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A New Conversation for a New Year

What is a museum?

There’s a lot of ways to categorize them. Educational institutions. Tourist attractions. Repositories of knowledge or art. A place to bring the kids on spring break. One way that we like to think about a museum is as a community. The membership is a museum’s community, of course, but that is just one of many ways a museum can be a site of community. A museum can be a place where people gather, a locus that brings people together for common purposes. Museums can also be a member of a larger community, working to unite people and institutions around something bigger than itself, and reaping the rewards of that work. There’s a lot of power in that sort of engagement, and it’s something we’d like to spend more time thinking about in the pages (well, page) of this blog in 2019.

There’s a lot of ways to think about museums and community and we’re going to look at some of these in the next few months. Whether it is how Mass MOCA’s birth inside the shell of a former manufacturing plant is affecting its community in rural Berkshire County, MA, or following the progress of the Field Museum as it partners with local indigenous groups to re-envision its Native American exhibit halls, we are going to take some time to evaluate what museums are doing to create, strengthen, or expand their communities. We will also look at how arts organizations and other public spaces take on this work in ways that can be applied to museums. In taking these close looks, we hope to stimulate deeper conversations about what it means to be a museum and inspire people to look at their own organizations for ways to create new bonds with people and other organizations. Always, we hope to challenge assumptions about what and who an institution is for, who it speaks to, and what it can accomplish.

So together, let’s start thinking creatively about what it means to engage a community as a museum or as museum people. And let’s not forget that we’re a community, too, of readers and writers, and of museum students, alums, and workers! Please take a moment in the comments or send us an email at tuftsmuseumblog@gmail.com to let us know your thoughts about community and museums or to let us know about a great museum doing community engagement in a novel or successful way so we can write about it!

On Education and the Vote

Museums have, for many decades now, been sites of learning and exploration for people of all ages, economic classes, and educational levels. The idea of informal learning spaces assisting with civic education of newly arrived Americans has its roots in a Progressive Era ethos of immigrant assimilation, with the accompanying racist and xenophobic undertones one might expect. However, some of the programs provided by settlement houses and other progressive aid organizations had a significant impact on the lives of immigrants eager to learn about their new country and to advance within it.

Regardless of the flawed origins of these programs, the value of civic education that unites all Americans and enables advocacy and enfranchisement is not to be denied. This understanding of the role museums can play in the pursuit of civic engagement is fully realized in programs like New-York Historical Society’s Citizenship Project. This class uses art from New-York Historical’s collection to teach prospective citizens about American History and Civics through art in the collection. The course does not shy away from informing the students about the darker aspects of American History, including Native American removal, the Chinese Exclusion Act, and the Civil War. The Society also hosts naturalization ceremonies for students after they complete the program and pass their citizenship exam.

Of course, for those of us already enfranchised, we don’t have to wait long to exercise our right to vote. There is a midterm election fast approaching on November 6. Aside from the noble causes museums can assist with, like citizenship courses or enhancing student learning by providing material culture to augment in class learning, we know that museums are affected by political decisions every day. From federal funding of the arts and history projects to local budgets supporting field trips, elections matter when it comes to keeping museums open, encouraging new work to be done, and extending access to museums for students and other prospective learners.

This blog encourages you, museum professionals and students alike, to make sure that you make a plan to vote on November 6. The state of Massachusetts, where Tufts is located, has a sample ballot available here to help you prepare for voting and a way to find your polling location here. Other states have also posted their ballots and polling place locators online. Making decisions about who and what will best represent your life and your institutions is an important responsibility that comes with civic education. As John Dewey once noted, “Democracy has to be born anew every generation, and education is its midwife.”


What do free muffins and museums have in common?

I ask you, faithful readers: what do you think free muffins and museums have in common?

Your answer: both have an endowment.

At the Empire Grill in Skowhegan, Maine, one customer each day is given a free muffin before noon. Sure, you think – restaurants must comp food all the time. What makes this different?

In 2007, James Sham, a performance artist, was a student at the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture. He recognized that the diner was a community space where art students and locals were interacting, bringing together two seemingly disparate groups. He also recognized the power of an unexpected generous gesture, even a small one. So he led a fundraising campaign that eventually reached its goal of $9,000. Deposited in a savings account, that money earns $0.8 in interest each day – enough for one free muffin. He built a muffin endowment.

Most museums have endowments. Most are trying constantly to build them. Those funds are what keep the water flowing and the lights turned on. They have restricted funds for acquisitions, for education, for curatorial chairs. Some endowments are worth millions and millions of dollars.

James Sham was able to take a small, remote community, bring them together, raise the relatively tiny amount of $9,000, and he created something unique and special. Imagine what a museum could do along those lines. Could they endow one free admission each day, and celebrate the free attendee with fanfare? Could they surprise one child with a free toy from the gift shop? Could they give a free cup of coffee to their first five visitors each day?

These are objectively small things, but if they’re done right, then subjectively they can mean the world. I for one would always remember a place that placed a muffin on my plate and told me it was free, thanks to a community’s desire to make my day a little bit brighter.

The Empire Grill’s unique endowment was featured in Yankee Magazine‘s March/April 2010 issue. Sadly, the restaurant closed shortly after the magazine went to press.

Crowdsourcing History

Nice and timely, two very interesting and very different ways in which museums and archives are crowdsourcing their materials.

In case you’ve never heard of it, “crowdsourcing” is a term used to refer to the placement of a task – or more usually a very large series of tasks – in front of an audience, and asking that audience to complete the tasks. It’s used for commercial purposes in places such as Amazon’s Mechanical Turk software, in which users earn a few pennies per task.

More pertinently for us, it can be used with more intangible currency. Providing your audience (and the audience you didn’t know you had, thanks to the wonders of the World Wide Web) with small, engaging tasks akin to playing a game, with clearly defined benefits for the institution can pay off dividends in the long run. You’re giving your audience a stake in the project – a sense of ownership – and creating a sense of community. A really good crowdsourcing project harnesses all the flexibility and personal connections possible on the internet. (We talked a little bit about crowdsourcing in our posts about Historypin.)

Your first example is one featured on the Center for the Future of Museum’s blog: the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s Citizen History Project. Users are asked to help with a number of tasks, including tracking down children who went missing from the Lodz Ghetto in 1941.

Another project, and one that completely blows my mind, is the Ancient Lives project. Oxford University, the Egypt Exploration Society, and the University of Minnesota have teamed up to harness the power of internet users to help translate the Oxyrynchus Papyri. The most amazing part? They’ve managed to do so in a way that’s accessible to those among us who don’t read ancient Greek. The History Blog has a great overview of the process, so go, read up.

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