Tag: Nina Simon

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?

 

And even more on public dollars and museum support . . .

As I noted in two recent blog posts, 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?

HD 08 lab2This week’s post is another excellent essay written by Lacy Pline a graduate student in Art History at the University of Memphis.  Lacy is also enrolled in the Museum Studies Graduate Certificate Program with a strong interest in public outreach and education in both art history and archaeology. 

Museums Giving Back to Communities

by

Lacy Pline

In her blog Museum 2.0, Nina Simon discusses the public argument about arts support, as seen through the lens of the Detroit Institute of Arts.[1] Simon opens the blog with a question: “How often do we get to see what people really think about the value of the arts?” In response, she offered screen-shots from people with varying ideas. Ken Dettloff’s comment particularly stood out to me when he argued: “Detroit needs [an] art museum while City residents do without streetlights, police, and fire protection? [It] doesn’t make sense!”

Much like the prompt for this class, Dettloff raises a very valid point. How can you even begin to justify artistic programming when there are people in the local community who are going without the most basic necessities? How could I, as a public servant, argue that my research or involvement within a museum is worth their money, when they lack fresh water, electricity, or even a place to live?

I thought for some time on this question, at first reading through the “Labor Day and the Cultural Heritage Professional” blog from Archaeology, Museums, and Outreach. I agree with the claims made that cultural heritage can be used as a source for empowering the people.[2] On a larger scale, this can be seen from the example we watched in class. After a sacred hut burned down, the company who documented the site in 3D was able to make this information available to the community, who otherwise might have lost everything. On a smaller scale, the African American cultural heritage exhibit at the C.H. Nash Museum at Chucalissa offers a similar community component, bringing people together through a common heritage. I also agree that museums and public servants must be proactive with the communities, helping to empower people through culture at all times (not just when it’s someone’s project). Along the same page, there should be no disconnect between the public and the professional.

As I continued to research this question however, I was a bit put-off by the response I seemed to most often receive. It was essentially that museums help to create vibrant, thriving communities. They connect community members to one another, they provide educational programming, and they offer events. While this is true, if I was Josephine Q. Public and had just lost as much as she had, I don’t know if hearing those reasons would feel enough for me. The hard truth is, it’s extremely difficult to justify the arts in the face of deprivation. The only answer I could come up with is that it is only justifiable when you make it directly benefit these same people. Benefits should reach beyond “providing culture” and other ethereal rewards, to actually making a difference in the lives of the community.

So how would a museum do this? My first instinct was to see what I could provide through my museum that addresses their current problems. While this is somewhat altruistic, it is also a simple business practice – if you make your museum an integral part of the community, a staple, people will want to fund the museum in order to keep the doors open. If community members are suffering from lack of food or clean water, a museum could create a community garden or well. If there are issues of security within the community, the museum could help organize Neighborhood Watch groups, or create a safe haven (a “Third Space”), open to all.

Beyond addressing the necessities, a museum should strive to give back to the people as much as possible. Children could be educated through special programming and summer camp options. The museum could organize a Senior Citizen Night, creating events just for the elderly. Art or photography classes could be taught in art museums on evenings for members of the community. The Cummer Museum in Jacksonville Florida has a night at the museum type of event, where each Tuesday for 3-4 hours, the museum is open to anyone for free. The C.H. Nash Museum at Chucalissa offers Volunteer Days, where volunteers can come to the museum and help assist or organize artifacts.

Museums could also strive to educate the community on their own unique personal heritage, creating oral or local history exhibits, or co-creating temporary exhibits with visitors, which is described in The Participatory Museum.[3]

In conclusion, the only way to truly be able to justify spending public money is to spend as much as an institution possibly can on giving back to that same community.

