Tag: visitors

A Participatory Approach to Museum Advocacy

In my Museum Practices graduate seminar this semester, students were given the following assignment:

“Students in Museum Practices three years ago completed an Advocacy Inventory for twelve museums in the Memphis area. The Advocacy Inventory is found on pp. 16-23 of the article by Gail Ravnitzky Silberglied in Speak Up For Museums: The AAM Guide to Advocacy. For those twelve museums, Museum Practices students in last two years followed up to determine if and how each museum used the completed advocacy inventory or recommendations. Out of the twelve museums originally contacted, only two museums followed through in implementing the recommendations from the advocacy inventory. Last year, for her graduate project in the Masters of Liberal Studies program, Patricia Harris assessed this three-year program. (note: copy of Harris’ paper on file at the University of Memphis McWerter library.)   Respond to both the Silberglied article and Harris’ assessment of the three-year program with Memphis area museums.”

I thoroughly enjoyed reading the responses of all the student essays.  Amr Shahat’s was particularly insightful on the importance and relevance of advocacy for today’s museums.  Below is an abbreviated version of his essay.

amr2Advocacy for Museums

by Amr Shahat

Advocacy is generic term defined in Webster Dictionary as “The act or process of advocating or supporting a cause or proposal”. The term has been incorporated into the museum field and raises discussions among museum experts as how to become advocates in obtaining elected officials support to museums. The concern began in 2011 when museums among other institutions were announced to be less eligible for federal funding.  As a response, The American Alliance of Museums (AAM) began to support American museums through advocacy effort addressing elected officials, mainly state senators and congressmen to agree not to cut or limit federal funding for museums.

The AAM created guidelines for advocacy, Speak Up for Museums to assist museums establish advocacy practices. In this book, Silberglied discusses the value of developing advocacy inventory and establishing an advocacy effort within the museums, staff, and board members and suggests strategies to reach elected officials. The Silberglied model does not address the need of advocacy inventory beyond getting financial or legislative support.

The evaluation made by Patricia Harris, a graduate student at the University of Memphis, discussed the advocacy effort of local museums in the Memphis area and implies that the AAM advocacy inventory uses broad terms that might not be useful for all institutions.  Silberglied’s chapter “Additional Resources and Burning Questions” might overwhelm the reader with political terms, definitions and approaches to the elected officials.  The approach may not be useful as focusing on building relation with the community, explaining the museum mission to the community to obtain the community support for the mission— in so doing the community members will be the best advocates.

A main point from Silberglied is that the advocacy inventory is built by joint effort. The joint effort can be internally among museum staff, volunteers and board members, or externally between the museum and the community. However, there is no mention of the communities as a co-creative partner for the inventory.  Instead, communities are mentioned merely as a venue of testimony to get the advocacy inventory heard by elected officials. Community members’ effort is mentioned by Silberglied only in terms of being testimonials to support advocacy inventory and its credibility but not as direct advocates.

In the light of the current museum effort towards creating participatory museums that are co-created by museum staff and the community, why do we not call for a participatory advocacy that includes these communities? Harris has mentioned success of three small museums in the Memphis area in terms of advocacy effort. A main success for their advocacy is engagement with local communities. If a museum does not attain local visibility/impact, it will not be visible to elected officials who would not recognize the cultural and the economic importance of museum(s) to their communities.

Since community effort is of importance, how can a museum increase its visibility to the community? Both Silberglied and Harris suggest different programs and events that museums may implement to increase their participation in advocacy work. Silberglied in a week-by-week plan suggests 75 tips to be followed by a museum to create an advocacy inventory. In one of the tips, Silberglied advised museums to “become a community meeting place”. Although, the concept sounds plausible, the examples provided might not be the best. The community activities she suggested such as “blood drive, food drive etc.” only increase the visibility of the museum to the community in terms of museum locale. However, for an advocacy effort, museums need to create events that are mainly focused on increasing the visibility of the museum’s mission. A museum should be careful that attracting people to its place is different from attracting people to its mission. The support of the community to the museum does not necessarily involve physical visiting to the museum locale. Harris analysis implies that part of the successful advocacy effort of the three museums she discussed is using online visibility to the museum mission through Facebook, a museum webpage, and other social media.

