AmeriCorps Delta 5 – Unparalleled Community Service

Delta 5 AmeriCorps NCCC Team at the C.H. Nash Museum at Chucalissa (R.Connolly on right)

Anyone who has follows this blog knows that as the Director of the C.H. Nash Museum at Chucalissa, I am a big fan of AmeriCorps NCCC.  Over the past few years we hosted four eight-week teams.  AmeriCorps NCCC is integral to the C.H. Nash Museum’s outreach to the Southwest Memphis community.  Besides writing about the Teams on this blog, I recently published an article on the experience with Ana Rea, a former NCCC Team leader.

This past month the C.H. Nash Museum worked with the City of Memphis in hosting the Delta 5 AmeriCorps NCCC Team.  We are currently discussing with the city administrators future partnerships to sponsor AmeriCorps Teams.  I am excited that this new partnership will expand the Museum’s collaboration with the City of Memphis and result in increased service opportunities to the underserved in our neighborhood.

The Delta 5 Team was in Memphis just a short five weeks this past spring but accomplished a great deal.  In work coordinated through the City of Memphis, the Team:

  • built four community gardens in city “food deserts” and hosted engagement days at the locations
  • worked with members from the community at Ruth Tate senior center to build a garden
  • cleaned 13 public pools in preparation for summer
  • power washed 40 pavilions in public parks
  • refurbished a wrought iron fence around the Ed Rice community center pool.

Team member Falicia Forward noted that:

The community engagement aspects of the work we’ve done have been the most rewarding. In particular, it was very gratifying to work alongside the seniors at Ruth Tate Senior Center. They really took ownership of the garden, almost before it was even built. In other areas, we interacted with the community as individuals approached the team to inquire about our work. From day one, I felt very connected to the communities we were serving.

Team member Sarah Raposa throwing darts with an atlatl

In the short one week at the C.H. Nash Museum the Team:

  • prepared our Urban and Three Sisters Gardens for spring planting and performed maintenance tasks on the sweetgrass bed, herb garden and nature trail.
  • built several cabinets and tables for our upgraded hands-on archaeology lab
  • processed several thousand prehistoric artifacts curated from past excavations at the Chucalissa site
  • and of course, tried their hand at throwing darts with an atlatl.

AmeriCorps NCCC Teams are well-suited for  a diverse set of cultural heritage projects, particularly those that involve the local community.  For more information on the application process – whether to host a Team or joining if you are between 18 – 24 – contact AmeriCorps NCCC.

Why You Need to Donate to Small Museums Now!

Two generations exploring the Muscatine city map at the Pearl Button Museum
Two generations exploring the Muscatine city map at the Pearl Button Museum, Muscatine, Iowa

Each year about this time I receive many solicitations in the mail for donations to area museums.  I should qualify that statement – from large area museums.  At best, smaller museums can afford to send email newsletters with fund appeals.  As the director of a small museum, I don’t make this statement as a complaint or grievance.  In fact, I am very pleased that I am not responsible for those mega-size electric bills and other expenses that larger institutions pay!

As might be gleaned from the last couple of posts on this blog, I am a strong advocate for cultural heritage institutions demonstrating their worth as community assets.  My experience has shown that when we do so, economic support follows.

I am also a small museum junkie.  Places like the Pearl Button Museum in Muscatine Iowa, The Santa Fe Trail Center in Larned, Kansas, and the Mennonite Heritage and Agricultural Museum in Goessel, Kansas are some of the larger of the small museums of which I have fond memories.  When traveling on backroads, my wife and I always stop at any and all county and smaller museums.  Unfortunately, these venues are often closed, have very restricted operating hours, or are open only by appointment.

As we near the end of the year and peak time of annual charitable contributions, I urge everyone to remember the small museums.  Mega-museums like the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Pink Palace in Memphis, and the Exploratorium in San Francisco – yes, they all need charitable contributions and support too.

But here is an example of how your donation to a small museum will make a difference.  A bunch of years ago on a backroad trip to Colorado, I was driving through Baxter Springs Kansas on a rainy Sunday morning about 11:00 AM.  As I drove through the small town to see what there was to see, I came across the Baxter Springs Museum Heritage Center.  On the front door hung an open sign.  Surprised and assuming that perhaps the staff had left the sign up from the day before, I parked my car.  Sure enough, the museum was open and staffed by an elderly woman and a young teenager.  I thoroughly enjoyed my visit to that place – particularly their Civil War exhibit.   I suspect that the cost for keeping the museum open on Sundays for out-of-town visitors and residents alike is less than $5000.00 per year.  For a larger museum, like the Metropolitan Museum of Arts with a 2.5 billion dollar investment portfolio, that $5ooo.00 is a proverbial drop in the bucket.  For Baxter Springs, the $5000.00 is a bigger chunk of the small town’s discretionary funds.  (I notice on the Museum’s website they are now only open from 1 – 4 on Sundays.)

A few hundred or thousand dollars here and there will really make a difference in the visitor experience at small museums such as those reported in this post.  The same total contribution to larger museums if even noticed, will only have a negligible impact.

As we reach the end of this calendar year, consider making a donation to a small museum.  Here are some possibilities:

Regardless of where you choose to make a contribution, know that such public support for the small museum is essential for their very survival.

Public Accountability in Cultural Heritage Studies

bl hist
U.S. Military Veteran participants in Black History Month Celebration at the C.H. Nash Museum – photo featured in Museums and Social Issues volume

For the past few years I delivered a presentation on professionalism to a proseminar of incoming Anthropology graduate students at the University of Memphis (UM).  In preparing for the first time I gave the presentation, I sent an email to 50 professionals in my address book including those who worked as faculty, corporate and nonprofit administrators, and clergy.  In the email I asked this question:

If you could tell graduate students about one professional standard that is routinely violated but is of critical importance as they embark on their careers – what is that standard?

I was pleasantly surprised to receive 34 responses from a representative sample of careers:  2 Clergy, 3 Government officials, 6 University Professors, 7 University Administrators, 7 Non-Profit Administrators, and 9 Private Industry Administrators.

Now I routinely open the proseminar session by asking the students to speculate on the most common response professionals give to my question.  Typically, students raise issues such as the need to show up on time, wear appropriate clothes, and so forth.  In three years, no student has identified the top standard listed by over 60% of the professionals – Publishing Research Results and Public Accountability.  The responses from the professionals included:

. . . Many ‘academics’ do not give enough consideration to their responsibility to inform the public about their work.   Lip service and a few talks or even fewer publications are given by some, but being esoteric and admired by your colleagues is considered to be so much more important . . .

Despite the mantra of “publish or perish,” . . . far too many professionals fail to finish projects . . .

I will admit to being quite surprised by the priority given in this response as well.  In fact, the 34 professionals responses ranked Being on Time/Prepared and Appearance/Demeanor as 4th and 5th behind Responsiveness/Accountability and Giving Thanks/Acknowledgements, the 2nd and 3rd in their rankings.  Though certainly not a scientific study, the results were quite revealing and aligned with the response from a focus group in which I recently participated.  The College of Arts of Sciences conducted the focus group consisting of area employers who hire UM graduates.  The gist of the focus group was to determine how the College can better prepare students for employment.  Of the ten people in the focus group, the unanimous top response was the need for improvement in oral and written communication skills.

What does all of this have to do with Archaeology, Museums and Outreach?  These results remind me of the need for cultural heritage professionals to remain relevant to the communities we serve.  At the same time we need to demonstrate and share that relevance.  A few weeks ago, I received a surprising comment on this point.  We recently published a paper The C.H. Nash Museum at Chucalissa: Community Engagement at an Archaeological Site.  The paper summarizes and evaluates the last five years of the Museum’s engagement as a participatory institution with the underserved community surrounding the Museum.  The journal Museums and Social Issues published the paper in a thematic set of papers (Volume 7, Number 3, 2012 Opening(ing) Authority Through Community Engagement) based on a session I organized two years before at a professional conference.  As an editor of the volume I received an extra hard copy of the journal and gave it to Mr. Robert Gurley, the President of the Westwood Neighborhood Association, the collaborating partner featured in the paper.  Mr. Gurley read an earlier draft of the paper and was pleased to have the published hard copy.

Mr. Gurley approached me a few days later saying that he showed the volume to other community members and four individuals wanted to buy a copy.  I noted that copies were $25.00 each, but I would be happy to provide pdf copies of the manuscript at no cost.  Mr. Gurley replied that the community members were proud to be featured in the “book” and wanted to have an actual copy.  He also noted that he had read several of the articles in the volume and enjoyed knowing how our type of community/museum collaboration was carried out at other locations in the U.S.

