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Why Fund Museum Professionals with Public Dollars?

December 11, 2014

For the past few years, half of the final exam in my Museum Practices graduate seminar in the Museum Studies Program at the University of Memphis consists of responding 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 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?

DStarkThis year, Deanna Stark a graduate student in the Department of Anthropology wrote a particularly compelling response that contained many excellent talking points and examples.

Why Should Governments Fund Museums?

by Deanna Stark

It is not the role of government to fund only those things that provide a return on investment; government must also fund things that provide quality of life. This basic tenet of the Keynesian approach was the prevailing thought prior to the emergence of neoliberal policies. Even in the current SRI budget model talks here on campus, President Rudd acknowledges that not every department makes money for the university. But those things—like the library—make us a university, and he has pledged to continue them. This is an excellent model from which to begin.

As a former teacher, I know with absolute certainty that cultural experiences outside the everyday routine are vitally important. They show children that there are so many possibilities in life beyond what they currently know. One of my favorite events was taking the children of Kingsbury Elementary School on a field trip to hear a symphony performance at the Cannon Center. To hear the discussion on the bus was both endearing and heartbreaking. “Where are we going?” “Are we in another state?” “Is that the ocean?” These kids, who live in Memphis, had never even been downtown to the Mississippi River.

When we walked into the Cannon Center, they were enthralled by the reflective metal sculpture outside, and had a wonderful time seeing themselves differently. Going inside was like visiting a castle; the audible ooh-ing and aah-ing was quite dear. But when it was time to get everyone to the restroom before the performance began, I understood that this was more than just a field trip. You see, the restrooms are really nice, and the children were concerned that they weren’t allowed to use them. They didn’t think they belonged there.

They reminded me of myself as a sophomore whose university choir was on tour in Western Europe. I couldn’t believe how busy Munich was or how beautiful the sound in Salzburg’s Dom Platz Cathedral was or how moving it was to actually visit the Anne Frank House. It made me truly aware of another whole world, and shaped my educational goals. Fifteen years later, I was in Germany doing research for my dissertation. Without that first experience, though, I doubt I would have really believed it was possible for me.

Later, as a mom to a brown son who was interested in dance but not in being bullied for it, I looked for ways to tend that flame. When the Alvin Ailey Dance Company came to town, I saw my chance. He saw handsome strong brown and black men dancing in a way he’d never seen before. His posture was magnificent for almost two weeks!

When my Dad got sick, he had to live in a nursing home. It was a terribly difficult time for me, but it was devastating for him. Luckily, he lived in a place with wonderful staff members who planned interesting activities for every single day of the year. The activity directors were a teacher’s dream; they presented a different theme each month, and planned all sorts of real and virtual activities. When it was France’s month, the residents got to take a virtual tour of the Louvre. (This, admittedly, wasn’t really my blue-collar Dad’s style; but the point is that it was a meaningful experience for many other people.)

Museums are unique among cultural experiences in that they teach us about human history. Immigrants who visit the Tenement Museum understand that they’re not alone. People who visit open-air museums like the Pink Palace Crafts Fair or even Colonial Williamsburg learn how things were made in the past—by hand. When visitors go to the National Civil Rights Museum or the United States Holocaust Museum, they understand a bit of what people endured.

Museums bring us great joy, allow us to wonder, and fuel our ambitions. I’ve seen children’s eyes light up when they figure out how something works at a children’s museum. (The Anchorage Museum has an amazing children’s section that spans two floors.) And if you’ve never been around an entire class of 6th graders at Space Camp in Huntsville, Alabama, you have missed the delight of seeing a young girl realize that she could really truly be an astronaut like Dr. Mae Jemison. Does anyone ever go to the Field Museum and not have a Jethro-in-the-big-city moment upon seeing the T-Rex skeleton?

I’ve spent an hour staring at the intricacy of the border surrounding George Seurat’s Sunday in the Park with George in the Art Institute of Chicago, and I’ve marveled at the beauty and strength that Diego Rivera was able to paint in his large Mexico City murals. Seeing so many Van Gogh paintings in one place was a highlight of my last trip to Europe. (I know the Dutch Masters are more high brow, but Van Gogh’s paintings, especially some of the darker, starker works, appeal to me much more.) I’ve also been absolutely mesmerized by both Georgia O’Keeffe’s clean-lined cityscapes and her intricate floral paintings.

For me, the reason tax dollars should pay museum salaries is a simple one: museums enhance our quality of life. Whether they inspire us, cause us to reflect, make us laugh, or light the spark of lifelong learning, museums cannot be replaced. If museums are not good investments in a country’s population, I can’t imagine what would be.

Deanna Stark can be contacted at dmstark(at)memphis.edu

3 Comments leave one →
  1. December 11, 2014 4:12 pm

    Deanna’s response is excellent; it demonstrates how an experience with the arts can impact a child’s development.

    I read an article just this morning about the role of Art and its far reaching effects–what it means in our current digital world and its role in helping us think critically about current problems. This post and article are compelling reasons for continued public funding of museums and the professionals that keep the content relevant to the public.

    “Art can enhance humanity’s survival”, by Ollivier Dyens

    http://www.universityaffairs.ca/features/feature-article/art-can-enhance-humanitys-survival/?utm_source=newsletterdec10_14&utm_medium=email&utm_content=art&utm_campaign=ataglanceEN&utm_source=University+Affairs+e-newsletter&utm_campaign=7a92e384c1-At_a_Glance_Dec10_2014&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_314bc2ee29-7a92e384c1-425266257

    • December 12, 2014 4:29 am

      Debbie – thanks so much for your comments and the excellent link!

  2. December 14, 2014 12:47 am

    Great essay!

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