Unfinished. Revisiting HORSE, a Pre-COVID Project to Support Social Action in Rural Museums: Part 4

This week, we are happy to share Zachary Stocks’ (@Museumorphosis) last piece in a 4-part series in which he presented the project he created called Heritage Organizations for Rural Social Equity (HORSE). In this post, he discusses the he last two steps of this methodology for rural museums to help create more equitable communities.

Part 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 social action, and why that work is important for rural museums in particular. Finally, Part 3 presented the first two steps of the four-part methodology for rural museums to help create more equitable communities.

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 IV.

Step Three: Developing Responsive Community Programming

While it is vital that museums design for equity by developing new policies and practices and putting up inclusive signage, the most visible social action a museum takes will ultimately involve its programming. Exhibitions and public programs are not value neutral. Museums demonstrate their beliefs through what they chose to put on display, the takeaway messages they plan for visitors, and the partners they work with.

In rural museums it is not uncommon for installations to never change. Limited staff capacity and lack of funding prevents many rural museums from conducting the research and design necessary to develop new exhibitions. While this can be discouraging, it does not prevent a museum from being able to take on the work of programming for social change. All museums have the potential to facilitate measured improvements around a shared local social issue, and to do so is critical for museums to live up to a higher standard for social accountability.

One area where rural museums have a leg up on larger institutions is their prominent position with community. Small community-based museums stand out within regions that lack many other extra-curricular educational and recreational public spaces. While the stereotype of the out-of-touch local heritage museum has some truth to it, most rural residents are not far removed from someone who is involved in the museum in one way or another. Sometimes the volunteer at the front desk is featured in one of the exhibits, or the director is someone who first visited the museum during a school field trip. In this way, even a sleepy local museum shapes and is shaped by its community, past and present.

The community members are also the prime source for rural museum identify what social issues they should try to program around. In small communities especially, people find plenty of opportunities to get involved in a variety of causes and events. Chances are that among the museum’s staff and supporters are those who also coordinate the local corn feed, annual blood drives, or volunteer at the county homeless shelter. Museum patrons are likely present among local philanthropic social groups like Rotary, Elks Club, or grange halls are also providing service towards specific local concerns. When museum professionals listen to their visitors, volunteers, and neighbors, they pick up on the issues that matter most to the community as well as identify the key individuals and organizations that can move projects forward.

In rural communities people often take on organizing work without naming it as such, as the only way to get things done.

This is the work of a community organizer, and it’s the work that museum professionals must do to lead social change. In the US, community organizing is almost exclusively discussed in terms of some political objective like voter turnout. But in rural communities people often take on organizing work without naming it as such, as the only way to get things done. Imagine that a state or county does not have the funding to fix a pothole on an unpaved road. This nuisance could be a problem that goes unattended for years, but a single individual can make real change by organizing their neighbors to call and write letters to key officials, or even collect money door to door to have the pothole repaired privately. Major social issues like systemic inequality, poor public education, or lead in the water system, cannot be resolved by a museum alone. However, museums can apply the tactics of community organizing to unite people around a cause and invite them to gather as a community and discuss what solutions are possible.

Program for Social Change

So what makes for a good social issue for museums to develop programming around? Almost anything! Ensuring that local children have lunches for school is just as valid as resisting neo-Nazi recruitment in prisons. What your museum chooses to prioritize should be determined by the specific needs of the community and the resources available to take on this work. Midwest Academy, the well-known community organizing school that emerged around the fight for the Equal Rights Amendment, developed a framework in 2010 called Organizing for Social Change. Their checklist to determine the right social issue to develop a program around is a highly useful tool for museums. To paraphrase from this framework, a good social issue to take on is one that:

Results in Real Improvement. People should be able to see and feel the improvement around the social issue your program is addressing.

Makes People Aware of their Power. People must be able to walk away knowing they made the change happen.

Builds New Relationships. Your program should provide a chance for diverse groups get to connect with one another. Strategic sharing of resources and strengths to accomplish the goal is key.

Is Worthwhile. Participants should feel they are doing something that is worth the effort it takes to put on.

Is Winnable. The right people and resources are involved to make meaningful change around the social issue targeted.

Is Widely Felt. The issue at hand affects a lot of people.

Is Deeply Felt. The issue at hand is very important to all those it affects.