Ultimately, I cut a deal with the press and got 10 copies for 19.00 each.  All ten copies were sold in the community within one week.  I must admit I was quite surprised that ten individuals in this working class community were interested in paying 19.00 for an 18-page article on a collaborative project in their neighborhood.

Flowing from this example, I will return to this theme next week to consider other opportunities to address the Public Accountability and Responsiveness standard considered top priorities by the professional community.

What opportunities do you take to share your research with the public?

Even if the Book is Dead . . . Long Live Reading!

A discussion that occurs with increasing regularity is the need for cultural institutions to be relevant to public they serve.  The discussion considers relevancy of both subject matter and technology.  Conventional wisdom in this area is often based on unsubstantiated assumptions about current and future trends.  As well, I hear the occasional equivalent of holding one’s breath and waiting for the “good old days” return.  I am fond of noting that if one adopts the latter approach, they will die of asphyxiation while waiting.  In today’s cultural heritage institution we question the work we do on a range of fronts – is presentation optimized for public use? is it relevant?

There are a host of excellent resources to help think about these questions.  The Greater Philadelphia Cultural Alliance publishes a Cultural Engagement Index that explores how Philadelphians in a 20-mile radius of the city center engage in culture.  The Alliance’s survey methodology allowed the inclusion of a representative sample of all Philadelphians.

Here is an item from the Index I found relevant when considering how to present exhibits or programs in a museum or other cultural heritage setting.  In an era where conventional wisdom suggests that books and reading are on their deathbeds, the Index found that 74% of respondents read books for pleasure at least once a month. This statement is at odds with Steve Jobs proclamation that “It doesn’t matter how good or bad the product is, the fact is that people don’t read anymore . . . Forty percent of the people in the U.S. read one book or less last year. The whole conception is flawed at the top because people don’t read anymore.”  A post in the Chronicle of Higher Education’s blog by a Harvard librarian argues against Jobs’ statement.  Futurist Thomas Frey presents a balanced assessment on books as we know them, and how reading will exist in the future.  Frey’s approach and perspective seem the most helpful in charting a course forward on this question.  Frey notes it is not a matter of reading books vs. not reading books.  This goes back to the important point made by Clay Shirkey in his book Cognitive Surplus – the technology does not predict the behavior, rather the technology is a servant to the behavior.  The relevance of all this to cultural heritage professionals is to ask “What technology best suits the public’s demonstrated desire to learn more about the cultural heritage of themselves and others?

Like the Philadelphia Index, there are other useful tools to help move beyond conventional wisdom to evaluate public experiences, perceptions and trends.  A good starting point is the site has links to evaluation resources.  Another excellent source of survey data on cultural heritage visitors is available from Reach Advisors.  In addition to being a key data resource in publications such as Life Stages of the Museum Visitor, the Reach Advisors blog has a mind-boggling array of cultural heritage venue visitor data.  The Practical Evaluation Guide by Judy Diamond, Jessica Luke and David Uttal is basic and accessible volume on the subject.  Another resource is Reaching and Responding to the Audience, edited by Cinnamon Catlin-Legutko and Stacy Klinger in Volume 4 of the six-volume Small Museum Toolkit published by the American Association of State and Local History through AltaMira Press.

You will notice that the resources I list are more representative of the museum field than archaeology.  This is so because museums, by their very nature, have long been visitor-centered while the very concept of public archaeology was unheard of before the 1970s.  However, as someone with a foot in each field, I find the above references quite useful in both realms.

What resources do you find most helpful in visitor evaluations?

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?

Students as Practioners – Community Service Learning

University of Memphis undergraduate Brooke Mundy with exhibit she helped create during her internship at the C.H. Nash Museum

Whenever I welcome educators or visiting groups of students to the C.H. Nash Museum at Chucalissa, I emphasize that other students created almost everything the visitors will see at the Museum that is less than five years old.  This includes our introductory video, Drumming Across Cultures musical program, herb garden, and much more.  From 2008 through 2011, students completed over 35 projects at our small museum.  The students include both graduate and undergraduates participating as interns, graduate assistants, for Masters level practica, and for class-based projects.  The projects include exhibit creation and design, program creation, collections projects, event planning, to name a few.  The University of Memphis applied academic programs support this work.

Students in the University of Memphis  Museum Studies Graduate Certificate Program also complete many internships and class projects in other area museums.  Conceptually, this work allows the student to apply what they learn in the classroom in a real-time situation.  For many of the smaller museums and cultural heritage organizations in West Tennessee, these student projects have made a significant impact over the years.

The above are excellent examples of community service learning.  Paul Shackel notes:

“There are at least 147 known definitions of service learning; however, they all seem to have a common denominator that is important for any community program.  Service learning is not about volunteerism, where people with resources come into a community and provide resources and volunteers to  help solve other people’s problems (Kendall 1990).  Service learning is about doing things with others rather than for others.  The needs of the community define the service tasks.  Therefore, it is important that archaeologists create a dialogue with the community before they plan any work and determine tasks.  The community must also have the opportunity to participate in the teaching and learning process.  Communities should be seen as assets that can benefit the students.  This reciprocity allows students to develop a greater sense of belonging and responsibility as members of a larger community” (Paul Shackel, Civic Engagement and Community Service Learning, pp. 216-217.  In Archaeology and Community Service Learning, edited by Michael Nassaney and Mary Ann Levine, University Press of Florida, 2009.)

This relationship between the student and community also helps each partner to have a reciprocal stake in each other.  For the small museum, the University becomes a resource to carry out their community needs.  For the student the small community museum takes on a part of their creative experience. The process forms a relationship that can continue beyond the end of the semester.

I am engaged in two very exciting community service learning projects at this time.  First, we are hosting an AmeriCorps team at the C.H. Nash Museum for one month this spring.  This coming Thursday, our museum will partner with the AmeriCorps team in constructing a ghost house to represent a structure that stood in prehistory at the Chucalissa mound complex.  The AmeriCorps team has construction experience, at the museum we have ideas, and an anthropologist/architect has drawn up some tentative plans for the structure.  Stay tuned for more information on this process.

My Applied Archaeology and Museums class this semester is also participating in a community service learning project.  The class is working with the Public Education Committee of the Society for American Archaeology (SAA) to upgrade their Archaeology for the Public webpages.  The webpages were created a few years ago and are a primary source of public information in North America on all things archaeological.  The students are challenged not just to do the technical tasks such as finding broken links, but also to think about the SAA’s mission, what they have learned this semester in class, and apply it to the revision process.

I will also appreciate your reviewing the Archaeology for the Public webpage of the SAA and send along any recommendations for revision.  Do you know of go to websites/blogs/databases to be included in the updating process?  Do you have recommendations for how to better organize the information on the pages?  new topics that need to be considered?  Please send any recommendations to me at

How does your institution form reciprocal relationships through community service learning?

Engagement and Sustainability in Museums

Engagement and sustainability are the two words that come to mind when thinking of the challenges facing museums in 2012.  As a small institution, at the C. H. Nash Museum in 2011 we had the luxury to step back a bit, think through those two concepts, without the burden of a huge infrastructure and payroll to preoccupy our every action.

We started off the year by completing a program restructuring to assure we met the expressed needs of our visiting school groups.  We also surveyed our e-newsletter readers to get their input on program priorities for our museum.  We made certain that these discussions were firmly situated within our mission statement.

In April, we led a 12 paper session called “Re-imagining the Engaged Museum” at the Society for Applied Anthropology meetings in Seattle.  This was a fantastic opportunity to hear from other museum professionals on efforts to make their institutions socially relevant.

This year we completed our second Museum Assessment Program (MAP) study.  A key part of both our 2010 Institutional MAP study and the Collections based study this year focused on sustainability.

This fall, visitation by school groups dramatically increased at our museum compared to the past few years.  We attribute the increase to our revised programs. word of mouth advertising, and an aggressive and consistent social media presence.  We have also developed a reputation for having a staff that is very focused on visitor service.  As we remind each other regularly, the only reason we are a museum is because of our visitors.  Without visitors, our function would be that of a repository or research center.

