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Why a Museum Advocacy Day?

March 7, 2011

For this week’s post, below is the op-ed I wrote for the March 1, 2011 edition of the Memphis Commercial Appeal.  The piece is based on the American Association of Museum’s Advocacy Day activities for 2011.

Museum Advocacy Day notes the essential contributions these institutions provide to education and our economy.

By Robert P. Connolly, Special to The Commercial Appeal

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

For Memphians, museums can be a source of learning, fun and inspiration. This is true regardless of the size of the institution, from the Pink Palace Family of Museums to the Fire Museum of Memphis. This is also true regardless of the institution’s focus, from art museums to children’s museums to those with a specialized emphasis, such as ornamental metals or guitars. According to the American Association of Museums, U.S. museums attract an estimated 850 million visits each year, more than all professional sporting events and theme parks combined.

Museums are also an essential part of our educational system. Tens of thousands of area students of all ages learn about the fine arts, Native American cultures and science through Memphis’ cultural institutions. Students in the University of Memphis Museum Studies graduate program are trained through internships at many of Memphis’ museums.

According to the federal Institute of Museum and Library Services, museums annually provide more than 18 million instructional hours to American students and educators, ranging from professional development for teachers to the traditional school field trip. All told, museums annually invest more than $2 billion in educational programming. An estimated 55 million schoolchildren take part in museum field trips each year, despite cuts in school budgets.

Our local institutions are among those that have responded to the challenge of these tough economic times. The C.H. Nash Museum at Chucalissa launched Family Day and in-school programs to help offset the impact of a reduction in the number of school field trips. Museums also take advantage of the Internet to make their offerings more accessible to all. For example, the National Civil Rights Museum provides many of its educational resources for teachers and students online.

Museums have adapted their educational programs to conform to the mandates of the No Child Left Behind Act, incorporating standards in math and reading, while also adapting educational offerings to state and local benchmarks in science, art, language arts, civics and government, economics and financial literacy. For example, all programming offered at the C.H. Nash Museum at Chucalissa is tied to the curriculum standards of schools in the tristate area.

For many students, museums provide the switch that makes the light bulb go on. Last summer when African-American students from Southwest Memphis toured the Davies Manor Plantation in Bartlett, several commented about the powerful experience of being in a home to which their ancestors would have been denied access. At a recent University of Memphis Art Museum exhibit on the work of architect Paul R. Williams, adjoining galleries featured work from university graduate students in architecture and models created by students from Coro Lake Elementary. Such hands-on learning provided by museums makes it easier for many young people to grasp concepts that seem irrelevant and obscure on the pages of a textbook.

Clearly, museums are engaged in critical work that contributes to the educational excellence of our communities. But as substantial as is the impact of museums on American education, their contribution goes much further. Museums are vital to our economy as well.

According to the U.S. Department of Commerce, America’s estimated 17,500 museums employ more than a half-million people and through direct expenditures alone inject some $20 billion into the American economy. This vitality is clearly visible in Memphis. From Graceland to the National Civil Rights Museum, Memphis is viewed as a destination travel and tourism location because of its world-class museum venues. The Memphis Convention and Visitors Bureau reports that in 2010 nearly 3 million tourists visited 60 area attractions, including museums.

The mission of museums is public service. That’s the message that will be carried to Congress today, on Museum Advocacy Day, when representatives of museums from across the country will come to Capitol Hill to convey to our elected officials the value museums bring to our nation.

As protectors, interpreters and exhibitors of our heritages — historic, cultural, natural and scientific — museums fulfill a crucial role in America. Join the museum advocacy effort by contacting our local officials to tell them what Memphis-area museums mean to you and your family.

Robert P. Connolly is director of the C.H. Nash Museum at Chucalissa and an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Memphis.

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