Visibility to the museum mission invites us to broaden our identification of the museum community. The museum community is not just its neighbors or those who can physically make a visit but those who believe in and support its mission. Silberglied’s explanations imply that nationality or citizenship does not hold you back from submitting your advocacy to elected officials. Some museums include volunteers and staff of different nationalities, such as the Metropolitan museum whose director of the Egyptian department is a British Egyptologist. One of the most successful advocacy inventories that got direct response from the Ministry of Antiquities in Egypt was advocating for the Egyptian museum was made by tourists who believed in the museum mission rather than the museum locale. So the real relationship between a museum and its community is to share the museum mission.

Chapter six of Silberglied’s book on “Expert Insider advice from elected and public officials” provides examples of official reactions to successful advocacy. One of the most effective pieces of advice was by the Los Angeles Deputy Mayor Aileen Adams. She draws museum attention to promoting joint advocacy. I suggest that the two or three small museum in Memphis which responded to advocacy inventory need to propagate this effort to other museums in Memphis and create joint advocacy cases. Joint cases will multiply the museums’ reasons to create an advocacy inventory. It will also be more effective if museums made joint participatory advocacy inventory involving their communities as mentioned above. The participatory advocacy will create strong multivocality that empowers the museum advocacy and draws the elected officials’ attention towards the museums in Tennessee.

Building relations with the community is a slow process but we should remember that legislation process to address elected official and get their feedback is a slow process as well. This slow legislative process might have been one of the main reasons that ten of the twelve museums in Tennessee contacted by Harris did not implement an advocacy inventory. Elected officials response sometimes is not direct and a museum cannot build up a plan on such vague responses to advocacy. This may be another reason that prevented ten museums from implementing an advocacy inventory. Therefore, I suggest creating a participatory advocacy inventory as a joint effort between the museum and the community. The participatory advocacy will create mulitivocality for the advocacy case presented and hence become more powerful and well heard. Overall, the community is the one who choose the elected officials which means their voice is the power that brought them to office and the power that will make the museum advocacy effort be heard.

Amr Shahat is a student in the Museum Studies Graduate Certificate Program and a PhD Egyptology student & teaching assistant in the History Department at the University of Memphis.  He can be reached at akshahat(at)gmail.com

Not Hating or Loving, but Empowering With Museums

Parque Litico

Parque Litico, Museo Arqueológico de Ancash, Huaraz, Peru

James Durston, the senior editor for travel at CNN recently wrote the op-ed Why I Hate Museums.  The piece generated a polarized reaction similar to Florida Governor Rick Scott’s 2011 trashing of Anthropology and Spike TV’s American Digger.  In a minority, are the reasoned responses that recognize Mr. Durston’s thoughts do not come out of thin air.  There is a basis for his concerns. When Durston’s fictive or real docents command “No photos” and “No food” I am reminded of my granddaughter’s loud admonishment by a guard at a Memphis art museum that a 10-year old cannot stand by herself in a gallery but must have an adult within a few feet – not for her protection but for the protection of the art.   As a blue-collar kid who first visited an art museum during my freshman year of high school, I tried to put myself in my granddaughter’s shoes on this formative lesson for her about how museums work.

Durston’s op-ed also sparked some fantastic discussions.  Dana Allen-Griel’s Engaging Museum post is an excellent example.  In responding to Durston’s critique on uninteresting and uninformative labels, she concludes “For those who simply want to view and reflect, you’ve already got “Vase: Iran; circa 15th century.” For everyone else, let’s work TOGETHER to make museums a little more “wow.”

Another good reference point for discussing Mr. Durston’s op-ed is from John Cotton Dana’s nearly 100-year-old publication The New Museum.  Dana writes:

Museum purposes and methods change daily, as do all other community enterprises in these days.  Therefore, do not try to develop a museum after a plan. Learn what aid the community needs: fit the museum to those needs. (p. 38)

Below, I discuss implementing Allen-Griel’s “wow” factor and Dana’s community needs that often are a simple and low or no cost addition that address Mr. Durston’s concerns.

I am curious what Mr. Durston might think of one of my favorite museums – The Pearl Button Museum in Muscatine, Iowa.  I first blogged about the Museum a couple of years ago and last year posted an interview with the Museum Director.  In Mr. Durston’s op-ed he asked “Where’s the relevance?”  The Pearl Button Museum is the very essence of relevance for Muscatine, Iowa.  If you want to understand Muscatine’s past, present, and future, you will not find a better place.  The Museum is a participatory institution, not because you can rack pearl buttons as was done 100 years ago or leave messages on the memory board.  The Museum is participatory because the entire community’s collective memory and experience compose the very fiber of the institution.

