UNFINISHED. REVISITING HORSE, A PRE-COVID PROJECT TO SUPPORT SOCIAL ACTION IN RURAL MUSEUMS PART 2

This week, Zachary Stocks (@Museumorphosis) continues to share with us a project he created called Heritage Organizations for Rural Social Equity (HORSE). This is the second part of a 4-part series. In this post, he discusses the foundational philosophy behind HORSE, outlining why museums should serve as sites for social action, and why that work is important for rural museums in particular.

Part 1 of this 4-part series discussed the origin of this project. Next week, we’ll share part 3 that will present the first two steps of the four-part methodology for rural museums to help create more equitable communities. Part 4 will present the last two steps of this methodology.

Zachary is a returning contributor to The Incluseum; you can read his previous blogpost here. Thank you, Zachary for sharing your work and reflections with The Incluseum community!

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Part II.

Recognizing the Need for Museum Social Action

If a popular park in your town was to be permanently closed and redeveloped, what would the local response be? Chances are there would be public outcry from all of those who use the park regularly –seniors who get exercise on the walking paths, parents who take their children to the playground, dog owners, soccer teams, those with housing insecurity, and others.

Parks, along with churches, and libraries, have been described as so called “third places”. These are social spaces where people can collectively gather outside of home or work. These spaces share a lot in common with museums, in that they are highly visible (literally sometimes because of their prominent appearance or because of their proximity to government buildings), they featured attractions for visitors, and they are symbols of a vibrant local community. And most importantly, they are public, in that all people can visit them, for free or for a nominal fee.

But, as museum director Lath Carlson has stated, third places have utility. They offer something to their users that fulfills critical needs towards their wellbeing. People support these spaces because they cannot imagine their lives without them. Parks, libraries, and churches all provide vital community services that their users rely on, whether it is a place to gather, to organize, to heal, or to voice their concerns. In this way, they distinguish themselves from museums, which do not have a regular impact in the day-to-day lives of their community members. Would there be a similar vocal opposition about the closing of the local heritage museum as their would in the hypothetical park mentioned before?

“Simply existing can’t protect museums from the financial realities of a declining visitor base and changing interests of younger and more diverse publics.”

Museums, and rural museums in particular, need to find what utility they can provide to their public. At the most basic level, heritage museums take on the challenging and important responsibility of preserving and sharing local history and identity. But that alone does not serve the public in ways that build trust or in build stronger and more productive communities. In the end, simply existing can’t protect museums from the financial realities of a declining visitor base and changing interests of younger and more diverse publics. Museums can better position themselves for the future by taking a cue from the third places, offering a reliable social setting where people can live and play, and also organize for social change.

Is Social Action in Museums Appropriate?

Museums of all sizes are grappling with whether or not it is appropriate for them to serve as sites for social action. It is not uncommon for small or rural museums in particular to write off social action as too controversial. As a challenge, museum professionals should dig deeper into that thought and identify what exactly is divisive about working on behalf of the health and stability of their community. Advocating for the wellbeing of all local people is hardly a bold stance. A heritage museum that isn’t willing to affirm the humanity and basic rights of all community members has no business representing local heritage.

“When rural museums push back against ‘political’ programming, it is not an audit they are afraid of. They are essentially expressing their fear of losing support of those who have traditionally been their core audience base.”

Partisan politics have made museums wary of being branded as “political”, and of the backlash that can come from addressing key issues that attract attention from either side of the political spectrum. It is true that museums may not be appropriate places to endorse policy or candidates, in fact they may be subject to violation of their non-profit status for doing so. However, that fact has been used by museums as an excuse for non-action on relevant community issues. There are plenty of non-partisan capacities by which museums can advance important conversations and actions, such as local forums, targeted outreach to disenfranchised populations, etc. When rural museums push back against “political” programming, it is not an audit they are afraid of. They are essentially expressing their fear of losing support of those who have traditionally been their core audience base.

