Practical and Compassionate Advice on Museums and Community Conflict

I’m so happy to feature the following guest post from Melanie Adams, Managing Director of Community Education and Events at the Missouri History Museum and President of the Association of Midwest Museums.  The Missouri History Museum has been extremely responsive to all of the issues surrounding the events in August in nearby Ferguson, MO.  For example, the Museum hosted a town meeting within weeks of the Michael Brown shooting.  Melanie brings an experienced and empathetic voice to this discussion, as you’ll see.

Museums in the Wake of Community Conflict

As President of the Association of Midwest Museums, I posted a column on our website regarding how museums can work with communities during times of conflict.  To help broaden the conversation, I share with column with you and welcome opportunities for further dialogue and collaboration.

Just a few weeks after the Association of Midwest Museums wrapped up their conference in St. Louis, a young unarmed African American man was killed by a white police officer in Ferguson, a suburb of St. Louis.  In the weeks that followed, a national movement developed to protest not only this one senseless murder, but the ongoing injustices that serve as the foundation for many of the country’s institutions.  From the jailhouse to the schoolhouse, people of color have been systematically discriminated against and excluded from the decision-making process.  The most recent uprising in Ferguson, Missouri, exemplifies what happens when a community’s voice is lost within an unjust system.

As cultural institutions, what should be our response to the far too many Fergusons happening in our country?  From police shootings to homophobic homicides to racially inflamed rhetoric, what is a museum’s role during difficult times?  As institutions focused on learning, the most obvious answer is to provide educational opportunities for the community to gather and learn more about the issue.  This education should reflect the mission of the institution and work with its strengths.  While education is an important building block on the road of community engagement, I challenge museums to do more.  Instead of talking to the community, find ways to talk with the community.  Look for opportunities to share your expertise in a way that benefits the community and contributes to the healing process.  Below are four ways that museums can begin to work with the community to bring about positive change.

Museums should not be reactionary, but instead find ways to regularly engage the community.  Exhibits and programs with a community focus should not happen only after a tragic community event, but take place throughout the year.  By providing a space for difficult conversations on issues of race, class, gender identity, and immigration, museums establish themselves as a place where communities can come together to discuss conflict and begin to find resolution.  Then when something does happen in your community, it would be natural for you to address the issue and you will not be seen as taking advantage of an already tense situation.

This leads to the second thing museums should do before embarking on difficult conversations: collaborate with organizations that specialize in facilitating dialogue groups.  Just as creating an exhibit is more than going into a storeroom and picking out a few artifacts, successful facilitation is more than setting up a circle and putting out cookies and coffee.  In order to make sure your institution is not creating an environment that causes more harm than good, it is important to seek out organizations that are trained to facilitate conversations that may not leave everyone happy, but will ensure that everyone will leave knowing they have been heard.

If you have not laid the groundwork to serve as a safe space for difficult conversations, all is not lost.  There is always a way to start engaging the community.  Before assuming what the community wants and needs it is important to have conversations with key stakeholders in the conflict.  They can help guide you on the best ways to provide assistance.  Be prepared to be told there is nothing you can do at the moment.  If this happens, do not give up, but instead continue to find ways to work with stakeholders so you will be better prepared when they are ready to engage with your institution.

Finally, the work of community engagement starts with museum employees.  Does your organization encourage employees to get involved in the community?  Do employees sit on nonprofit boards, serve as mentors, or tutor students?  Community engagement in museums is not about one person or one department, but about the entire institution’s attitude toward the community it serves.  It is great if the museum president is a community leader, but every staff member should be allowed to get involved.  By having a number of employees involved in various organizations, the museum has access to information and resources that will create effective community partnerships.  In order for the museum to be seen as a community partner, it has to encourage its staff to reach out and volunteer beyond the institution’s walls.

Every museum is different, as is every community.  What works in one community may not work in another.  This difference lies in why it is important for a museum to understand its community and how it can best use its mission to serve the community’s needs.  With regard to the Ferguson aftermath, museums in the St. Louis area have welcomed the opportunity to work with the community.  The Missouri History Museum has hosted numerous community forums and collected donations from staff.  The Saint Louis University Art Museum and the Washington University Kemper Art Museum have served as hosts to a citywide art exhibit focused on issues related to Ferguson. These are just a few of the examples of the immediate responses to the situation, with more programs happening over the next few months.

In order to help museums begin to prepare to be more responsive to their communities, the Association of Midwest Museums has created a three-part series of workshops specifically addressing how museums can address difficult issues in their communities.  The first one will be on Friday, April 17, 2015, from 9 am to 5 pm in St. Louis at the Missouri History Museum and will focus on how museums can respond to difficult issues.  The keynote will feature Elizabeth Greenspan, author of Battle for Ground Zero:  Inside the Political Struggle for the World Trade Center.  Registration for the workshop will begin in January 2015.

This time it was Ferguson, Missouri.  Next time it could be your community.  How will your museum respond?

Melanie Adams




2 thoughts on “Practical and Compassionate Advice on Museums and Community Conflict

  1. Pingback: “This time it was Ferguson, Missouri.” Or: What is the purpose of museums | Nicole Deufel's Blog

  2. Pingback: #museumsrespondtoferguson | Cabinet of Curiosities

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