The following is adapted from a panel presentation for museum professionals at the American Association of Museums AAM annual meeting in 2001 held in St. Louis, MO. Though written from the perspective of a small museum, The Trenton City Museum NJ, its concepts apply to any museum that needs to tap the resources within its community on how to get started.
1. Realize that the center of your universe is not the institution, but the community.
One way is to stop focusing on internal issues is to get outside your 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 was overwhelming from the serious collectors with large amounts of memorabilia, families of outstanding players as well as individual collectors. 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.
2. Make a decision to be open.
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 a hat exhibit reflecting Trenton’s former cottage industry. Whether you go out to the community or the community approaches you, as project facilitator it is strongly recommended that you stay open to possibilities as well as trust in the process.
3. Think locally as well as globally.
While it is essential to know what is going on locally, know also that it can mislead you. Keep up with regional news as well. It was only when a major Philadelphia news channel reported about the construction of the brand new baseball stadium in Trenton that we 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 listed almost daily only the mishaps during the stadium construction and 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 record for attendance for the entire league the past 7 years.
4. Have an agenda not to have an agenda.
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 that 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 was a treasure throve of talent: a graphic designer scanned all the images, produced the outputs and publication design while two academics wrote the grant narrative and edited the proceedings from the symposia which was the museum’s first ever publication. Your motto must be that of Alexandre Ledru-Rollin “I’ve got to follow them; I am their leader.”
5. Become adept at collapsing boundaries and at drawing them.
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 can be seen as problematic in a world that seeks to eliminate those boundaries that divide and wound. (Mayeski) 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 eager to contribute.
(to be continued)