A Success Story in Strengthening Communities, Part II

Last week’s post was on a workshop at the Strengthening Communities Grant Summit where I reported “How To” lessons in community partnership for developing the African American Cultural Heritage exhibit for the C.H. Nash Museum.  This week we feature a guest post by the Project Coordinator, Samantha Gibbs.  Sam talks about the project’s student participants as follows:

Through a partnership of the museum and the community, the exhibit is a great success.  But how exactly is it successful?  What makes this exhibit different?  In my opinion, there were five factors that made the project run smoothly and produce a fantastic product.

  1. Selecting the Student Participants

Our first step was to recruit students to take part in the project.  The first criteria was that the students had to live in the 38109 zip code, the area surrounding the C.H. Nash Museum.  We required the student applicants to write a brief essay on  “Why knowing about the African American cultural heritage of my neighborhood is important?”  Dedra Macklin and I went to the local high schools, including Westwood High and Mitchell High, where we presented the project to sophomore and junior students.  We also announced the project through the C.H. Nash Museum’s e-mail list.  In total, we received 35 applications for nine available positions.  We next evaluated and ranked the applications.  The evaluators included University of Memphis Graduate Assistants, Museum Staff, Ms. Macklin and staff from the adjacent T.O. Fuller State Park.

The Students

We chose nine students to work on the summer project.  Each of the students was exceptional.   The project staff did not view the students as participating only to learn.  An essential element was that the students needed to create and direct the exhibit project.  For this reason, we referred to each student as a  “participant” or “researcher.”  The project staff was fully engaged but more as guides than teachers.

Students Defined Process

One aspect that made this summer’s project different was the day-to-day schedule.  Instead of the staff structuring the schedule, we only provided ideas and themes and helped define the steps in creating the exhibit.  For example, the participants decided to focus on obtaining oral histories from their community leaders.   They also chose the artifacts that for display in the exhibit, designed the necessary literature research, and developed all the final products.

In order for the researchers to make major decisions the project had to be flexible.  In so doing, there was plenty of room for the participants to define the necessary steps in conducting their research to claim the project for their own.  For example, the researchers conducted over 30 interviews during the 5-week project.  The students identified who to interview, what questions to ask, as well as who conducted the interview.  They also performed all of the data collection for the exhibit.

The final two points were challenges that seem to always occur in a project.  We looked at our challenges as issues that helped make the project stronger.


Near the end of the project, we asked the students to define what worked and what did not work for them during the project.  They all agreed that the 5-week schedule was too short and they felt rushed near the end.  In fact, the exhibit was not complete at the end of the five weeks.  However, after the formal end of the project, the students volunteered their time to help write the panels, decide on exhibit artifacts, and even picked the color and helped to paint the exhibit walls.   In the future, we will likely schedule longer summer sessions for such student projects.


Because we truly wanted the researchers to make this their project, we did not provide step-by-step instructions.  Some of the participants were a bit put off by the lack of direction at first.  However, as we continued through the process, their ability to take ownership of their project was real.  We suspect in part that this initial problem in communication was a natural result of the students being charged with doing something they had never done before.  Ultimately, the approach proved successful  in producing an excellent final exhibit.  The student researchers bonded together and worked through the project as a team.

We feel the project was very successful when considering these 5 points and the evolving exhibit and resource center now in place in the museum.  The C.H. Nash Museum took a significant step toward becoming a museum that is community inclusive.  Because of the project, as well as the exhibit, the ties with the surrounding community are stronger than ever before.

Samantha Gibbs can be reached at segibbs@memphis.edu  – a video of the African American Cultural Heritage in Southwest Memphis exhibit opening is available here.

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Museums, Anthropology, Bicycles, Recovery, Cancer, Retired

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