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The Public in Public Museums

October 31, 2011

Where is the public in our publicly owned museums?  I have pondered this over the past couple of years in my capacity as the Director at the C.H. Nash Museum at Chucalissa.  Here are some thoughts:

  • At Chucalissa, we host several internships each semester of both the undergraduate and graduate students at the University of Memphis (UM).  We strive to match an intern’s interest with the museum’s needs.  Student feedback suggests we are successful in this effort.  We view the Museum as a classroom, laboratory, or experimental station for our interns.
  • Because of my training as an archaeologist and my place on the UM Museum Studies faculty, I often give the introductory presentation to visiting college age school groups.  Over the past several weeks we had several UM “Fresh Connections” freshman undergraduate class visits.  I emphasized to these students that the Chucalissa Museum is their Museum both as UM students and as a public institution supported by their tax dollars.  I explain the intern, volunteer, and other opportunities available to students during their four years of study at the University.
  • In a recent Museum Practices graduate seminar, we discussed visitors, volunteers, and interns – the public’s physical presence at museums.  I showed a training video we made for our new Graduate Assistants that explores how we view volunteers at Chucalissa.  As I previously posted, we aim to engage volunteers because doing so is our mission and less because we have tasks that our regular staff cannot complete.
  • We are embarking on a project to rework the 20 exhibit cases in the main hall of our museum.  Our approach responds in part to Robert Janes asking in Museums in a Troubled World ” . . . if museums did not exist, would we reinvent them and what would they look like?  Further, if the museum were to be reinvented what would be the public’s role in the reinvented institution” (p.14).  Mallory Bader, a graduate assistant at the Museum, will interview key stakeholders, conduct focus groups with teachers, community leaders, students, and others, and coördinate tracking and visitor surveys as a means for obtaining public input into our reimagined main hall.
  • Over the past year, I posted several items on the public involvement in our African-American Cultural Heritage exhibit.
In their reading journal for last week’s Museum Practices seminar, one student wrote they found the participatory museum articles interesting but perhaps overly idealistic.  The student posed the question – what if it does not work?  Specifically – what if the students who created the African-American Cultural Heritage exhibit at Chucalissa produced something that simply could not work?  What is the impact of the youth working on a project that might never see the light of day? A good question that cannot be answered with “But it did.”  I believe that the answer is found, at least in large part, in this graphic from a post of last year.  I am struck that a key role that museum professionals play is to help the public to take on the ownership responsibility of their institutions.  That process is messy, consumes a great deal of time and energy, but ultimately is key to the mission of public museum and the ability of those institutions to achieve long-term sustainability.
Your thoughts?

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