Is Easy to Understand. You should be able to explain the goals and details of this program in a paragraph or less.

Is Non-Divisive. The issue your program addresses should not be one that divides your audience. By focusing on universally-held beliefs you can unite people to work towards a solution everyone agrees is an improvement.

Is Consistent with your Mission, Vision, Values. The issue your program addresses should be one that is relevant your institution’s work, generally.

Social action in museum programming does not need to be divisive, but often is. People assign value to certain causes over others, or feel it is out of a museum’s place to do anything other than open its doors for tours and field trips. But if a heritage museum is not willing to affirm the dignity and wellbeing of all members of its community then it has no business representing local heritage. The stories on display in a museum are reflections of the lived experiences of every person who has made that community what it is. Any action the museum takes on which provides service towards sustaining the health of the community at large is a relevant and positive act.

Not all obstacles to museum programming efforts will be from those who are antithetical to social change. Often social programming can be hindered by funding, time, and uncertain priorities. This emphasizes the importance of working horizontally within the community to build coalitions for change with other relevant organizations and individuals. The broader the base of action is, the less work falls onto any single person.

Still, it is crucial that a museum-led program has a unified project leader who is responsible for follow through. Even with a flexible, brainstorming-like solutions approach, it will ultimately fall on one person to secure a venue (ideally, the museum), set an agenda, articulate the issue and its impacts, and ensure the emerging ideas fit within the organizing framework listed above. When in doubt, here are a few significant facilitation points to rely on:

  1. Stick to universals. There will not often be total agreement on the extent of an issue, its causes, or the best solution. Build consensus and trust by focusing on what everyone can agree on (ie: “we all want to build safe and fulfilling rural communities for everyone”) and pull back when conversations reduce themselves to political disagreements.
  2. Be steadfast in your DEAI values. No social programming is appropriate if it further marginalizes or excludes certain people. Make sure there is representation in the room from the communities most affected and from underrepresented segments of the population. Never compromise the safety of vulnerable people by allowing discriminatory comments or behaviors go unchallenged. When in doubt, your DEAI policies and Equity Statement will be your guide.
  3. Trust facts. Measurable data and lived experience can demonstrate both the right social issues to address and also the best solutions.
  4. Awareness and Action. The goal of your social program is two-fold: providing opportunities for people to gather around a shared issue (“raising awareness”) and to work together as a community to find ways to make reductions around that issues (“taking action”). As the host/sponsor, you are the catalyst to grassroots change at the community level.

Exhibitions, parades, or “diversity events” that don’t respond to a specific need are ultimately ineffective at creating systemic change. A museum’s role as an agent of social change will be most apparent by their ability to create measured improvements in people’s lives.

Your social programming can take many forms. Lectures can be an effective way to bring topic experts to town to discuss an issue, and community forums or town halls can provide a chance for direct exchange between legislators and voters. It could be a community clean-up, a canned food drive, or some sort of service day. Maybe you have the ability to host a workshop that builds people’s skills or supports healing and empowerment. The possibilities are only limited by one’s own imagination. However, museum professionals should keep in mind that real change comes from action as well as gathering. Exhibitions, parades, or “diversity events” that don’t respond to a specific need are ultimately ineffective at creating systemic change. A museum’s role as an agent of social change will be most apparent by their ability to create measured improvements in people’s lives, especially those not already seen in the museum’s permanent exhibitions.

Step Four: Connecting with Other Organizations

If your museum has made intentional changes to policy, developed inclusive signage in support of the most vulnerable, and developed impactful social programming that activates change, it is on the right path. But ultimately, rural museums need to take advantage of their local social capital to ensure long term attention on the issues their one-time programs address. The purpose of pursuing a more inclusive practice is not to make periodic gestures of community service, but instead to create vibrant, safe, and engaged communities in perpetuity. Even if your museum is hosting a program targeting a single social issue, that program should be considered just the starting point of a continued series of efforts in service to the community. The overall success of the museum’s social work is determined by its ability to maintain the work it has already taken on, and to leverage its local and region position to pursue new action as the community’s needs evolve.