[1]          Nina Simon, “The Public Argument About Arts Support as Seen through the Lens of the Detroit Institute of Arts,” Museum 2.0 (August 29, 2012), accessed: http://museumtwo.blogspot.com/2012/08/the-public-argument-about-arts-support.html

[2]          Robert P. Connolly, “Labor Day and the Cultural Heritage Professional,” Archaeology, Museums, & Outreach (September 3, 2012), accessed: https://rcnnolly.wordpress.com/2012/09/03/labor-day-and-the-cultural-heritage-professional/

[3]          Nina Simon, “Co-Creating with Visitors,” in The Participatory Museum (2010), accessed: http://www.participatorymuseum.org/chapter8/

 

Lacy can be reached at lapline(a)memphis.edu

Letting Go to Keep the Public Engaged

Without a doubt, my favorite book of 2011 is Letting Go? Sharing Historical Authority in a User-Generated World edited by Bill Adair, Benjamin Filene, and Laura Koloski.  The book liner notes read that ” Letting Go? investigates path-breaking public history practices at a time when the traditional expertise of museums seems challenged at every turn – by the Web and digital media, by community based programming, by new trends in oral history, and by contemporary artists.”   The book is divided into sections or themes, each containing a diverse set of thought pieces (method and theory), case studies, and conversations (application dialogues).  The authors are leading authorities actively engaged in their subject area.  Letting Go? is a very applied presentation.

The first theme Virtually Breaking Down: Authority and the Web opens with an essay by Nina Simon that states the essence of her Participatory Museum model in a concise and convincing way, using several new examples to illustrate her points.  I found the brief essay fine-tuned some arguments in her published volume.  I suspect that for those new to Simon’s Participatory Museum, the essay will spur them on to read her book.  Simon’s thought piece is followed by Steve Zeitlin’s case study, City of Memory, based in New York City.  Next is a conversation with Bill Adair and Matthew Fisher that considers the problems and potentials with public engagement in online art museum projects and an oral history/video project in Philadelphia.  The final essay in the section by Matthew MacArthur takes up the role of objects in the digital contexts.  A strength of this section, and all the sections in the book is the reflective nature of the pieces.  In a most refreshing way, all the authors consider the shortcomings, problems, challenges, and opportunities of their own digital or participatory contexts in a user-generated world.

The second theme Throwing Open the Doors: Communities as Curators features a provocative essay by Kathleen McLean on the multiple expert and visitor voices.  She concludes her essay with “We need to find way to bring the museum’s expert knowledge into conversation with the people who attend our museums – people who bring with them their own expert knowledge” (p. 79).  The section is rounded out with a conversation on the diologic museum, a multi-generational family film project in Minnesota, and a conversation based on the Brooklyn Historical Society’s efforts to have community curated exhibits.

The third theme of the volume addresses popular oral history projects such as Story Corps.  A thoughtful essay by Tom Satwicz and Kim Morrisey assesses the challenges, limitations, and potentials of the reality of public curation from trend to practice.  Perhaps one-third of the volume considers essays dealing with  fine and performance arts not related to the focus of this blog.  However, the essays and conversations provide much that is simply good to think about regardless of the specific field of application.

I found the volume particularly refreshing in that all the contributors accept that there are lots of unanswered questions, false starts, and simply wrong turns in the “sharing authority” process of this “user-generated world” in which we now all operate.  The authors do not take on Messianic tones in their presentations, rather, provide thoughtful discussions of their experience in engaging the public’s user-generated voice. If you are grappling with how to incorporate the authority of the many voices that your institution serves, Letting Go? will give you plenty of directions to consider.

Moving From Me to We

Chapter 3 of Nina Simon’s The Participatory Museum  is titled “From Me to We” where she considers how an individual’s museum experience might be enhanced by other visitor experiences at the same institution.  She writes:

Designing experiences that get better the more people use them is not simply a question of providing experiences that are well suited to crowds. While many people cite social engagement as a primary reason for visiting museums, they don’t necessarily want to spend their entire visit talking or interacting with other visitors in groups. Successful me-to-we experiences coordinate individuals’ actions and preferences to create a useful and interesting collective result. Technologists often call this “harnessing collective intelligence.”

This passage suggests the very real potential of moving the Me to We concept beyond the visitor experience to the institutions themselves.  In my capacity as the Director of the C.H. Nash Museum at Chucalissa, I believe this understanding is ripe with opportunity.  In the past couple of months, museums in West Tennessee formed a loosely structured consortium of institutions.  In reviewing an admittedly incomplete listing of West Tennessee Museums I counted nearly 75 institutions, many of which I was unaware of their existence.  This led me to thinking about the following:

  • If our newly founded consortium takes a unified approach, how will each institution and the group be strengthened in “harnessing our collective intelligence” in cross-promotional efforts?
  • Beyond simple promotion, what is there at each of the 75 West Tennessee Museums that will produce a better collective experience both regionally and at each location?
  • How do we maintain our individuality as institutions to prevent becoming clones to every other museum’s good idea?
  • How do we create multiple webs of interconnectivity without getting completely bogged down in the process?

