalissa do not have access to funds to hire consultants with the expertise needed to conserve, preserve, and present the cultural heritage they curate.
  • The IMLS’s Museum Assessment Program (MAP) proved absolutely critical to our Museum’s turn around.  The C.H. Nash Museum was founded in 1956, but there was limited attention paid to its maintenance or upgrades over the years.  For example, in 2007, no museum exhibit was upgraded for nearly 30 years and many of the collections were not properly curated.  The MAP program consisted of a period of intensive self-study followed by a peer review from a nationally recognized museum professional matched specifically to our institutional needs.  The reviewer provided a series of recommendations grouped by duration (short-term, medium-term, and long-term) and cost (no expense, modest expense, or major expense).  Of importance to our governing authority, the peer reviewer’s recommendations came with the credibility of the nationally recognized leaders in the field – IMLS and the American Alliance of Museums.  The recommendations provided leverage for our Museum and were integral to our strategic plan developments.  Our Museum simply did not have the 15-20 thousand dollars necessary to hire a private consultant to perform these services.  Our total cost for the program was $400.00.

As the recently retired Director of a small museum along with my years of service on small museum boards and professional organizations, without question, the small institution, often in a  rural location will be most directly and negatively affected in eliminating the Institute of Museum and Library Services.

Corporation for National and Community Service – AmeriCorps

To the extent IMLS allowed us to strategically reorient our Museum, AmeriCorps allowed us to carry out those changes.  NCCC AmeriCorps is the legacy of the 1930s-era Civilian Conservation Corps and is composed of youth between the ages of 18-25 who give one year of community service.  At the C.H. Nash Museum, we hosted six AmeriCorps teams over a four-year period.  These teams were integral to our ability to serve and engage with our neighboring community.  We devised a unique partnership where each 8-week AmeriCorps team spent 1/3 of their rotation working on each of three separate components: the C.H. Nash Museum, the surrounding community, and the T.O. Fuller State Park as follows:

  • Teams working in the surrounding community focused on minor to moderate repair and landscaping work on the homes of elderly veterans in the 95% African-American working class community that surrounds the C.H. Nash Museum.¹ In addition, team members served as mentors to neighborhood youth in this underserved community and leveraged corporate support for their projects. ²
  • Teams working at the C.H. Nash Museum developed skills and performed structural improvements to the site including creating gardens, lab exhibits, rain shelters, refurbished onsite housing and much more.
  • Teams working at the T.O. Fuller State Park completed maintenance projects such as refurbishment of picnic shelters and trail maintenance.  The T.O. Fuller State Park is particularly significant in Memphis history as the only such recreation facility available for the African-American community during the era of Jim Crow segregation.

Both IMLS and AmeriCorps teams led to building relationships and leveraging assets to bring additional resources into play that would not have been otherwise available.  For example:

  • The IMLS Connecting to Collections resources allowed Museum staff to generate the types of data based proposals to generate additional economic support from the governing authority.
  • Similarly, the IMLS MAP program help to demonstrate the fiduciary responsibility of the governing authority to the collections and infrastructure of the Museum, leading to additional economic support in the form of staff and material support.
  • The AmeriCorps Teams strengthened community connections that today allow the C.H. Nash Museum to host the community’s Annual Veterans Day event, the annual Black History Month Celebration, provide space and resources for a community garden, provide internships for local high school students, to name just a few.

In summary, elimination of the IMLS and the CNCS will also cut the potential for projects such as those noted above at the C.H. Nash Museum.  In 2012, the House of Representatives passed H.Con.Res.112 that called for eliminating the National Endowments for the Humanities and the National Endowment for the Arts noting 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.”  My examples demonstrate such statements are erroneous.  In fact, as demonstrated in the case of the C.H. Nash Museum at Chucalissa, the elimination of IMLS and CNCS will directly impact the small and particularly rural museums that serve as the cultural heritage hub for their communities and will not put “America first” an alleged goal of Mr. Trump’s budget.

An immediate and strong response must be sent to all legislators to counter proposals to eliminate these and similar programs that truly do put all of America first.