From Muscatine, you can drive about 100 miles up river to Dubuque, Iowa and visit the National Mississippi River Museum and Aquarium.  Here I suspect Durston’s comment holds that “Kids do seem to have a good time when pushing buttons, pulling levers and magnetizing soap bubbles (right up until they stop having a great time and turn into wailing bundles of hair and tears only a little more bored than the parents).”  I have been to this Museum once and doubt I will return.  The new section is squeaky clean with an aquarium and educational water playland for children.  I watched kids totally transfixed by the four-foot-long albino catfish.  But what I remember most about the visit were the large and presumably expensive digital touch tables that were all out-of-order.  The old section of the museum was, well the old section with lots of unconnected stuff without a coherent story.  I don’t recollect any docents or guides – just lots of families seeming to have a good time.

The next time I am driving down the Great River Road, I will stop in Muscatine, but will probably by-pass the Dubuque Museum.  I suspect lots of other folks will do the reverse.  That does not make either museum good or bad – just different.  This difference means that not all museums are equal and by design they will attract different visitors.

I thought about this difference several years ago in another setting.  A graduate student in my Native People’s class was to create a banner exhibit on prehistoric plant use in our newly established hands-on archaeology lab at the C.H. Nash Museum.  The student proposal was a 2 x 6 ft banner exhibit that contained a few images, hundreds of words in an 18 pt. font, with the bottom six inches composed of bibliographic references in a 14 pt. font.  The archaeology lab is geared to a 6th grade level.  The proposed banner layout was not going to work.  However, the student compiled very useful information, some of which would interest to  perhaps 2% of our visitors.  This incident allowed us to begin thinking about our exhibits differently.  We considered how a single concept like prehistoric plant use might be presented in multiple formats to different interest levels throughout the museum.  We took the original concept and created a revised banner of about 100 words along with images and other interactive materials for the archaeology lab.  We created a separate banner in our main hall that contained an abbreviated version of the original without the bibliography.  We planned for the bibliographic references to be accessible through a QR code or web link.  Finally, we planned to include information from the original panel into audio tour stations along our nature trail that includes many of the plant species discussed in the exhibit.  The audio tour can be drilled down at each stop for more information.  Might Mr. Durston consider such an approach as accommodating those wanting only the most basic label  information and visitors seeking considerably more relevant detail?

A final example that addresses a concern expressed by Mr. Durston is from my recent visit to the Museo Arqueológico de Ancash in Huaraz, Peru.  The Museum’s outdoor Parque Litico contains a large collection of Recuay Monoliths from Chavin de Huantar.  I toured the Museum with Peruvian archaeologist and PIARA Co-Director Elizabeth Cruzado  Carranza.  We discussed the representations in the Recuay Monoliths, but noted the museum had little interpretive information or labels about the pieces.  Although the outdoor setting contained benches to relax and view the stone carvings, I, and I suspect Mr. Durston, would find the exhibit lacking in contextual information.  At the same time, Elizabeth and I acknowledged the aesthetics of keeping the garden uncluttered of signage.  During our visit, we quickly hit on several solutions ranging from a single page handout with basic information on each monolith, a small multi-page guide, QR code links to a web page, or a smart phone audio tour.  All of the solutions can be cost-effective products created by interns or students.

In summary, Mr. Durston’s op-ed piece should not be dismissed as the grumblings of a curmudgeon museum hater.  In my experience, I have voiced many of the same issues as expressed in Durston’s op-ed piece.  However, I find at least two differences in Mr. Durston and my approach.  First, I accept that I will not enjoy all museums.  There is not one correct way to exhibit works of art, historic documents, or other cultural materials.  I appreciate that there are stuffy traditional mausoleum-like institutions and then there is my favorite art museum, the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis.  I appreciate that someone else might write “there are all of these experimental art centers, and then there is my favorite art museum, the tried, true, and traditional Met.”  Second, as a museum director and professor in museum studies, I have the opportunity to explore and educate students who are the next generation of museum professionals on the “wow” advocated by Dana Allen-Griel and the community needs raised by John Cotton Dana.

For these reasons, I do not necessarily love museums, but I do see the potential of museums as essential educational and empowerment tools in the preservation and presentation of cultural heritage.

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