Museums as opportunity makers

The past couple of months have been extremely busy for me. I’ve definitely neglected the blog. But despite this, I’ve managed to keep up a fairly regular schedule of cultural activities and museum visits. My ongoing “museum anthropology” work feels really important, not just for professional development purposes, but because it’s an investment in my personal development, including my mental health and wellbeing.

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I took this photograph during a recent visit to The Phillips Collection. The prompt was something like “What are you doing to invest in yourself?

Back in early March, I was so fortunate to have the chance to attend the Vital Voices Global Leadership Awards honoring phenomenally courageous women taking great risks to address urgent contemporary issues. Later the same month, I attended a much more low key but equally thought-provoking and inspiring panel discussion at the Alexandria Black History Museum on the subject of integrating art into historic sites. And last week, I attended a tour of the mysterious and amazing Dupont Underground with the Emerging Arts Leaders DC group.

Being surrounding by these opportunities in Washington, D.C. and feeling comfortable and welcome enough to take advantage of them is an incredible gift – and the realization has me thinking about how important it is for museums to understand their role as “opportunity makers” for their communities, and the immense responsibility this entails.

Museum visits really are like investments – both in you, the visitor, and in the institution, which provides something of value in exchange for your time, openness, and collaboration. All members of the community, even those who have never visited, should be considered stakeholders—potential partners with something to offer.

Social equity and access are fundamental mandates for community institutions such as parks and libraries. Museums, in theory, are held to the same standards, but frequently fall short, often choosing to focus on their narrow subject specializations and to prioritize collections over people. In theory, all museums want to provide great opportunities—experiences involving beauty, growth, healing, and intellectual engagement—for all members of their community. However, many seem content to simply attract and retain their “default” audiences, visitors who easily see value for themselves in the museum’s offerings.

According to Gretchen Jennings’ concept of an “empathetic museum,” museums that want to be genuinely visitor-centered, responsive, and connected to all aspects of community must develop a culture of empathy—a strong foundation of empathetic and inclusive practice where all community members see clear personal relevance and feel esteem within the museum (see this post on Museum Commons).

To this end, museums as opportunity makers should actively seek to create diverse opportunities for their communities that are perceived as deeply valuable, welcoming, and accessible. All museums, no matter their subject matter, mission, or collection, can work towards this.

As I’ve suggested before, museums, institutionally, have a special asset that traditional social service institutions do not. Museums don’t have to treat their users solely as clients (a unidirectional service relationship). They can actually work in partnership with users, with both parties bettering the other. This has been one of the great joys of my career change from human services to cultural services. And I think this distinction has enormous potential for transformative museum practice that offers genuinely valuable opportunities for all.

Can you have a visitor experience without actually visiting?

Last Sunday, my husband and I had an almost-visit to George Washington’s Mount Vernon. We took a gorgeous bike ride from Old Town Alexandria along the Mount Vernon Trail to Washington’s picturesque estate.

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Feeling awesome from the bike ride, I then meandered happily through the Mount Vernon gift store and the front of the grounds. I told my husband I was excited to come back another day for a proper visit. It was a great afternoon.

Later, I realized I would be quite content to return again by bike, experience the site, and then ride home again. Basically, my ‘visit’ to Mount Vernon had meant something to me, even though I hadn’t technically visited.

This realization got me wondering how museums fit into the larger fabric of their communities and geographic areas. How might their presence enhance healthy behaviors (such as biking), feelings of connection, and interpersonal relationships? And how can they be a reassuring force in their communities?

Getting people into the museum is a wonderful thing, but so are the forms of subtle engagement that a museum’s simple existence and care for its community can inspire. I recently attended a job interview at Hillwood Estate, Museum and Garden, and truly loved the experience of walking through the surrounding neighborhood (pictured below) and being in proximity to the Estate’s incredible beauty. Though I didn’t visit the Museum, I definitely experienced it.

