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More on Museum Relevance in 2017

January 10, 2017

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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?

This year, Jessica Johnson, a December graduate of the Museum Studies Graduate Certificate Program wrote a compelling response that is particularly apt for the current socio-political climate in the U.S.  Here is his essay:

I was once told that art is the product of what a society thinks of itself and wants others to see, but historical artifacts were the reality of a society. The two outputs of any society are intricately intertwined to create an entire picture. Traditionally, museums were more appealing to the wealthier class as a leisurely activity, but as museums constantly strive to validate their own existence, this statement is becoming more outdated and naïve. This is not to say there is no validity to it because many institutions still struggle with their purpose and mission, and translating those goals into actual, beneficial, tangible ways of providing for their community.

As an emerging, young museum professional I ask myself the same variety of questions as Mr. and Mrs. John and Josephine Q. Public. Why does what I do matter? It matters to me, but I have the personality and innate love of museums that makes me completely bias. However, what I do does not matter in the least bit if it does not matter to the people of whom we are researching and maintaining their history. Despite the arguments, however valid, that museums must balance budget with best practices, and outreach and advocacy with factual knowledge, the bottom line still remains: Why are we important enough to keep? I personally feel that museums are far too quick to congratulate themselves when they have done something that falls into the category of “outreach” or “community engagement.” The complications that must be balanced in museum life are hard and time consuming. However, I doubt any museum professional is required to spend 4+ years in school, only to not be able to handle the hard, time consuming tasks, while still constantly striving to fortify the reason for a museum’s existence. We as professionals know why, we feel why, we work every day towards why, but we have to remember that we still have much farther to go when it comes to convincing other people why museums actually matter.

Perhaps my specialization within my field, or the time I spent researching something only to have the accomplishment of adding to the general, scholarly pool of knowledge, can be deemed this transfer of wealth. However, once that is through, once myself and other young professionals and continuing museum professionals are interacting with their communities, this statement is far less true. Our training is applied to handling objects, but it is also applied to teaching people, caring for our surroundings, becoming relevant and interacting with the public on a local and global scale.

The tax dollars teach professionals how to care for the history, culture, and ability to learn about things that would have otherwise disappeared long ago, and do so for the people that pay their tax dollars. The research/position we do is justifying the tax dollars spent by helping citizens gain the ability to reconnect with history, to learn from history and, like suggested, empower people (Connolly 2012) and give them a sense of pride about their history and their community. But more so than that, research/position brings to light a sense of purpose about how far our society has come, and how far we still have to go.  Our research grounds citizens in the common thread that is all of our human existences. Our society often divides people, puts them into categories and groups based on a multitude of factors and occasionally, so do museum classifications. But the bigger picture, the Big Idea as it were, is that what is highlighted in museums, whether it be expression, creativity, perseverance, culture, history, applies to every person on a fundamental level; reminding us that we are all the same. This is something that is often forgotten, but can be the cornerstone for so much growth and cooperation.

Museums are constantly striving to interact with their community on all economic levels. To fight against the stigma that museums are only for the wealthy who have the free time to leisurely stroll through priceless works of art. There are so many more museums that chronicle racial inequality, the struggle of the misfortune, the history of our country. Through heavy subjects such as these, to art made simply for pleasure and viewing, museums cannot only help these individuals on an emotional level by allowing them a safe haven to get away from their troubles for a short amount of time, but are striving to tangibly help people. For example, the San Francisco Public Library helped their community by hiring the homeless people that often took refuge within their walls, and even provided contact with a mental health specialist (Goldberg 2016). This example is just one of many where museums are fulfilling their ability to cast a “ripple effect” (Simon: 2012) through their surroundings, whether it be creating a thriving downtown area, or being a draw for businesses and home owners. I know that as professionals entrusted with providing our relevance and caring for collections, we still have much to prove. However, we are on a constant path toward giving back as much as our societies have given it us.

Jess can be reached at jjhnsn78(at)memphis.edu

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