The Public as Participant or Decision Maker?

 

PHOTOGRAPH BY PATRICK WITTY, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC

Regardless of the discipline or sector (humanities, science, art, etc.), connecting “the public” to cultural content is determined by how “the public” is perceived or acknowledged.  Are they participants or decision-makers in relation to cultural institutions?

I believe cultural institutions can better engage communities with their content and programs, if they embrace “the public” as both decision-maker and participant. By doing so, “the public” has a voice and connection with the institution that recognizes them as a “partner” – rather than a “visitor” or “patron”.  This is certainly the case when the content is related to the experiences and heritage of a community – such as the Civil Rights Movement, American Slavery, the Jewish Holocaust or Native American history. As decision-makers, communities within “the public” can dictate how their culture, contributions to society, and experiences should be expressed in museums and cultural organizations.  In this role, “the public” contributes to the shaping of the content within these organizations.  On the other hand, “the public” as participant, is an audience member, who gives the cultural institution full authority to shape the content and its interpretation.  A great example of this public “dual role” is the founding of the National Museum of African American History & Culture (NMAAHC) in Washington D. C.

According to Dr. Lonnie Bunch, the museum’s director, including the American public in the founding of the museum, involved more than just seeking financial donations.  In a recent CBS News interview, he stated that “80 percent of the museum’s artifacts were donated by ordinary people who pulled them out of their basements, their attics or their churches.” [1] Dr. Bunch and others also traveled throughout the country during the planning stages of the museum and held community meetings listening to the interests of the people. [2] This type of participation, I believe, creates a sense of ownership for “the public” because they were, in some regard, included in the decision-making process for establishing the museum.

I recently visited the NMAAHC – and it is an amazing accomplishment!  The museum was filled to capacity with people beaming with pride, and many being turned away at the entrance.  In fact, I was unable to see the entire museum during my visit, due to overwhelming lines at the various galleries and exhibits.  One of particular interest to me, The Slavery and Freedom gallery, had the longest line and a 45-minute wait to enter.  To say that the American public is engaged with the NMAAHC is an understatement.  It was obvious to me that the participants had a connection to the space that can only be attributed to the fact that they were involved as decision-makers in creating its content.

Engaging communities as participant and decision-maker creates a better experience for both the public and our cultural institutions – because in many cases they are one and the same.

 

 

[1] http://www.cbsnews.com/news/a-dream-come-true/

[2] http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/09/03/AR2009090303511.html

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