Posts Tagged ‘civic engagement’
I started this blog with a post called “The Civic Museum.” Civic engagement – it’s the lifeblood of a new vanguard of museums. These museums, big and small, are engaging with their communities on the issues that matter to them. They are finding new and creative ways to foster dialogue and reinforce relationships between people.
As community engagement becomes part of the basic mission of a museum, as it has at any increasing number of institutions, I wonder what’s on the horizon.
"The Esperanza Peace and Justice Center in San Antonio hosts a community protest."
Recently, I attended a conference where Graciela Sanchez from the Esperanza Peace and Justice Center in San Antonio talked about her work reclaiming the history of the Tejano community on the west side of the city. The Center is a “multi-issue cultural center;” they work to restore connections between the community and their history through community arts projects, historic preservation, and political advocacy. What Sanchez expressed so strikingly was that the historical pieces of the Center’s mission were secondary to the larger goal of advocating for their community and changing the culture of marginalization. History is one tool in their toolbox.
The Esperanza Peace and Justice Center isn’t a museum, but it’s easy to imagine museums taking on similar roles in their communities. Some already have. In October, a group of museums and gardens in Pittsburgh hosted a symposium, “Feeding the Spirit: Museums, Food, and Community.” They explored the ways in which smart, sustainable food choices could be central to the museum’s mission whether it’s through the café of the interpretation. These institions are joining in First Lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move campaign, doing their part to promote healthy eating and active lifestyles among children and families. In fact, AAM’s Center for the Future of Museums has as their slogan “…because museums can change the world.”
When does civic engagement become activism? In most institutions, historic interpretation or artistic appreciation is still at the center of the mission. In the future, will these sites turn that balance on its head? What might it mean for museums – places which hold unique positions in the public trust – to advocate for certain constituencies? What is the activist museum and how should it function?
Last week, Philadelphia launched a beta version of Change by Us. The civic engagement platform was initially launched in New York, but is now available to any city under a free open source license. Change by Us is notable for its potential audience, “neighbors, city leaders and response leaders,” who offer support and guidance for community projects.
Change by Us Philly asks the community, “How can we make smarter, safer & greener neighborhoods?” Answering the question is simple; visitors input their idea on an electronic sticky note, which in turn is added to the virtual bulletin board. Scanning the board allows community members to locate ideas for existing projects. By clicking on see more ideas, the visitor can narrow the field by neighborhood, or see the distribution on a map of Philadelphia. There are links to resources and existing projects as well.
Philadelphia leaders involved with the project are Mike DiBerardinis, Deputy Mayor, Environmental & Community Resources; Charles Ramsey, Commissioner, Philadelphia Police Department; Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter; Lori Shorr, Chief Education Officer; Catherine Wolfgang, Chief Service Officer, Mayor’s Office of Civic Engagement and Volunteer Service; and Claire Robertson-Kraft, Board Chair for Young Involved Philadelphia.
Change by Us Philly was launched by CEOs for Cities, Local Projects, and Code for America, in collaboration with the City of Philadelphia. Change by Us is funded nationally with support from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, The Rockefeller Foundation and the Case Foundation.
Civic engagement comes in different shapes and sizes. Last month, I wrote about how one museum uses its history and collections to incite visitors towards social action. There are quieter methods, too. I worked at a museum that co-hosted an annual event with a student group; in addition to the opportunity to see art after hours, it included yoga in the galleries, shoulder massages in the lobby, and goodwill all around. It was always a smashing success. Engaging the community can be about opening your doors and seeing what they might want to use your space for.If we’re looking for institutions that have found innovative ways to invite the community into their museum, the Delaware Art Museum shoots to the top of the list. Its Outlooks Exhibition Series “encourages community involvement in the creation of exhibitions that will be hosted by the Museum.” In the three years since the initiative has been in place, twelve shows have gone up. Exhibition themes have ranged from folk art, to modern ceramics, to juried shows with artworks from various community groups. In each case, the exhibition is proposed by an individual or group in the area, with the aim of representing a group, exploring a cultural identity, and/or focusing on a particular medium. Several shows have provided a space for area artists, often amateurs, to display their work.
Brian Joseph Repetti, Title: Cubistic Self Portrait (Created 2010). Lent by the artist, Delaware Art Museum.
The most recent exhibition, “Creativity Multiplied: Art Teachers of the Christina School District,” is a celebration of art educators. Eleven teachers exhibited 27 artworks, selected by an artist and former University of Delaware faculty member. The pieces are bright and lively, and taken as a whole they are a testament to the kind of creativity and inspiration these artists bring to the classroom.
It’s no small thing to involve the public in the work that you do. In the field of public history that practice is termed “shared authority,” and there is a reason the concept still pervades most discussions of community engagement. It can be hard to let community partners dictate some of the terms. In an art museum, exhibition development is the bread and butter of curatorial work. How do you successfully transfer some of that job to your audience, without losing your vision or sacrificing your quality standards? The Delaware Art Museum knocks it out of the park.
This week, Nina Simon at Museum 2.0 wrote about institutions with a public service perspective – museums that have transformed their mission and made their work about community-wide advocacy. For me, the Lower East Side Tenement Museum in lower Manhattan is a model for civic engagement. This is the museum that inspired me, as a graduate student, to think outside the box of history museum offerings and consider the many ways a museum could contribute to social change.
The immediacy of those tenement apartments, interpreting the lives of Irish, German, Russian Jewish, and Italian immigrants in the 19th and early 20th centuries, generates a feeling of pride and a connection with the American experience, the story of immigration. That sounds a bit simple, I know, but there is a quiet power to witnessing the recreated worlds of people that share the same struggles as you do – paying the bills, feeding a family, acclimating to new surroundings, finding work. This was the first place I toured where the dominant story was about the working class and the poor, and thus felt relevant to a broad audience.
The Tenement Museum could stop right there and I would be impressed by the quality of their research and interpretation. But, it doesn’t. Instead, the museum is committed to using history as a means to get at contemporary debates, namely immigration, and inspire community action on a range of issues. There are some who would find the phrase “using history” worrisome, but the Tenement Museum is living proof that you don’t have to choose between rock-solid scholarship and policy. (There are institutions which strike that balance poorly, but that’s a different story for a different day.)
Visitors participate in a Past & Present discussion at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum. (Photo: Lower East Side Tenement Museum.)
In April, I was lucky enough to participate in a roundtable discussion about civility and civic engagement in public history practice with Lokki Chan, an educator at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum. In this current political climate, it can be hard to imagine people who disagree coming together to discuss the past and try to build upon some kind of shared experience. But that is exactly what the Tenement Museum’s dialogue program aims to do. Starting with a seemingly innocent question, “Where are you from?,” educators like Lokki work to deromanticize the past and complicate the present, making space for difficult dialogues about immigration today and in history. The program has been remarkably successful; in the past year alone, over 5,000 people have chosen tours with this discussion component and the responses have been overwhelming positive.
A perspective shift is an important goal. The museum also makes space for a different kind of engagement, through the “Agents for Change” initiative. In this section of the website, the museum highlights stories of community leaders, both historical and contemporary, who have brought about positive change in the community. The stories are meant to galvanize the reader into action; there are links and tips for pursuing similar goals in your own neighborhood. The initiative is bold and compelling.
For many of you, this love letter will feel familiar. But for those of you who haven’t yet been to the Lower East Side Tenement Museum, or for those of you who are seeking out institutions where civic engagement has become part of the mission without cannibalizing their other goals, this post is for you. Now is as good a time as any – better even, as their new visitor’s center is slated to open soon – to visit and be inspired.
Lower East Side Tenement Museum
108 Orchard Street
New York, NY 10002
As someone who works in the humanities, I occasionally find myself in the position of defending my line of work. Museums are places to admire the master works of our civilization and reflect upon our shared past, but I often feel a push to define our function in society in more immediately beneficial ways. We want to help solve problems and provide useful services to our diverse audience, as much as we want to promote a love and appreciation for the arts. That’s what civic engagement is all about, right?
I’ve long been interested in art museums that use their collections to teach visual literacy. The Yale Center for British Art, among others, uses paintings as a way to help medical students better diagnose patients. Both the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Frick Collection offer programs to help police hone the skills of observation for use in crime prevention or crime-solving. All of these initiatives convincingly demonstrate the need for sophisticated visual skills and the role art museums can play in developing that expertise.
Visual literacy can be useful to other populations, too. In December, the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh held a workshop on making art accessible to people with dementia. This event brought together partners from the Pittsburgh Alzheimer’s Research Center and the Greater Pennsylvania Chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association, as well as museum professionals from the Museum of Modern Art’s pioneering program. (MoMA began offering programs for Alzheimer’s patients and their caregivers in 2004.) The Carnegie Museum used this workshop as a way to launch an expanded slate of tours, called “In the Moment,” which follows upon the heels of a successful pilot program.
Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh, Pa.
To create “In the Moment,” the Carnegie Museum worked closely with Woodside Place, a senior care facility in nearby Oakmont. Tours are offered monthly for residents and their caregivers; since May, tours are also available for individuals with early and middle-stage dementia who do not live in a residential care facility. Each tour includes discussions around 4-5 separate pieces of artwork in the Museum’s collections. The results have been stunning. Some works have stirred up long-term memories, allowing residents to engage with their own past in constructive ways. Participants have made connections between their experience and that of their peers, their caregivers, and the larger world – an occurrence that becomes less frequent as Alzheimer’s progresses. Because the entire premise of the tour is to talk about what you see, conversations and connections occur in a low-stakes environment. The pressure is off; what a relief for patients who need a respite from the frustrations of grasping at receding memories.
Art museums will always be places to encounter works of art. The opportunity to stroll through a gallery examining master techniques and pondering an artist’s meaning is a powerful experience. But, it’s not the only way to foster a connection with the arts. Museums are engaging new audiences in increasingly creative ways, constantly striving to be community institutions. With “In the Moment,” the Carnegie Museum of Art is being a good neighbor – responding to the needs of a local population and living up to the promise of accessibility and inclusion.
Carnegie Museum of Art
“In the Moment” tours offered on the second Tuesday of each month; Cost: $15/pair
4400 Forbes Avenue
Pittsburgh, PA 15213
Every year for as long as I can remember, my family took a trip to the Bronx Zoo in the summer months. When the days get long and the weather is practically begging me to be outside as much as possible, I can’t help but continue that summertime zoo tradition.
The Bronx Zoo has come a long way from my visits as a child – the days of big cats in large cages, surrounding the sea lion pool at Astor Court. These charismatic felines have since been moved around the zoo; exhibits are now designed to represent the interconnectedness of a region’s ecosystem. The lions are on the African Plains, alongside storks and gazelle. The snow leopards can (sometimes) be spotted in the Himalayan Highlands; in addition to the cranes and red pandas, the exhibition space includes representations of Himalayan art. In the last fifteen years, the Bronx Zoo has transformed itself into a center for conservation and global environmental awareness.
The final exhibit panel at Tiger Mountain urges the visitor to action.
How do they do it? Tiger Mountain, opened in 2003, is an expanded habitat for the zoo’s Siberian tigers. It includes a large woodland living space, with a pool and plenty of space to observe tiger behaviors. The exhibit is more than just space for viewing the animals or learning about their diet and social habits, however. The zoo’s curators, while they have the rapt attention of their visitors, use the space to alert us to the status of tigers as endangered species. A map of the world shows the reduced range of the species; a second map illustrates the work the Bronx Zoo and the Wildlife Conservation Society are doing to protect tigers and their natural habitats in Asia. A complex model of a poacher’s truck is full of interactive features to teach kids and their families about the ways poachers capture, kill, and transport tiger products for the black market. The Zoo sparks excitement and imagination in kids and adults alike, AND engages the community in their larger mission.
Can museums inspire social action, too? I sometimes forget that zoos and museums have much to learn from each other. Yes, zoos have living collections and the whole range of perks and problems that come along with that, but we share a similar function as sites of informal learning. Our collections can inspire visitors to think about contemporary societal issues – and to take action. Zoos manage to leverage that ability unselfconsciously – it’s hard to imagine a zoo today that doesn’t encourage its audience to confront issues of shrinking rainforests, climate change, or poaching.
Does this encourage citizen action? As a kid, I remember telling my brother he couldn’t get that parrot he wanted; I had learned at the zoo that most parrots were products of the illegal trade in exotic wildlife. Tiger Mountain provides a few suggestions for getting involved in the fight to save wild tigers – choosing politicians who support wildlife conservation, for example. (There is always room for improvement; Nina Simon from Museum 2.0 talks about how museums can better incite their visitors to action here.) What the zoo does most successfully is raise awareness; I came away with a sense of my place in the global world, and how my behaviors can affect the environment around me.
In my experience, history museums in particular tend to shy away from this kind of activism. We should take a page from the zoo’s book and consider more opportunities to use our collections to encourage civic action.
2300 Southern Boulevard
Bronx, NY 10460
Open Monday-Friday, 10am-5pm; Weekends, 10am-5:30pm
There are exhibits, and then there are exhibits. You know the good ones right away – they make you think, they encourage you to spend more time with them than you were planning, they challenge your assumptions. As visitors, these are the experiences we remember; as professionals, these are the experiences we aim to create.
Last month, I was visiting the Boston Museum of Science and its special exhibition, “RACE: Are We So Different?” caught my interest right away, beckoning from across the hall while we played with probability in the Mathematica room. I was surprised (and pleased) to see an exhibition with a humanities bent in a science museum. I headed over and got lost, until the museum guard came around to remind us the museum was closing in fifteen minutes. It was one of those exhibits.
This week, the New York Times reported about multiracial college applicants and the ways in which they approach the race question on college applications. Today, there are many more options for defining one’s racial identity, yet students feel that checking a box, or a combination of boxes, does not always accurately reflect their identity. This is just one example of the impact of race, specifically race as a socially defined, and variable, category. RACE aims “to help individuals of all ages better understand the origins and manifestations of race and racism in everyday life by investigating race and human variation through the framework of science .”
"RACE: Are We So Different?" (Photo: American Anthropological Association)
The first few panels challenge received wisdom about the science behind skin color. Do darker skin tones protect against cancer? Can you easily identify people of different races through auditory cues? A quote from a geneticist reminds us, “Historically, the concept of race was imported into biology – from social practice.” The center portion of the exhibition is composed of a short history of race in America. I didn’t spend much time here; I was more interested in the way the designers leveraged science and contemporary public policy and statistics to tell a new story about the impact of prejudice based on skin color. Piles of cash, for example, were a striking visual representation of the wealth disparities among whites and other ethnic groups. The exhibit used lived experience very well. There were two video stations with individuals sharing their everyday experiences with race. Sepia tone portraits ran half the length of one wall; the subjects had written a caption about their racial identity – they were funny, poignant, and real.
In one corner of the exhibition space was a contemporary photograph of a group of people. Each person was wearing a white t-shirt with black lettering. The lettering on the shirts said “Free white” or “Mexican” or “Mulatto”; the shirts also had a date, corresponding to the year in which the racial category on their shirt was used in the census. Each individual had three categories on their shirt, highlighting the drastic changes in official U.S. conceptions of race over time. The exhibit label asks “Why do we have race on the census, anyway?” Or, as the New York Times story reminds us, how can we make space for the varied ways in which individuals identify themselves? Brazil, for example, has over 100 commonly used racial descriptors.
RACE was developed by the American Anthropological Association, with the Science Museum of Minnesota in 2007. It began its run there and has been on a national tour since. If you haven’t had the opportunity to see it yet, it begins a six-month-long stint at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History in Washington, DC starting this Saturday (June 16). It is an important exhibition, one that challenges historical notions about race with a mix of history, science, and personal experience. The combination is powerful, and not to be missed. The exhibit demonstrates that race is not based in scientific fact, but is instead a cultural construct – understood variably in different times and different places. I think many of us know this already, but the exhibition’s commitment to using scientific studies as proof of the social, rather than biological, roots of race and racism is successful. Cultural constructs are deeply affecting, however, and the exhibit also shows that while race does not have a scientific basis, racism has been a defining force in America.
It is not every day that a museum exhibition prompts you to reexamine your ideas and to engage deeply with your place in the community. We tend to think of exhibitions as passive, with the accompanying events and programs as the real opportunities for curators and experts to host discussions about the material. But really, exhibitions are programs, too. They allow us to interact with, and digest, the ideas and concepts on our own terms. If done well, they ask the us to share our opinions. And, since many of us visit museums with friends or family members, the conversations an exhibition can provoke are programs in miniature. It’s a different, but no less powerful, form of civic engagement.
RACE: Are We So Different?
At the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History through January 1, 2012.
10th Street and Constitution Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20560
Open 10am-5:30pm daily.
This season marks the fifth year of an urban farming experiment at Wyck Historic House and Gardens. The 18th-century homestead, located in the heart of upper Germantown in Philadelphia, has been a museum since the early 1970s. With the help of an extensive collection of artifacts and documents, the house relates three hundred years of history – the daily trials and tribulations of one family of Philadelphia Quakers. Except it hasn’t always been clear who’s listening.
Historic houses are struggling. Many of us don’t feel connected to the house on the hill; our ancestors came in through the servant’s entrance, if they entered at all. We want museums to be relevant, to connect to our own lives and experiences. That can be a tall order, of course (and maybe one that some historians feel uncomfortable serving), but the staff at Wyck knew they could find a way to interpret history and build a stronger relationship with their visitors at the same time.
Children from an area Head Start program get their hands dirty at the Wyck Home Farm." (Photo by Wyck Historic House and Garden)
The Wyck Home Farm was born. In the face of a growing movement to eat local foods and support sustainable farming practices, many historic sites have been embracing their agricultural past and exploring the farm as a rich interpretive arena. But few have expanded upon that idea in the way that Wyck has. By developing a small urban farm in Germantown, Wyck is providing a crucial service to its neighbors. The Home Farm is both an agricultural and an educational space. The weekly farmer’s market – Fridays throughout the summer (starting this Friday!) if you’d like to stop by and pick up some local produce – is one of the only local options for fresh fruits and vegetables. When I visited last August, women were appraising late-summer tomatoes while their kids waited impatiently to visit the chickens. This neighborhood is particularly in need of such a service; there is no supermarket within walking distance and access to healthy foods is limited. Wyck ensures that the products it sells are accessible to everyone, both by controlling price and by encouraging conversations about creativity in the kitchen. The Home Farm allows the staff to work with the local community to address issues of nutrition and equitable access to fresh foods.
The farmer’s market is only one piece of the Home Farm’s mission. Wyck’s most vibrant school programs are now about nutrition and growing food. The farm is a sort-of laboratory where kids raised in urban environments can begin to make sense of the path food takes from the field to their lunchbox.
And, it doesn’t end there. The house is open for visitors to wander through after they do their shopping at the farmer’s market. The kitchen and pantry are a particularly popular area; visitors can see an excerpt from an early receipt book and get a glimpse of the family’s 19th century china. In this way, the history of these distant Quakers seems less remote. Even if we can’t relate to their religious beliefs, or their political passions, or their community status, we can all understand the struggle to feed a family. And once that common ground is established, the door is open for public historians to find creative ways to tell the rest of the story. Wyck has managed to enhance the site’s history by renewing its agricultural past in a way that is relevant today.
What struck me (well, in addition to the black raspberries I couldn’t wait to get into my kitchen) was the atmosphere. On market days, the double lot – a full block of Germantown Avenue – feels a bit like a county fair. People are wandering through, swapping recipes, ogling the harvest, and making a connection between their kitchen and the efforts of farmers, from the earliest Quaker residents to the 21st century farm crew. Here is an 18th century property brought back to life by an urban community.
Wyck Historic House and Gardens
6026 Germantown Ave., Philadelphia, PA 19144
Admission: $5/$4 senior citizens
Guided Tours: Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday, 1-4 p.m. from April 1 to December 15.
Home Farm: Fridays, 1-4 p.m., May 27, 2011 through early November.
Gardens and Grounds: Monday-Saturday, 9 a.m.-5 p.m. year-round.
The opening of the President's House memorial on Independence Mall, Philadelphia, on December 15, 2010, culminated years of sometimes contentious discussion about how to interpret this site. (Photograph by H. Rumph Jr. for the Greater Philadelphia Tourism Marketing Corp.)
This month we feature a slightly edited version of the Fredric M. Miller Memorial Lecture delivered by MARCH founding director Howard Gillette on May 5, 2011, on the occasion of his retirement from Rutgers-Camden, where he has served as Professor of History since 1999. The annual Miller Lecture recognizes the late Fred Miller’s pioneering work as an archivist and public historian to preserve and promote the history of Philadelphia, where he directed the Urban Archives at Temple University; and of Washington, D.C., where he worked at the National Archives and Records Administration.
“The revolution will not be tweeted.” Or, so read the tagline on a recent Malcolm Gladwell article in The New Yorker. In his persuasive manner, Gladwell suggested that relationships developed through Facebook, for example, tend to be shallow and rarely strong enough to create the bonds necessary for the hard work of achieving social change. Yet, we have watched as the youth of the Arab world foment revolution, successful in part due to the use of Twitter and Facebook as tools for organizing and publicizing their cause. Can social media build and sustain meaningful communities? Maybe the jury is still out on the relationship between new technologies and civic engagement.
Many of us who work in the public history field are asking these same questions. Web 2.0 tools have opened up a world of new and exciting possibilities for exploring and presenting history and we feel the pressure to use these tools, even as we don’t know its exact impact on our audience. But, I think we also feel suspicious of technology’s ability to act as a stand-in for face-to-face dialogue. How do we keep up with technology without ignoring the need for authentic, real-time interactions?
The Buffalo & Erie County Public Library is wrestling with just these issues. At the recent NCPH conference in Pensacola, Anne Conable, Project Director, and Michael Frisch, Professor of History at SUNY-Buffalo, spoke about their new collaborative project called “Re-Collecting the Great Depression and New Deal as a Civic Resource in Hard Times.”
The library is developing a unique digital inventory of primary source materials (photographs, oral histories, artifacts, buildings) relating to the Great Depression and the New Deal in western New York. This multi-media “collection of collections” will be a resource to support civic dialogue and reflection, drawing the community into the library for panel discussions and an exploration of their shared history. The project explores how the experiences of Buffalo residents in the 1930s might help provide context and perspective on the present. And, the library is experimenting with technology to help drive this process.
The central mission of the project has hinged on a series of three PastForward discussions. The topics have been incredibly timely; the first discussion in October 2010 focused on public funding for the arts and the legacy of the WPA. The second, “Our Daily Bread: Organized Labor Then and Now,” ran in February on the heels of Governor Scott Walker’s controversial plan to eliminate collective bargaining rights for public employee union members in Wisconsin. Both events were well attended – at each panel discussion, over 70 members of the community came to share their views and engage with the history.
Technology has played an important, but supporting, role in the project. Both Conable and Frisch speak eloquently about the project as a “model of how digital humanities can help a public library mobilize collections to address the civic purposes central to its mission.” Event participants can, for example, create their own personalized tour – downloadable from Google Maps – of Depression-era Buffalo. (Zotero, the collections software, allows them to pull from the burgeoning collections database to accomplish this.) They can download posters with photographs from the collection. These options allow the visitor to customize their experience, while also encouraging further engagement with the programming.
If you are in the western New York region, the third discussion in the PastForward series, “Housing For All: Policy and Reality,” will be held on May 24th at 7 p.m. in the Central Library. The discussion is sure to be dynamic, and while none of us has all the answers about the relationship between technology and civic life, this project is an innovative model for the ways in which new technologies can support the work of history and encourage community building.
“Housing For All: Policy and Reality”
May 24, 2011│ 7 p.m.
1 Lafayette Square
Buffalo, NY 14203-1887
For more information: http://www.buffalolib.org/events/newsroom/index.asp