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All museums and cultural sites have natural assets. Some of those assets may be fortuitous products of the museum’s surrounding area rather than deliberate virtues of the museum: accessibility via public transport, proximity to natural beauty or tranquility, maybe even—isolation.

Part of this ‘radial’ visitor experience is also deliberate, curated. Museums project ideas and values to their communities; these are felt and experienced by all who come into its radius, even if they don’t take a tour or view an exhibition.

Maybe this subtle form of impact and engagement is a possible first step towards breaking down the museum’s ‘reproduction of disadvantage’ (see Emily Dawson’s work). If community members can feel comfortable and welcome within your museum’s ‘radius,’ maybe they can begin to feel similarly welcome and comfortable within the museum’s walls. Accessible outdoor spaces also provide opportunities to eat, socialize, and connect in a casual, affordable way.

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Should museums give greater consideration to the presentation of their grounds, the proximity of nearby parks and trails, casual access to tables and benches on their grounds (see above image of Library of Congress), or sidewalk access to outdoor panels and exhibits?

In many cases, museums also act as physical historical markers, reminding those in their proximity of big and important ideas. Their mere physical existence sustains our collective memory.

Recently, museum and library thinker, David Carr, gave a lecture at Smithsonian Libraries. Carr spoke about the role of museums and libraries in inspiring individual lives, understanding aspirations, and shaping the ‘story of the self.’ So I wonder—how can museums use their subtle influences to creatively contribute to individual lives?

Do you have a local museum or cultural site that somehow touches your life—that gives you pleasure, reassurance, and a sense of cultural wealth—even if you might never step inside? If so, then you are part of that museum’s impact. And that museum is responsible for contributing a greater richness to your individual life.

Local history sites and belonging

My relationship with the town or city where I choose to live at a given moment matters to me deeply. I want to have routines, places for quiet contemplation, favorite restaurants, places to take out-of-town visitors; a regular farmers market is always nice. I also want to experience the history of a place.

A few weeks ago, I had an opportunity to do this when my husband and I spent a Saturday afternoon walking around Old Town Alexandria. It was one of those first few days when the sun came out in force, but the temperature was still crisp and the ground, still snowy. I suggested that we visit a local museum or historic site, perhaps the Friendship Firehouse Museum because I was intrigued by the word ‘friendship’ in its title.

The Friendship Firehouse Museum tells the story of the Friendship Fire Company, established in 1774 as Alexandria’s first volunteer firefighting organization. It was a good choice for my husband and me because it appealed to our divergent interests. My husband, the engineer, enjoyed seeing the historic firefighting equipment and learning how it worked. And I liked learning about the quirky culture of the Company, particularly the members’ endearing idolization of George Washington and fondness for collecting objects that related to him.

Initially, I wasn’t inspired to write about the Friendship Firehouse Museum on the blog. Truthfully, I wasn’t sure how my visit related to museums and social service. A week later, however, I was describing my visit to a co-worker from my area and the conversation quickly opened up into a larger discussion of place and history. To know something about my area’s history gave me a foothold in the conversation and a sense of pleasure, belonging, and social connection.

Later, I checked in on Tom Mayes’ fantastic ‘Why Do Old Places Matter?’ blog series on Preservation Leadership Forum Blog. Tom’s posts about ‘Continuity’ and ‘Community’ stood out as most helpful, describing the importance of old places in aiding our sense of continuity of time and place, and our collective experience of community.

For me, the wonderful collision of local history, continuity, and community is epitomized by a past visit to the Museum of Brisbane (my then-local history museum). During my visit to exhibit, The River, I learned about the history of the Walter Taylor Bridge, a bridge I frequented during my commute at that time, and which therefore felt significant to my life. Apparently, the Bridge towers once functioned as accommodation for toll collectors. Family, domesticity, and day-to-day life were once contained within the structure of the Bridge, and the sight of hanging laundry apparently once entertained passing motorists. Though this history doesn’t sound terribly exciting, I had often wondered about this funny bridge with its thick pylons and many windows. So this new knowledge delighted me and gave me a sense of my own place in Brisbane’s history.

