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What if No One Comes to the Party?

February 10, 2014
AFV

2013 Art for Voice creator Penny Dodds (left) with participants

This semester I am teaching one of my favorite classes of all time – Applied Archaeology and Museums.  The course is in part a glomming together of much of what I hold dear in cultural heritage studies.  Students come to appreciate that archaeology is more than just digging up stuff and that museums are more than places to look at things and be given definitive explanations – but not touch or otherwise engage.  The course description goes like this:

The course explores the intersection of Applied Archaeology and Museums through the representations of cultural heritage in a broad array of public venues.   Topics that comprise the exploration include repatriation, cultural patrimony, cultural resource management, civic engagement, rights and responsibilities of stakeholders, public involvement in museum representations, performance, education, culture and memory.  The course is applied in focus.  Students will be challenged to transform concepts contained in readings to real-time applications through class projects and written assignments.

Here is a copy of the syllabus if interested.

One of the class readings this past week was from the book Letting Go? Sharing Historical Authority in a User-Generated World, edited by Bill Adair and others (reviewed here).  The article “Whose Questions, Whose Conversations” by Kathleen McLean presents the case for greater visitor engagement in the museum exhibit/program creation process.  I cleverly, by my estimation, presented a Powerpoint slide with a quote from McLean’s article:

It’s not as radical as it might sound.  Increasingly, museums are employing visitor research and evaluation to better understand how their programs and exhibitions affect their end-users. (p.72)

McLean, K.  2011.  Whose Questions, Whose Conversations? In Letting Go? Sharing Historical Authority in a User-Generated World, edited by B. Adair, B. Filene and L. Koloski, pp. pp. 34-43. Left Coast Press, Walnut Creek.

and a nearly 100 year-old quote from John Cotton Dana:

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)

Dana, John Cotton.  1917. The New Museum, Elm Tree Press.

My intent was to show that it is not “radical” at all to engage the community in such discussions, but the idea has been around for 100 years.

In their reading journals, two students raised interesting questions about McLean’s article:

Jordan Goss, an undergraduate with an interest in anthropology and geoarchaeology wrote:

Since I have not gotten the chance to physically carry out the concept of Applied Archaeology just yet, I’m not sure if this is an appropriate question or simply meaningless.  But what would happen if you wish to create ways for the public to participate in museum activities yet the public refuses?

Allison Hennie a PhD student with a background in architecture, anthropology and museum studies wrote:

As part of the Museum Studies Certificate Program, there seem to be never-ending supply of readings about how museums need to change. So, why haven’t things changed yet? Are museums forcing engagement or do all visitors really want to engage?

Both excellent observations.  The student responses bring to mind a couple of my own experiences at the C.H. Nash Museum.  Our “Hands-on Archaeology Lab” contains artifacts and exhibits to provide a highly tactile visitor experience.  As well, through regular programs, and on request we also offer visitors the opportunity to throw darts with an atlatl.  Most visitors are thrilled with these opportunities.  Others just want to pay their admission and be left alone to wonder the exhibit hall and the earthwork complex.  “No” they politely respond – they don’t want to go into our lab or throw darts.

But here too is a reality.  No one at our Museum ever asked any visitor if they wanted us to create a hands-on archaeology lab or develop an atlatl program.  Our staff created the activities on our own initiative and basically, we guessed right.  Both are very popular activities and provide an excellent opportunity to engage and educate around our mission.

We are now take a different approach before creating exhibits and programs.  We hold focus groups and conduct surveys with our existing and intended visitors to see what they want us to create.  I do not think this means becoming all things to all people.  In answering the above questions posed by Jordan and Allison, as public servants, we must be proactive in finding the appropriate level and type of visitor engagement that is consistent with our mission.  As Dana noted in 1917, that is often simply a matter of asking the community of their needs – not having cultural heritage staffs attempt to second guess those needs.

As a small Museum we have incredible opportunities to fill a variety of public need niches.  For example, in our Art for Voice program last summer, we had several families with autistic children who participated and wished for more offerings suitable for their special needs.  This morning I came across an Archaeologists for Autism Facebook group that aims to support greater inclusion of special needs children in cultural heritage programs.  This seems an excellent example of how our museum can engage with our public in a way envisioned by John Cotton Dana in 1917 and Kathleen McLean in the 21st Century.

How do you answer the questions posed by Jordan and Allison?

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