This fall, in staff discussion of our programs for 2012, a common theme was that all of our museum offerings need to be driven by the community that we serve.  I have posted before that our anticipated upgrades and redesign of the main hall exhibits will first solicit the input of key stakeholders and users, along with the casual visitors to our museum.  As well, all of our substantive projects for 2012 including the medicinal plant sanctuary, reconstruction of prehistoric houses, and excavations of the 1930s era Civilian Conservation Corps Camp will only occur with the active participation of our key stakeholders and users – the very same people who will inform our exhibit redesign.

In 2012 and beyond, sustainability of our institution will only be accomplished as a result of community engagement.  We will heed the advice posed by Nina Simon and others that the Participatory Museum should not simply be a hands-on experience for the sake of being a hands-on experience.  Rather, the Participatory Museum’s goal is to fully engage the visitor in the public institutions of which they ultimately have responsibility.   I remain convinced that the long-term sustainability of our cultural institutions will occur when the public for whom we perform the function of stewards for their collections are effectively engaged in the entire museum process.

What challenges do you see for 2012?

Educational Holiday Gift Giving

This week I received an email from one of our volunteers and supporters at the C.H. Nash Museum – Gwen Calleo a pre K-3 teacher at the Ridgeway Early Learning Center in Memphis.  Gwen’s email perfectly illustrates the important points Maureen Molloy makes in her blog post about Public Archaeology that I recently shared.  In her email Gwen wrote “I am not sure if I ever shared a “light-bulb” moment I experienced volunteering at Chucalissa.   I was working with another volunteer, college student, and we were discussing how the samples were taken.  I never felt comfortable recording information from the bags because I know I did not have the background to understand what I was writing.  This student began explaining to me how the ground is laid out during an excavation.  Although I had seen pictures, I never made the correlation to graphs / grids/ axis’ until that moment.  For the first time, I understood the “z” axis.  The moment was good and bad.  Bad, because if I had met him a few years before, I possibly would not have failed calculus II.  Twice.  The good news was I realized now that I could explain, roughly, “z” or 3D to four year olds.  Not only could I explain it but I could show it to them if I were able to obtain the resources.”

To help Gwen provide similar “light-bulb” experiences for her students, I ask that you consider supporting her fundraising project at Donor’s Choose to get the needed supplies for her classroom.  I am a big fan of Donor’s Choose as a means of providing materials for the grossly underfunded public education system in the United States.

A resource to give funds to equally needy museums is through Shop for Museums.  At their website you specify the museum you wish to donate a percent of your online purchases from hundreds of online outlets such as Amazon, Target, and Barnes and Noble.  The news media reported over 1 billion dollars in sales on “Cyber Monday” this year.  There are about 1200 museums registered at Shop for Museums.  The low-end of the donations made by online companies for Shop For Museum purchases is 2 percent.  If all the online sales just from Cyber Monday were purchased through the Shop for Museums site, each of the 1200 registered museums would receive a check for over $16,000.00!  I have used the Shop for Museums website for a couple of years now without a glitch.  I urge readers to consider Shop for Museums to support your favorite cultural heritage institution – at no cost to you.  Of course, we listed the C. H. Nash Museum at Shop For Museums.

Finally, consider mailing your favorite museum a check specified for community outreach or educational programming –  or drop some extra cash in a museum’s donation box during your next visit.  At the C.H. Nash Museum, we accept online donations that we use specifically to enhance our educational programming with visiting school groups.

Consider supporting your favorite cultural heritage or educational institution this year with a holiday gift!

Museums Investing in People

I must confess to a bit of smugness when I read a recent Associate Press article about the struggle of museums in today’s economic climate.  The article cited museum professionals on the need to show relevance in tough economic times.  My smugness came in part from comments from one interviewee that this need for relevance caused their institution to plan the first museum upgrade in 50 years.  Too often museums have fallen into the trap of expecting public support because, well, we said so.

My smugness also comes from a truth I express when introducing visitors to the C.H. Nash Museum at Chucalissa.  I comment that almost every new product, exhibit, and program from our introductory video, hands-on archaeology lab, and Drumming Across Cultures program, to name but a few, are all created by our student graduate assistants, interns, and volunteers at the museum.  We do not have any blockbuster presentations, but drumming circles, dart throwing with atlatls, and low-cost cultural heritage exhibits prove equally engaging.  Our attendance is up.  Smugness here again, but I suspect that in tough economic times, our $5.00 admission fares better than the blockbuster museum fees of $20.00 plus.

