Curators, museum educators, and directors of cultural heritage ministries from across the globe recently gathered in Kansas City to discuss the importance of cultural preservation. While in the words of one participant, their visit was “short and sweet” they packed a lot into three days, and “it was [their] gateway to middle America.”
Professionals from primarily Eastern and Central European countries started their visit to the Midwest at a meeting with KC Museum Educators Roundtable member representatives at the World War I Museum. The discussion focused primarily on the preservation, outreach, and education of the various cultural institutions each professional represented, and the value museums have perhaps more than ever to repair trust in country’s democratic system. In the words of one European delegate, “The Roundtable is an example of bottom-up approach for sharing and solving similar issues. The informality is interesting and for me; it was a good example of how an initiative should start – based on the work to be done and not the formal side.”
Given the hostile political climate of democratic institutions globally, it may come as no surprise that studies have shown museums are increasingly perceived as the most trustworthy institutions in democratic countries around the world (Skorton, 2018). Thus, outreach and education professionals sharing in the round-table discussion emphasized the importance of compounding on their work to reach the public— particularly to stress such outreach to citizens that are frequently marginalized or disenfranchised in communities.
This idea, of cultural institutions serving as a bridge between communities and providing a historically accurate story, was underlined in the international visitors’ second official visit of the day to Kansas City’s Black Archives of Mid-America Museum. The Museum’s Director, Carmaletta Williams’s highlighted the catalytic effect that such institutions can have on communities. “Because of their reputation as even-handed providers of unbiased information, museums can be public forums for people of different backgrounds and beliefs not only to learn and discover, but also to meet, discuss difficult subjects and build community.” (Skorton, 2018). The visitors were deeply impacted by their time at the Black Archives and left reflecting on how, in the words of one delegate, “African-American populations still come second, this time not because of laws as in the past, but because of inherited other differences coming from the past. Equality will take time.” This is the beauty of the International Visitor Leadership Program; visitors share in our triumphs and shortcomings as a way to relate and support one another through mutual challenges.
Through all of their meetings in Kansas City, a hot topic was the difficulties of each professional institution in developing their outreach programming. Conversations concentrated on the challenges and values of collaborative efforts, fresh perspectives, recruiting volunteers, ensuring that museum displays are accessible to most ages and ability levels, and exposing school-age children to cultural history. Given the wide range of demographics that institutional education professionals must speak to, various solutions to these challenges were considered. The question that prevailed throughout the program was “How do you give value to the statistics, figures, and pictures to others who may not understand the important cultural and historical significance of such items?” Much of the consensus from the ongoing dialogue concentrated on the value of collaborative efforts among museums in order to satisfy each institution’s mission.
This group left Kansas City with an arsenal of new ideas, new connections with their American counterparts, and a better understanding of the Heartland. Cheers to the WWI Museum, Dole Institute, Federal Reserve, Negro League Baseball Museum, NARA, Black-Archives, WWI Museum, and MO Historical Society, who all made this program possible!
Skorton, David J. “How Do We Restore Trust in Our Democracies? Museums Can Be a Starting Point.” World Economic Forum, Smithsonian Institution, 8 Mar. 2018, www.weforum.org/agenda/2018/03/how-do-we-restore-trust-in-our-democracies-museums-can-be-a-starting-point/.