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Community and Museums: An American Alliance of Museums Conversation

As part of the annual conference of the American Alliance of Museums (AAM), it held a conversation on June 3 with Dr. Johnnetta B. Cole, president of Spelman College, Lonnie G. Bunch III, Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, and Lori Fogarty, Director and CEO of the Oakland Museum of California. The discussion may be viewed online by clicking here.

The title of the session was Racism, Unrest, and the Role of the Museum Field. It was described as “an opportunity to come together as a community and listen to these powerful voices discuss how we can rebuild our field and our society for the better.” A transcript of the conversation  subsequently was provided. That action makes it a lot easier to write this blog.

I want to focus on the comments made about museums and communities. In so doing I am guided by the principles I have written about in my blogs.

1. We are a storytelling species.
2. Municipal museums and historical societies should tell the story of their municipality from the Ice Age to Global Warming.
3. Municipal museums like libraries and schools are an essential part of the social fabric.

These principles were not the direct subject of the conversation so I will extract the relevant comments. As you will read, the conversation was more about large museums in urban areas than the smaller-scale municipal museums located throughout the villages, towns, and cities of the country.

Lonnie G. Bunch III: What’s key is that you have to be an institution who recognizes in everything you do that the goal is, yes, I want to do good exhibitions. Yes, I want to do good scientific research. Yes, I want the kids to come to the zoo. But the reality is what you really want is you want to change and make your community, make your region, make your country better.

In other words, what I want to hear from museums in their vision statements is about the greater good and that greater good is more than serving audiences, it’s about helping a country find truth, find insight, find nuance, and in many ways, what I hope that cultural institutions like this can do is that they’re better suited than most to define reality and to give hope.

Dr. Johnnetta B. Cole: [I want] to read something that our sister Stephanie Johnson-Cunningham has written: “Culturally specific museums are literally a part of the community. They provide an incredible model that centers people, and they are able to be more culturally responsive because community care,” as opposed to collections, had to add that, “is at the center of their practice.”

I’d like to hear each of you talk about this, what can all museums learn from so-called culturally specific museums and what can all of our museums learn perhaps from institutions that are not museums? By the way, before I let you in, our brother Andrew says, “Careful how you use the term culturally specific, because over centuries museums have been culturally specific for white folks.”

Lori Fogarty: I think at the Oakland Museum of California some of our great models for the way we engage with community have been museums that are culturally specific to cultures other than the white culture. I think of the Wing Luke Museum in Seattle, I think of the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles, and of course I think of the great Smithsonian Institutions. And I think what we learned from them is, as you say, Johnnetta, there is a mission that is based in service to the community. They’re based in stories, and objects, and heritage, and history, but first and foremost for being places for people, and as you said, Lonnie, places whose missions are about imagining a better future. And I think that’s what we learn from these kinds of institutions.

And then I think they’ve developed very specific practices around bringing community in for dialogue and conversation and having community members, Lonnie, the great work that you did assembling a collection from scratch basically and reaching out to that broad community, where the treasures that came to the museum were the treasures that people had in their attics and their basements and in their grandmother’s closets. So I think there is both purpose and practice that museums that are rooted in much more of the white culture can learn from our sister and brother and sibling institutions.

Lonnie G. Bunch III: I think that Lori’s got it exactly right and I would sort of… The way I frame it is just a little different and that is, we know that museums cannot be community centers, they’re just not built to be community centers, but they sure could be at the center of their community, and that is really the way to think about this. And I also think that part of this I’ve learned from the Wing Luke, the Japanese American, the African American Museum in Detroit and Chicago, and what I’ve learned is that, first and foremost, they put community, they put education, and they put conversation and collaboration at the center.

So it’s not the sense of we’re up here and, “Oh, we’re inviting you in.” It’s at an essence, “We only exist because we’re part of this community and this collaboration.” But I’m also struck candidly by some of the sort of smart museum directors of the early 20th century, [such as John Cotton Dana], right? I mean, I think his notion of being very explicit saying, “What a good museum does is understand what the community needs and fits the museum to the community needs.” So in some ways we’ve got a lot of models, but I think the key to this is to not forget that we are of the community, of the people, and that our job is service first and foremost. And if we do that, then all things are possible.

Lori Fogarty: I get asked sometimes, “Are we a museum or a community center?” And I say, “Yes.” We have to be both, and we have to think about equity and inclusion in all dimensions. So for us, it’s looking inward and trusting the conversations within our own staff. And then what we are working on is, how do we listen to our community and respond to community needs in ways that we may never have imagined a museum would need to respond to community needs right now.

Lonnie G. Bunch III: And I think that’s the right word. I’ve been arguing that this is the time for the museums to reimagine their role. This is the time for political leadership to reimagine their role. This is a time for us as museums to realize we are integral and integrated to this moment. We’re not on the hill looking down, we’re in the middle of this. And the future is really, are you going to take advantage and recognize that you want people to look back and say, “Your museum in Dubuque–” or, “Your museum in Newark matters.” That you helped the public find tools to live their lives, find tools to understand this. I really do believe more than anything else that good museums really do define reality and give hope. And I think what we want to do is figure out how do we make sure this is something done throughout the organizations, throughout all our museums?

Because I have to be honest. I’m optimistic, but I’m cynical about museums in a way, because I have begged, I have fought, I have written, I have pleaded, I have challenged.

Lori Fogarty: I said it before, I think this is the defining time, the defining moment of our lives as a country, as individuals and as museum professionals, let us not miss this moment. Let us not miss this moment.

Lonnie G. Bunch III: This is the profession I love. This is the profession that has given me everything, and it’s a profession that taught me about giving. So what I hope is that we will realize that this is our moment to be that place that matters, to be that place of value, and to recognize that it’s not easy, there’s not one simple path, but if we are all committed to using our resources, our colleagues, our collections for the greater good, then this country is going to be in better shape than it is now.