I believe that if we can prove our social relevance, we will develop an institutional base of stakeholders, who will drive our museums with their time, talents, and resources.  To me, this all comes down to investing in people. There are many success stories that take this approach.

Over at Nina Simon’s Museum 2.0 Blog recently there was a very interesting discussion about interns.  The perspectives ranged from a loose approach where interns pretty much figure out their experience on their own, to a highly structured mentorship in complete accord with the Internal Revenue Service guidelines.  Regardless, all respondents agreed the internship process is an investment in people.

Two of my favorite resources on people investment are Archaeology as a Tool for Civic Engagement edited by Paul Shackel and Barbara Little and Places in Mind: Public Archaeology as Applied Anthropology edited by Erve Chambers and Paul Shackel.  Both of these volumes report a host of archaeology and museum projects in direct partnership with the community served.  In so doing, the community become less actors on the stage of their cultural heritage expression but become the very producers and directors of the process.

Programs such as Footsteps of the Ancestors among the Hopi youth, the New Philadelphia Archaeology Project in Illinois, and our own African-American Cultural Heritage in Southwest Memphis project are also investments in people.  I used to think that such efforts were simply expedient means for stakeholder development.  I have come to understand that such processes are an essential means in creating an authentic cultural heritage presence.  More importantly, these investments are our mission mandates to be relevant to the public we serve.

How do you invest in people?

Wellness and Museums

With a quadrupling of childhood obesity in the last 40 years, food and wellness seem to be all over the museum world of late.

  • A recent blog post at the Center for the Future of Museums by David Curry reports on last month’s Feeding the Spirit: Museums, Food and Community held in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.   The meeting was organized through a collaboration of institutions ranging from the Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Garden to the Association of Children’s Museums.  Curry notes that his “. . . key observation (which I am still reflecting on) is about how rich the collaborative networks were that underpinned all these projects.”
  • The current issue of Museums & Social Issues addresses Pursuing Wellness.  The volume draws on museums focused in science, art, health care, agriculture, and outreach projects such as the Field Museum’s Division of Environment, Culture and Conservation.
  • The Institute of Museums and Library Services’s  Let’s Move! Museums & Gardens initiative dovetails with the program sponsored by First Lady Michelle Obama.  The Let’s Move’s October 2011 newsletter lists nearly 500 institutions that launched activities around the initiative. Twenty-five percent of those  institutions are Children or Youth Museums.
  • The Dallas Crow Collection now hosts a Yoga for Youth activity to “provide family programming using original art, stories, music, and sensory integrated activities to align healthy Minds, Bodies, Hearts through Art.”
  • The Museums Association in the UK calls for the integration of museum visits into the measures of “wellbeing” from the Office of National Statistics.

The wellbeing theme flows directly from the American Association of Museum‘s 2002 publication Mastering Civic Engagement: A Challenge to Museums.   In that volume Ellen Hirzy (2002:9) considers civic engagement to mean “ . . . when the museum and community intersect – in a subtle and overt way, over time, and as an accepted and natural way of doing business.”  She also argues (2002:16) that “Working together or diversifying audiences is not enough. What is needed are reciprocal, co-created relationships that connect the assets and purposes of organizations.”

A key part in this discussion harkens back to Robert Janes’ call for museums to be relevant in the lives of the public they serve.  I am struck that if that relevance does not draw on a museum’s mission and collections then the relationship is unsustainable and will simply become another piece of baggage to weigh the institution down.  A quick scan of the October 2011 Newsletter of the Let’s Move initiative shows how this relevance occurs at the many reporting institutions.

At the C.H. Nash Museum, the visiting public was way ahead of our own work in this area.  We were quite surprised, or at least I was, that 60% of the respondents to a spring of 2011 visitor survey asked that we expand our programming to include more of our 100 acre wooded natural environment.  We have a good response to our calls for volunteers to help with our herb garden, arboretum, sweetgrass bed, and  as we go about launching the next phase of the Traditional Medicinal Plant Sanctuary along our nature trail.  After our volunteer activities on November 19th, Graduate Assistants Megan Keener and Mallory Bader will host a tea tasting made from plants grown in our herb garden, along with snacks inspired by the traditional foods of the Chickasaw Nation.

How can your institution promote a healthy lifestyle for visitors?