Just got back from the North Carolina Museums Council annual meeting in Winston-Salem. It was pretty great. The organization appears more robust than I have ever seen it and the place was alive with young practitioners and graduate students.
The program featured Critical Conversations as a theme and eight of twelve sessions confronted some aspect of museum engagement with contemporary issues, accessibility, inclusion, and particularly matters regarding the legacy of race and interpretation.
I attended not one, but two talks by Lisa Junkin Lopez, director of the Juliette Gordon Low Birthplace (and lately director of the Jane Addams Hull-House Museum). Lisa argued for the necessity of house museums to creatively approach engagement between historical topics and contemporary issues. Museums must not be just safe spaces, but brave spaces, where the work of real transformation can take place. This is built not on ideas of faithful historical recreation in house museums, but the creation of imaginative, convivial, habitable spaces. Of course these are not just things that docents do, but require organizational intent and—very likely—a complete culture change.* Lopez talked us through the procedures, processes, and plans to begin the work.
(*One of these cultural changes, I think, in the ability of historical institutions to make compelling cases for what they offer to already ongoing conversations. It’s not just a historical perspective or content, but ways of thinking and other intellectual skills in the humanities toolkit. As Nick Sacco told me, mission statements are good but you really need a “why should you care” statement. I might call it a “why does this matter” statement. Anyhow, we don’t do this so well at the moment.)
At the session Heritage, Race, and (Re)Interpretation: Three Perspectives on Broadening the Narrative I was amazed by the efforts of Doug Porter at Mordecai Historic Park to aggressively expand interpretive planning to include stories of enslaved people at the Raleigh mansion home. Plans included a raft of scholarly presentations on slavery in Raleigh, and an immersive, interactive, role-playing program that placed visitors into the currents of slave life, including work, worship, family, and escape. It was, he admitted, a risky scheme, but careful planning and the collaboration of Mojoaa Performing Arts Company to develop the program and play the parts, and the inclusion of post-event dialog and decompression time, appear to have made it an emotional and meaningful event for the
diverse inclusive audience.
Most interesting to me was the report by the director of the Orange County Historical Museum, that recently went through the process of removing the words “Confederate Memorial” from its WPA building in Hillsborough. They began the process early in 2015 after obtaining positive affirmation that African Americans actively avoided entering the space because of the name. Public dialog took place, not in a safe, facilitated, space, but at public hearings before the city council. They were not healthy or productive. In the middle of this process, Charleston happened and all hell broke loose for the director. She recommended a postponement of the removal vote—schedule just a week afterwards—so that they could be assured it was not made specifically as a reaction to events. (A wise move I don’t know I could have made.) But that didn’t stop neo-Confederate advocates—in the heat of the post-Charleston dialog—from flooding her with physical threats, abuse, and harassment that forced her to get police protection and carry a taser.
Here’s what interested me—she reported that they did lose some donors (and she lost a close friend) but that the museum has discovered some new and unexpected friends and advocates and opportunities for outreach. This renewed engagement is helping the museum move toward a significant reorientation of its relationship with its public and perhaps its very mission.
We need more stories and evidence to prove that taking the risk to alienate former audiences will prove transformative—in a good way—in the end. This became an issue—the fear of alienating existing visitors (their numbers and their donations)—in my own session. Some of my friends are unconvinced now, but I’m sensing from a variety of places that museums can recover from blows to popular but interpretively unproductive programming.
I’ll report on my own working group session in a separate post. What I am excited about is that across the board attendees appear wide open to a variety of new approaches to doing museum. (Yes, I said doing museum.) I only wish more history museums and their leadership had been represented.