Community organizers stress the importance of sustainability for their campaigns, and the same emphasis should be applied to rural museum’s social action and DEAI work. Small and rural museums lack the capacity to combat social issues alone, or to adequately address all the needs of locals. Instead, museum leaders should look to the community for expertise. As mentioned earlier, no one living in a small town is ever too far removed from someone working in one of the community’s non-profits, prominent local business, or public service departments. The museum should play the role of the bridge builder, bringing together key individuals who have the skills to solve shared problems and who can relieve the museum’s burdens of addressing these issues alone. Most importantly, by facilitating new relationships between residents and institutions the museum ensures conversations on the targeted social problem can continue without its leadership.

It takes a village to tackle any local issue, especially if the impacts of the issue are felt widely by community members. The museum should think strategically about ways to ensure relevant individuals and institutions are represented. When thinking of the kind of social programming the museum can host, consider who else is already doing this work. Not only are their strategies the best place to begin, it is also a good idea to make sure those people are in the room.

It is not necessary for the museum to be the only, or the most, inclusive social space in its rural community. The more sites that are taking visible steps toward inclusion, and which are serving as sites for social action, the more likely these efforts will be successful long term.

This does not just apply to the museum’s programming. The sustainability and growth of the community’s diversity, equity, accessibility, and inclusion efforts should be prioritized. Other institutions in town may have established DEAI actions in place which the museum can use as a model. Perhaps it is the gender inclusive restrooms at the local coffee shop, or the wheelchair friendly tables at the library. It is very likely that even after all of the museum executes all of its inclusion efforts there will be public spaces nearby that practice DEAI in ways the museum has never considered. These are learning opportunities. It is not necessary for the museum to be the only, or the most, inclusive social space in its rural community. In fact the more sites that are taking visible steps toward inclusion, and which are serving as sites for social action, the more likely these efforts will be successful long term.

The easiest way for rural museums to continuously grow in its DEAI efforts is to learn from others. The conversation around inclusion and social action is not obscure within the museum field. Staying connected with institutions in broader museum networks will reveal the efforts other museums are undertaking to meet these same challenges. New models for social action in museums, libraries, art galleries, and community centers emerge each year, all presenting important new strategies. A forward-thinking museum professional from any institution should include these resources in their professional development.

Admittedly though, almost all of these models come from urban sites, which omit the unique challenges and opportunities that exist in rural areas. It is just as important for rural museum professionals to share their own DEAI work and ideas to the larger museum field as it is for them to learn from urban professionals. Organizing is an essential part of solving challenges in rural communities, though it may not be called such. Museum of any size benefit from hearing their important perspectives of rural museum workers who are making change happen through their social services and inclusion efforts.

Rural museums that are leading local social change should take ownership of a larger local effort to build more equitable communities. That involves sharing ideas, patronizing and co-sponsoring other organizations’ events, and offering support in recruiting program presenters. Beyond the immediate vicinity, rural museums should act as champions of equity and social work in the regional heritage and cultural sectors. Once a museum finds a strategy that successfully mobilizes people for action, it should share it widely. Other social spaces may be considering this work but do not have the support to try and serve the public in a new way. The leadership of other rural museums which have done this work already will provide a powerful testament of the value of inclusion and encourage apprehensive institutions that they are indeed capable of creating meaningful social change.

As more and more local sites begin gravitating toward DEAI work, a new regional network can emerge. These groups can continue the exchange of ideas, successes, and failures through online communications or periodic on-site meetings. By having these semi-permanent coalitions, the opportunities for joint programming and new partnerships will multiply. These are also important spaces for continued self-examination. Not all sites will be as far along on their equity journey, and it is crucial that museums with a more established DEAI commitment can support these sites as they address their own biases and missteps. To holding others accountable is to hold yourself accountable. Museums that have already codified their stances against bigotry, intolerance, and discrimination etc. in their equity statements and policies must not let other member’s prejudicial behaviors go unchecked, as to do so could compromise the values of the whole group. Remember who you are accountable to –especially those who have been excluded from self-representation.

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Heritage Organizations for Rural Social Equity (HORSE) was an independent project by Zachary Stocks in 2019, with support from Rural Organizing Project. Participating museums were Clatsop County Historical Museum, Columbia Gorge Discovery Center, Maxville Heritage Interpretive Center, Bowman Museum, Springfield Museum, and Coos History Museum. Special thanks to the staff of Oregon Humanities, Oregon Heritage, and Oregon Museums Association for guidance, and to the hundreds of museum colleagues whose brilliant writing on museums and equity made HORSE possible.

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.

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