Co-creation & #MuseumsrespondtoFerguson

bl hist
Veterans of the U.S. military attending Black History Month event at the C.H. Nash Museum, 2012.

Spearheaded by Gretchen Jennings, a timely Joint Statement from Museum Bloggers and Colleagues on Ferguson and Related Events has circulated on the internet over the past few weeks with follow-up Twitter discussions at #MuseumsrepondtoFerguson.  Much of the discussion on this subject addresses the disconnect between museums and the communities they are meant to serve.  (Note: I use “community” to include the spatial and other demographic dimensions of the term.)

A key component for museums to engage with communities to address issues such as Ferguson, or any issue for that matter, is to be at least perceived as a stakeholder and social asset of the affected community.  If a museum is divorced from and does not reflect the community needs, there is no reason for that community to consider proclamations around Ferguson or racial justice as anything other than a jailhouse conversion.  I suggest that the community engagement process must be in place long before the events such as Ferguson occur.

John Cotton Dana’s 1917 statement is fitting: “Learn what aid the community needs: fit the museum to those needs.”¹  In 2002, Ellen Herzy asked “How do we encourage museum professionals, trustees, and volunteers to engage with community in open and useful ways, as civic leaders but also as community members . . . Working together or diversifying audiences is not enough.  What is needed are reciprocal, co-created relationships that connect the assets and purposes of organizations.”² More recently, Nina Simon articulates that co-creative relationship in a call for museums “to give voice and be responsive to the needs and interests of local community members; to provide a place for community engagement and dialogue; and to help participants develop skills that will support their own individual and community goals.”³

My takeaway from the above include:

  • Co-creative processes are not museums functioning for the community but with the community.  The distinction necessitates having a recognized and committed stake in the community’s expressed needs.
  • The co-creative process must be part of the normative operation of the museum, not just in crisis situations.  This distinction necessitates a museum to have a long-term commitment and co-creative action plan.

The Incluseum challenges to think of  “What “right now” actions can museums do to show solidarity?”  At the C.H. Nash Museum at Chucalissa in Memphis, Tennessee, we are emerging from a half-century of either ignoring or having a very limited engagement with the community surrounding our museum that is 95% African-American.  Based on my admittedly limited experience, I offer the following:

  • Hosting Black History month events provide an excellent opportunity for a museum to be of service to the African-American community.  In February of 2015, such events can provide a forum for a discussion of racial justice and other issues raised by Ferguson.  Over the past five years at the C.H. Nash Museum at Chucalissa, we have moved from a co-creative Black History month event to one where our museum serves as a host per Nina Simon’s Participatory Museum model.
  • The C.H. Nash Museum sponsors and helps coordinate multiple community service learning projects that form a bridge between the community and museum. Our concept of community service learning aligns with Kronick et al where the museum “listens to the concerns of the group or person, lets the ‘other’ define the situation, and responds by trying to meet that need. In listening and learning, receiving and giving, the service-learning relationship is horizontal, lateral, parallel. It is not hierarchal”
  • Today is the day a museum can begin a long-term commitment to the process.  In so doing, museums will be better able to organically respond to current and future issues affecting the communities in which we serve.

A summary of our experience in community engagement at the C.H. Nash Museum is presented in this article.

¹ John Cotton Dana, The New Museum (Woodstock: Elm Tree Press, 1917), 38.

² Elizabeth Hirzy, Mastering Civic Engagement: A Report from the American Association of Museums.  In, AAM (Ed.), Mastering Civic Engagement: A Challenge to Museums (pp. 9-20).  Washington, DC: American Alliance of Museums.

³ Nina Simon, The Participatory Museum (Santa Cruz: Museum 2.0, 2010), 187.

4 R.F. Kronick, R.B. Cunningham, and M. Gourley, Experiencing Service Learning (Knoxville: The University of Tennessee Press) p. 23.

Some ‘How to’ Proposals on Museum Advocacy

In a blog post last year I reviewed the book Speak Up For Museums the American Alliance of Museums premier publication on museum advocacy.  In the Fall Semester of 2011, students in my Museum Practices seminar at the University of Memphis completed an Advocacy Inventory from that book for area museums in Memphis.  This year’s seminar followed up with those same museums to create proposals for further advocacy and community outreach work.  Below is the proposal written by graduate student Ashley Dabbraccio for the Davies Manor Plantation Museum in nearby Bartlett, Tennessee.  Ashley’s proposal draws from the Speak Up For Museums book that all cultural heritage professionals will find useful in the public outreach work.

The Davies Manor Plantation Big House

Davies Manor Plantation Advocacy Proposal

by Ashley Foley Dabbraccio

The proposal below is a specific advocacy plan designed to showcase the Davies Manor Plantation. All the possible tasks proposed are covered and suggested by the American Alliance of Museums’ text Speak Up for Museums: The AAM’s Guide to Advocacy. Visit the AAM’s advocacy website at to gain further knowledge about advocacy within the community (AAM’s #2). Also, purchasing a copy of the American Alliance of Museums’ Speak Up for Museums text is a first step in increasing the museum’s knowledge on advocacy. Keeping a copy on hand allows the museum to review completed or new suggestions under the AAM’s guidelines. The guide expresses that advocacy be planned on a week-to-week basis. The suggestions within this proposal highlight the Davies Manor Plantation’s key strengths and limitations, while acknowledging the size and type of the institution. The proposal covers efficient ways to promote advocacy on multiple levels, even with a small staff. The proposed suggestions range from immediate tasks that require little input to tasks that require an intern.

v Immediate Tasks Requiring Little Input

  • Take full advantage of social media sites, including Facebook, to promote the museum. “Friending” or “fanning/becoming a fan” of government officials and other area museums is a great advocacy tool on multiple levels. Friending keeps government officials aware of the daily progress, events and programs at the museum. Plus, social media gives other museums ideas and “partnering” opportunities with the Davies Manor Plantation. In advocacy, social media forms relationships on different levels. Social media demonstrates to government officials the museum’s active role within the community, which will help obtain their support if Davies Manor seeks government funding. Second, social media develops a relationship with other museums in expanding outreach and cross-promoting events with other museums. Davies Manor may also learn of other events at other museums to implement within their own setting. (AAM’s #11, #24)
  • Set up a LinkedIn account, if the museum does not have one already. Having a profile allows Davies Manor to link to their government officials on the site. The LinkedIn profile also enables the museum to link to high school/college/graduate students, who are looking for museum-related internships. A LinkedIn account allows the museum to review different resumes, jobs, and other activities that students are involved in; in order to see if they are a “right match” for an internship at the museum. (AAM’s #14)
  • Add government officials’ email addresses to the monthly newsletter. The addition of government officials at all levels to the Davies Manor Plantation newsletter keeps them informed on the museum’s progress as well as the “current happenings.” (AAM’s #2)
  • Join the AAM’s advocacy alerts. Signing up for the alerts is fast and easy. The alerts allow the museum to gather information on advocacy possibilities provided directly by the American Alliance of Museums, making the alerts program a great way keep informed. (AAM’s #7)
  • Do the AAM’s Free Advocacy Training Program. The program only takes an hour and can be done at a museum meeting or retreat. The program has different training sessions that apply to the staff and/or the museum itself. Also, the AAM archives all the previous programs for review. The program demonstrates to museums where improvements in advocacy are possible. (AAM’s #4)
  • Follow the museum’s profile within the news. Set up alerts on sites, such as Google News, so the online engine alerts the museum of any mention of the staff, or the museum itself, within the news. The museum can make sure all the information provided in the news is accurate or know whom to contact, if something is incorrect. The alert system also shows the museum’s standing with the community, adding to present and future community outreach. Also, add government officials, so staff members can monitor the official’s media coverage, especially if it pertains to historical or museum work. (AAM’s #43)

v Immediate Tasks Requiring Medium Input

  • Create a media list, if the museum does not already have one. Knowing whom to contact for different events makes it much easier to involve the media in specific events, including events hosted by the museum or events honoring the museum.  (AAM’s #55)
  • Check out the museum’s profile on different websites. Review, and correct any mistakes, found on sites, including Wikipedia, the museum’s personal website, etc. Currently, the museum has a Wikipedia page. As Wikipedia receives many views, especially from possible visitors, having current information available on the page is a good idea. Correcting any wrong information present there provides people with correct knowledge and prevents any “tall tales” from continuing to circulate. (AAM’s #51)
  • Ask government officials to write recommendations for grants. For example, ask government officials to supply a recommendation for the maintenance renovations. Asking for a letter of support not only keeps them aware of the museum’s current projects, but also works to promote future governmental advocacy. If any officials do write a letter of support, don’t forget to thank them for their generosity, letting the official(s) know the museum appreciates their time and commitment to museums.  (AAM’s #25, #47)
  • Write an opinion piece about “something unique” for the local newspaper. Local write-ups help engage community members and demonstrate new ideas that the museum wishes to develop. For example, a profile of the “travel trunk” program makes for an excellent piece and may drum up more response for incorporating it into classrooms. Continually doing these pieces throughout the year keeps the community involved in the museum’s programs. (AAM’s #9)

v Higher Priority Tasks that Required Ten Hours or More of Effort

  • Involve the media in special events. For example, the Colonial Dames, an organization similar to the Daughters of the Revolution—except with more of a focus on historical preservation and historical places—will be honoring Davies Manor Plantation with a plaque for their preservation efforts. Events, such as the Colonial Dames ceremony, raise awareness for the museum. See if any of the local newspapers want to feature the event. Mailing a copy of the article to all government officials, as expressed by the AAM’s plan is a great idea. Inviting officials to the event is also a possibility to raise governmental awareness for the positive contributions the museum has made. (AAM’s #32)
  • Join the AAM’s Advocacy Day. The American Alliance of Museums hosts an annual two-day program in Washington, D.C. The event brings together museum professionals and museum supporters. Attending the events allows the museum to experience different programs on improving advocacy and form connections to other museums and supporters from outside their own area. Advocacy Day is a good way to form long-distance connections that may be beneficial in the future.  (AAM’s #8)
  • Promote the “Travel Trunk” Program. Use the informational brochure to promote the program to parents and school teachers. Sending a copy of the brochure about the program to governmental officials may help to get the program off the ground. Once, the program is used within the school systems, discuss the program’s success on Facebook and other social media outlets or get reviews from teachers to add to the promotion of the program. (AAM’s #11, #46, #49)
  • Gather testimonials. Encourage visitors to leave testimonials after their visit, by filling out a testimonial form. The museum can use those testimonials within brochures, on the website or even when applying for different types of funding. (AAM’s #12)
  • Gather letters from school children. The letters show what students have learned from their time at the museum. The letters also demonstrate how the museum and school districts work together on an educational level. Send a letter from the museum, along with the children’s letters, to elected officials to demonstrate the type of work the museum is currently doing within the community. Also, use the media list to contact local newspapers about a possible article on community outreach.  (AAM’s #26, #55)