 

¹References for this work include the following: Making African American History Relevant through Co-Creation and Community Service Learning by Robert P. Connolly and Ana Rea; The C.H. Nash Museum at Chucalissa: Community Engagement at an Archaeological Site by Robert P. Connolly, Samantha Gibbs, and Mallory Bader; AmeriCorps Delta 5 – Unparalleled Community Service by Robert P. Connolly; AmeriCorps, Archaeology and Service by Robert P. Connolly; AmeriCorps Archaeology and Museums by Robert P. Connolly.

² AmeriCorps NCCC: The Best of the Millennial Generation by Ana Rea.

Final Thoughts on Museums & Relevance in 2017

ecFor 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, Emily Coate, a graduate student in Egyptology and the Museum Studies Graduate Certificate Program wrote a compelling response that incorporates some of the ongoing discussions of museologists today.  Here is her essay:

From the view of Ms. Public, I would need to see evidence that the museum serves a tangible function within the community in order to appease my frustration on this front. Is my local museum a place where my neighbors and I feel we are actively engaged? I hope that with this view in mind, I will be able to work towards fulfilling these goals in a museum setting. The importance of not taking a museum’s position for granted, just because it is something I enjoy, is not a lesson that will be forgotten. I would hope to show the Publics that the museum is a space where everyone’s history, art, science, etc is included. It is an inclusive space that strives to incorporate all members of society. The work done to bring in members of the community in a meaningful manner at Chucalissa is a prime example. Even with a small staff and a small budget, volunteers, students, and the community form an integral part of the running of the museum. Along the lines of Simon’s folksonomy, museums must ask for community input, and then follow-up with a visible materialization of the suggestions or utilization of the participatory action offered. This gives visitors a personal stake in the result, and thus, the museum. A model that continuously provides a better visitor experience through these feedback loops would certainly go a long way toward placing the museum in a better light in the public’s eye. The Critical Assessment Framework developed by Worts is a resource that museums should consult if they are finding difficulty “measuring the cultural needs, as well as the impacts of their programs, at individual, community, and institutional levels.”[1] Once these questions are at the forefront of a museum’s mind, then the execution of the planning of programs with expressed goals toward community involvement can take form. It will depend on the type and size of the museum to what extent and to what shape community engagement will take. So much the better if they are able to offer a multitude of volunteer opportunities which satisfies visitors wishing for a simply level of involvement all the way through fostering co-creative exhibits. The museum must ask their public, “what are the community’s needs, and in what way can we help you achieve their resolution?”

This idea of a wealth transfer from the poor to the wealthy, to an institution which holds no use of value to people of lower income or social status is exactly the type of rhetoric which museums must consciously work to overcome. What can each individual connected with the museum do to best alleviate these barriers? How can we advocate for the necessity of museums to the government as well as the public? What do the budget cuts take away that Mr. and Mrs. Public feel are more necessary than the museum?

One statistic that has stood out to me was that among those individuals who make museums an integral part of their lifestyle, “Nearly all have a distinct memory of a specific, seminal museum experience, usually between the ages of 5 and 9.”[2] This highlights the importance of effective educational programming aimed at children. As Beverly Sheppard suggests, museums should work with local schools, even if they are doing the lion’s share of the work, in order to create viable regular programming that connects the two.[3] The economic state that has thrown the Public family into distress has most likely affected their children’s education as well.  If after school activities have been reduced, perhaps the museum could look into starting a regular afternoon activity session for school-aged children. Action should be taken on the part of the museum to ensure that its full capabilities are able to be taken advantage of by the young members of the surrounding society. The Smithsonian Latino Center provides scholarships and internships for its widespread constituency. If funds are to be given museums, the public needs to see that they are redistributed by as many means possible.

I hope that the museum I represent can provide the level of local relevance of the Pearl Button Museum. A place that incites memory from residents and provides a useful physical space to support the community. No one should feel excluded from a museum, or feel that its holdings are so far from one’s own interests as to have little possible effect on their life. As Lord demonstrated with his interaction with prison inmates at the Vancouver Art Gallery, a present and meaningful relevance can be found for anyone, so long as it is sought. Museums must devote creative energy to finding these connections within their collections.

