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The Relevance of Cultural Heritage Professionals

April 22, 2013

A few months ago I posted a Museum Practices seminar student, Leila Hamdan’s response to the following question:

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 arguedthat “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?

Since that time, I have asked these questions of my students more often in both formal and informal settings.  I believe that the ability to articulate the relevance of cultural heritage professionals to the issues facing our country today is critically important.   The essay below is a portion of the written comprehensive exam answer to my questions for University of Memphis Anthropology Graduate Student Mallory Bader.  For her practicum project in Anthropology, Mallory coordinated last fall’s AmeriCorps Team project at the C.H. Nash Museum.  As well, for the past two years, she served as a graduate assistant at the C.H. Nash Museum.  And I should add, today Mallory successfully passed her written and oral comprehensive exams for her M.A. degree in Anthropology at the University of Memphis.  Below is Mallory’s answer to the above question:

MBader1by Mallory Bader

Our world is rapidly changing due to globalization and modernization. Cities are shifting, economies are collapsing, and violence threatens us daily. Citizens often question the value of museums and the government entities that support them such as the National Endowment for the Arts and the Institute of Museum and Library Services.  It is often said that museums are places for the elite, making these taxpayer-funded organizations doing a wealth transfer.  However, I would argue that this is not true.  Museums have historically been viewed as places for the elite, but that model is shifting towards a new museum that is more participatory and engaging.  Additionally, museums offer many services to the public that do not benefit only the elite or wealthy citizens, such as educating youth and protecting natural resources.  As an emerging museum professional, my work in museums is not a wealth transfer and the benefits that John and Josephine Q. Public get for their tax dollars are immense and real.

The shift of demographics in America has been reflected in museums.  The United States is now a majority-minority population and is becoming more diverse daily. In museums, people of color and low socio-economic status have not always felt welcome due to the stigma of museums as places for the elite. However, many programs have been instituted that are shifting the visitation of museums. The Center for the Future of Museums publishes a state of museums article that details the various ways museums are reaching out to increasingly diverse audiences.  Museums are adding front-line staff that speak multiple languages, offering free or reduced admission to visitors receiving public assistance, conducting outreach into areas that have historically not been museum visitors, and many other things.  This is one way that museums are not simply enjoyed by people of higher income.

As an emerging museum education professional, my job is to educate youth and adults on a variety of topics. Similar to a teacher, I must provide an engaging and stimulating learning environment that builds on core curriculum standards.  As a museum educator, I feel that my job is a public servants job, just like a teacher would be. In addition, I would argue that other museum professionals such as collections managers are also public servants by protecting the natural and cultural resources of our nation.

Although at this time, I do not know where my career will end up in museums, I can say with certainty that my position is not just another example of this wealth transfer.  At Chucalissa, I have provided quality educational programming to thousands of students in my two years at the museum. John and Josephine Q. Public directly benefit from this through having students graduate more prepared, more engaged, and ready to enter the workforce.  In addition, I have assisted with community outreach projects that help with community development projects that make Memphis a better and healthier place to live.  My future career in museums is not set, but my plans include projects similar to the ones I have conducted at Chucalissa. In addition, my long-term goal is to operate a science museum that focuses on providing STEM education to underserved students.  This will help to provide a better prepared workforce in our world that is increasingly reliant on technology. My partner in this project has a PhD in Materials Chemistry from CU-Boulder. Together, we have applied to the National Science Foundation for a Graduate School Innovation Challenge to present a model of service learning and outreach for STEM education through museums.

Both she and I have been committed to justifying our positions as researchers at taxpayer funded institutions by engaging in outreach during our careers.   These are the various ways in which my position and research within museums are benefiting John and Josephine Q. Public

Mallory can be contacted at mbader(at)memphis.edu

One Comment leave one →
  1. May 4, 2013 7:15 pm

    Reblogged this on The Narcissistic Anthropologist and commented:
    When was the last time you went to a museum? Maybe an art museum or a historical museum or a cultural museum? Do you see Museum’s as an experience for the “elite” or is that a thing of the past?
    I really appreciate this perspective on the importance of cultural heritage professionals and the role of the museum from both a cultural and sociological perspective. With changing times comes evolving roles. And in North America in particular where we have such a young country influenced by a uniquely diverse set of cultural heritage contexts, i think it’s becoming more and more important to preserve, learn, appreciate and revel in the cultural history that makes us an “us” and reminds us of our shared human heritage.
    Yet another thankless profession in the practice of “narcissistic anthropology”. 😉

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