v Major Tasks requiring an intern or large commitment

  • Set up an Advocacy Internship. Due to the limited full-time (2) and part-time (2) staff, an internship solely based on advocacy is a distinct possibility. Assigning an intern to work exclusively on advocacy allows Davies Manor to devote more time to all types of advocacy.  Any of the above mentioned work could be given to an intern, who can establish steps to promoting advocacy on many levels for the museum. (AAM’s #49)
Ashley Dabbraccio




Ashley Dabbraccio is a History M.A. student at the University of Memphis. Her research interests center on gender history in the 19th century, particularly focusing on crime and vice. Her museum interests include national parks and their presentation of Civil War history.

The Disconnect Between Museums and Schools

In an article titled “Insistent Questions in Our Learning Age” published in the Journal of Museum Education (Volume 35, Number 3, Fall 2010), Beverly Sheppard asks several questions including the following two:

•Why are our programs guided by school-based curriculum standards rather than by the unique qualities of learning in informal settings?
•Why do so few of our legislators have knowledge of the breadth and depth of museum/school programming?  (Sheppard 2010:218)
There are several steps cultural heritage venues can take to help respond to the questions raised by Sheppard.
  • Curriculum Standards and Standardized Testing – Although 45 states to date have adopted the Common Core Standards that will go into effect in the next couple of years, replacing the more draconian aspects of the current system, standards in some form will continue into the future.  At the recent American Association/Alliance of Museums (AAM) meeting in Minneapolis I was surprised to learn that many museums have not matched their programming to the state standards.  Although initially a rather cumbersome task, in a survey of Memphis area teachers we found that the primary reason that determined whether a school would either visit or arrange for in-school museum visit was not the financial cost we had assumed – rather, the number one reason was whether the programs matched state curriculum standards.  At the C.H. Nash Museum, we now list the curriculum standards for all of our educational programs on our website.  The McClung Museum in Knoxville has an excellent detail of lesson plans and curriculum standards on their website.  Through website listings, museums can be more proactive in letting the educators know where our unique programs meet their standards.
  •  Public officials lack of knowledge about our programs – The answer to this question seems rather simple, at least as I have experienced the issue.  Legislators do not know about museum/school programming because museums do not communicate the information to them.  For example, last year my Museum Practices graduate seminar contacted 12 medium to small Memphis area museums to complete the AAM advocacy inventory form.  For the most part, the museums reported little contact with their elected/appointed public officials, and almost none specifically related to issues of educational programming.  In a follow-up with those 12 museums, this year my students found that only three museums used their completed advocacy inventory in follow-up with their public officials.  Because only four individuals attended the session on Museum Advocacy at the recent AAM meetings suggests that Memphis museums are not anomalous in this regard. (See earlier blog post on this issue.)

These questions and others raised by Beverly Sheppard in her article are substantive concerns that need our full attention.  The questions clearly represent a challenge for cultural heritage professionals in the coming years.  Museums and archaeology have never held the primacy in educational mandates enjoyed by public schools and libraries.  Can you imagine a school without a library?  Emphatically, no.  Can you imagine a school without a museum?   Well, yes – in fact, I doubt that most educational institutions have affiliated museums.

In the 1960s when I was in grade school, I went to the Cincinnati Museum of Natural History as did every other child who was the product of the public or parochial school system at the time.  We went because the Natural History Museum was the Museum in town.  I don’t recollect any special programming beyond a normal tour.  I doubt there was any discussion with our teachers on what we would experience or how it related to our coursework.  The trip to the museum was more like a rite of passage – our tour of the galleries and exhibits, with docents who made sure we didn’t touch anything.

Times have changed.

In the film What About Bob? Richard Dreyfuss proposes that Bill Murray take baby steps to begin solving his issues.  If we begin taking baby steps, and consistently so, we can begin to address the critical issues raised by Beverly Sheppard.

What are your thoughts on the need for taking these baby steps?

Before National Archaeology Day & the Day After

National Archaeology Day (NAD), October 20, 2012, is one month away.  Initiated by the Archaeological Institute of America, there are over 100 Collaborating Organizations for the 2012 events including the Society for American Archaeology, the 400 units of the National Park Service, many state agencies such as the Louisiana Division of Archaeology, along with a host of museums, universities and local archaeological societies.   Events are scheduled across North America with a few also planned in Europe and Australia.