Given the ability of old places to passively accomplish these important ends, what might be the possibilities for more active programs and initiatives to address particular social needs and serve particular groups within the community—using these resources?

A quick look at upcoming programs at Friendship Firehouse Museum suggests great uses of the resource of ‘place.’ The Museum offers related walking tours, thereby connecting firefighting history to the larger community and its geography. It also offers upcoming Mother’s and Father’s Day Open Houses where children can enjoy a special visit with the celebrated parent and receive a complimentary family portrait.

Since local history museums and sites provide a valuable source of memory for communities (perhaps particularly so for older members) they are potentially useful resources for reminiscing. I am reminded of one of my master’s thesis case studies, the Hurstville City Museum & Gallery reminiscing program, which uses local history objects to prompt sharing and personal recollections among groups of older adults.

Additionally, local history, especially when it is casually embedded in everyday life (such as a leisurely Saturday afternoon walk), is a great hook for people who don’t typically frequent museums—i.e. my husband.

That said, sites will not comprehensively serve the community simply by existing. The Incluseum recently published a confronting and incredibly important post by researcher, Emily Dawson. In it, Dawson reports on her research into exclusion and the reproduction of disadvantage within the museum. The post got me thinking about the importance of increased scholarship on and visibility for the more marginalized histories within each story.

Local history sites are in the position to say: You are a part of this community and so this is for you. However, to be effective in fostering genuine inclusion and belonging, they will likely need to bear this promise out through action that, as Dawson suggests, makes all feel considered and welcome.

When I worked in disability support, I remember being told that my job involved more than assisting clients to participate in the community; it involved helping them find ways to contribute to community. I think the question of how to invite contributions is an interesting one for local history sites. It represents a challenge in terms of how to open a seemingly limited story into an experience that genuinely involves all people. In a way, sites such as the Friendship Firehouse Museum have social potentials similar to the public library; they are safe places for people to find community. So I think it’s worth considering how to continue meeting this challenge, and I welcome any thoughts or ideas.

Historic houses and legacies: letting spaces speak

Have you ever wondered what your historical legacy will be? Maybe you will positively alter the course of history and your possessions, stories, and spaces will be preserved somewhere in a museum or historic house. Maybe, by accident, you will cross paths with a significant moment in history. Likely, you will pass some kind of legacy to your family.

Where do legacies reside? They are found in stories and memories, of course, but they also inhabit physical spaces and objects. How such spaces tell their stories, and how visitors might listen and find personal meaning are potentially useful questions for museums and historic houses that care for these spaces.

I began pondering these questions after recent visits to President Lincoln’s Cottage and Mary McLeod Bethune Council House—historic houses that tell the stories of the prominent social reformers for whom they are named. I wondered about the social service or therapeutic possibilities of spaces that house legacies of social change, such as Lincoln’s or Bethune’s.

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President Lincoln’s Cottage is quite different from a traditional museum, and leaves a lasting impression that is both visceral and intellectual. The rooms are relatively bare and do not contain exhibits in the traditional sense—just a few pieces of period furniture here and there. Instead of objects, they are filled with Lincoln’s ideas, experiences, and stories. These intangible pieces of history fill the spaces as completely as any exhibition would; the rooms don’t feel empty—which is surprising because, in a physical sense, they are.

Photograph by Erik Uecke, Courtesy President Lincoln’s Cottage

Photograph by Erik Uecke, Courtesy President Lincoln’s Cottage

The Mary McLeod Bethune Council House, historic headquarters of the National Council of Negro Women and Bethune’s last D.C. residence, feels closer to a traditional museum, but shares some interesting similarities with the uniquely idea-based interpretive style of President Lincoln’s Cottage. The spaces are intended to evoke Bethune’s spirit, intellect, and obvious charisma, and they do it well.