Related, a few weeks ago a friend was talking to me about the wonders of Spotify.  I signed up for the service and now have direct access to a greater diversity of music than I imagined available – all that I can download to my iPod.  Of late, I have thought about how when I entered high school in the mid-1960s, for my cohort there was Top-40 radio, and that was it.  Shortly, rock took off on FM radio and broadened the scope a good bit.   But today Spotify advertises “millions and millions of tracks” to choose from instantly.  This new choice is both a qualitative and quantitative leap of staggering proportions.

The same is true for the cultural heritage venues.  Besides the increasing number of the institutions of all shapes and sizes, budget cuts, the virtual world, competing leisure time and informal learning opportunities, all diminish the immediate visibility of museums and other cultural venues.  We took for granted the success of these cultural heritage sites in the past.

Moving from Me to We is not simply a matter of pragmatic self-interest and survival.  Rather, moving from Me to We is a means to most effectively live into our missions in the 21st century.  There are tremendous potential and current successes to this movement.  I will review some of these opportunities in the coming weeks.

How will your institution move from Me to We?

Museums as Relevant Institutions

Story of Frank Haggerty and Babe Ruth at the ballplayer's birthplace museum in Baltimore, Maryland

A recent Wall Street Journal article on changes in the leadership of museums recounts the experience of an art museum director whose suggestion to discuss environmentally friendly museums was initially dismissed.  She was recently elected to head the professional association that did the dismissing.  Now, authors such as Robert Janes put forward the need to make museums relevant to the issues facing the current world and the American Association of Museums hosts special webinars on The Green Museum.  A couple of weeks ago I posted on lessons I learned from Pat Essenpreis, specifically on the need to explain the relevancy of archaeological research to the public.

These issues are not much different from John Cotton Dana’s call for museums to be relevant to their communities in his 1917 publication of The New Museum.

Over the past couple of weeks my wife and I have roamed through the Maryland/Virginia area hitting museum venues both large and small.  At most of these venues I have tried to keep on my museum professional’s hat on to learn from the successes of others, especially on the issue of relevancy and engagement.  At some locations, I must confess to just being completely absorbed in the story, not really care how it is told.  Such was the case with the Babe Ruth Museum in Baltimore.

Relevancy and engagement are considered in Nina Simon’s book The Participatory Museum, where she lays out three types of participation that museums can engage with visitors: Contributory, Collaborative, and Co-creative, something I touched on in last week’s post.  Simon writes:

“In contributory projects, visitors are solicited to provide limited and specified objects, actions, or ideas to an institutionally controlled process. . . In collaborative projects, visitors are invited to serve as active partners in the creation of institutional projects that are originated and ultimately controlled by the institution. . . In co-creative projects, community members work together with institutional staff members from the beginning to define the project’s goals and to generate the program or exhibit based on community interests”  (cited from here).

What strikes me as important in this consideration is not to view the types of participation as a linear evolution as simple to complex, but rather, how inclusion of these approaches fits a broad range of visitors to a museum.  This brings me back to full circle where I started this post.  These are challenges that have been raised in various forms for the past ten years, going back to the American Association of Museums‘ 2002 publication Mastering Civic Engagement: A Challenge to Museums and in the more distant past to Dana.

How do you make your outreach to the communities you serve relevant?

Museums as Third Places

Open Field seating area at the Walker Art Center

Lately, I have thought a good bit about the idea of  Museums as third places – not work or home, but places where people regularly go to socialize and be in community.  Ray Oldenburg published on this concept a while ago.  He suggests that today’s coffee house best typifies the third place concept in North America.

Specific to museums, Nina Simon’s Museum 2.0 blog took up this discussion in June of this year.  In the Museum 2.0 blog posts written by both Simon and guests, along with comment feedback, there was much back-and-forth on whether museums are able to function as third places.

But why is the third place an important discussion for museums?  At the C.H. Nash Museum, the third space idea is relevant as we attempt to build more engaged relationships with our visitors and in our role as a social asset in southwest Memphis.  The engagement is not just a matter of building attendance and revenue streams, but rather, as central to our function as a community stakeholder and partner.

Here are a couple of museums where the third place concept seems to work.  At the Sunwatch Village, a circa 1200 – 1500 AD American Indian site and museum near Dayton, Ohio, Site Manager Andy Sawyer developed regular gatherings of the Native American community via the Miami Valley Flute Circle for concerts and socializing.  These public concerts have a strong community building component.  Visitors are encouraged to bring their picnic dinners, visit, and turn the gathering into a true social event.  The Flute Circle is different from the typical Festival or Powwow event in their regularity (monthly) and the community component of both Native and non-Native participants.  Conceptually, the Flute Circle is similar to a series of Sunday evening concerts in the park or coffee house acoustic performances, only in a museum setting.  Of added significance at Sunwatch, is the relevancy of a Native American musical form being played at a traditional Native American site.

Another example of the third place is at the Walker Art Center of Minneapolis’ Open Field described as “an experimental project of the Walker Art Center that invites the public to help transform our big, green backyard into a cultural commons. It’s a place to share experiences, interests, and talents and celebrate the creative assets and collective knowledge that abound in the Twin Cities.”  During my recent Saturday visit to the Walker Art Center, the activities in the Open Field consisted of a coffee shop/lounge type space for refreshments and visiting, an area for hoola-hoop contests, drawing, lounging, WiFi and such.  Also going on was and a very cool Red 76 participatory project of building a school in the Open Field made completely of surplus materials from the Walker Art Center.  There is no fee to take part in any of the Open Field activities.  During my Saturday visit, the participation seemed largely as an add-on to folks who were already visiting the sculpture garden or the Museum itself.  However, when considering the potential draw from the nearby Loring Park complex, the Open Field of the Art Center could very much become a regular social destination for folks.

The Sunwatch and Walker Art Center are two examples of how the third place concept is applicable to Museums.  Third places seem a logical direction for museums in an era of heightened demands for an engaged visitor experience.  Pragmatically, as museum staff sizes either stagnate or shrink, developing venues as third places where visitors become more active as institutional stakeholders is an important step.  In this capacity, the distinctions between volunteer, visitor, participant and stakeholder likely will develop more grey area.

What are your thoughts or experiences on Museums as Third Places?

Museum Engagement – Call for Papers

Something a bit different this week.  Below is a Call for Papers for a session I am organizing for the Society for Applied Anthropology at the Annual Meeting in the Spring of 2011.  Let me know if you have an interest in submitting a proposal for the session – or pass the call along to others.  I will appreciate any thoughts or suggestions on the general concept.

Call for Papers: Society for Applied Anthropology Annual Meeting Seattle, Washington (March 30 – April 2, 2011)

Session Title: Museum Engagement and Applied Anthropology

Session Organizer: Robert P. Connolly (University of Memphis)

The session is conceptually framed around The Participatory Museum by Nina Simon and the contribution that applied anthropologists bring to the discussion.  Simon (2010:ii-iii) defines a participatory institution as:

a place where visitors can create, share, and connect with each other around content. Create means that visitors contribute their own ideas, objects, and creative expression to the institution and to each other. Share means that people discuss, take home, remix, and redistribute both what they see and what they make during their visit. Connect means that visitors socialize with other people—staff and visitors—who share their particular interests. Around content means that visitors’ conversations and creations focus on the evidence, objects, and ideas most important to the institution in question.

The session aims to discuss participation in the building of sustained and engaged relationships and the methodological and theoretic contributions of applied anthropology to the process.
Relevant questions session papers may address include:

  • As cultural institutions how can museums demonstrate their value and relevance in the 21st Century?
  • Can museums serve as “third places” for social engagement?
  • What is the relevancy between shifting demographics and museum inclusivity in community engagement?
  • How do theoretic orientations, such as the constructivist approach and free-choice learning inform on the Participatory Museum.
  • How does the Participatory Museum influence the authority of voice in both content and function of cultural institutions?
  • What can applied anthropologists add to the discussion of Participatory Museums?
  • How can museums function as dynamic venues for sustained and engaged relationships with a diversity of communities.

Although papers are not required to remain within the parameters of Simon’s discourse, for reference, her book is available at:

http://www.participatorymuseum.org/


If you are interested in participating, please send a brief summary of your proposed contribution to Robert Connolly at rcnnolly@memphis.edu by September 1, or before.

Summer Reading Resources

As classes end for the spring semester, I have caught up on some reading and resources.  A helpful new find is the Museum Education Monitor produced by M. Christine Castle.  The on-line monthly download runs some 12-15 or so pages.  The thrust of the publication is a listing of ongoing research, on-line journals, on-line discussion groups, blogs, research papers, resources, print journals, call for papers, and conference announcements.  What particularly intrigues me about the Monitor is that it includes a few of the links I come across during my regular internet browsing through sources such as the American  Association of Museums, the Center for the Future of Museums, and the American Association of State and Local History newsletters. However, the Monitor focuses very tightly on Education and Outreach.  Students and unwaged Museum workers can receive a complimentary subscription.  For those of us drawing a paycheck, the annual rate is $40.00.  You can also download a sample copy.  A great resource.

I am spending more time with Nina Simon’s The Participatory Museum, a book I posted about before.  Simon’s book is without a doubt one of my top five “aha” moments in Museum Studies over the past year.  Here is why – First, the book goes well beyond the buzzwords of participation and engagement for the sake of participation and engagement.  The volume examines the concept from a mission driven perspective.  Second, the chapters are filled with case studies suitable and adaptable for museums big and small, put into practice short of blockbuster exhibits or doubling the work force.  Third, Simon provides weblinks to many of her references/resources in page footnotes.  Finally, the book is available on-line for free or $25.00 as a hard copy.  The on-line presence also provides the opportunity for ongoing discussions about the chapters – a factor that figured into Simon’s intent for the project.

So . . . check out these possibilities while relaxing at your third place wi-fi spot this summer!

Tools for Public Participation

Easter Egg "gather" at Chucalissa

In the past couple of weeks I have come across several very cool tools to promote public engagement whether in museums or broader archaeological contexts.  First, is the recent publication of The Participatory Museum by Museum 2.0 blogger Nina Simon.  I posted earlier about Simon’s Museum 2.0 blog.  Ms. Simon is clearly on the cutting edge in the practical, hands-on, and applied participatory end of Museum work. I always enjoy her outside-the-box thinking that is firmly grounded in practice. The volume is an excellent resource to kick-start creative thinking from conceptualizing through to implementing and evaluating visitor participation.  The book is useful for both museum and field settings.  As well, her most recent posts on Museum 2.0 blog review the book’s creation process and are equally insightful on that rather unique participatory experience.

Another fantastic idea I learned about this week came from the Social Good podcast of the Chronicle of Philanthropy.  The concept is the Dashboard web page from the Indianapolis Museum of Art.  What I find so intriguing about the page is the opportunity for building transparency and relationship with volunteers, visitors, and web-surfers alike.  Here are a couple of examples I intend to use for employing this tool in archaeology.  Last year at the C.H. Nash Museum we launched monthly Volunteer Saturdays.  Thus far, with well in excess of 500 volunteer hours, we processed many thousands of artifacts.  A dashboard entry for this activity shows the volunteers that their 2 hours here and there are part of the greater whole.  Second, a dashboard entry with hours volunteered and artifacts processed shows the visitor to our website that we have an active volunteer program in which they too can take part – or minimally, appreciate that we have a dynamic presence in our community.

In the April issue of our museum’s monthly e-newsletter, Chucalissa Anoachi, we launched a project to digitize a considerable amount of our archived photographic and research records.  A dashboard entry on pages/images scanned will not only promote the active nature of the project but also point to a product that is a resource available for public use.

I see the potential of applications such as the Indianapolis Museum of Art dashboard as  a tool to move a core of folks from the being casual visitors and volunteers to stakeholders in a process.  As well, highlighting the ongoing nature our programs demonstrates our role as an active cultural resource asset in our community.

How might the Dashboard concept apply to your visitor engagement?

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