I have posted before on the potential of National Archaeology Day as a tool for our discipline to educate and serve the public whose cultural heritage we present and preserve.  Advocacy and media specialists all will point to the importance of not just the event held on October 20th, but what we do before and after that day.  These experts will argue we must weave public outreach into the very fabric of the daily life of all cultural heritage professionals, not just something to be done at annual events.  Here are some ideas for public outreach based on projects we carried out at the C.H. Nash Museum:

  • Add your public officials and news media to your e-mail/newsletter list.  At Chucalissa, with every e-newsletter we send out, we receive requests from different news media for more information on an item they wish to promote.  Also, last week we received a voice mail from a state office holder to tell us he was retiring from office at the end of the year.  He wanted to give us his private email address to be certain he remained on our email list.  He noted he could still advocate for us through his contacts.  Interestingly, we added the official from a list we found on a web site the year before.  He had never contacted us before leaving the voice mail.  By being proactive, we developed an advocate we did not even know existed!
  • Prepare economic and educational impact statements for your cultural institution.  Here a is template for an educational impact statement and samples of economic impact statements available through the American Alliance of Museums that can be adapted for use by cultural heritage institutions.  These statements are invaluable not just for elected officials and funders but to let the general public know of the important role of an institution in the community.
  • Consider at least one public volunteer or participatory event per month.  I am always impressed by the programming at the Sunwatch Indian Village & Archaeological Park in Dayton Ohio.  Even with a small staff, they have made a long-term commitment to public events such as a monthly speaker series and Native American flute circles along with a vigorous volunteer program.  Here is an interview with Museum Director Andy Sawyer from a couple of years ago.  The lesson from Sunwatch and elsewhere is that successful and sustainable public programming must be grown over an extended period.
  • With National Archaeology Day coming up, commit to writing an op-ed piece for the local daily or weekly newspaper. NAD is an excellent opportunity to present to the public the important role of archaeology in the surrounding community.  As I discussed in a Labor Day blog post, having to explain the significance of that role allows us to better justify the public resources necessary to protect and present the cultural heritage of our communities.
  • Consider your public profile.  What do the public get if they Google the name of your museum or organization?  Is the information up-to-date?  Does the information tell the story and reflect the opportunities you want the public to know?  In the summer of 2009 at Chucalissa, we Googled our name and contacted the web sites of the first 40 hits to be certain all the information was correct.  We created a small press kit to send to them.  We were pleased that at the end of the summer, the top 20 search hits on our name contained complete up-to-date information about our Museum.  Now, in 2012, we find that we must redo the process.  Because internet contact is the first impression most of the public have with our institutions, accurate information is essential.
  • Finally, I am certain that many individuals who work at small institutions with a limited staff, or perhaps they are the only staff person, feel the simply do not have the time to take on any of the above tasks.  Last year our small staff of 4 logged around 8000 work hours at Chucalissa.  Another 8000 work hours came from students, volunteers, and community service learning projects.  An integral part of our museum are internships and applied class work from students at the University of Memphis.  Our Museum Studies graduate students complete two 150-hour internships at area museums where a mutually beneficial relationship takes place.   Consider contacting your local university to arrange internships or applied student projects for everything from website development, museum staffing, social media work, language translation of guides for non-English speakers, exhibit design and more.  Student support is an excellent mutually beneficial opportunity for all cultural heritage institutions to more effectively live into their educational mission and receive needed expertise.

How will you celebrate National Archaeology Day both before and after October 20th?

An Evaluation of Coursera as Public Outreach

Shaker rattle from Uganda

I have posted several times lately about Massive Open Online Courses (MOOC) such as offered through  In those posts I stuck to a general discussion of MOOCs, holding off on evaluative statements until I completed a course.  So, yesterday I took the final exam for my first MOOC: Listening to World Music taught by Professor Carol Muller at the University of Pennsylvania.  Here are some thoughts:

The academic level for the course was on a junior/senior undergraduate level.  I spent 4 – 8 hours per week watching video lectures, YouTube clips, searching for internet resources, writing essays, and taking quizzes.  Based on the grading scheme, I will end up with a B+ or so, a reasonable grade for the effort I expended.  I could have earned an A except I blew off the 100 question multiple guess final exam by not reviewing any of my notes to refresh my memory on what is a hocket, who employs them, whether an event happened in 1996 or 1998 etc.

