Making Museums Relevant

I have posted before about the importance of demonstrating the relevance of our cultural institutions to the public who finance them.  In a recent assignment in my Museum Practices seminar at the University of Memphis students responded to the following:

Put yourself in the position of John or Josephine Q. Public. In the current economic chaos, the bank is foreclosing on their home, they have lost their jobs, and the city just reduced their public services. In referring to the National Endowment for the Arts and the Institute of Museum and Library Services, the House Budget Committee recently argued that “The activities and content funded by these agencies…are generally enjoyed by people of higher income levels, making them a wealth transfer from poorer to wealthier citizens.” Isn’t your research or the position you aspire to as a museum professional just another example of this wealth transfer? What do John and Josephine Q. Public get for their tax dollars that fund your research/position?

The students wrote some great essays in response.  One of the best was from Leila Hamdan which she graciously agreed to share as a guest post this week.

Making Museums Relevant

by Leila Hamdan

Cultural institutions expand, stimulate and progress social cohesion through shared symbols, experiences and quest for meaning of existence, which all people share regardless of income.  These institutions are tools for education, collaboration and community.  This paper will discuss reasons why a portion of America’s tax money should continue to fund cultural institutions and the paid positions of their employees.  I will look at the work I have done to serve the public as a collections manager and registrar at a national art museum.  Additionally, I will explore the existing political agenda to cut all public services, including the arts, and argue that private funding alone would marginalize the main audience that most cultural institutions strive to reach.  The project description states that paid positions in museums are an example of money being taken from the poor and given to the rich.  This idea leads people to accept the false notion that the rich control art and culture, where in fact we have a much longer tradition of arts as a species than the current commoditization reflects.

As a collections manager and registrar for a national art museum, I passionately worked to uphold the museum’s mission to preserve and advance the creation of fine metalwork.  Community was a crucial part of the museum’s operation; metalworkers are inherently communal people, and the general public was never excluded.  Metalwork is a bridge between art and industry, labor and luxury and is a medium that affects the lives of every living being and has since the first Bronze Age.  Through museum programming we reached an inclusive audience from all backgrounds and income levels; our largest audience was working-class people intrigued by metal arts.  Many people had heard stories of their family members, usually a grandfather, who was a blacksmith, and wanted to know more about the skill and history.  The museum I worked for had a permanent collection, temporary exhibition galleries, an extensive library, and two metalworking facilities.  These areas allowed museum visitors to see fine, well-crafted artworks on display and in the same visit see similar creations made my real metal artists working in the two facilities.  The visitors could then read about histories in the library or ask me, also functioning as the head librarian, questions.  My responsibilities allowed me to assist visiting artists and scholars with their research, as well as, teach people of all ages and backgrounds lessons in metal elements, the history of metal industry and art, and contemporary fine art and craft.  This kind of knowledge is both pragmatic and empowering.  I also worked to preserve the permanent collection, acquire new pieces for the collection and bring in a variety of exhibitions.  In the six years I worked for the museum, I saw the minds of countless children expand when they saw an artist melt or bend metal into another form, and I understood the empowerment they gained first hand.  I had once visited that museum for the first time and remember very well how mind opening and world expanding the experience was for me.  Years later, as an employee, public tax dollars paid my salary, and I worked to give the public everything I could.  Many of the employees work for non-profits, putting in extra time and energy for a position that they are passionate for and thankful to have and do not necessarily make much money doing.  The employees of cultural institutions deserve the support of the American tax-payer as much as American tax-payers deserve to have control over what cultural arts are available for them and future generations.

When presenting a case to “John Q. Public” on why their tax dollars should fund cultural institutions and programs such as the National Endowment for the Arts and the Institute of Museums and Library Services, one cannot overlook the existing political agenda to lower or eliminate government funding for many public services and benefits in education, health care, environmental protection, housing, as well as, the arts.  Other countries are experiencing devastated economies similar to America.  Austerity measures currently threatening the general public’s livelihood in France, Spain, Greece, Chile and Canada are the same that threaten America’s public.  It is not far fetched to say that our country is heading in the same direction of economic collapse with one major difference being the amount of tax dollars that are spent on military defense.

The NEA and IMLS are two democratic groups that heavily support and fund cultural institutions by promoting public access to educational materials, preservation of cultural traditions and advancements in arts.  Republican Vice-Presidential nominee, Paul Ryan, chairs America’s House Budget Committee, which recently approved a budget plan for FY13 to cut all federal funding for the NEA and IMLS.  After which the House Appropriations Committee approved a bill to drastically cut funding for public services including the NEA.  It is unlikely that most of the projects funded by NEA and IMLS would happen if it were not for the grants they provide.  In 2012, the NEA awarded grants to the American Alliance of Museums to revise their accreditation process.  They also awarded grants to several institutions for diverse exhibitions and publications, including Asian art, Dina’ina Athabascan culture, black performance art, mixed race Asian American heritage and artwork by Carrie Mae Weems.  If organizations like the NEA and IMLS were no longer publically funded, artistic production would dramatically decrease or disappear along with the transparent and democratic process of preservation of cultural heritage and access to information.  Privatizing funding for arts and cultural institutions would narrow the audience and recipients of funding to a tiny demographic, which traditionally excludes minorities, underprivileged and the working poor.

Part of the purpose of NEA, IMLS and other means of publicly financing the arts is to ensure access to art for the broadest segment of the population possible with the assumption being that culture is a necessary part of life.  As the old union song goes, “small art and love and beauty their drudging spirits knew.  Yes, it is bread we fight for, but we fight for roses too.”  If all public money for culture were removed there would be a contraction of what was available to see and who was allowed to see it and reap the benefits.  In justifying my position to “John and Josephine Q. Public” on why their tax dollars should fund my position in a cultural institution, I would first ask Mr. and Mrs. Public to question the political and economic agendas that affect all aspects of their lives.  I would ask them to question their role in the assimilation and gentrification of culture and arts.  Lastly, I would encourage the public to advocate and support their local museums and cultural institutions.

Leila Hamdan is a Graduate Student in the Museum Studies Graduate Certificate Program at the University of Memphis.  She can be reached at lihamdan(at)

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3 thoughts on “Making Museums Relevant”

  1. Hi Leila, I enjoyed reading your essay! You present a very good argument about why taxpayer dollars should support cultural institutions – and though I was already convinced before I read your essay that government support the arts, you presented additional arguments that I had not thought of. Cultural institutions are necessary not only for understanding our heritage and others, but to gain appreciation of different perspectives and forms of expression. As you suggested in your essay, cultural institutions are essential to societies, for people of all cultural and economic backgrounds. The arts act as common ground, bringing together people who may not otherwise interact.

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