Museums will hopefully continue on the trajectory of becoming a recognized place for everyone’s benefit, regardless of economic wealth or social standing. I would hope through (continual) positive interactions, we could prove the worth of art, history, and science to everyone. This will be accomplished when everyone has had the opportunity to experience the full potential that each of these mediums has to enrich the quality of human existence and life. Rather than offering this up as a platitude,[4] I hope it can one day become a reality felt by all.

[1] Worts, D. “Measuring Museum Meaning: A Critical Assessment Framework.” Journal of Museum Education 31(1). 2006: 47.

[2] Merritt, Elizabeth. Museums and Society 2034: Trends and Potential Futures. American Association of Museums.  2008. http://www.aam-us.org/docs/center-for-the-future-ofmuseums/museumssociety2034.pdf.

[3] Sheppard, Beverly. “Insistent Questions in Our Learning Age.  Journal of Museum Education, (35): 3, 218.

[4] Connolly, Robert. “Labor Day and the Cultural Heritage Professional.”  Archaeology, Museums, and Outreach Blog. 2012. https://rcnnolly.wordpress.com/2012/09/03/labor-day-and-the-cultural-heritage-professional/.

 

Contact Emily at emcoate(at)memphis.edu

More on Museum Relevance in 2017

fb_img_1435936304909

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, Jessica Johnson, a December graduate of the Museum Studies Graduate Certificate Program wrote a compelling response that is particularly apt for the current socio-political climate in the U.S.  Here is his essay:

I was once told that art is the product of what a society thinks of itself and wants others to see, but historical artifacts were the reality of a society. The two outputs of any society are intricately intertwined to create an entire picture. Traditionally, museums were more appealing to the wealthier class as a leisurely activity, but as museums constantly strive to validate their own existence, this statement is becoming more outdated and naïve. This is not to say there is no validity to it because many institutions still struggle with their purpose and mission, and translating those goals into actual, beneficial, tangible ways of providing for their community.

As an emerging, young museum professional I ask myself the same variety of questions as Mr. and Mrs. John and Josephine Q. Public. Why does what I do matter? It matters to me, but I have the personality and innate love of museums that makes me completely bias. However, what I do does not matter in the least bit if it does not matter to the people of whom we are researching and maintaining their history. Despite the arguments, however valid, that museums must balance budget with best practices, and outreach and advocacy with factual knowledge, the bottom line still remains: Why are we important enough to keep? I personally feel that museums are far too quick to congratulate themselves when they have done something that falls into the category of “outreach” or “community engagement.” The complications that must be balanced in museum life are hard and time consuming. However, I doubt any museum professional is required to spend 4+ years in school, only to not be able to handle the hard, time consuming tasks, while still constantly striving to fortify the reason for a museum’s existence. We as professionals know why, we feel why, we work every day towards why, but we have to remember that we still have much farther to go when it comes to convincing other people why museums actually matter.

Perhaps my specialization within my field, or the time I spent researching something only to have the accomplishment of adding to the general, scholarly pool of knowledge, can be deemed this transfer of wealth. However, once that is through, once myself and other young professionals and continuing museum professionals are interacting with their communities, this statement is far less true. Our training is applied to handling objects, but it is also applied to teaching people, caring for our surroundings, becoming relevant and interacting with the public on a local and global scale.

The tax dollars teach professionals how to care for the history, culture, and ability to learn about things that would have otherwise disappeared long ago, and do so for the people that pay their tax dollars. The research/position we do is justifying the tax dollars spent by helping citizens gain the ability to reconnect with history, to learn from history and, like suggested, empower people (Connolly 2012) and give them a sense of pride about their history and their community. But more so than that, research/position brings to light a sense of purpose about how far our society has come, and how far we still have to go.  Our research grounds citizens in the common thread that is all of our human existences. Our society often divides people, puts them into categories and groups based on a multitude of factors and occasionally, so do museum classifications. But the bigger picture, the Big Idea as it were, is that what is highlighted in museums, whether it be expression, creativity, perseverance, culture, history, applies to every person on a fundamental level; reminding us that we are all the same. This is something that is often forgotten, but can be the cornerstone for so much growth and cooperation.

Museums are constantly striving to interact with their community on all economic levels. To fight against the stigma that museums are only for the wealthy who have the free time to leisurely stroll through priceless works of art. There are so many more museums that chronicle racial inequality, the struggle of the misfortune, the history of our country. Through heavy subjects such as these, to art made simply for pleasure and viewing, museums cannot only help these individuals on an emotional level by allowing them a safe haven to get away from their troubles for a short amount of time, but are striving to tangibly help people. For example, the San Francisco Public Library helped their community by hiring the homeless people that often took refuge within their walls, and even provided contact with a mental health specialist (Goldberg 2016). This example is just one of many where museums are fulfilling their ability to cast a “ripple effect” (Simon: 2012) through their surroundings, whether it be creating a thriving downtown area, or being a draw for businesses and home owners. I know that as professionals entrusted with providing our relevance and caring for collections, we still have much to prove. However, we are on a constant path toward giving back as much as our societies have given it us.

Jess can be reached at jjhnsn78(at)memphis.edu

Museums and Relevance in 2017

20161212_085534

H. Doug McQuirter

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, Doug McQuirter, a graduate student in the History Department wrote a compelling response that is particularly apt for the current socio-political climate in the U.S.  Here is his essay:

The specter of hyper-capitalism Robert Janes (2009), the malignant fast capitalism warned of by Randall H. McGuire’s Archaeology as Political Action (2008), or any of the political positions espoused by the Paul Ryan House of Representatives espouse a knee-jerk reaction against any form of wealth transfer from the wealthy to the poor. However, this statement turns the argument on its head; a reverse Robin Hood, transferring wealth from the poor to the rich. It is a brilliantly framed obfuscation of anti-intellectualist thought. How better to sell fund-cutting than to present it as protecting the poor from egghead intellectuals and their myriad ways of burning money with pointless research.

Social scientists are in the same tough position that history and humanities researchers are in, namely, they are not curing diseases or building rocket ships, so who cares if Richard III is found in a parking lot or if Nat Turner suffered from mental illness. Non-STEM research, and for the terms of this question, museum/anthropological research is crucial for studying social cohesion and resolving the problems of the past. Museums provide learning but also leisure for all. If Josephine Q. Public is not a museumgoer, then this is going to be a tough sell. Museums, after all, do not cure diseases. However, the intellectual stimulation that museums provide, no matter how abstract it may seem at first glance, is crucial to the health and well-being of the community and greater society. Seeing the Enola Gay at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum can be a simple stop-and-glance, but it can also be a target of a field trip for fifth graders learning about war and its cruelty. Viewing the ceremonial clothes at Chucalissa could be something to give cursory attention, but it might also trigger vivid memories of a family member for a burgeoning fiction writer. These are the hard-to-grasp reasons why people must go to museums, and this is why tax dollars must continue to fund them.

Museums for the most part provide an optional, supplementary role in education. They are an option. They provide extra context. Nothing about museums requires one to go. The Ferrell and Medvedeva reading (2010) point to reasons why minority populations do not visit museums. The population is changing, and those who are becoming more prominent do not visit. This must change and ideas need to flow on how to include underrepresented groups. Nevertheless, assimilation of immigrant communities does not occur without bringing their stories and histories into the grand narrative. Museums provide the structure to present these histories. The Ellis Island National Museum of Immigration exemplifies a successful insertion of telling the immigrants’ stories.

Why should museums use tax dollars then? Robert Janes put it best by stating that museums are public sector but they are increasingly reliant on private sector means (2009: 16). If museums received more money from state and federal outlays, then one could easily bet that they would give up the private-sector development game. That would be true with anyone, but museums do not produce widgets, nor do they involve a great amount of personal interactions with many other people. Tours can successfully cope with one or two docents. Therefore, there is not much overhead to speak of in the average one-room county historical society museum. Unless they are the Met or the Getty, they are not going to generate income on name alone. They are not public companies, beholden to shareholders. They are about as public as one can get without being a government agency. They conserve and present national treasures, products of human ingenuity, and bravely examine social problems. If the hyper-capitalist’s run their ideas to their logical conclusions, then there would only be a few museums that presented historical documents and objects more in the style of the National Archive, only fee-based. It would be pay-as-you-go. Objects would be in storage to save money, only to come out if someone wanted to view it and pay a fee. Ferrell and Medvedeva’s research on future trends would be rendered useless, as very few people, other than those with time and money would want to go through the bother of this. Museums, therefore, establish and maintain the sanctity of citizenship, by creating and maintaining a healthy dissent and critique of the grand narratives that drove this country for so long. A worry for the future is that people are not going to care about these critiques, and live in their pseudo-historical fantasies and conspiracies. Museums that practice critical thinking and are socially activist are a way to counter these dangerous practices and habits. They are also pressure release valves for dissenters and skeptics of the official grand narrative. While Josephine Q. Public, for example, may be politically opposed to the mission of the National Civil Rights Museum, its existence and its attempts to demarginalize the history of civil rights and bring it to the foreground of the narrative is healthy and necessary for social cohesion. She would be hard pressed to argue with that.

