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Community Service & Learning in Musuems

February 20, 2012

This past Saturday at the C.H. Nash Museum at Chucalissa 35 undergraduates from the University of Memphis participated in our monthly Volunteer Day.  The students were part of a Service on Saturday group project organized out of the University. Typical projects include activities like neighborhood clean-ups, urban garden projects, and assisting in the assembly and staffing of the Smithsonian Institution’s The Way We Worked exhibit at a local community center.  As participants in the University’s Emerging Leader Program, the students perform community service hours each semester.  Yesterday at Chucalissa, they worked on our repository reinventory, digital photography project, and helped transfer over two tons of stone ground cover to our in process Traditional Medicinal Plant Sanctuary.  The students supplemented the 20 volunteers who participated in our regular Volunteer Day activities.

Two weeks before 25 members of the Memphis Archaeological and Geological Society (MAGS) spent four hours at the C.H. Nash Museum assisting with our  repository inventory project.  Six MAGS members returned this Saturday to participate again.  Mike and Sherri Baldwin lent their artistic skills to repainting the 40-year-old model trees in our diorama display.

In late January 45 visiting students from the Illinois State University spent the day at Chucalissa as part of a two-week Community Service Learning class traveling through the Southeast.  After a site tour and discussion of our Museum’s commitment to community engagement, the students spent the rest of the day on a variety of service projects at Chucalissa.

From mid-March to mid-April, we will host an 10 person AmeriCorps project.  The crew will start by working on trail maintenance at the T.O. Fuller State Park.  Then the AmeriCorps crew will work with archaeologists and community members on preliminary archaeological investigations of the 1930s era Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) camp located near Chucalissa at T.O. Fuller State Park.  The CCC project is particularly significant.  The AmeriCorps of today are the legacy of the CCC, who in the 1930s “discovered” the prehistoric earthworks and artifacts that became known as the Chucalissa site.  The discovery came while the CCC worked to construct a Jim Crow era swimming pool for the African-American community of Memphis.

All of the above activities can be categorized as community service or community service learning projects.  The National Service Learning Clearing House notes a distinction between the two activities: “If school students collect trash out of an urban streambed, they are providing a valued service to the community as volunteers. If school students collect trash from an urban streambed, analyze their findings to determine the possible sources of pollution, and share the results with residents of the neighborhood, they are engaging in service-learning” (citation here).

There is a good bit of gray area between the two types of service activities.  One might argue that the students yesterday who were spreading stone ground cover for the Traditional Plant Sanctuary were only “providing a valued service to the community” as they did not “analyze their findings” etc.  In our museum settings today, we must provide the types of service opportunities that can bridge fully into learning projects.  This is a key ingredient to all of our volunteer/service opportunities at Chucalissa.  Using the parlance of Simon’s Participatory Museum, I have posted before on the distinctions of contributory, collaborative and co-creative visitor and volunteer experiences.  Seemingly, the more complex the level of engagement for the participant, ultimately, the more complete the stakeholder development.  I am not convinced that is true.  I don’t see the contributory, collaborative and co-creative experiences as hierarchical.  Rather the range is different.  The same is true for community service and community service learning experiences.  As we strive to be relevant institutions to the public that we serve, we must also be keenly aware and ready to nurture these relationships.  A key understanding is that as public institutions, museums must truly serve the public.  With incredible regularity I repeat “The only reason we exist as a museum is because of the visitor.  Without them, we would function only as a repository or research station.”  In the same way, as public institutions, the public has a responsibility to use, engage with, and advocate for museums.  A reciprocal relationship is the foundation for sustainable institutions into the future.

Helpful resources on this subject include:

What are your experiences with service and service learning activities?

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