During a recent lecture at the National Building Museum by design psychology founder, Dr Toby Israel, I learned that the spaces we select and the ways we curate and present them are deeply revealing of who we are. I began to appreciate this lasting ‘essence’ of a person or group as a valuable asset of the historic house.

My biggest takeaway from my historic house visits was the intense relationship between historic spaces, and visitor imagination and empathy. Standing in both of these sites, I did more than simply learn about their historical inhabitants, I experienced their lives, and personalities. I think physical space is important for these experiences. We need to imagine ourselves within the space to begin to empathize with its history.

Within Lincoln’s space, once a haven for Lincoln and his family, I sensed his earnestness, his limitations, his anxiety and frequent exhaustion. I idealized him less, and liked him more. Within Bethune Council House, I palpably sensed Bethune’s pride, confidence, and optimism. I got the impression she was a person unafraid to participate fully in the world, despite its oftentimes discriminatory attitudes towards her race and gender. Her inspiring presence danced self-assuredly in every room.

My visit to Bethune Council House made me realize that historic spaces might serve as identity blueprints because they tell us so much about their owners and users—both who they were and how they represented themselves in the world. My guide did an incredible job of drawing my attention to the significance of certain spaces and objects in the House. The scene below captures the importance of the House piano (not the original), its striking presence in the space, and its important role in promoting Bethune’s concern for equality internationally (see the flags).

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Her imagined office space (pictured below) highlights her struggle to represent herself as capable and strong, yet feminine—a difficult (but necessary) line to walk at the time for someone with Bethune’s aspirations, according to my guide.

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This conference table (see below) also tells an important story about how Bethune might have imagined her work: She was doing serious work for African American women and that required a serious conference table. To stand by this piece of history, which may have once given Bethune confidence, was affirming and empowering.

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Historic spaces might also remind us of social and political constraint and thereby engender a sense of pragmatic empathy for historical figures. (Lincoln and Bethune were both limited by their spheres of influence and had to choose their battles.) Historic spaces also bring us a little closer to the greatness within ourselves as we sense the strategy and ingenuity behind successful social change. So these experiences might build empathy and creativity, and re-invigorate our idealistic side.

Of course, when we visit museums such as Bethune Council House or Lincoln’s Cottage, we are experiencing selective interpretations of their lives rather than authentic, unbiased realities. We cannot actually step back in time and chat with Bethune by her real grand piano, or hang out with Lincoln on his porch. But we can occupy spaces they once occupied, and see where this leads us. Maybe we can know something about ourselves, at least through our own intellectual experience. Potential for personal growth and a renewed sense of wellbeing may reside here, in this unusual, and valuable experience.

Both Bethune Council House and Lincoln’s Cottage do an admirable job of stepping back and letting the spaces speak. Historic houses (and the intangible social assets that they house) seem like important social and community resources, even potential building blocks for innovative social programs. These institutions and their resources might make valuable sites for therapeutic programs. I am reminded of Lois Silverman’s work on the Museums as Therapeutic Agents (MATA) Collaborative project. The project included a tour of the historic Wylie House for people with life-threatening illness (and their partners) and encouraged participants to self-reflect, draw helpful historical parallels, and appreciate universal human challenge (Silverman, 2002).

Perhaps historic houses could use their legacies to support young people through special tours and workshops, or to reconnect people living with dementia with their sense of self through casual visits and discussions. Maybe they would be useful resources for programs for helping professionals (doctors, social workers) aimed at refreshing participants and averting professional burnout.

These are merely ideas for consideration, and discussion. Successful programs of this kind would likely require close collaborations with community organizations and social service professionals, potentially creating new opportunities for maintaining institutions’ contemporary relevance and community value.

Do you see any valuable connections between public history, legacies, and therapeutic and social programs? I think there’s something here. After all, why do we look to history if not to avoid repeating it, to be inspired, to feel comfort and a sense of shared experience, and to think critically about its applications to our own lives?