  • Overall, the lecture content was quite good.  I learned a lot.  As an anthropologist, I was disappointed by what I perceived as some rather convoluted statements on cultural development, notions of authenticity, and so forth.  But I know ethnomusicologists are equally disappointed in my inability to distinguish between polyphonic and heterophonic textures.
  • But . . . my disappointment is precisely where the class discussion forums provided an outstanding opportunity to engage.  For example, on the concept of authenticity, I had excellent discussions with students and “staff” for the course.  I was particularly impressed with the diversity of  responses as the majority of students were from outside the United States.  Although data were not published for the Listening to World Music class, for another coursera offering on Gamification, U.S. participation was one-third of the student body.  As a general statement, the level and quality of engagement in the discussion forums was in line with first year graduate level seminars.  I was quite pleased with this aspect of the course.
  • Each week participants chose one of four questions/topics and submitted a 700 – 1000 word essay on same.  The essays required synthesizing lecture content, built sequentially throughout the 7-week course, and drew on personal experiences.  In this regard, the student diversity was particularly insightful.
  • Based on my Listening to World Music experience and reviewing the requirements of other offerings, I dropped a couple of courses for which I had previously registered.  Simply the quality and effort required for these MOOC courses is considerably more than I originally imagined.  I note that the course descriptions at now include an estimated time commitment per week.  I really cannot manage taking more than one course at a time.  Fortunately, the schedule of courses and breadth of offerings is such that at the present rate, I will be kept busy for quite a while before I run through all the courses that interest me or will be helpful in my career.

Here is what I found did not work in the Listening to World Music course:

  • The peer review of the weekly essays was perhaps the weakest part of the experience.  This finding is consistent with other MOOC reviews I have read.  The evaluations ranged from the silly (requirement of 2 -3 paragraphs of up to 1000 words, but having points deducted when the evaluator counted a block quote as a separate paragraph making the total 4 even though word count was under 800) to the unhelpful (“very good but I would like to have seen more”).  Ultimately, I followed the solution of other folks who posted portions of their essays in the discussion forums to meaningfully engage.
  • Anonymity on two levels was problematic.  First, for essay evaluations peer review anonymity is problematic simply because there is not an opportunity for further discussion with the writer one is evaluating.  There were several essays I evaluated where I would have liked following up with the writer on some of their insightful comments.  Second, in the discussion forums, students can post anonymously.  Consistently, folks who posted inflammatory or troll-like responses did so anonymously.  In the instances where posters were questioned on their anonymity, they explained anonymity as their right, blah, blah, blah. Signing as Anonymous relegates comments to the great “they said” of discussions and seems completely out of place.  I hope will deal with this issue.
  • The professors and graduate assistants taking the leap into teaching these courses are to be congratulated for their pioneering efforts.  I expect that technical issues will improve, such as Prof Muller’s problems with pointing out locations on digital maps.  The graduate assistant discussions needed work as they sometimes mumbled through important course information, looking down at their notes/iPads while speaking, greatly reducing the effectiveness of delivery.  Perhaps coursera should offer a coursera course on how to deliver a coursera course presentation?

So what has any of this got to do with public outreach for archaeology or museums:

  • The demographic data of the Gamification course offering are quite interesting.  Sixty percent of the participants took the course because of “interest in the subject matter, without a particular educational/business rationale”  Only 15% took the course because “it relates to my educational program.”  MOOCs also offer opportunities for those yet to find a place at the higher education table.  This MOOC reality is contrary to the “sky is falling” concerns expressed by some in higher education.  I am hopeful that coursera will make public such data as they start rolling in from completed courses.
  • Although the MOOC concept will inevitably, and rightly so, find its place within the formal structure of  higher education, as the coursera founders note, taking over all of the 30 seat lecture classes is not there intent.  I don’t really see a hidden agenda here.  Peter Norvig, a pioneer in MOOCs argues that coursera is about the democratization of knowledge and addressing the needs of lifelong learners.
  • In this capacity, think of the opportunities for a MOOC offering on the Introduction to Archaeology as a resource for those with an “interest in the subject matter, without a particular educational/business rationale.”  Or we can abstain from such mass opportunities and leave it to the American Digger.  The same is true for a MOOC offering on the Introduction to Museum Practices.  Would the American Alliance of Museums (until two weeks ago the 100-year-old American Association of Museums) be well served in its decade old campaign of Mastering Civic Engagement: A Challenge to Museums to consider such a form of outreach?

How do you envision that MOOC-like opportunities can be effectively used in your public outreach efforts?

Labor Day and the Cultural Heritage Professional

In 1987 I enrolled in my first archaeological field school. The course was taught by the late Dr. Patricia Essenpreis at the Fort Ancient State Memorial in Warren County, Ohio, US.  That experience led to Pat serving as my mentor until her untimely death in 1991.  Fort Ancient’s 2000 year old earthen architecture ultimately served as a focus for my doctoral dissertation research.

What I remember most from the 1987 field experience was a need for rigorous field methods and the importance of public outreach.  Pat also posed a challenge that has remained with me 25 years later.  She argued that if you could not justify your research to the public who supported the work through their tax dollars, you might as well stay home.  In answering that challenge in 1987, I could not go beyond platitudes about site preservation, learning about the past, an interest in archaeology, and so forth.  During my graduate school career in the early 1990s I did not think a lot about Pat’s challenge.    In 1996, with a freshly printed PhD in hand, when I was hired as the Station Archaeologist at the Poverty Point earthworks in northeast Louisiana, Pat’s challenge came to the fore again, and has remained ever since.

