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Getting Back to the Basics of PH

I feel like public humanities, as a field, is pretty explicit about its interest in social change. The institutions aren’t always clear on this point – it gets a bit muddled somewhere along the line. But the ideas upon which public humanities is based seem to be focused on social knowledge production and sharing.

So in the readings for this week, I felt fairly reaffirmed by Sommer, Silverman, and Sandell. In their efforts to represent the history of the work of museums, ideas of civic engagement and responsibility to engage with social issues showcases the longstanding efforts by institutions to get back to this foundation.

So it’s interesting, then, to consider the ways in which institutions struggle to find that foundation. There seems to be an over-correction by connecting museums to the issues at hand, rather than considering the resources and skills that institutions can offer to social justice & activism. As the critics cited in Silverman mention, there are some serious practical concerns around whether museums actually have the resources to engage in social service.

By “traditional” standards, they might not: I’m not arguing that all museums should go out and hire social workers to do social service. So what are those skills and resources that cultural institutions offer to a public and to advancing social justice?

For one, there’s the spatial component – museums offer a physical space for a public to congregate within and visit. Even if the institution doesn’t directly address a social issue, it can allow its public to use that space to further those aims. (I’m taking this directly from the mouth of Devon Akmon, director of the Arab American National Museum. The museum hosts town halls, receptions, and festivals in its space.)

Building on this idea, museum educators and programming staff can offer partnerships and connections to other cultural institutions or social service mechanisms. At AANM, that includes summer camps and entrepreneurial training. At New Bedford Whaling NHP, that means working with the Buzzards Bay Coalition for clean water and City Hall to promote preservation of the historic waterfront.

And I think collections can be a way to connect back to social service, if indirectly. I think rapid response exhibits like that of the Maine Historical Society or carefully curated collections like those shared on DPLA can speak to social and cultural events relevant to the world around us.

These are currently existing models that I know of – but the programs mentioned in the first chapter of Silverman are much better examples of what museums can do to futher connect to these ideas. And a running theme from all these texts is the idea that perhaps the more important concept is that museums can offer their values to a movement or an idea. This has been something recurring in our conversations around science museums and the March for Science –  but also present in the tension around NEH/NEA funding, avoiding political statements in cultural institutions, and the #DayofFacts we started off our course discussing.

Part of what institutions can provide is legitimacy and authority to these conversations. We talk a big game about shared authority, and most cultural institutions are still finding a way to really acknowledge that concept in their work. But if our goal is to embrace and shape communities for social change – which I think is the goal of many institutions today – part of that is done at the core level of our values. The building of relationships, crucial to social service work in general, can only occur if the institution prioritizes these needs. And looking to the future of museums as transformative spaces, I think it’s crucial we push in that direction.

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