Museums and Sandy: More Than a Power Disconnect?

I’m interrupting the series of posts I’d planned on next steps for museum educators to reflect a bit about Superstorm Sandy and museums. A few days after the storm, I saw a notice from the New York Public Library that it was working to re-establish power in all of its branches, and as each one opened, there would be extended hours so that the branch could be more available for people to come in and get warm, use the internet, and recharge cell phones and computers. They also announced an extension on all due library books. This latter seemed to me such a thoughtful and compassionate gesture. I wondered if any museums in the affected areas in New York and New Jersey were reaching out to their communities in similar ways.

Gov. Christie and local officials survey damage in Belmar, NJ. Governor’s Office/Jim Larson/AP

Search for Information-Frustrating

I put out a question on Twitter, and even created #Sandymuse for responses.  A couple of my Twitter followers (who have many more followers than I) retweeted my question, but so far the only person posting to this hashtag is me. I then began contacting colleagues living and working in the storm areas.
I began to realize that many museums might be closed due to power outages or flooding, or the inability of staff to travel, and thus unable to operate at all, much less offer services to people in their neighborhoods.  I wondered which museums had been affected, and thought that the websites of AAM (American Alliance of Museums), ASTC (Association of Science-Technology Centers) or MAAM (Mid-Atlantic Association of Museums) might have information, but found nothing.  The MAAM website directed me to post the question on the Facebook account, which I did, but again no responses.


I then went to individual museum websites that I thought might be in the storm area, and soon enough found that many were closed  (National Museum of American Indian, Seaport Museum; New York Aquarium; Liberty Science Center, New Jersey) or just opening (Tenement Museum, NYC). The 9/11 Museum under construction had massive flooding in its basement visitor center. I’m sure there are many others that I don’t know about.
Search for Museums and Libraries Offering Community Help-A Few Examples
During this search I came across the Snug Harbor Cultural Center and Botanic Garden on Staten Island.  The site had sustained quite a bit of damage, yet welcomed Staten Island neighbors to one of the buildings on its campus, open with food, water,  warm spaces, Internet access, and power for charging mobile devices.
On November 6, about a week after the storm, I found the IMLS Blog, UpNext, with accounts of how museums and libraries (seemed to be mostly libraries) were offering shelter, story hours for children, conservation workshops for affected collections, etc.
Some Questions
In his most recent Thinking About Museums post, Tales from the Blog, Ed Rodley recounted an MCN 2012 conference panel he led about blogging, and added the Twitter conversation related to this session.  A number of  tweets described blogging as a forum for testing ideas, for asking questions rather than for making pronouncements.  My search for a) what museums were affected by and b) what museums were doing in response to Sandy has raised the following questions for me.  I would love to hear responses, especially from colleagues living and working in Sandy’s path.
1.     In times of emergency and devastation affecting hundreds of thousands of people, what is the role of central museum associations such as AAM, ASTC, or MAAM, in gathering and providing information about affected institutions and colleagues?
2.     In addition to providing information on the impact of a disaster, might these associations also provide information on how we can help? This question and the one above also relate to a concept that Elaine Gurian and others have written and spoken about – “Timeliness.”  Museums are not noted for this quality in most of their activities – we tend to go for the long view.  But might there not be events such as Sandy that demand it?
3.     Once museums in disaster areas are up and running, do they have a role in addition to operating business as usual?  I’ve gone to the websites of a number of museums in the New York and New Jersey areas in the storm path.  There is almost nothing on their websites to indicate that anything is different. (One museum did advise visitors to stay on cleared roads while debris is being removed). Yet as of this writing news coverage shows tens of thousands of people still without power, with totally destroyed or compromised homes, still in a state of shock.
RC Volunteer Lilliana Matos talks with Rita Martinez and her children at the Red Cross Pleasantville High School Shelter. (Photo: Jason Colston/American Red Cross)t
4.     Granted, even the news media is offering scant coverage of areas that are still totally devastated.  And the coverage is getting scarcer.  But for museums, libraries and other cultural institutions in or near these neighborhoods, is this not what museums serving communities means?
·       Offering a message of concern on your website, Facebook site, etc. to those affected by Sandy–just a simple acknowledgement that your community has been affected?
·       Perhaps partnering with city or town to give free admission vouchers for people now in shelters so they can visit, especially with children.
·       Sending educators and those trained to work with the public to shelters, community centers, or affected communities for story hours, hands on science, or other activities?
·       Offering public spaces ­–indoor or outdoor–owned by your museum, even  grounds or parking lots- for community services or gatherings?
·       Other services that show your institution is aware of and cares for its community, not just in general but at this particular time and place.
RC Volunteer Lilliana Matos with Ferndanda and Maria Velasco at the Red Cross Pleasantville High School Shelter. (Photo: Jason Colston/American Red Cross)
Our conferences, bookstores, tweets, and Facebook musings are filled with standards, principles, and idealistic observations about the role of museums in their communities. If this is not the time to take up that role, then when?
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