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.
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?