A Participatory Approach to Museum Advocacy
In my Museum Practices graduate seminar this semester, students were given the following assignment:
“Students in Museum Practices three years ago completed an Advocacy Inventory for twelve museums in the Memphis area. The Advocacy Inventory is found on pp. 16-23 of the article by Gail Ravnitzky Silberglied in Speak Up For Museums: The AAM Guide to Advocacy. For those twelve museums, Museum Practices students in last two years followed up to determine if and how each museum used the completed advocacy inventory or recommendations. Out of the twelve museums originally contacted, only two museums followed through in implementing the recommendations from the advocacy inventory. Last year, for her graduate project in the Masters of Liberal Studies program, Patricia Harris assessed this three-year program. (note: copy of Harris’ paper on file at the University of Memphis McWerter library.) Respond to both the Silberglied article and Harris’ assessment of the three-year program with Memphis area museums.”
I thoroughly enjoyed reading the responses of all the student essays. Amr Shahat’s was particularly insightful on the importance and relevance of advocacy for today’s museums. Below is an abbreviated version of his essay.
by Amr Shahat
Advocacy is generic term defined in Webster Dictionary as “The act or process of advocating or supporting a cause or proposal”. The term has been incorporated into the museum field and raises discussions among museum experts as how to become advocates in obtaining elected officials support to museums. The concern began in 2011 when museums among other institutions were announced to be less eligible for federal funding. As a response, The American Alliance of Museums (AAM) began to support American museums through advocacy effort addressing elected officials, mainly state senators and congressmen to agree not to cut or limit federal funding for museums.
The AAM created guidelines for advocacy, Speak Up for Museums to assist museums establish advocacy practices. In this book, Silberglied discusses the value of developing advocacy inventory and establishing an advocacy effort within the museums, staff, and board members and suggests strategies to reach elected officials. The Silberglied model does not address the need of advocacy inventory beyond getting financial or legislative support.
The evaluation made by Patricia Harris, a graduate student at the University of Memphis, discussed the advocacy effort of local museums in the Memphis area and implies that the AAM advocacy inventory uses broad terms that might not be useful for all institutions. Silberglied’s chapter “Additional Resources and Burning Questions” might overwhelm the reader with political terms, definitions and approaches to the elected officials. The approach may not be useful as focusing on building relation with the community, explaining the museum mission to the community to obtain the community support for the mission— in so doing the community members will be the best advocates.
A main point from Silberglied is that the advocacy inventory is built by joint effort. The joint effort can be internally among museum staff, volunteers and board members, or externally between the museum and the community. However, there is no mention of the communities as a co-creative partner for the inventory. Instead, communities are mentioned merely as a venue of testimony to get the advocacy inventory heard by elected officials. Community members’ effort is mentioned by Silberglied only in terms of being testimonials to support advocacy inventory and its credibility but not as direct advocates.
In the light of the current museum effort towards creating participatory museums that are co-created by museum staff and the community, why do we not call for a participatory advocacy that includes these communities? Harris has mentioned success of three small museums in the Memphis area in terms of advocacy effort. A main success for their advocacy is engagement with local communities. If a museum does not attain local visibility/impact, it will not be visible to elected officials who would not recognize the cultural and the economic importance of museum(s) to their communities.
Since community effort is of importance, how can a museum increase its visibility to the community? Both Silberglied and Harris suggest different programs and events that museums may implement to increase their participation in advocacy work. Silberglied in a week-by-week plan suggests 75 tips to be followed by a museum to create an advocacy inventory. In one of the tips, Silberglied advised museums to “become a community meeting place”. Although, the concept sounds plausible, the examples provided might not be the best. The community activities she suggested such as “blood drive, food drive etc.” only increase the visibility of the museum to the community in terms of museum locale. However, for an advocacy effort, museums need to create events that are mainly focused on increasing the visibility of the museum’s mission. A museum should be careful that attracting people to its place is different from attracting people to its mission. The support of the community to the museum does not necessarily involve physical visiting to the museum locale. Harris analysis implies that part of the successful advocacy effort of the three museums she discussed is using online visibility to the museum mission through Facebook, a museum webpage, and other social media.
Visibility to the museum mission invites us to broaden our identification of the museum community. The museum community is not just its neighbors or those who can physically make a visit but those who believe in and support its mission. Silberglied’s explanations imply that nationality or citizenship does not hold you back from submitting your advocacy to elected officials. Some museums include volunteers and staff of different nationalities, such as the Metropolitan museum whose director of the Egyptian department is a British Egyptologist. One of the most successful advocacy inventories that got direct response from the Ministry of Antiquities in Egypt was advocating for the Egyptian museum was made by tourists who believed in the museum mission rather than the museum locale. So the real relationship between a museum and its community is to share the museum mission.
Chapter six of Silberglied’s book on “Expert Insider advice from elected and public officials” provides examples of official reactions to successful advocacy. One of the most effective pieces of advice was by the Los Angeles Deputy Mayor Aileen Adams. She draws museum attention to promoting joint advocacy. I suggest that the two or three small museum in Memphis which responded to advocacy inventory need to propagate this effort to other museums in Memphis and create joint advocacy cases. Joint cases will multiply the museums’ reasons to create an advocacy inventory. It will also be more effective if museums made joint participatory advocacy inventory involving their communities as mentioned above. The participatory advocacy will create strong multivocality that empowers the museum advocacy and draws the elected officials’ attention towards the museums in Tennessee.
Building relations with the community is a slow process but we should remember that legislation process to address elected official and get their feedback is a slow process as well. This slow legislative process might have been one of the main reasons that ten of the twelve museums in Tennessee contacted by Harris did not implement an advocacy inventory. Elected officials response sometimes is not direct and a museum cannot build up a plan on such vague responses to advocacy. This may be another reason that prevented ten museums from implementing an advocacy inventory. Therefore, I suggest creating a participatory advocacy inventory as a joint effort between the museum and the community. The participatory advocacy will create mulitivocality for the advocacy case presented and hence become more powerful and well heard. Overall, the community is the one who choose the elected officials which means their voice is the power that brought them to office and the power that will make the museum advocacy effort be heard.
Amr Shahat is a student in the Museum Studies Graduate Certificate Program and a PhD Egyptology student & teaching assistant in the History Department at the University of Memphis. He can be reached at akshahat(at)gmail.com