Mid-Atlantic Humanities LeadersStep Into New Roles, Envision the Future

Artist’s rendering of an interactive floor map being considered for installation at the Adirondack Museum.  (courtesy Gallagher & Associates)

 

Several humanities organizations in the Mid-Atlantic region have undergone changes in executive leadership in recent months. This month we begin an occasional series inviting new leaders to reflect on the state of the humanities and outline plans for their organizations. Sharon Ann Holt, executive director of the New Jersey Council for the Humanities begins the series with a discussion of broad changes reorienting the practice of public humanities, especially in state humanities councils. David M. Kahn, executive director of the Adirondack Museum, addresses changes currently under discussion at the museum that both align exhibits more closely with mission and reflect current trends in museum practice.

The Public Humanities in Today’s World

By Sharon Ann Holt, Executive Director, New Jersey Council for the Humanities

Sharon Ann Holt, executive director of the New Jersey Council for the Humanities

In 1965, when the United States Congress created the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), the legislation argued that the humanities fostered the “wisdom and vision” essential to a democratic society. The need for wisdom and insight gleaned from history or literature, philosophy or religious studies has only grown since, but the practice of the public humanities today presumes an even broader mandate than the Congress identified. The public humanities no longer just informs and educates citizens. We are actively forming citizenship behaviors from the ground up.  All around the country humanities professionals are answering a call to stimulate and encourage participation in the democratic process, to champion the importance of civil debate, and to provide a forum for communities to address critical concerns. And that call is no longer coming just from leaders – noteworthy public humanities programs emerge today in response to audience input, too.

Much of this change reflects pervasive social and technological legacies of the late twentieth century. On the negative side, the diminished credibility of important institutions from government and universities to churches, schools, and even families damaged their usefulness as champions for wisdom and vision. On the positive side, exploding access to information, communication, and community-building via electronic media created possibilities for new interactive, non-hierarchical forms of learning and sharing. The original humanities audience of thought leaders, teachers, and culture professionals has given way to a vision of the humanities mobilized to serve the entire population directly – children and parents, elders and new immigrants, doctors and patients, etc. The public humanities today asserts the value not just of wisdom and insight gained from study but also of direct, deep experiences of humanness that help bridge social division, heal hurt, and motivate collective action.In 1965, when the United States Congress created the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), the legislation argued that the humanities fostered the “wisdom and vision” essential to a democratic society. The need for wisdom and insight gleaned from history or literature, philosophy or religious studies has only grown since, but the practice of the public humanities today presumes an even broader mandate than the Congress identified. The public humanities no longer just informs and educates citizens. We are actively forming citizenship behaviors from the ground up.  All around the country humanities professionals are answering a call to stimulate and encourage participation in the democratic process, to champion the importance of civil debate, and to provide a forum for communities to address critical concerns. And that call is no longer coming just from leaders – noteworthy public humanities programs emerge today in response to audience input, too.

At the same time, while the mission of the public humanities has expanded and deepened, funding for the work has diminished.  Funding for the National Endowment, from which the core of state council funding is derived, peaked in 1994, dropped sharply thereafter to about 1988 levels, and has slid steadily downward since. At its high water mark, Congress appropriated 68 cents per American for the humanities, already very low for industrialized nations.  By FY2012, that number was down to 49 cents per person, and even that appropriation faces continual challenge.

Legislative struggles over public funding for the humanities arise from precisely the same legacies that have encouraged today’s widening outreach.  While broad agreement exists that public and private life are in crisis today, contemporary political factions take opposing views of how we got here, whether this state of affairs is anything new, whether the future looks promising or frightening, and what role the humanities might play.  Some people are persuaded that questioning established institutions per se weakened them, opening the door to chaos both public and private.  Others think differently, seeing the institutions’ own failures as responsible for their lost credibility and citizen engagement as the best strategy for rebuilding public confidence.  One believes that thoughtful, informed public critique is crucial to sustaining democracy, while the other is convinced that only restored authority will put things right.  Though the overall amount of funding in dispute is very small compared with the whole Federal budget, the stakes remain very high for both sides, since each believes it is fighting for the future of the nation itself.  Ironically, the most powerful tribute paid to the humanities today is that legislators cannot discuss humanities funding without tangling over fundamental differences about the nature of citizenship, accountability, and the future of democracy.

(Logo courtesy of New Jersey Council for the Humanities)

Undaunted by this high level furor, the New Jersey Council for the Humanities (NJHC) and its counterparts pursue their work.  We understand the humanities as a long-term investment in lives well-lived, for individuals and their communities. When a strong local museum helps create a sense of place, attracting new businesses and stabilizing a residential tax base – we see the humanities at work.  When K-12 teachers spend a week together immersed in history, then return to their classrooms renewed in mind and spirit, we see the humanities at work.  When a divided community gathers at the public library to construct a shared future with neighbors, we embrace that as the humanities at work.