References

Farrell, Betty and Maria Medvedeva. 2010. Demographic Transformation and the Future of Museum. American Association of Museums.

Janes, Robert R. 2009. “Museums and Irrelevance.” In Museums in a Troubled World. Routledge.

McGuire, Randall H. 2008. Archaeology as Political Action. University of California Press.

 

Contact Doug at hdmcqrtr(at)memphis.edu

Museums Working with Communities: The Book

positioning-museums-coverI am pleased to announce that my colleague Beth Bollwerk and I have a new book that will be available in the coming weeks –  Positioning Your Museum as a Critical Community Asset: A Practical Guide, published by Rowman and Littlefield Press.  You can pre-order a copy at a 30% discount by using the promotional code RLFANDF30.  The extensive Resource Guide of the book is available now online (and at no cost).

So why is this book different from other titles on how museums strive to be engaged with the communities they serve? Our new book is explicitly a “how to guide” for museums to integrate themselves into their communities.  Positioning Your Museum as a Critical Community Asset: A Practical Guide, is not meant to convince the reader of the need for that integration. We consider that need a settled matter.  We envision this book within the framework of museums co-creating with their communities. We do not envision this co-creation as museums simply being more attuned to community needs. Co-creation means making a commitment to working with a community to address those needs.

We consider this volume as the instruction manual for our previously edited volumes that discussed the concept of co-creation for cultural heritage professionals and museums. In 2012 we published Open(ing) Authority Through Community Engagement, that provided a theoretical overview and ten case studies on co-creation with museums and their communities. In 2015, we published Co-creation in the Archaeological Record that brought the discussion squarely to fieldwork, curation, and interpretation in the discipline of archaeology along with another set of case studies.

In our application of co-creation we prioritize acting on the public’s expressed needs and interests.  To simplify that process we rely on Dana’s mandate in The New Museum written one century ago – “Learn what aid the community needs: fit the museum to those needs”   Our new volume fills the methodological and logistical gap in acting on Dana’s mandate. For example, our experience over the past several years demonstrates that for many museums, particularly smaller ones, the ability to carry out a community oral history project that can be curated online with universal access, or creating a new low-cost exhibit based on important community curated collections are often not considered possible because of finances, staffing, or other constraints. At the same time, over that same time period, we have encountered dozens of projects that overcame these obstacles and implemented such community-driven engagement work.

Drawing on that experience, this volume does not discuss the relevance or need for museums to engage with their communities. Instead, our contributors introduce specific themes of engagement, supported by applied case studies. The volume themes and case studies are particularly relevant to small and medium-sized cultural heritage venues with a limited or even no full-time staff. Our contributors to this book were also certain their “how to” projects could be completed for $1500.00 or less to assure that cost was not a prohibitive factor.

Positioning Your Museum as a Critical Community Asset: A Practical Guide is organized into six sections. Each section begins with a thematic discussion relevant to a museum’s engagement with the community they serve. Each thematic discussion is followed by four or five case study applications.   The Table of Contents listed below shows the diversity of case studies presented that range from rural Peru to the urban Upper Midwest of the United States.  The final section of the book links to an extensive online Resource Guide that will be regularly updated.  We were selective about the links included in the Resource Guide.  We chose not to include so many entries such that the reader could not tell the forest for the trees.  Instead we carefully selected those resources of particular relevance to small and medium-sized cultural heritage venues aligned with the focus of our volume’s contributors.