Photograph by Erica Abbey, Courtesy President Lincoln’s Cottage

Photograph by Erica Abbey, Courtesy President Lincoln’s Cottage

 

Silverman, L. H. (2002). The therapeutic potential of museums as pathways to inclusion. In R. Sandell (Ed.), Museums, society, inequality (pp. 69-83). New York, NY: Routledge.

A love letter to the public library

This year, as Valentine’s Day approaches, I have become reacquainted with an old love: the public library.

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After recently starting work as a Museum Assistant at the Sewall-Belmont House & Museum, I have become absorbed in research on women’s suffrage and equal rights. This quest has led me (happily) on a tour of my local public libraries. I was delighted to learn that as a resident of Alexandria, Virginia, I was entitled to membership at not only Alexandria libraries, but also Fairfax County and Arlington libraries!

Filled with #librarylove, I decided now was a good time to read The Public Library: A Photographic Essay, an 18-year photographic survey of American public libraries by Robert Dawson with personal reflections from writers and library advocates. (See Dawson’s related blog here.) Dawson’s relationship with the photographs captivated me most, particularly the empathy and curiosity framing each image. I realized that any discussion or exploration of the public library was inherently personal so I began to reflect on my own history.

‘Whenever I found a library, I immediately felt at home.’ Charles Simic ‘A Country Without Libraries’ The Public Library p. 37

As a child growing up in a reasonably small Queensland town, I loved going to my local library. My mental image of its interior is surprisingly focused and includes both the sights and the smells of the place. My parents were sometimes strict about the kinds of movies and television that I could watch (at least in my opinion at the time) and so library books represented a source of free and open information and entertainment, a chance to explore the world uncensored.

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‘ … when people don’t have free access to books, then communities are like radios without batteries.’ Anne Lamott ‘Steinbeck Country’ The Public Library, p. 165

Libraries have been a great resource to me, especially during times of stress or transition. When my husband and I first moved back to Australia a few years ago, the local library provided our first Internet connection, and was therefore instrumental in helping us find our first jobs. Several years later, while I was continually moving between shifts at work and writing my master’s thesis (trying not to lose too many hours in the car), the abundant local libraries in Brisbane were a godsend. The Ashgrove Library became my workspace and second home; its large, breezy terrace provided a peaceful place to write while enjoying nature.

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‘For countless people the public library represents opportunity and hope.’ Robert Dawson ‘Introduction’ The Public Library p. 9

Last year, Ferguson Library offered its space as a refuge from the crisis that erupted following a grand jury decision not to indict police officer, Darren Wilson, in the shooting death of unarmed African American teenager, Michael Brown. I think libraries are natural venues for supporting communities in crisis because they are designed to be comfortable and familiar, and to promote a strong sense of public ownership. I’m grateful that they are increasingly willing to take on the challenges of a community service role. I was intrigued to learn (from Dawson’s book) that the San Francisco Main Library employs a full-time social worker to assist library visitors.

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‘Our work demands that we become dreamers, holding onto hope that our society can be better….’ Dorothy Lazard ‘Practicing Seva’ The Public Library p. 105

In the same spirit as my previous post about parks, I’m curious about the lessons that museums can learn from libraries. Of course, museums are their own institutions, and many of the ways in which they diverge from libraries are what help make them special and valuable. However, I still feel that public libraries possess qualities and values that museums could strive to emulate—with positive impacts on their communities. Public libraries are places of refuge, of comfort, and of earnest self-betterment. In short, much of what libraries represent to communities and individuals, museums could too.

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The values of access and equity that epitomize our idea of the public library today did not always reflect reality. This exhibition currently on display at Beatley Central Library tells the story of local African American residents who asserted their right to use their public library through a library sit-in 1939.

 

All photos were taken at the Beatley Central Library in Alexandria, Virginia.

Dawson, R. (2014). The Public Library. New York, NY: Princeton Architectural Press.