Healthcare professionals participate in one of NJCH Literature & Medicine sessions (image courtesy of Sharon Ann Holt)

One popular NJCH program, pioneered by the Maine Humanities Council and adopted by New Jersey and other states, is Literature & Medicine: Humanities at the Heart of Healthcare.(R)   Literature & Medicine demonstrates several key qualities of programs at the frontier of public humanities work.  Under Council auspices, a mixed group of hospital workers up and down the internal hierarchy gathers for six monthly meetings, reading novels, poems and other literature broadly related to illness and health, talking together about care-giving, burn-out, and shared authority and sharing their thoughts and feelings as healers.  This program will grow in the coming years to serve assisted living centers as well.  Helping people age and die with dignity raises new issues for health professionals trained to heal and cure.  The humanities, through Literature & Medicine, will be a helpful resource in delivering compassionate care and in sustaining their own spirits.    More generally, through a strategic planning process beginning in fall 2012, the Council will examine the humanities needs of New Jersey and move to meet those needs through existing and/or innovative programming.

The future of the public humanities will look more like Lit&Med than the typical twentieth-century scholarly lecture program.  New formats will carry the humanities outside of typical academic settings into workplaces, homes, and other non-traditional settings.  The public humanities will pull the curtain back on hierarchies, inviting people to find common purpose in their shared humanity.  And the public humanities will not just allow but invite and encourage participants to shape the content of their own learning.

The central challenge for the New Jersey Council for the Humanities, as for our counterparts, is to sustain a bold mission and commitment to quality, high-impact programming while embracing changes in purpose, funding, audience, and delivery modes. The humanities program of the future will find people where they are and let them live the value of the humanities not as something apart from their everyday routines but as fundamental to the things about life they cherish most.

For more information about the New Jersey Council for the Humanities, go to http://www.njch.org/

Prior to her appointment as executive director at the New Jersey Council for the Humanities in 2012,  Sharon Ann Holt served as executive director of the Sandy Spring Museum in Maryland; director of programs and outreach for the Mid-Atlantic Regional Center for the Humanities; permanent exhibit curator at the South Street Seaport Museum in New York City; and director of publications and programs at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania.  Holt earned a Ph.D. in history from the University of Pennsylvania and is the author of Making Freedom Pay:  North Carolina Freedpeople Working For Themselves, 1865-1900 (2003). 

Reimagining the Adirondack Museum

By David M. Kahn, Executive Director, Adirondack Museum

David Kahn (courtesy Adirondack Museum)

For those who come upon the institution for the first time, the Adirondack Museum can be surprising, if not overwhelming.  Its twenty-two buildings are spread over a vast campus that overlooks scenic Blue Mountain Lake in the heart of the Adirondack Mountains in New York State.  The galleries include no less than 65,000 square feet of exhibition space, far more than is found in many state history museums.   On display are many large objects, including boats, carriages, sleighs, logging equipment, paintings, textiles, and other materials that document life in the six-million-acre Adirondack Park, the largest park in the contiguous United States.  Land in the park is divided between state and private ownership. The museum sits on private land; state lands are known as the Adirondack Forest Preserve.

The museum was the brainchild of wealthy businessman, collector, and local historian Harold Hochschild.  After opening in 1957, the few small historic structures on the site and a modern exhibition gallery were supplemented by numerous additional gallery buildings that housed the growing collections. .  Following the founder’s death in 1981, the Adirondack Museum began the long and complicated challenge of emerging from under the shadow of a single individual and transforming itself into a public institution.  The process is still underway today.

Its mission statement indicates that “the Adirondack Museum expands public understanding of Adirondack history and the relationship between people and the Adirondack wilderness, fostering informed choices for the future.”  While the statement, adopted in 2005, reflects notions about the meaning and purpose of the museum that date back to its founding, the fact of the matter is that this mission statement is largely aspirational. The museum lacks any orientation experience that clearly communicates what the institution is all about. The exhibitions are organized by object type rather than thematically and none explicitly explores the relationship between people and the Adirondack wilderness.  Only a handful of exhibit texts encourages visitors to consider how their personal actions may or may not impact the future.  In fact, the vast majority of the exhibitions focus on the distant past and entirely sidestep the story of the Adirondacks today and tomorrow.

This is a shame, because in today’s Adirondacks intense debates are underway about the region’s future.  Those interested in economic development clash with environmentalists.  There is a vast divide between wealthy vacation homeowners and the less affluent year-round residents, who often resent the intrusion of the former into local decision making.  Indeed, historian Phil Terrie refers to the region as “contested terrain.”  Additionally, jobs are scarce. The year-round residential population is aging. Younger people are moving out.  Schools are closing for lack of students.

