Community Engagement and Open Authority
For the past month the C.H. Nash Museum at Chucalissa held Art for Voice camps. The one-week sessions were age-graded and free of charge. Each group contained a good mix of students representative of the different neighborhoods, racial and economic backgrounds of Memphis. A concern in the original stage of the Camp planning was to stay within the Museum’s Mission Statement. We did not want the Camp simply to be an activity to increase visitation. Instead, the Camp activities drew on the collections curated at the Museum as educational and creative resources. The Camp directly aligned with our mission as a participatory experience for area residents.
This past Saturday, Art for Voice Camp creator Penny Dodds and I had a conversation evaluating this “pilot” program and to consider the next steps. Several important themes emerged in our conversation.
Opening Authority – A critical part of the Camp activities involved our curated collections and existing programs. Besides a drum circle and throwing darts with atlatls, campers viewed Museum exhibits from the Native American and African American traditional cultures of the area. Based on these experiences, the campers decided the types of objects they wished to use as models to create their artworks. The campers selected suitable objects from our Hands-on Archaeology lab and materials drawn by our Collections Manager from the Museum’s curated educational collections.
Although not web-based, these processes are in line with Lori Philips initial discussions of open authority in museums and her more recent article published in Curator. The campers worked with cultural materials of their choosing. With guidance from both a collections manager and artist, the campers ultimately made their own interpretive and creative decisions. As I watched the Camp compilation video where the young artists explained the process, I was reminded of the “aha” moment I had some 20 years ago when validating a 5th grade girl’s interpretation of Poverty Point headless figurines. That is, yes there is a difference between the no touching and static early 1960s introduction to museums of my youth and our 2013 campers throwing darts with atlatls and handling artifacts. But more importantly, the 2013 campers were not just expected to come up with the correct answer or perform the correct action to be rewarded. Rather, they engaged in a process where multiple truths and possibilities are considered, along the lines of Parker Palmer’s Interactive Model of the Great Thing.
Leadership Development in Museums – None of the principal players in the Art for Voice Camp were regular staff members of the C.H. Nash Museum. Penny, the Camp’s initial creator, led the experience. But by the last week of the Camp, the leadership expanded. Two of the high school students who participated in either the first or second week of the Camp, participated in weeks three, four, and five by assisting with the younger aged sessions. In fact, their transition from campers to leaders was critical to accommodate overflow campers originally placed on a waiting list. As well, two parents of the campers provided their expertise to the sessions by leading drumming circles, sharing their knowledge of traditional medicinal plants growing along the nature trail that campers explored, and general mentoring. The Museum’s summer intern, Lindsey Pender lent her video editing ability and photographic skills to the project. When Penny and I discussed the next steps yesterday afternoon, we recognized that we started with one camp “leader” but ended the session with five identified “leaders” who are anxious to expand on the pilot program.
Of importance as well, the youth campers were given authority during the Camp to lead on decisions about free-time learning activities. For example, during one week of the Camp, the participants composed a musical composition that they performed for their parents at the end of the day using the Museum’s plethora of percussion instruments.
Empowerment – The Art for Voice camp brought a very public opportunity for empowerment to the fore at our Museum. As an institution of the University of Memphis, we are quite mindful and intentional to empower our interns and graduate assistants. In the past several years, we aggressively moved to empower volunteers incorporating an explicitly participatory museum model into our mission. The Art for Voice Camp, by its very nature, required the proactive empowerment of the participants. Given the parameters of the Camp, participants were required to process, think through, and create from within.
Third Place – All of the above feeds into the Third Place concept on which I posted before. Unfortunately, much of the Third Place discussion in museums gets stalled in a rather dogmatic application of Oldenburg’s original concept. As Natalye Tate concludes in a recent synthesis “. . . the Third Place as Oldenburg envisioned is not necessarily an appropriate programming tool for museums, does not contend that it should be ignored. Understanding the elemental nature of the Third Place offers museum practitioners a toolkit to pull from and adapt to their various sets of resources, needs and environments.”
In our conversation on Saturday, Penny noted that she had been mindful throughout the process to solicit input from the Camp participants and their parents for ideas on using the Museum in the future as a space for more projects based in curated collections, exhibits, and the 40-acre natural environment.
If one moves beyond an obsession ala the Seinfeld episode The Pitch that a Third Place has to be about nothing, but that it can be about multiple somethings, at Chucalissa we find that many of the attributes that might be ascribed to a Third Place are now in place. In addition to the general conviviality of our picnic grounds and hiking trails, our ability to creatively incorporate volunteers, art camps, host community meetings, Black History month events, training sessions for Literacy Midsouth, and a community garden – all contain elements of the Third Place and remains within the limits of our mission statement. At the same time while expanding the opportunities for our more traditional interpretive functions, we bring more of our community voices to the same table in dialog. This process is in direct alignment with the International Council of Museum’s definition of museum as:
a non-profit, permanent institution in the service of society and its development, open to the public, which acquires, conserves, researches, communicates and exhibits the tangible and intangible heritage of humanity and its environment for the purposes of education, study and enjoyment.
How do you envision museum’s opening authority and co-creative processes?