Positioning Your Museum as a Critical Community Asset: A Practical Guide is a book that demonstrates any museum, regardless of size, staffing, or financial resources, can engage with their communities in a vibrant and co-creative way. We truly believe that when museums and communities co-create together those cultural heritage venues will serve as valuable community partners that must be preserved and maintained.

Order your copy today at the 30% off with the discount code RLFANDF30.

 

 

Positioning Your Museum as a Critical Community Asset: A Practical Guide

Table of Contents

Introduction- Robert P. Connolly and Elizabeth A. Bollwerk

Part 1 – Communities Making Meaning in Museum Education – Jody Stokes Casey

Case Studies

  1. Developing High School Curriculum: The C.H. Nash Museum and Freedom Prep Charter School Project – Nur Abdalla and Lyndsey Pender
  2. Creating a Museum in a School: Cultural Heritage in Nivín, Perú– Gustavo Valencia Tello and Elizabeth Cruzado
  3. Meeting Teacher Needs: Digital Collections in the Classroom – Shana Crosson
  4. Using Postcard Collections as a Primary Resource in the Classroom – Brian Failing
  5. Words, Stone, Earth, and Paint: Using Creative Writing to Engage a Community with Its Museum – Mary Anna Evans

Part 2 – The Value of Open(ing) Authority and Participatory Frameworks for Museums – Elizabeth A. Bollwerk

Case Studies

  1. Oral History For, About, and By a Local Community: Co-Creation in the Peruvian Highlands – Elizabeth Cruzado and Leodan Alejo Valerio
  2. Working with a Private Collector to Strengthen Women’s History: Sewall-Belmont House & Museum – Rebecca Price.
  3. Reconnecting a University Museum Collection with Hopi Farmers through an Undergraduate Class– Lisa Young and Susan Sekaquaptewa
  4. Our Stories, Our Places: Centering the Community as Narrative Voice in the Reinterpretation of an African American Historic Site – Porchia Moore

Part 3 – Advocacy for Heritage Professionals During the Crisis and the Calm – Sarah E. Miller

Case Studies

  1. Making Advocacy Everyone’s Priority – Ember Farber
  2. Impact Statements – Demonstrating a Museum’s Public Value – Robert P. Connolly
  3. Small Fish, Big Pond: How to Effectively Advocate in Your Community – Melissa Prycer

Part 4 – Museums Engaging With People As A Community Resource – Robert P. Connolly

Case Studies

  1. Taking Steps to Make a Museum Special Needs Friendly – Colleen McCartney
  2. Incorporating Descendent Community Voices: The Whitney Plantation – Ashley Rogers
  3. How Community Input Can Shape a Mission: The Proposed Eggleston Museum – Allison Hennie
  4. Building a Community History at the University of the West Indies Museum – Suzanne Francis-Brown
  5. Telling Our Town’s History: The Muscatine History and Industry Center – Mary Wildermuth
  6. Working to Address Community Needs: The Missouri History Museum – Melanie Adams

Part 5 – Engaging User Audiences in the Digital Landscape – Brigitte Billeaudeaux and Jennifer Schnabel

Case Studies

  1. Creating a Digital Library for Community Access: A. Schwab on Beale Street – Brigitte Billeaudeaux
  2. Separating the Glitz from the Practical in Social Media at the National Underground Railroad Museum – Jamie Glavic and Assia Johnson
  3. How a Simple, Inexpensive Podcast Engaged an Entire Community: Chick History, Inc – Rebecca Price
  4. Recording the Neglected Sports Stories From the Backside – Holly Solis
  5. Small Museum Website Creation with a Limited Staff and Budget: The Arden Craft Shop Museum – Kelsey Ransick

Part 6 – Resource Guide

Cultural Heritage and the R Word

Two generations exploring the Muscatine city map at the Pearl Button Museum

Two generations exploring the Muscatine city map at the Pearl Button Museum

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.

Hmm . . . this post seems like a rehash of many similar entries I have written over the years on the R word, here, here, here, here, etc.  But once again, this issue raises it’s head.

How is your institution/project relevant to expressed needs of the community that you serve?

