Dissertation Work, February Update

The most exciting update about my dissertation is that next month I’ll be resuming archival research by returning to the Met to look at the documents relating to their Neighborhood Exhibition Program. While I did visit a retrospective about the initiative last year, the archives were still closed at that point, so I was more focused on the exhibition itself in terms of layout, selection, and location within the museum. Now that the archives have reopened, I’ll be able to learn more about the program in terms of its checklists, destinations, and internal operations.

Next month I’ll finally be delving into the archival materials for the Neighborhood Exhibition Program. Image: a library room filled with display cases containing arms and armor, textiles, and dolls.

In anticipation of that trip, I’ve been reading background materials to give myself context for the show. Through JSTOR, for instance, the Met has its bulletins available online, so I’ll be going through those for references to the program. Thanks to the wonderful archivists at the Met, I’ve begun reading materials that have already been scanned, letting me get a head start on the archival materials.

I’ve also been contextualizing the Neighborhood Exhibition Program by reading studies on museums conducted during the 1930s. Focusing on the question of increasing audience attendance, these studies explore the intended functions of museums, their current approaches to outreach, and ways to grow audiences. While some of the concepts these studies discuss, such as the decentralization of large museums in favor of affiliate branches sharing rotating shows, will prove useful to the Community Art Center Project and other future chapters, I’ve mainly been thinking about them in relation to the development of the Neighborhood Exhibition Program.

What’s been striking about these studies is how similar they are to critiques of museums today, specifically that they’re not involved enough in their communities, or that they need to focus more attention on outreach and education. There are crucial differences, of course, namely that the nature of museums as colonialist, racialized institutions that enforce rather than question power structures isn’t addressed, but given that these studies predate such seminal works as Tony Bennet’s Foucaultian-inspired The Birth of the Museum, that isn’t surprising. Yet the basic idea that museums need to be more engaged in their communities via education and outreach is a resonant one. Whether it’s Robert W. de Forest’s 1919 proclamation that museum collections need to “work” for their communities, or W.N. Berkeley’s 1937 assessment that a museum’s value is measured by its community engagement rather than its collections, or more recent assessments of museums as elitist institutions that need to more deeply connect to their audiences, there’s a persistent anxiety about the function of museums within their respective communities.

Mobile collections have been around for a least a century, with early examples including St. Louis’s Educational Museum, a portable collection designed for area schools. Image: an early twentieth-century automobile in the form of a truck, with the words “Board of Education Educational Museum” emblazoned on its side.

Additionally, the solutions proposed to increase community engagement are similar in terms of concept. From collaborating with schools to providing educational tours or even supplying outreach exhibitions, the techniques we use in museums now are largely the same ones we’ve been using for at least a century. True, the technology has changed, but the basic method is still there. Yet despite the persistence of these methods, the belief that museums aren’t doing enough to engage their communities is equally resonant. I was reminded of this while reading a 1951 study the Met conducted about the possibility of creating an artmobile for communities outside of New York City. Synthesizing the results of surveys submitted to civic administrators, educators, members of the press, students, and more, the study aimed to determine whether communities would be interested in such outreach, and how best to implement it. One comment that stood out to me went something along the lines of “it’s about time the museum did something like this.” Yet the Met already had done something like this when it circulated exhibitions of textiles to schools outside of NYC in 1917. I encountered similar sentiments last year while visiting the Met exhibition. When I explained the exhibition’s concept to a fellow visitor, she replied “the museum needs to do something like that now.”

Through all these readings and interactions, I’ve started noticing a strikingly circular quality to outreach exhibitions. Museums introduce traveling exhibitions and related materials. At some point, these activities end due to budgetary restrictions or other concerns. Later, these activities are reintroduced, whether because the communities requesting them never experienced the previous iteration, or that earlier intervention has been forgotten. Maybe it’s because we’ve been living in a seemingly never-ending pandemic for the past two years, but it’s all starting to have a Groundhog Day quality to it.

Which begs the question: why does this circular pattern to museum outreach exist? Is it a question of expectations on the part of visitors? Is the outreach format so ephemeral and intermittent that it doesn’t have time to become an integrated part of the community? Is it because the communities a museum chooses to visit change each time it reintroduces an outreach initiative? Is it because museum outreach is being compared to the efforts of related institutions such as libraries, and coming out unfavorably? Is it because museums are still trying to reconcile the need for public outreach with their role as object-based institutions?

The honest answer is that I don’t know, at least not right now I don’t. Nor am I trying to defend museums or their outreach methods. After all, just because something has always been done a certain way doesn’t mean it’s the best method. What I do know is that the cyclical nature of museum outreach, as well as the persistence of educational methods such as extension exhibitions, is worth exploring, and it’s a question that’s likely going to become one of my overarching inquiries. If I can help contextualize current discussions about museum outreach by offering a longer history of such methods, then I’m contributing something worthwhile to the museum dialogue.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *