Involving the community in historic house museum exhibit planning

Getting Started: Involving Your Community in Exhibit Planning—or Just About Any Kind of Project
Over a decade ago, many museums updated their mission statements to reflect a shift from their inward focus on collections outward to their communities. Today, the specific term used in the literature for this outward focus is “Public Value”* and the way in which museums are relevant in their communties. 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 with a little staff, its concepts would apply to any small nonprofit that needs to tap the resources within its community and does not know how to begin to go about it.

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 more often than not, eager to contribute.

6. Determine project outcomes and effectiveness.
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 wanted Trentonians, particularly 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 whether they were newcomers to the city, or even the country.

7. Market and promote your ideas.
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 three-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. Moreover, the daughter-in-law of the man who gave us the idea presented her paper on how minor league ball impacts on a community based on her intern experience with the Oneonta Yankees.

8. The new role of education
A recent museum journal 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 our focus to the people in our communities to contribute theirs.

9. Be on the alert.
When involving the community, certainly you want to make sure the key people are recognized and thanked appropriately. Yet there will be times that oversights will occur and in the event they do occur deal with it 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 African American woman. I immediately approached her friends and posed the idea of a tea in her honor. It turned into a most memorable community event attended by hundreds of people— all wearing hats!

10. Expect the Unexpected
Be open to possibilities, as there will be unknowns before, during and after the project. Some outcomes cannot be predicted. 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….”

From NonProfit Consultants Collaborative Newsletter March 2004
Copyright 2004.
*I will write a review of the special issue of the Journal of Museum Education on “Museum Education and Public Value.”

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1 Comment

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One response to “Involving the community in historic house museum exhibit planning

  1. Sid Willoby

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