 

Leaning Into Another Transition

rails to trailsI really dislike when blogs I read regularly just go away without explanation.  And, as I have become more absorbed by other processes, I have posted here a lot less regularly – so let me explain.  I am winding up this phase of my career as I get ready to retire later this summer as the Director of the C.H. Nash Museum at Chucalissa and an Associate Professor at the University of Memphis.  After some 300 posts over a six-year period, I will continue to post here but much less and possibly in different forms.  I am going to enjoy a number of new and continuing projects, some of which will include a lot of digital content.  Some of my ongoing stuff will include:

  • My colleague Beth Bollwerk and I just turned in the ms for an edited volume to Rowman and Littlefield Press that will hit the streets by November or so of this year.  The volume, Positioning Your Museum as a Critical Community Asset: A Practical Guide, will feature a substantive online resource guide to support the 20 plus chapters and case studies of the volume.  The resource guide will develop as a stand alone website and ideally evolve into a substantive online presence for engagement and co-creation of communities and their museums.
  • As the new President of the Advocates for Poverty Point, I will work to develop that organization’s website, blog, and newsletter, along with other tasks in support of the only prehistoric UNESCO World Heritage Site in the Southeast United States.
  • My colleague Elizabeth Cruzado Carranza and I are very excited about launching a public archaeology project on the north coast of Peru.  We anticipate developing a host of social media tools for this work as well.
  • I am also anxious to play a role in the community outreach projects of Whitney Plantation.  I am particularly interested in working with the Whitney staff to carry out applied archaeology projects along the lines of what we have done at the C.H. Nash Museum at Chucalissa over the past few years.
  • And, I am most excited to spend more time with my wife, Emma working in her shop, Uptown Needle & Craftworks on Magazine St. in New Orleans.  Stop by and visit!

So, I am certain that some of all that will turn up in this blog too, on an irregular basis.  I have thoroughly enjoyed writing this blog over the years.  The folks I have met in the virtual world, and for many of them, never yet in person, have been instrumental in my learning process over the past decade.  Thanks to everyone for reading, sharing, and providing me with so much good stuff to think and learn about!

A Tribute to My GA Staff

group

(l-r) Colleen McCartney, Elizabeth Cruzado Carranza, Nur Abdalla, and Brooke Garcia in the Fall of 2014

From 2007 – 2016, during my tenure as Director of the C.H. Nash Museum at Chucalissa, I regularly chose four University of Memphis graduate students to serve up to two years each as Graduate Assistants at the Museum. They work 20 hours per week during the academic year in exchange for a tuition waiver and a monthly stipend. Although the economic incentive is important, what they receive in education and experience at the Museum far exceeds the monetary compensation. When I welcome visitors to the Museum, I always note that whatever exhibit or program they encounter during their visit that is ‘shiny and new’ chances are it was completed by one of our Graduate Assistants, Volunteers, or Interns.

Nur-missing

Same folks today, less Nur who is determining if she has the measles or not, with R. Connolly. The last official day at the Museum for the GA staff.

In the Spring Semester of 2014, all four of our GA staff graduated. That meant that in the Fall Semester of 2014, four new Graduate Assistants came on board at the same time. That had never happened in my previous 7 years at the Museum. Perhaps starting at the same time is why they bonded so well as a team. Regardless the 2014 – 2016 Graduate Assistants were truly exceptional in all ways. Over the past two years I often reflected that I could not have asked for a better GA staff on which to end my career at Chucalissa as I retire later this summer.

So, what follows is my story of the stories of Nur Abdalla, Elizabeth Cruzado Carranza, Brooke Garcia, and Colleen McCartney and their time as Graduate Assistants at the C.H. Nash Museum at Chucalissa. And it is a true story, for the most part.

Ashes and INur Abdalla – I first met Nur in about 2012 when she was an undergraduate in the Anthropology Department. She registered for an Internship and completed a Directed Research Project at Chucalissa. For her Applied Archaeology and Museums class project, she created an exhibit that explored the interpretive significance of surface collections from artifacts curated at Chucalissa.

As a graduate student, her research focused on working with students and staff from the Freedom Prep Charter School to develop an institutional relationship with the C.H. Nash Museum. For her GA projects she organized special events at the museum and worked on several collections projects.

