Tuesday, March 13, 2012

How and why do you interpret difficult issues in your small museum?

My primary museum experience has been as Education Director at two sites where difficult or sensitive social, political and cultural issues were addressed as major components of the interpretation. Both sites where I worked began as museums featuring the stories of prominent white families. Including the narratives of native Hawaiians at Mission Houses Museum in Honolulu, Hawai‘i has been an ongoing process for about 30 years. More inclusive interpretation of the enslaved men, women and children at the Bellamy Mansion – a site with just 2 full time and 2 part time paid staff - is far more recent.

I found that the challenges of interpreting difficult issues are rewarded by the fact that the museum’s volunteer base, attendance, membership, and funders can all grow as a result of appealing to the wider community. Expanding interpretation broadens your audience, broadens community entities that find value in your organization, connects you to national conversations on historical issues, and increases long-term sustainability through wider membership appeal and repeat visits. Change creates a fresh feel and exciting dynamic that can spread from the board and staff to the audience and community. A vital, dynamic site that has a broad base of community stakeholders is better prepared to survive in any economic climate.

I’d like to share how we took opportunity for real exchange during tours given at the Bellamy Mansion Museum of their urban slave quarters. The Bellamy Mansion Museum site holds a two-story brick Italianate slave quarters 50 feet from the mansion’s back door. A comment we often got from the public was how “nice” this building is. This “nice” comment provides an opportunity to draw the audience out of their comfort zone of expected reality and step into the shoes of those who lived in this space. Docents are able to have visitors step away from the building into the yard. The docent can point out how the quarters were situated on the lot. It is in the corner of the lot built on the back property line. There are no windows in the back wall as there are none in the back wall of the carriage house, the other structure built on the property line. Out the side windows to the west were the chicken house and the carriage house and stables, giving limited visibility and ventilation and proximity to noxious fumes from the animals. The quarters were typical of urban sites in that the sleeping areas were in the same building as work spaces. The building was where laundry was done. The work created heat and humidity in a climate that is often enough hot and humid. There was also a “necessary,” or an indoor privy, with its associated odors. Yes, there is a solid elegance to the structure, but its realities were not those of comfort and convenience. And yes, the life of an enslaved house servant in an urban center was far different and much more comfortable than that of an enslaved field hand. Yet, to quote Richard Starobin commenting on the phenomenon of urban slavery, “[It] might be supposed not to be so hard as one would imagine….But slavery is slavery wherever it is found" (in Industrial Slavery in the Old South).

The truth is that a great deal of “hidden” history can be revealed. You can look into other sites doing similar work dealing with similar issues. As you explore a broader interpretation, look for what is unique about your site and what is similar to others to aid your research. Find what you can about other families in the area from the time period and work from there. Sites with African-American programming listed online will reveal programming on broad topics that are not strictly specific to the site. Browsing sites on the internet, I found lectures on the general overview of what life was like for enslaved individuals in the Mid-Atlantic region during the late 18th century, building techniques and materials used by enslaved builders, and a local 19th century African-American whose primary achievements were across the country from the site. These were all interesting programs but not narrowly specific to their sites. Be persistent and be patient. Listen to your local educators, scholars and librarians. Use online sources. Pick up the phone and call other sites. It is not that the information is easy and abundant, but that there is enough information for you to work with in a responsible way with substantial results.

Madeline C. Flagler completed her B.A. at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and her graduate studies at University of Hawai’i at Manoa. Previously Ms. Flagler has been Education iDrector at Mission Houses Museum, Honolulu, Hawai’i and Bellamy Mansion Museum, Wilmington, N.C. She is currently Executive Director, Wrightsville Beach Museum of History. Each of these museums is a small museum with limited staff heavily supplemented by volunteers.

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