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Final Thoughts on Museums & Relevance in 2017

January 17, 2017

ecFor 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, Emily Coate, a graduate student in Egyptology and the Museum Studies Graduate Certificate Program wrote a compelling response that incorporates some of the ongoing discussions of museologists today.  Here is her essay:

From the view of Ms. Public, I would need to see evidence that the museum serves a tangible function within the community in order to appease my frustration on this front. Is my local museum a place where my neighbors and I feel we are actively engaged? I hope that with this view in mind, I will be able to work towards fulfilling these goals in a museum setting. The importance of not taking a museum’s position for granted, just because it is something I enjoy, is not a lesson that will be forgotten. I would hope to show the Publics that the museum is a space where everyone’s history, art, science, etc is included. It is an inclusive space that strives to incorporate all members of society. The work done to bring in members of the community in a meaningful manner at Chucalissa is a prime example. Even with a small staff and a small budget, volunteers, students, and the community form an integral part of the running of the museum. Along the lines of Simon’s folksonomy, museums must ask for community input, and then follow-up with a visible materialization of the suggestions or utilization of the participatory action offered. This gives visitors a personal stake in the result, and thus, the museum. A model that continuously provides a better visitor experience through these feedback loops would certainly go a long way toward placing the museum in a better light in the public’s eye. The Critical Assessment Framework developed by Worts is a resource that museums should consult if they are finding difficulty “measuring the cultural needs, as well as the impacts of their programs, at individual, community, and institutional levels.”[1] Once these questions are at the forefront of a museum’s mind, then the execution of the planning of programs with expressed goals toward community involvement can take form. It will depend on the type and size of the museum to what extent and to what shape community engagement will take. So much the better if they are able to offer a multitude of volunteer opportunities which satisfies visitors wishing for a simply level of involvement all the way through fostering co-creative exhibits. The museum must ask their public, “what are the community’s needs, and in what way can we help you achieve their resolution?”

This idea of a wealth transfer from the poor to the wealthy, to an institution which holds no use of value to people of lower income or social status is exactly the type of rhetoric which museums must consciously work to overcome. What can each individual connected with the museum do to best alleviate these barriers? How can we advocate for the necessity of museums to the government as well as the public? What do the budget cuts take away that Mr. and Mrs. Public feel are more necessary than the museum?

One statistic that has stood out to me was that among those individuals who make museums an integral part of their lifestyle, “Nearly all have a distinct memory of a specific, seminal museum experience, usually between the ages of 5 and 9.”[2] This highlights the importance of effective educational programming aimed at children. As Beverly Sheppard suggests, museums should work with local schools, even if they are doing the lion’s share of the work, in order to create viable regular programming that connects the two.[3] The economic state that has thrown the Public family into distress has most likely affected their children’s education as well.  If after school activities have been reduced, perhaps the museum could look into starting a regular afternoon activity session for school-aged children. Action should be taken on the part of the museum to ensure that its full capabilities are able to be taken advantage of by the young members of the surrounding society. The Smithsonian Latino Center provides scholarships and internships for its widespread constituency. If funds are to be given museums, the public needs to see that they are redistributed by as many means possible.

I hope that the museum I represent can provide the level of local relevance of the Pearl Button Museum. A place that incites memory from residents and provides a useful physical space to support the community. No one should feel excluded from a museum, or feel that its holdings are so far from one’s own interests as to have little possible effect on their life. As Lord demonstrated with his interaction with prison inmates at the Vancouver Art Gallery, a present and meaningful relevance can be found for anyone, so long as it is sought. Museums must devote creative energy to finding these connections within their collections.

Museums will hopefully continue on the trajectory of becoming a recognized place for everyone’s benefit, regardless of economic wealth or social standing. I would hope through (continual) positive interactions, we could prove the worth of art, history, and science to everyone. This will be accomplished when everyone has had the opportunity to experience the full potential that each of these mediums has to enrich the quality of human existence and life. Rather than offering this up as a platitude,[4] I hope it can one day become a reality felt by all.

[1] Worts, D. “Measuring Museum Meaning: A Critical Assessment Framework.” Journal of Museum Education 31(1). 2006: 47.

[2] Merritt, Elizabeth. Museums and Society 2034: Trends and Potential Futures. American Association of Museums.  2008. http://www.aam-us.org/docs/center-for-the-future-ofmuseums/museumssociety2034.pdf.

[3] Sheppard, Beverly. “Insistent Questions in Our Learning Age.  Journal of Museum Education, (35): 3, 218.

[4] Connolly, Robert. “Labor Day and the Cultural Heritage Professional.”  Archaeology, Museums, and Outreach Blog. 2012. https://rcnnolly.wordpress.com/2012/09/03/labor-day-and-the-cultural-heritage-professional/.

 

Contact Emily at emcoate(at)memphis.edu

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