First and foremost Nur always has a smile and a pro-active solution driven approach to every situation. I was also amazed that our auto-generated Netflix recommendations were quite similar.

eliI first met Elizabeth Cruzado Carranza in July of 2013 at the bus station in Caraz, Peru. We had previously corresponded about the possibility of her coming to the US to study for her Masters Degree in Archaeology at the University of Memphis. Since that first meeting we have worked together on a series of projects in Peru and I look forward to continuing that collaboration. Eli will enter the PhD program at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge in the fall of 2016 with full funding. This summer she will launch a community based research project on the Peruvian North Coast in the village of Nivín.

While at Chucalissa Eli translated a good bit of our exhibit and visitor materials into Spanish and played a major role in the upgrade of the Brister Archaeology Discovery Lab. Prior to her first day at the Museum I was somewhat concerned about how well she would engage with our visitors in explaining an archaeological site of which she was not familiar in a language that was not her own. Eli excelled with both our Spanish-speaking and English-speaking visitors.   She was also quite adept at answering visitors questions, that yes, she was in fact a Native American, and then explain her Peruvian origins. Through Eli, I have come to have a second home in Peru and look forward to our continued collaboration.

brookeBrooke Garcia, an Egyptology student, began as a collections intern in the summer of 2014 and transitioned seamlessly into her GA role that fall. Under the able direction of Ron Brister, Brooke completed several of the collections projects that staff had worked on for several years at Chucalissa. These projects included the deaccessioning and transfer of collections that were not part of our museums research scope to other Midsouth institutions. Brooke also completed NAGPRA compliance on all University of Memphis collections excavated over the past 50 years. Brooke was very active in our volunteer program, training visitors to process artifacts on our Volunteer Saturdays, including many students from Freedom Prep Charter School.

Brooke excelled in her academic achievements while a GA. She was awarded a MUSE Fellowship in the summer of 2015 to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. In 2015 she also received a Fellowship to attend the American Alliance of Museums annual meeting.

Like the rest of our GA staff, Brooke shares an affinity to all that is Disney and in addition, ballroom dancing.

colleenColleen McCartney was the token Anglo GA for the past two years. From Canada via Texas, Colleen is a natural born leader and played that role very well in several projects while working at the Museum. In addition to completing the organization of our strategic plan, Colleen coordinated the upgrade of the Brister Archaeology Discovery Lab. For her studies in the Anthropology Department and Museum Studies she crafted a curriculum to include a solid exposure to public and nonprofit administration. For her practicum in the Anthropology Department Colleen created programs and policies for the inclusion of special needs visitors at Chucalissa.

Colleen appears to have been the ringleader of the GA staff over the past two years, fomenting dissent as appropriate, but always assuring that the job was done. Her skills in this area were recognized by her peers when she received the first ever Emerging Museum Professional of the Year Award from the Tennessee Association of Museums. Quite an accomplishment for someone from Texas!

And in the end . . . the consistent pleasure that I had during my nine years at the University of Memphis and the C.H. Nash Museum was my work with students – particularly the Graduate Assistants. I always pushed the GA staff toward taking risks and believing that they could and should make applied contributions now and not wait until they graduate. Certainly, all of their resumes are greatly enhanced by their time working at the C.H. Nash Museum. I know that they will remain in contact with each other as they graduate and go their separate ways.

All of the GA staff have been very generous in their compliments toward me and my role as their Supervisor and Museum Director. My standard response to them has always been to remember that 10 or 20 years from now when they are in my position, mentoring a young 20 something who is trying to find their way in the world and trying to exude a sense of self-confidence while being insecure and nervous about screwing up and somehow getting it wrong – to remember what it felt like to be in their shoes and treat them kindness and support.

In many ways, I learned all that I needed from my first mentor the late Dr. Patricia Essenpreis who in a 1986 field school said something like “If you cannot explain to the public why their tax dollars should go to support this field work and museum, you might as well go home.” I keep those words as guiding principles in what I strive to do professionally. I have enjoyed engaging with the public ever since. While working as the Poverty Point Station Archaeologist in Northeast Louisiana, I began to understand what Pat meant. At the C.H. Nash Museum at Chucalissa, through both our visitors and our Graduate Assistants, I had the opportunity to continue that engagement. The last two years of my career with both our regular and GA staff have been a true delight. I would not change a thing.

%d bloggers like this: