Discovering Our Inclusion Model: The National Public Housing Museum

This year I was fortunate to meet Todd Palmer, Associate Director and Curator, and Daniel Ronan, Manager of Public Engagement at the National Public Housing Museum (NPHM) in Chicago.  I had only recently heard about this ongoing Museum project and couldn’t wait to hear more from these great folks about a museum that describes itself like this:

The National Public Housing Museum is a place of stories that mine the vastly complex history of public and publicly subsidized housing in America. The Museum creates a living cultural experience on social justice and human rights that creatively re-imagine the future of our community, our society, and our spaces. NPHM is not just about the preservation of stories, it is about helping to preserve society’s highest ideals.

I will leave it to Daniel Ronan to describe the roots of this unique museum project. – Aletheia

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Having come to the museum world by way of urban planning, my first year in museums has been filled with cross-disciplinary revelations. As the Manager of Public Engagement at the National Public Housing Museum (NPHM), I quickly learned a museum cannot fulfill its mission without understanding how we fully engage the diverse groups in our community.

In particular, the NPHM straddles three main engagement areas, including historic preservation, arts and culture, and community activism. These areas reach across several community constituencies, including public housing residents, academia, and artists of all types. The Museum, based in Chicago, intends to unify how we address these constituencies through inclusive engagement with the completion of its capital project in the fall of 2017.

Before we talk engagement, however, it’s important to know the backstory. Public housing residents originally conceived of what will become the future National Public Housing Museum during the implementation of HOPE VI. Authored under President Clinton, this 1990s federal policy focused on recreating public housing, often magnets for poverty and crime, by tearing down mid-Century high rises and replacing them with low-rise mixed income communities.

Housing policy experts are mixed as to the success of this policy, which, despite its best intentions, had the adverse effect of displacing entire communities often for redevelopments that never materialized.

Faced with the imminent demolition of their housing project, the residents of the Jane Addams Homes, the first public housing project in Chicago built in 1938, wished to secure a monument to their experience. Through their persistence, the residents struck an agreement with various government agencies to protect one of the thirty-two building project to act as an interpretive center for the public housing story.

1322 W. Taylor St., the future site of the National Public Housing Museum, is the last extant building of the 32-building Jane Addams Homes, built in 1938. Photo Credit: NPHM.

1322 W. Taylor St., the future site of the National Public Housing Museum, is the last extant building of the 32-building Jane Addams Homes, built in 1938. Photo Credit: NPHM.

This building, the Museum’s largest object, is now the only physical remainder and reminder of the Jane Addams Homes demolished in 2006. The building serves to protect the residents’ desire to never be forgotten, a complex symbol of public investment and disinvestment in the greater good. Preserving this building as a remnant of history and as a response to history is the principal model through which the Museum engages its core constituency, the very people who live and have lived in public housing.

Recent Museum engagement has included programs of roundtable discussions on what it means to be an inclusive city, community open houses, storytelling events, as well as a neighborhood “Greening the Grounds” event to spruce up the future Museum site.

The greening last August engaged 35 community members from across Chicago to clean up the Little Italy neighborhood site where the Museum will soon locate. The event engaged neighborhood groups, funders, and past program attendees to actively participate in beautifying the Museum’s street frontage and is a tangible example of how the Museum takes its programming from traditional program spaces directly to the community.

Supporters from across Chicago participate in the Museum's first "Greening the Grounds" in August 2014. Photo Credit: NPHM.

Supporters from across Chicago participate in the Museum’s first “Greening the Grounds” in August 2014. Photo Credit: NPHM.

By going to where the shovels hit the dirt, the National Public Housing Museum views its neighborhood engagement as a direct extension of its traditional arts and culture programming, increasing access and visibility of our programs in our future neighborhood.

As we value the importance of our immediate community, we also realize the policies of public housing and forces which dictate these polices require a broader outlook. To this aim, the Museum envisions a public policy center that will act as a convening space for public policy experts and leaders. Seeking to enlarge the conversation of public investment, the “Center for the Study of Housing & Society” as currently conceived, will ensure Museum engagement lives up to the “National” in our name.

Even without a formal museum building, the National Public Housing Museum has kept a surprisingly high profile since it gained non-profit status in 2007. While we work to open, the Museum moves forward with various exhibits and events engaging with residents, university students, academics, film directors, theater producers, galleries, and public exhibit spaces among others. With our new Executive Director Charles Leeks coming on board this year, the Museum is ever–poised to explore how to unify its different forms of engagement into a new model for museum inclusion.

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Daniel Ronan works as the Manager of Public Engagement at the National Public Housing Museum. His interests include historic preservation, economic development, community resilience, and taking trains. His blog, Resilient Heritage, explores ways to diversify and broaden the historic preservation field.

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