Monday, December 22, 2014

Revisiting Nice + Necessary in the Context of Ferguson


 Old Courthouse and Museum, St Louis MO
The tragic events in Ferguson, Cleveland and Staten Island have reverberated across the country and elicited a wide range of responses from individuals, groups, and institutions. Moved to respond to those events, the issues they raise, and the actions they have sparked, a group of museum bloggers coordinated by Gretchen Jennings, collaborated on a blog posted December 11th on Museum Commons and elsewhere, including here on Museum Notes.

Since then, members of this group have been both energized by the responses of individuals as well as puzzled, if not downright disappointed, by the limited response of many museums and museum associations in addressing the range of issues these events raise–race relations, injustice, unchecked police brutality, income and educational disparities, and movement toward positive change.

While frustrating and disheartening, this lack of action is, unfortunately, not surprising. These events are tragic and complex with relevance that ripples across local communities and national values. Responding to them in a meaningful way is challenging to say the least, a point clearly made by two questions raised repeatedly recently: should museums respond? and how should museums respond? 

In the past few days, I have visited websites of 40 museums including museums in the Ferguson-St Louis area, Staten Island, and Cleveland, in 16 states, and including science, cultural, history, natural history, art, and children’s museums to get a sense of how museums are addressing issues raised by events in Ferguson. Nine museums listed activities and events, posted blogs, facilitated conversations, or are collecting related artifacts; they are listed below. One museum’s blog post has since been removed. Some websites had no portal or link to an activity, event, or position paper; at least it wasn’t labeled clearly enough for me to find it.
Some of the 30 museums not highlighting events or blog posts are ones where I know a staff person has spoken out in emails and social media or has reposted one of the statements on their blog. This suggests a basic challenge of balancing personal perspectives with institutional positions.

Clearly some museums are practiced and comfortable in this space of action, community engagement, and healing. No doubt others are interested and feel a sense of responsibility, but are inexperienced and unprepared to engage. All must balance a sense of urgency with readiness to actively engage and do well for their communities and for themselves. From reflecting on my sampling of museum websites, reading blog posts, and following twitter feeds, I think many museums are struggling with how to balance the pull of being both Nice + Necessary.

The Pull of Nice + Necessary
Museums are nice. Lovely spaces, full of rare, fascinating, and often beuatiful objects, they are pleasant settings for spending time with friends and family. Places of inspiration and celebration, museums offer memorable experiences. Their missions express concern and an interest in the people of their town, city, or region. Every museum’s website in my sample highlighted holiday activities and special events; assured convenience on the busiest days of the year; urged year-end donations; and promised wonder, magic, and fun. Every museum, even the ones hosting Town Hall Meetings or posting statements presented itself as nice.

Whereas being nice focuses on fostering good will, being necessary actively fosters public good with an interest in long-term tangible outcomes. Necessary refers to the positive, recognized change a museum contributes to its community–its children, youth, and families, their well-being and prosperity. Based in a deep knowledge of a community, being necessary is a long-term commitment requiring solid groundwork and trust earned over time. Visible community impact differs for each museum reflecting community priorities. Impact may focus on a commitment to resolving issues that prevent a child’s growing up healthy, safe, smart, and successful at home, school, and in the community; to inspiring social justice and positive change; or to being integral to a more robust regional ecosystem around health and well-being.

Increasingly, museums are expected to–and want to–demonstrate their public value. The call to action from across the field is a current expression of that expectation. At the same time, the limited responses from museums express the very real challenge many museums experience in finding meaningful ways to be necessary–especially when the moment calls for it with urgency.

Admittedly the concept of Nice + Necessary alone is not sufficient for a museum to suddenly take action around a complex and pressing set of issues. It may, however, provide a frame for museums that believe our country’s cultural and educational infrastructure has an active and thoughtful role in bringing people together, facilitating conversations, shaping agendas, and moving toward a positive future but that are uncertain about how to go about it. While they may lack clarity about where to start and are unprepared to engage constructively at this moment, many museums are undoubtedly determined to be prepared to engage thoughtfully from an earned position of community trust around an inevitable future issue or crisis.

