COMM-ORG Papers 2006
Getting Started: Involving Your Community in Exhibit Development
Concepts and Skills
1. Realize that the center of your universe is not the institution, but the community
2. Make a decision to be open
3. Think locally as well as globally
4. Have an agenda not to have an agenda
5. Become adept at collapsing boundaries and at drawing them
6. Determine project outcomes and effectiveness
7. Market and promote your ideas
8. Determine the role of education
9. Be on the alert
10. Expect the unexpected
About the Author
“Museums in America have undergone a radical transformation of purpose in the last half-century” according to the Journal of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Summer 1999 issue entirely devoted to America’s Museums. The recurring theme in the journal’s essays, “is the institution’s outward-looking character and increasing emphasis on community engagement and a growing spirit of activism and openness." (Institute of Museum and Library Services).
In his essay, Harold Skramstad, president emeritus of Henry Ford Museum & Greenfield Village in Dearborn, Michigan, sets an agenda for the 21st Century museum: It must take as its mission nothing less than to engage actively in the design and delivery of experience... I will return again to this agenda.
I would like to tell you about some of the projects that took place while I was the director of the Trenton City Museum, an historic house museum with a permanent collection reflecting the city’s past manufacturing history, mostly pottery, and changing contemporary art exhibitions. Small museums are very close to our communities. When you cover the door during visiting hours, and answer the phone when your volunteer has gone for the day, you have direct contact with your public. Coming to the museum, I brought 20 years experience as a professional artist, arts educator of all ages, events planner and project manager. At small museums, staff often must build project teams with community members. I had such experience from partnering with other local artists to form an artists association for a united voice and to revitalize our city.
I relied on this collaborative approach at the museum because of lack of resources and also because I had always enjoyed the energy, creativity and camaraderie that come from the team approach.
I would like to highlight three exhibits from the museum. The first involved partnering with the artists; in the second, the museum put out a call to the community; and the third is an example of the museum being approached by the community.
Traditionally, the month of February is dedicated to Black History and exhibits are mounted featuring African American artists. When asked how they felt about the policy about Black artist exhibits during the month of February, the African American artists responded that, while it was nice to be recognized, the fact is they are artists the rest of the year as well. We discussed a theme based on the five Chinese elements and decided on an invitational mixed-media exhibition based on a wide range of materials artists use to express their ideas. In February 1996, the Trenton City Museum changed its policy for Black History Month by hosting an invitational exhibition on the theme of the Five Chinese Elements: Metal, Wood, Water, Earth, and Fire. In addition to works by African American artists, works by Hispanic, White and Asian American artists were included as well.
Professional minor league baseball returned to Trenton after an absence of 50 years along with a brand new stadium. A volunteer committee formed to mount not only an exhibit about the city’s rich baseball history, but also a three-part symposia series, children’s baseball art contest and baseball-theme professional artist exhibition. The project attracted corporate sponsors and government funding and the presidents of both the National and American Major Leagues were the honorary chairs of a committee of government dignitaries and business leaders.
When Trenton was a major manufacturing center, the city was also a bustling center for women’s hats. This important cottage industry provided women one of the few opportunities to own their own business. An exhibition on hats, like the baseball example cited above, created community momentum and received local and regional media coverage.
In thinking about these projects and the collaborative process, I’d like to share some of the concepts and skills that underlie such undertakings.
One way is to stop focusing on internal issues long enough to get outside the organization and ask people what they think of it and what they want from it. In planning for the baseball exhibit titled “When Trenton Baseball Roared Like Thunder” the museum sent out a call to the public through the press for baseball memorabilia. The response from the serious collectors was overwhelming, with large amounts of memorabilia, families of outstanding players, as well as individuals. Many of the owners wanted direct involvement in the planning so the museum formed an advisory committee made up of academics, business people, sportswriters and other interested baseball fans.
The first step of reaching out is an inside job. A community can sense an attitude from the institution. In some cases, the community approached us with ideas for projects, such as the hat exhibit. Whether you go out to the community or the community approaches you, as project facilitator you must be open to possibilities and trust in the process.
Know what is going on locally. But know that it can mislead you. Keep up with regional news as well. When a major Philadelphia news channel reported the construction of a new baseball stadium in Trenton, I realized just how newsworthy the topic of baseball in Trenton was. If we had only been informed by the local news, we would not have even considered the baseball exhibition because the local newspapers, almost daily, covered only the mishaps during the stadium construction, reflecting public cynicism for the project. (It would fail--taxes would increase to cover the shortfall, etc.) Now in its eighth season, Trenton holds the league attendance record for the past seven years.
Good planning requires a road map, of course. But make sure to leave space for creative turns. You have a great, innovative idea for a collaborative project. The committee is in place. Enthusiasm is high and everyone is set to get to work. Though it is you who will drive the project and keep it on track, in the early planning allow for the creative process to unfold as it builds successively on the suggestions and talents of those on the planning committee. The baseball advisory group was a treasure throve of talent: a graphic designer scanned all the images, outputs and the publication design, two academics wrote the grant narrative and edited the proceedings from the symposia. Your motto must be that of Alexandre Ledru-Rollin “I must follow them; for I am their leader."
Keep in mind that this entity that we call community is today an organic life form. At times there will be boundaries and pockets of self-identification to establish who is “in the community” and who is not, which is critical to a communal sense of identity. However, at other times, these practices can be seen as problematic in a world that seeks to eliminate those boundaries that divide and wound. (Mayeski, 2001) At the museum I learned about an important borderless community, the people who were “Trentonians at heart”—children and grandchildren of former Trentonians. Though they grew up in the suburbs, they defined themselves as Trentonians and were often eager to contribute.
Program planning, implementation and evaluation are all parts of a whole and must be driven by an institution’s vision. This must be done at the beginning of the project development so the project is built around a clear understanding of what the museum wants to achieve and how it will determine success. Because both the baseball and hat exhibitions were history-based, we felt that civic pride was a foremost consideration. We particularly wanted children to feel proud of their city’s history and know that its past achievements are part of their heritage, whether their families have been in the city for many generations or they were newcomers to the city, or even the country.
Share with everyone you meet information about the project, who is involved with it, where you are in the process and you will reap unexpected rewards. In a conversation with a colleague during a coffee break at a seminar, I shared our idea about the upcoming baseball exhibit. He was very enthusiastic and told me that Cooperstown hosts a symposium every summer and scholars come to present papers on the history of the game. From this came the idea for a 3-part symposia featuring Negro League ball players, an expert on the Negro Leagues from Ohio, and former player and Trenton native Al Downing from California. The daughter in law of the man who gave us the idea presented her paper on how minor league ball impacts a community based on her intern experience with the Oneonta Yankees.
The introduction of the Summer 1999 issue of the Journal of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, mentioned earlier, states that “the principle of “public responsibility” guaranteed that American museums would make education one of their principal purposes. The realization of this purpose, however, was not as obvious.” It is up to each one of our institutions to determine how to promote education. Perhaps part of the radical transformation is that people may be our most important collectible. We have studied how to coax objects to tell their stories. Perhaps now we may want to shift to our focus to the people in our communities to contribute theirs.
Museums should remain social institutions and not become an industry. At a recent day long seminar on The Art of the Deal regarding arts funding, it was obvious that the language of business continues to infiltrate our vocabulary with focus on such items as the “bottom line,” and “brand value." Or they find themselves addressing ways in which they contribute to community development either through revitalization, workforce development, tourism, or how they enhance market research and economic impact. All of which can lead to— mission “drift.” In his recent book Robert Birnbaum cautions about corporate priorities and practices creeping into higher education which could also apply to museums: “In the United States, the educational narratives of the past have been stories of personal virtue, civic participation, democracy, and social justice. The narrative gods of the present appear to be economic utility, consumerism, and technology—a weak foundation on which to build a just social order or excite the imagination.”
When involving the community, certainly you want to make sure the key people are recognized and thanked appropriately. But there may be valuable information that you lack. So I would caution you to be vigilant and pick up on even the subtlest of cues and the not so subtle ones and deal with them at once. When the mayor made an appearance at the opening reception for “Hats off to Trenton” exhibition, he recognized the two milliners who proposed the exhibition based on their collection but overlooked another local milliner, an elderly African American woman. I observed that her friends perceived it as a slight and I approached them and asked if the museum could recognize their friend in a special way by having a tea in her honor.
A Museum has the opportunity to mount extensive exhibitions with loans from collectors that would be too costly to acquire (even if they were available) and store, such as the baseball and the hat exhibitions. Such items could be documented through film and digital imaging while they are together for the exhibit. Also, a museum can protect the image rights on most of the photographs so they can get revenues from cards, posters and publications.
The advisory committee for both the baseball and hat exhibits brought tremendous energy to the museum. Some members of the baseball committee met at the museum on Saturdays to go over their research the history of baseball in Trenton. Once they approved the copy, it was then given to the designer for the label and text copy. Several women’s groups worked together with the museum to assist with the installation of the hat exhibit and to oversee the reception and tea.
What can be worse then not getting enough? Getting too much. You recall the overwhelming response to our call for baseball memorabilia. The advisory committee, and also the experts along with the exhibit designer, determined that Trenton’s history was so rich that the focus of an exhibit would have to be just professional baseball—that entire exhibits could be mounted on Babe Ruth, as well as Legion Ball. So the exhibition had to be pushed back a year.
The museum produced its first exhibition publication and the local newspaper carried it as an insert for a special baseball issue. Only afterwards, however, did we learn that because they published it first, the local newspaper owned the copyright.
The community advisory committee curated the baseball exhibition. This put the exhibit designer under tremendous pressure to ty it all together on top of his duties of design and fabrication.
Despite these pitfalls, working with the community has potential for enormous possibilities. Harold Skramstad’s agenda for the museum of the 21st century was to deliver nothing less than to engage actively in the design and delivery of experiences that have the power to inspire and change the way people see both the world and the possibility of their own lives.
There will be an unknown before, during and after. Some outcomes cannot be predicted. I will illustrate by going back to my examples:
When you set out to plan a baseball exhibition to showcase the city’s history of the game, you think boys of summer, even nostalgia. But here’s what impressed one local sportswriter when the exhibition opened in spring, 1995. “Healing,” he wrote, “for the baseball blues, (for it was during the strike of major league baseball). It was during his visit to the exhibition on Trenton baseball that he found his solace— “Heart-stirring” he wrote, “and pure joy….” (Ropeik, 1995).
To accompany the exhibit on Five Chinese Elements during Black History month that year, a Chinese dance company put together a workshop called Forms in Motion, which combined Chinese Calligraphy and dance. All 5th grade students from 8 city schools participated. Throughout that month, the groups were given a gallery talk preceding the workshop by one of the African American artists. Afterwards, the children learned about the origins of Chinese characters as they brushed them on huge pieces of paper on the floor. Chinese dancers then instructed the children how their bodies were now the brushes and the air around them the paper, as they performed calligraphy through dance. Recently I was speaking with the African American artist who did the gallery tours for the children that year. He had worked as a biochemist along with making art, and he shared with me that all the anger and hurt of racism that he experienced through the years as a scientist and artist had left him. He attributed the release to the exhibit and workshop.
The museum did host a high tea honoring the African American milliner. Several women’s groups made cookies and cakes and served up lemonade punch on a spring afternoon. The city planner played Victorian parlor piano music and a gospel singer sang to the honoree joined by 300 women, and some men, all wearing hats. In a feature article by a local newspaper, the community learned about Maolyn Saunders, whose extraordinary hat making abilities crossed color lines whereby both black and white women wore her hats. However, in the fifties she was driven out of business because of increasing rent. For the next thirty years she would commute to New York City to a major design house instead of working out of her own hometown. When asked by the reporter how she felt about the tea in her honor, she considered it a vindication. “I’m thrilled!” she said. “I forgive them.”
Birnbaum, Robert. Management Fads in Higher Education: Where They Come From, What They Do, Why They Fail. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2000.
Daedalus, Summer 1999. Volume 128, No. 3, of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) press release on publication of
Daedalus, Summer 1999. Volume 128, No. 3, of the American Academy of Arts and
Sciences examining American museums.(pp. 117-119)
Baum, Dan. 2005. Battle Lessons: What the generals don’t know. The New Yorker, January 17. http://www.newyorker.com/fact/content/?050117fa_fact.
Mayeski, Marie Anne. “A Prophetic Vocation.” America, New York; Mar 5, 2001; Vol. 184, Iss. 7; pg. 31.
Ropeik, Arnold C. "Got baseball blues? This will heal you." Trenton Times, Friday, May 5, 1995, page A2. Review of the exhibit "When Trenton Baseball Roared Like Thunder" at The Trenton City Museum at Ellarslie, in Cadwalader Park.
Skramstad, Harold. “An agenda for American museums in the twenty-first century.” Daedalus, Summer 1999. Volume 128, No. 3, of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
The Art of the Deal: Money, Mission and the Arts,” a colloquium on funding in
Rutgers School of Public Policy, New Brunswick, NJ. March 27, 2001.
Theresa McNichol is the president of Ren Associates, which specializes in creative collaborations related to urban cultural renewal. A former director of an historic house museum, she has firsthand experience with community collaborative projects and is a frequent workshop facilitator and has presented conference papers in U.S., Europe and China. She assisted in the facilitation of town meetings in Manhattan and the boroughs on the rebuilding of Manhattan after September 11. Ms. McNichol has also consulted internationally: to The British Council, an international organization for educational opportunities and cultural relations, in an advisory role to Northern Ireland Museums; providing research and high-level museum contacts in United States for a Tokyo Foundation-funded project on museums as anchors in revitalization of cities resulting in a book (published by Nikkei, 2003) by the Japanese partners who prominently cite her contribution.
For the 2001 Annual American Association of Museums Conference, May 7, 2001
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