Museums: Niceties or Necessities?
Earlier this spring our C2C team attended the North Carolina Museums Council’s annual conference. The session “Hot Topics: Difficult Issues for Museum Interpretation” was among the worthwhile presentations. Coordinator B.J. Davis, Education Section Chief for the NC Museum of History, and panel speaker Emlyn Koster, Executive Director of the NC Museum of Natural Sciences, urged participants to think about essential ways that museums can serve their communities. Their promptings echo those of other leaders in the museum field who contend that being “nice” is not enough and that museums must try to fill a need in their communities or (perhaps less ambitiously) to become addictive for their participants. They warn that our institutions will not sustain themselves by merely satisfying the occasional desires of a relatively small portion of the public.
Both Davis and Koster argued that museum leaders should be proactive about positioning their institutions as a 3rd place in their communities—one that provides a regular forum for civil exchanges about controversial issues. The speakers also suggested that the topics of museum-facilitated debates can be even more powerful when they relate to the institutional mission. Would public programs and/ or special exhibits about the series of controversies involving tobacco use be a good addition to the Reynolda House’s offerings, for instance? This was one of Davis’ provocative questions. Taking a cue from the Reynolds company, how can museums package their offerings so that participation becomes addictive?
There are several ways museums can inject disparate perspectives into presentations on controversial issues. Perhaps the quickest and least expensive to implement are public programs. Possibilities include:
- Lecture series
- Panel discussion with oppositional viewpoints
- Town Hall format discussion
Exhibits cost a great deal more to install but can allow both serious and casual visitors to stumble upon thought-provoking ideas across many months (or more permanently). Examples include:
Can you think of other examples where institutions have successfully promoted civil exchanges about controversial issues? How is your institution striving to become a necessity or an addiction in its community?