It is important to recognize that the very act of choosing which histories to feature as exemplary characteristics of local heritage is a political act. These are choices being made by individuals who decide what stories to emphasize and what to omit, usually without much consultation with the community at large. While they may be made in earnest (based on what objects are available and the scope of knowledge of the museum’s staff) these choices nonetheless support the superiority of white and male historical narratives over those of people of color, women, LGBTIQ individuals, and other targeted groups whose stories get left out far too often.

Ultimately there are two main cases to be made for why museums should work towards social progress: the moral case and the business case. The moral justification for social action is the most valid from a humanist perspective. All people are inherently valuable, and each of us has a moral imperative to support one another if we are to live together in a cooperative society. By this standard, social action is an ethical accountability standard for all public institutions. Museums have a responsibility to pursue a more equitable world by advancing knowledge and opportunity towards those whom they claim to represent.

This responsibility is integral for institutions of all sizes to reach a higher standard of practice for our field. A forward-thinking museum is one that acknowledges its gaps and takes proactive steps to correct longstanding imbalances in its programming, policy, and inclusion. Museums misstep when they simply display content and consider their interpretation completed. Instead, we should model our history museums on historical scholarship, critically evaluating assumptions, engaging in review and debate, and elevating lesser-known stories for the enrichment of all. The fact that this is not the primary function of an exhibition or public program is a disservice to the public.

“The message is clear: the status quo will NOT keep everyone safe. For some, the status quo was deliberately created to make them less safe.”

Furthermore, the moral impetus for museums to facilitate social action is an urgent one for all those who are threatened by hateful political rhetoric and discriminatory policy. Just in the month this chapter was written, white nationalists have opened fire in mosques and synagogues, and historically Black churches were burned to the ground; migrant families from Central America seeking asylum were detained and denied the rights guaranteed to them by national and international law; flooding and fire, exasperated by global climate change, have displaced poor people in every state. The Minnesota Senate even passed a budget resolution to cut the budget of the Minnesota Historical Society by $20 million in retaliation for using a Dakota place name in their interpretation of Fort Snelling. The message is clear: the status quo will NOT keep everyone safe. For some, the status quo was deliberately created to make them less safe.

Rural Americans –particularly rural Americans of color—have been largely disenfranchised from national discourse, and often find themselves on the frontlines of emergent violence and hardships as a result. Rural communities need institutions like museums to amplify local voices. If museums genuinely want to preserve and celebrate the unique cultural heritage which they interpret then they need to support its continued existence through active participation in community life.

The business case for social programming is a less compelling one, but no less valid. A 21st century museum-going audience will want to see their heritage museums reflecting their values and interests. As marginalized groups achieve greater social and political opportunities the absence of their historical narratives in heritage museum will become harder to ignore. As a community’s population diversifies –in race, gender, language, etc.—the lived experiences present in the community become more complex as well, and institutions will need to be prepared to meet the needs and expectations of a changing demographic landscape. If museum professionals suspect that there is a social/political disconnect between their current visitors and their expected or desired visitors of the future, they must change to meet the demographic shift. There is no decision to make, as the sustainability of the institution always depends on reaching the next generation, never the previous one.

Funding will also be an issue which drives rural museums towards greater inclusivity. Many foundations are now requiring museums to demonstrate their commitments toward diversity, equity, accessibility, and inclusion in their internal policies and hiring procedures. This is not limited to just issues around identity. All matters of public concern are opportunities for greater local social engagement, including issues unique to rural areas like contested land use, wildfires, and lack of education and technology access. Organizations which sponsor community development seek to support local institutions that are taking an active role in combatting these barriers. Progressive leadership around building stronger, more vibrant communities are motivating factors in determining who merits investment. From a purely financial perspective, museums that are committed participants of local efforts for social change are better positioned for the future than museums that are not.

What Does Social Action Look Like in the Museum?