Pushing Much Harder on Necessary
Just as museums have deliberately worked over time to deliver a reliably nice experience for their guests, they must work equally hard, or harder, over time to be necessary: to play a meaningful community role with confidence and credibility and be capable of responding in a timely way. Building capacity internally and developing credibility externally is a long-term, challenging journey. Clearly, there is no single thing nor even 7 things to do; no one person nor a single event that creates change; no one month nor dedicated year of earnest activity that will make a measurable difference. Nothing less than a whole-hearted, sustained effort, guided by an aligned vision and mission and community outlook; with committed resources and activities; and support all across the museum from leadership to the newest hire is essential for relevant and meaningful action to issues like Ferguson.

Drawing on suggestions, comments, and perspectives of bloggers and museum professionals, below are some key factors for museums to become valued and trusted community resources capable of playing meaningful and relevant roles at difficult moments. They barely scratch the surface of the work to be done but may take advantage of momentum building in museums.

A museum in service to its community. The most basic idea is also the most challenging. Regardless of its size and prestige, a museum exists to serve its audience and community. It must maintain a perpetual, alert, and respectful outlook on its community and the ways in which it can be a valued resource for it. In dynamic environments, external conditions change and will absolutely change the way in which a museum can and should serve its community. Furthermore, valuing service to its community must be actively owned across the museum, be integrated in the museum’s culture, and persist through changes in leadership and times of scarcer resources. 

A visible civic role for the museum. A museum’s relevance to its community relies on its doing useful work with great clarity about the positive differences in the lives of its community and its members it deliberately tries to achieve through its activities. A visible civic role is recognized by others and is one a museum can assume relative to contemporary issues of significance and during a crisis. Although not always stated explicitly, direction on a museum’s civic role and community connections emerges from its vision and mission. 

Reflect the wider community in which it exists. Every facet of a museum can and should be an expression of its community. Trustees, staff leadership, staff, volunteers as well as visitors bring varied and diverse perspectives, voices, expertise, and skills representing the community that enrich the museum. A museum also reflects its community in its style, the questions that matter, the activities it offers, exhibitions it stages, how it delivers services, and how it reduces barriers to increase access to serve the widest possible range of visitors. 

Actively and respectfully engage with others. Museums need partners, organizations, agencies, and people with diverse, complementary expertise, skills, perspectives, and networks to advance their strategic interests and fulfill their civic role. This involves reaching out and listening to others–without having ready answers; engaging the community in exhibition planning; training diverse staff to interact with visitors from diverse backgrounds; and preparing staff to facilitate conversations on difficult subjects. It also means investing the time for building understanding and trust with parts of the community unfamiliar or distrustful of the museum.

Build on strengths. A museum can take a leadership role at a critical time if it has aligned its long-term strategic interests and programmatic strengths with the community’s priorities. Contributing something of recognized value and supporting it with related resources, a museum’s space, collections, content expertise, etc. are valuable assets. With intention and practice, a museum may serve as a safe and neutral space where people with diverse perspectives can come together to discuss charged issues; be a source of expertise about current pressing events and their historical context; curate a community art exhibit; or recognize a strength to cultivate and share. 

Learning at the Core. A museum’s core purpose is learning. While museums do create learning experiences for its visitors, they also have ample opportunities to learn with and from their visitors, learn from its communities, and learn from other museums. Engaging in an open and on-going process of experimenting, reflecting making connections, a museum itself becomes a learning organization; it frames new questions that matter, invites staff perspectives, supports dialogue, encourages reflection, and consolidates lessons at every step of the way. Learning as it grows, a museum recognizes new territory and learns from both successes and failures–including lessons from Ferguson.             

Posts by Museum Bloggers
Public History Commons: Public History Resources on Ferguson   

Statements by Museum Associations
"Statement from Sam Black", by Sam Black, President of the Association of African American Museums
•  "Museums and Social Responsibility", by Dan Yaeger, President of the New England Museum Association
Museums in the Wake of Community Conflict”, by Association of Midwest Museums' President, Melanie Adams 
"History Organizations Positioned to Be Powerful Participants in Dialogue on Ferguson and Related Events," by American Association of Local and State History

Museums Responses to Ferguson
• Harriet Beecher Stowe Center’s blog, "Salons at Stowe"
• History Colorado’s blog post, “Together We Can Work Towards Change"
• Jane Addams Hull House hosted a Chicago Town Hall Meeting to discuss recent events in Ferguson and    beyond
The Magic House, St Louis Children's Museum, took its outreach programs for children to area libraries when school opening in August was delayed following the disruption in nearby Ferguson 
• The National Civil Rights Museum blog: Ferguson Missouri ... What's Next?
• Walker Art Center: The Colorization of America; and The Art Newspaper

Related Museum Notes Posts

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