Today, I can respond to Pat’s challenge beyond general platitudes.  To me, applied archaeology as exemplified by case studies in edited volumes such as Places in Mind: Public Archaeology as Applied Anthropology edited by Paul A. Shackel and Erve J. Chambers or Archaeology as a Tool of Civic Engagement edited by Barbara Little and Paul A. Shackel are excellent responses.  In these case studies cultural heritage is a source for empowering people.  At the C.H. Nash Museum, the creation of the African American Cultural Heritage Exhibit by area high school students is one of our big successes in public engagement and demonstrating the worth of our research.  The basic tenets of the Participatory Museum where the public and museum professionals co-create exhibits that explore cultural heritage are also an excellent response to Pat’s challenge.

Over the past few years I have challenged students with the essence of the question asked by Professor Barry Isaac during my M.A.thesis defense a bunch of years ago.  He asked “Why is your research more important than eating a plate of worms?”  I now reframe that question to something like “As a Graduate Assistant, through taxes the public are paying about $20,000.00 per year for you to go to school and come up with a research project.  I want you to 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 just another example of this wealth transfer?  What do John and Josephine Q. Public get for the  $20,000.00 of their taxes that fund your research?”  As a general statement, today a student’s first response is stating the same platitudes as I did in 1987.

In 1987 when Pat issued her challenge, the economic situation in the U.S. was not rosy, but certainly not as dire as today.  I appreciate that she made her challenge during a time of declining unemployment.  Her challenge was not simply a self-serving call for job preservation.  What I got from Pat’s challenge is that we must remain vigilant and proactive in good times and bad so that value of cultural heritage is not viewed as just another earmark for someone’s pet project.  Rather, the public must be in sync with the cultural heritage professional in demanding that adequate resources are provided to protect and present this part of our country.

On this Labor Day in the U.S., a good exercise is to articulate how our labor as cultural heritage professionals is of value to the public that we serve and who fund our salaries.

Or as Professor Isaac would ask “Why is what we do more important than eating a plate of worms?”

National Archaeology Day & Advocacy

A bunch of opportunities are in the air to conduct effective community outreach for both archaeology and museums. The Archaeology Institute of America’s  Second National Archaeology Day (NAD), October 20, 2012 is just four months away.  With over 50 collaborating organizations to date, including that 400 locations of the U.S. National Park Service, state agencies such as the Louisiana Division of Archaeology, the Alabama Archaeological Society, the Florida Public Archaeology Network, and professional organizations such as the Society for American Archaeology, the national scope of the celebration is an excellent opportunity to highlight the relevance of cultural heritage preservation and presentation in our country today.  The NAD blog has a list of all the events planned across the country to date for the October celebration.  The list is impressive and includes special tours of research labs, conferences, festivals, presentations and much more.

At the C.H. Nash Museum at Chucalissa we are firming up our plans for NAD.  Thus far, we scheduled the opening of a newly constructed replica prehistoric residential house.  Along with tours, including our new Medicinal Plant Sanctuary, we will also have flintknapping, hide tanning, atlatl dart throwing demonstrations and hands-on activities for the entire family.

Beyond just hosting events, NAD is an opportunity to take part in a community awareness and outreach campaign over the next several months.  Those of us who work in small to medium-sized museums with limited budgets are often overwhelmed when trying to compete with the larger venues.  NAD is an opportunity to participate as equal partners in a national consortium of collaborating agencies.  In building for the event, here are some opportunities to consider:

Op-ed and News Media Articles – The American Association of Museums (AAM) celebrates a Museum Advocacy Day each year.  In building awareness for the event, the AAM encourages individual museums to write op-ed pieces for local news media.  The C.H. Nash Museum is not the biggest museum in Memphis by a long shot, but we are the only museum to take up this AAM challenge.  As a result in both 2011 and 2012 our staff wrote op-ed pieces published in Memphis’ daily newspaper, the Commercial Appeal, highlighting the important work of museums in our community.  Of course, we will submit an op-ed piece for National Archaeology Day, and use the national scope to promote cultural heritage awareness and our event.  The NAD’s national scope allows such media coverage not to be viewed as paid advertising but as feature stories that explore the important role our museum plays in archaeological research and preservation.

Elected Public Officials – This week, AAM President Ford Bell sent an email to all members announcing August 11 – 18 as Invite Congress to Visit Your Museum week.  Given the epidemic of budget cuts occurring in our country, President Bell wrote:

What will influence Congress the most as they make these tough budget choices?“According to a recent study, constituent visits have more influence than any other influence group or strategy. This ‘Invite Congress to Visit Your Museum’ event is the perfect opportunity for Congress to learn first-hand how museums provide essential community services. I urge every museum to participate in this event.

Our experience at Chucalissa shows that when we ask our elected officials to visit our museum, they respond with a very real interest in seeing how we are relevant to the electorate they represent.  NAD is an excellent opportunity to showcase that relevance in a nationally organized forum.  Consider using the summer recess period to connect with your public officials on both the national and local levels to talk about how you will tie into NAD activities and why archaeology is meaningful to the community they represent.