Depending on how they address local issues, good examples for a socially-engaged rural museum might be closer to you than you think. It may be that the rural museum nearest to you (or which you work in) is already participating in social action without calling it as much. There is a lot of misunderstanding about how social action manifests itself in a museum’s programming. Preconceived notions about social work make it difficult to acknowledge the ways museums of all sizes are already actively working to improve lives within their communities. Nursing, case work, and feeding the hungry are indeed social actions, but so are actions around immigration reform, educating people about diseases and public health, sponsoring environmental stewardship activities –all of which are efforts that museums can take on.

For many rural museums, these programmatic efforts have been standard practice for years, however they have never thought of their institutions as agents for social change. This is mostly a result of nomenclature. In Lois Silverman’s 2010 book Museum Social Work, she provides some standard language to differentiate between the different acts museums use to create positive social change. Social service refers to any actions by museums to improve the lives of their audiences. All museums participate in social service, either intentionally or unintentionally, but not all social service can be considered social work. Within a museum’s social service, programming can be further divided into one of two paths: social action and activism. The author differentiates between the two as providing the ingredients for change to happen, versus pursuing solutions to specific social problems, respectively. While social action can help reduce the effects of social problems by creating opportunities for change, only activist service attempts to resolve these problems.

Consider this example: an urban community is struggling with food insecurity, as many local residents do not have access to fresh foods. A social action by the local museum might be to host a forum or create an exhibit which addresses the issue of food deserts. An activist service by the museum might be to create a community food garden. Both tactics are useful. Individuals need physical spaces and opportunities to raise awareness and share ideas, as well as the infrastructure to support mutual aid.

Rural museums have the greatest opportunity to work within what museum scholar Richard Sandell describes as “community level” social work. Unlike individual-level social work which involves one’s personal and professional development (anti-bias work, community outreach, self-care, etc.) or societal-level social work that seeks to change national or international issues, community-level social practices specifically address shared local problems. Museums which develop social actions and activist approaches to resolve a local issue are well positioned as a central institution working on behalf of community members

How Can Rural Museums Do This Work?

So how do rural museums strengthen communities in more meaningful ways? A good place to start is by acknowledging their barriers. Small and rural history museums are particularly affected by inertia. Limited staff and funding mean museums are often restricted in their ability to take on transformative work. They, especially, lack access to professional development to spark creative approaches to marketing and fundraising, and qualified staff to develop quality exhibitions and programs. Even those small museums which do benefit from professional resources often face systemic challenges in their region which makes innovation difficult. The lack of public transportation, wifi and cell phone service, and crucial local infrastructure supporting the arts and cultural sector are critical obstacles that rural museums have to work against. Some rural museums can work around these barriers, and through the tenacity of key staff or a highly engaged local audience they are able to build sustained support and visitation that allows them to make regular updates and new offerings for guests. But these sites tend to be outliers, as rural museum must often be more concerned with recruiting enough volunteers to keep the doors open. When attendance has stagnated or declined it may be a sign that there is a relevancy gap between what the museum currently offers and what their target audience wants for their time and their dollars.

The prospect of taking on an increased social role with limited capacity and unknown results can be daunting. Low visitation may imply to museum leadership that there is not enough local support to merit investment in increasing the museum’s social accountability, and that it is safer to “do what we’ve always done” than to risk trying something different. I would argue just the opposite is true. It is when there is little to lose that museums have their greatest opportunity to loudly advocate for the needs of their community members, building meaningful new relationships with the public in the process. When museums invest in the wellbeing of local people, they are investing in themselves, encouraging increased patronage by establishing the museum as a trusted advocate on important local issues and a vital gathering place for community conversations.

Zachary Stocks is a public historian and writer. He is the part time Executive Director of Oregon Black Pioneers, Oregon’s African American historical society, and a seasonal interpretive ranger at Lewis and Clark National Historical Park. You can find Zachary online at @Museumorphosis.

2 comments

  1. […] 1 of this 4-part series discussed the origin of this project. Part 2 discussed the foundational philosophy behind HORSE, outlining why museums should serve as sites for […]

  2. […] 1 of this 4-part series discussed the origin of this project. Part 2 discussed the foundational philosophy behind HORSE, outlining why museums should serve as sites […]

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