Entrance to the Adirondack Museum (courtesy Adirondack Museum)

The museum’s failure to address contemporary issues in its sprawling galleries is due largely to the fact that its exhibitions have not changed in years and reflect an earlier, antiquarian focus. The newest of the long-term exhibitions are twenty-one years old. while the largest long-term exhibition on campus opened forty-three years ago in 1969, months after Nixon first took office.  Some individual exhibit components date back to 1957 when the museum was established. Typically long-term exhibitions in history museums are in place between seven and ten years.  Perhaps not coincidentally, while the Adirondack Museum’s exhibitions have remained unchanged, visitation has steadily declined.  Attendance peaked in the late 1980s and early 1990s at approximately 100,000 people per year. Today it hovers around 65,000.

The time has now clearly come for the Adirondack Museum to bring its visitor experiences into the twenty-first century and deliver on the promise of its mission statement.   Given that people feel so passionately about the region, the museum  has a unique opportunity to become the forum in the Adirondacks where people can learn how the complicated issues that have shaped the community’s past continue to shape its future.

In early 2012 the museum launched a year-long exhibition master planning process to provide a blueprint for restructuring its visitor experiences.  We recruited a team of nationally prominent museum consultants to work on the project with museum staff and trustees. Outside scholars are providing input and the museum additionally plans to meet with community historians to engage them in the process. The Adirondack Museum is particularly interested in introducing more media and interactivity into its exhibitions in order to engage visitors of all ages in the Adirondack story. It also wants to provide opportunities for users to contribute content.

Leading the exhibition planning team is consultant Janet Kamien, whose background is in children’s and science museums, where there has traditionally been a greater emphasis on visitor engagement than in history museums.  Kamien was one of the lead consultants in the development of the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia. Exhibition designer Patrick Gallagher and media designer Richard Lewis are also working on the exhibition master plan.  Gallaher was responsible for the International Spy Museum in Washington, D.C. and the new Museum and Visitor Center at Gettysburg  National Military Park.  Lewis designed much of the media for the new American Wing at Boston’s Museum of Fine Art.  Another key consultant on the planning team is Jeff Hayward, an audience research specialist.  Thus far he has conducted an online study involving 700 respondents and an intercept study involving 250 respondents.  Both were designed to gage audience response to exhibit themes that are being considered.

The exhibition master planning process has reached its midpoint as this piece is being written. The individual exhibition concepts identified in the plan will all be designed to deliver  the following three visitor take-away messages:

  • The Adirondack Park is a special place with deep cultural, spiritual, environmental, and historical significance that inspires passionate attachment.
  • The Adirondack Park is set aside by and for people who interact with it in both positive and negative ways.
  • You are part of the Adirondack story.

By focusing on these messages, the museum hopes to finally fulfill the promise of its mission statement, committing the institution to helping visitors understand the relationship between people and the Adirondack wilderness, fostering informed choices for the future.

One potential visitor experience that is being considered illustrates how the Adirondack Museum might go about more actively fulfilling its mission.   A large interactive floor map could be used to demonstrate the complexity of the Adirondack Park’s unique environment, how people have had an impact on it over time, and how the choices we make will shape its future.  Layers of information displayed could range from the extent of deforestation and losses from forest fires in the past to the historical growth of the Adirondack Forest Preserve to future habitat range shifts due to climate change.  Visitors might also explore hypothetical scenarios such as what might have happened to the Adirondacks if the forest preserve had never been created and development had proceeded unchecked on the region’s lakes, so that they all ended up looking the way Lake George does today – lined with houses, motels, and restaurants. Visitors might also be able to upload their own content to the map, identifying points such as “this is where I’m staying” or “this is where I like to boat.”

(Image courtesy of Adirondack Museum)

The Adirondack Museum is considering additional strategies to enable it to play a more active role in the cultural life of the community – and beyond – in the years to come.  The exhibition master planning team is considering multiple applications for interactive exhibitions that are initially designed for use on campus.  Some, or all, of them might be repurposed and made accessible via the web, thus extending knowledge about the Adirondacks – and debates about its future – beyond the “Blue Line” that marks the park’s boundaries.

As noted at the beginning of this piece, first-time visitors to the Adirondack Museum are impressed by the institution’s size and the richness of its collections. It is hoped that both actual and virtual visitors of the future will be even more impressed by the insights they will gain into the complex relationship that has existed, and continues to exist, in the Adirondacks between people and the wilderness.

Further information about the Adirondack Museum can be found at http://www.adkmuseum.org/ or by downloading a free audio tour app available on iTunes.

Prior to becoming executive director of the Adirondack Museum in 2011, David M. Kahn oversaw four other institutions: the San Diego History Center, the Louisiana State Museum, the Connecticut Historical Society, and the Brooklyn Historical Society. Throughout his career, he has been involved in a wide variety of professional activities, serving on peer review panels and presenting papers at history museum conferences in the United States and abroad.  David earned a B.A. degree Magna Cum Laude and an M.A. degree in art history from Columbia University.

 

 

 

 

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