Word of Mouth – I am fond of saying all of this type of work is a process not an event.  I recollect from the movie What About Bob it’s all about taking baby steps.  I had an experience this past Friday that reflects this understanding.  First, especially when we are slow at the Museum, I am a sucker for taking any visiting young boy or girl outside to let them throw darts with an atlatl.  They always enjoy this activity. This past Friday I moderated two break-out sessions on prehistory at the Delta – Everything Southern Conference that featured my friend Sam Brookes.  Sam has forgotten more about the archaeology of the Mississippi Delta than I will ever know.  Each breakout session was attended by about 50 folks.  After the sessions, four separate individuals came up and thanked me for taking their children out to throw darts during their visit to the Museum.  Each person raved that their child/grandchild was thrilled with the opportunity and wanted to come back to the Museum for another session.  Here is the punch line on this.  I only recognized one of the four adults (granddaughter pictured above) but graciously acknowledged to all that providing the opportunity is what we are all about at the Museum – which is true.  The resulting word-of-mouth advertising from such encounters is often built one person at a time but is more effective than op-ed pieces or paid advertising.  Check a recent post in Colleen Dilenschneider’s Know Your Own Bone blog to explore the evolving priority of such word-of-mouth interactions over other forms of marketing.

National Archaeology Day is an incredible opportunity in our ongoing process of demonstrating the relevance of  our work in cultural heritage preservation and presentation.  We can tap into this national event to introduce new communities to the archaeological venues their tax dollars support.  After this introduction, these visitors can become our word-of-mouth ambassadors to their neighbors, and so on, and so on, and so on . . . it is truly a never ending process!

Wikipedia, Museums, Trade and More

I have blogged before about Wikipedia and both the positive and negative “professional” reactions to the resource.  Returning to that thread, one of the more interesting sessions I attended at the American Association of Museums meetings last week in Minneapolis dealt with Wikipedia – specifically the GLAM-Wiki Initiative (Galleries, Libraries, Archives, Museums with Wikipedia) that aims to help “cultural institutions share their resources with the world through high-impact collaboration alongside experienced Wikipedia editors.  It is an unparalled opportunity for the custodians of our cultural heritage to present their collections to new audiences.”

A GLAM promotional flyer distributed at the session cites articles in The Chronicle of Philanthropy that report on the work of Smithsonian Wikipedian in Residence Sarah Stierch, an article in the The Atlantic on National Archive Wikipedian in Residence Dominic McDevitt-Parks, and a New York Times piece on Wikipedia in the British Museum.  A monthly GLAM newsletter demonstrates the international, albeit western, scope of the GLAM Initiative.

So what does all of this mean for enhancing either the visitor experience in museums or outreach beyond an institutions walls.  The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis has been in the forefront in the U.S. in employing QR codes, videos, and other tools to access Wikipedia-based information in multiple languages on museum objects.  New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) Wikipedia page provides an example of the extensive museum-based on-line information.  Visit the  MoMA Wikipedia entry for Van Gogh’s Starry Night to see the potential of information exchange.

Perhaps to best visualize the potential, check this page from the National Archives that lists the over 100,000 images in queue for loading to a WikiCommons site.  Impressive as well are the number of images categorized to date by the public.  The editathon concept is used to check and upgrade the accuracy of Wikipedia entries.  An example of an editathon in New York City is found here or at the British Library here.

The GLAM initiative is a prime example of how Wikipedia and user-generated content continues to move front and center as a mainline information resource.  Today, those wringing their hands over user-generated content with the dire warnings of the Cult of the Amateur hold as much weight as those who argue if we had been meant to fly we would have been born with wings.  End of story.

In other web-based offerings, this week Jennifer Carey at Indiana Jenn posted about Stanford’s new Orbis Geospatial Network Model of the Roman World.  Check this one out for certain – a very impressive tool for modeling exchange networks and travel in antiquity.  Such an application to model exchange in Eastern North America from the Archaic period to Contact would be incredibly useful.  Given the pace of online resource development, I suspect that a North American prehistory edition of Orbis is not a long way off.  Jennifer also links to the new Edx project where this fall Harvard and MIT will partner to offer free online courses where you can get a grade, but not a degree – not yet anyway.

What are your favorite new online research tools?

When will be the right time for Museum Advocacy?

I am in Minneapolis attending the Annual Conference of the American Association of Museums.  As is typical for such events, there is too much to do, too many sessions to attend, and too many folks to talk to.

On Monday I attended a session on Museum Advocacy Day.  Including the three speakers, there were a total of seven people in the room.  Seems there should have been more interest.  Other sessions presented at the same time covered topics such as museum branding, trends in corporate philanthropy, gaming and collections, handling hazardous material collections, designing an endowed director position, cultivating future leaders, and so on.

One of the presenters at the Advocacy session asked “Who owns the stuff in our museums?” and the four choir members responded “the public.”  Next the choir responded with “taxes” when the speaker asked “What ultimately is the source of funding for museums?”

Another presenter commented that next year, after many of the pending federal and state budget cuts to museums become a reality, there will be more folks attending such museum advocacy sessions.  This seems a bit like trying to put mercury back into a bottle after it has spilled – better not to let it spill in the first place.

The AAM’s Speak Up For Museums website contains the dire warning that “The House report (a narrative produced by the House Budget Committee that explains the bill) notes that “The Federal Institute of Museum and Library Services is an independent agency that makes grants to museums and libraries. This is not a core Federal responsibility.” The report further states that funding for the NEA and NEH “can no longer be justified” and 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.”

That should get everyone’s attention.  What will it take for the public to demand that their cultural heritage be prioritized in funding?  closure of all public libraries?  the Smithsonian Museums?  The 400 National Parks in the U.S.?  What will get the attention of archaeologists and museum professionals?  the loss of jobs at those closed institutions?  the complete gutting of legislation that fuels the CRM industry?

We are in a crisis on both ends of the spectrum.  On the one hand the inconvenient truth of the public defunding of cultural heritage support in the United States today is not fully appreciated and appropriately responded to by cultural heritage professionals.  As well, the public has chosen not to take responsibility to demand that funding for the preservation of their cultural heritage be a priority.  The political leadership notes the lack of input by both groups on this issue and has chosen to allocate tax dollars to the projects of advocates and lobbyists who bang on their doors regularly.

This past semester, students in my Museum Practices graduate seminar at the University of Memphis each worked with an area museum to complete a Museum Advocacy Inventory.  Completion of the inventory required the students to work with an area museum to pull together the data for all of those talking points needed for a 2 minute elevator speech to elected officials.  Students seemed to enjoy the process but questioned the utility for the Museums they worked with.  This Fall Semester students will follow-up with those museums to see how the institutions have used the Inventory.  And of course, because actions speak louder than words, I will more pro-actively engage in advocacy work from my position as Director as the C.H. Nash Museum.

Both sides of the fence have much work to do.  Museum Advocacy with public officials on the part of cultural heritage professionals is an important place to expend a good bit of energy.

How do you advocate for the cultural heritage of your community?

Celebrate Museum Advocacy Day

Below is an op-ed written by Mallory Bader, graduate assistant at the C.H. Nash Museum for the February 28, 2012 edition of the MemphisCommercial Appeal.  The piece is based on the American Association of Museum’s Advocacy Day activities for 2012.

Guest column: Museums have mission to serve, educate

Today is National Museum Advocacy Day and it’s an excellent time to express support for your local institutions.

  • By Mallory Bader, Special to The Commercial Appeal

In tough economic times, government officials trying to balance their budgets often consider cutting funds for cultural institutions such as museums. Some view museums as luxuries we cannot afford. However, museums are much more than warehouses filled with objects. They are places where change occurs and lives are transformed.

I believe the museums that continue to flourish despite tough times are those that embrace their communities and address the challenges of our times. Instead of simply being repositories for “stuff,” public museums have a mission to serve, educate and empower our citizens.

Museums serve the public by providing fun and engaging educational opportunities. According to the American Association of Museums, museums spend $2.2 billion a year on education alone. At least 22 percent of our nation’s museums are located in rural areas and act as a primary educational voice for a community’s cultural heritage. Many are surprised to learn there are more than 75 museums in West Tennessee alone, most located outside of Memphis.

Museums can engage with communities to tackle a variety of issues that are debated in the political forum and affect our everyday lives. Nationally, discussions through the AAM’s Center for the Future of Museums take up issues such as local food movements, sustainability and human rights, to name a few. The National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis is at the forefront of local and national discussions on human rights and social inequalities not just of the past, but of the present and into the future.

One way that museums can be centers for social change is through education. More than ever before, museums work in collaboration with schools to meet students’ educational needs. The idea of a “participatory museum” means more than just hands-on activities; it means a museum where the students and other visitors help to create the experience. Students now have an active role in their museum experiences and develop critical thinking skills while engaging interactively with the subject matter.

At the C.H. Nash Museum at Chucalissa, we provide K-12 students with engaging educational opportunities that are tied to a school’s curriculum standards. For example, students and other visitors have participated in the creation of our new outdoor exhibits such as the Traditional Medicinal Plant Sanctuary. When completed the exhibit will serve as an educational tool for visitors to discuss the role of traditional plants in the lives of the prehistoric Native Americans who lived at Chucalissa. The exhibit will also serve as a model for preserving and conserving medicinal plants for future generations of Memphians.

At Chucalissa, we are working to better address the needs of our community. For example, in redesigning the museum’s exhibit hall, we are going well beyond simply updating our exhibit cases. We are involving the public by holding focus groups and interviews with teachers, community members, archaeologists and Native Americans to help determine the content of our museum exhibits.

Museums now tell stories and build exhibits that paint a larger and more inclusive picture of our society. These stories often deal with people who have been marginalized or issues that are politically charged. Museums must become socially responsible and connect to the communities they serve, or else they will become irrelevant.

Institutions such as the C.H. Nash Museum at Chucalissa and the Pink Palace Family of Museums are publicly owned. Blockbuster exhibits and tax dollars alone will not keep these museum doors open. To be successful, the public must take an active role in defining what museums are to become. This crucial connection cannot happen without museum visitors being advocates and voicing their support of museums to our government officials.

Today is National Museum Advocacy Day — an excellent time to express that support. Remember, like libraries, schools and other public institutions, museums are meant to serve the public, but the public must also support and serve those institutions.

Mallory Bader is a graduate assistant at the C.H. Nash Museum at Chucalissa and a graduate student in the Museum Studies Program at the University of Memphis.