Museums and the Boston Marathon Bombings

Compassion+Systems in Place+Timeliness=Community Impact

In the midst of the international outpouring of support and sympathy for the victims of the two bombs that went off near the finish line of the Boston Marathon on April 15,2013, what role did museums, especially Boston museums, play in their beleaguered community? As readers of Museum Commons know, I follow closely the ways in which museums respond (or not) to timely and topical events, (see posts on Trayvon Martin, the  10th anniversary ofSeptember 11, and Super Storm Sandy). So on April 16 I emailed a number of museum friends and colleagues in Boston, and checked Twitter feeds and museum websites. Here are a few examples of the responses, and some thoughts on what we can learn from them:

A Wide Variety of Responses
The New England Aquarium  posted on its home page:

In light of the Marathon tragedy, the Aquarium is closed today, Tuesday, April 16. The Aquarium will reopen at 9 a.m. tomorrow, Wednesday, April 17.

The city’s Museum of Fine Arts and The Institute of Contemporary Art each posted messages of solidarity with the community and offered free admission. Here is ICA’s statement.

We are deeply saddened by the tragic events that occurred yesterday during the Boston Marathon and our thoughts go out to the runners, friends, families, first responders, and all those impacted. The ICA is open today. In an embrace of our Boston community and all those who seek solace in the wake of yesterday’s tragedy, museum admission is free for all visitors today. Our free school vacation week activities will continue as scheduled. Heightened security measures are in place to ensure the safety of our visitors and staff. As always, we hope the museum will offer a place of community and reflection.

The Museum of Science  had fielded a team of runners, and was so occupied Monday afternoon in contacting all of them and finding them safe that they decided just to open as usual on Tuesday with no formal statement calling attention to themselves.  Their flags flew at half-staff.  Senior V.P for Strategic Initiatives Larry Bell wrote on April 23, 

The news and impact of the story was so overwhelming that both in explicit discussions on the topic and in unspoken reactions we felt we were providing a service to visitors, especially families, to have an island away from news of the terror on the days immediately after the bombing…

On Monday, the Museum observed the moment of silence that happened all over the Boston area.  Staff and visitors gathered in the Museum lobby at 2:45 and observed a minute of silence at 2:50 PM.  This was exactly one week after the first bomb exploded at the Marathon.

Jeri Robinson, Vice President for Early Childhood and Family Learning at The Boston Children’sMuseum, wrote on April 16:

We are involved in a number of things. There are several posts on the museum’s Facebook page and website, tip sheets for  caregivers at the admissions desk, messages to the staff from Carole [Director Carole Charnow], as well as a number of letters that have gone out to city  and state agencies that are dealing with the many families, local and visiting, that have been affected by this tragedy. So far we have taken the following actions:

•             Working with Children’s Hospital to provide gift bags where appropriate for the children treated there

•             Contacting area hospitals treating injured adults to offer support/visits, etc.  for their children/families

•             Working with our media partner WBZ-TV to provide information supporting parents talking to children about tragedy.

In addition, my next door neighbor is a classmate of the child, Martin Richard, who was killed in the bombing.  I know a number of teachers and families who are part of that school community and have already contacted members of the parents group. Since this is school vacation week, we will be in touch with them next week to see how the museum can be of service to that school community. In essence we want to be responsive to the needs and stand ready to be of service and support to all affected families.

Thinking about Museums  blogger Ed Rodley wrote when I contacted him about the response of his city’s museums:

I applaud MFA and ICA for their gesture. There’s not a lot museums can do in the face of an ugly atrocity like yesterday’s, but offering themselves up as refuges and places to find some solace is one valuable service they can provide. As public institutions, (even if they are privately funded) museums have an obligation in times of crisis to serve the public, and it’s good to see Boston museums stepping up and serving.

Finally, on a national and pan-institutional level, Susan Hildreth, Director of IMLS (Institute for Museum and Library Services) made this brief, insightful statement on the organization’s blog

posted April 16:

Our hearts go out to those affected by the tragedy in Boston. Museums and libraries have already started to emerge as gathering places to find solace and comfort within the community. Here are some ways museums and libraries can help a community deal with traumatic events.

Dealing with the initial shock. Remember that you are dealing with your own personal shock. Take the time to care for yourself and your staff during a crisis.

In times of crisis, people need to tell their stories and be heard. Museums and libraries are in a unique position because they are all about story telling. Set aside enough time for individual stories and responses to them. Be willing to scrap your own ideas and schedule.

A trusted, safe place.Libraries and museums are a trusted community space. They can provide a place of healing; sometimes by providing an escape from turmoil and a constant in times of turbulence.

What Can We Learn?

This variety of responses illustrates a characteristic I’ve often observed—museums, despite their common name, are as complex and different from one another as the individuals they serve.  But there are a few broad lessons we can take from this variety:

  • Show your institution cares, and make sure your community knows it.  A building of steel and glass, a lofty and sometimes intimidating organization, shows its humanity when it demonstrates awareness and directly addresses a tragedy.  A gesture as simple as flying flags at half staff is still important.  Further public acknowledgement in the form of messages, or the specific offering of the museum as a place of reflection and community put the museum’s role into an understandable framework for a community in shock.
  •  Be timely (quick but considered).  Elaine Heumann Gurian, along with Joy Davis and Emlyn Koster, has written in Curator and elsewhere about “Timeliness in the Museum.” On the tortoise-hare scale, museums are mostly on the slow and steady end.  Yet events of the kind we’re discussing in this post are by their very nature unanticipated, come and gone before we’ve had a chance to catch our breath. And it’s clichéd but true: once a catastrophic event like Boston or Sandy has happened, digital media move the story along with breakneck speed. As I write this one week after the bombings, the messages I found last Tuesday are gone from most of the museum websites.  Their response had to be fast to have impact.  And they did have impact: the announcements about free admission at MFA and ICA were tweeted by the Boston Globe, NPR, and many museum social media followers.
  • Be ready.  I was struck in the note from Jeri Robinson, and this was confirmed when I spoke with her on the phone,  that The Children’s Museum already has all kinds of contacts with state and local officials, with local hospitals, with media organizations like WBZ . They did not have to cold call or make first contacts with organizations on the front lines of the tragedy; they had these systems in place from years of community outreach and involvement. Instead, the museum could call these longtime partners and say – what do you need, how can we help?  Kids at Children’s would be comforted by gift bags?  We’ll send them over.  Parents are asking how to explain all this to their children? We have handouts we can send; we can put out something on local TV.
Museums talk a great deal about community engagement, but it is in moments when events overtake us that our commitment  to our communities is tested.  The above discussion really boils down to a simple equation:

Compassion+Systems in Place+Timeliness=Community Impact

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