On the "public" in public museology...

As I am going through this process and thinking over this content, I am reaching out to friends and colleagues on their thoughts on the concept or phrase public museology.

I would like to start off by stating that these are ongoing issues and conversations in the museum field. I did not invent this concept of democratizing museum curation and content! I am simply proposing a name for it that allows those of us engaging in this practice to identify ourselves and give it an identity perhaps. Amazing work is being done with pop up museums, art in the communities, temporary public exhibitions, Main Street programs, social justice programs, and more. As a former student and current practitioner of public history and public archaeology, I am approaching museology mapping over concepts from these fields.

One friend challenged the concept, essentially, it boiled down to the fact that the practice of museology has a public audience, so why did I feel that adding public to the practice mattered? A respected former professor of mine discussed it along similar lines, that the previously academic centered approaches perhaps made it necessary to separate out a public form of the disciplines, and that since museums have a public audience, maybe the “public” is assumed. I hope I have understood their comments completely, and I am grateful that I have friends that I can trust to ask these questions. A friend that makes you think is a friend to treasure.

So if museums address a public audience, is not all museology—to an extent—public?

I would answer that yes and no. I think you can look to history and archaeology – there are forms of each that I would look at as more “academic” vs. “public.” Of course, especially with archaeology, there is archaeology with neither an academic audience nor a public audience in mind, such as some of the CRM work out there. As an aside, I hate calling it academic, as if public history or public archaeology were less rigorous (they aren’t), but I am struggling to find another term for it – what do you say internet?

To some extent, that “public” describes audience – a more academically written historical work is markedly different compared to public history writing. The biggest difference though, is the practice. In much of my public history work, and in all of my public archaeology work, the public is an intrinsic part of the process. My paper, “Setting the Tone for Higher Education: The Blanco Star School of Hays County, Texas” published in Intersect: Perspectives in Texas Public History an online journal publication of Texas State University, is drawn from just that kind of public interaction. A group of students donated their materials to the University Archives, because they did not want their story to disappear. I set aside my own research interests, because I cannot resist a good story. I worked with that former student body to collect the oral histories that became the paper.

This is what I strive for in my museum work, to at all levels of museum functionality be transparent, work both with and for the community’s needs, and develop exhibits alongside the various members of the community. Nearly every single exhibit that I have created at the museum here is based on a deep connection with the public. I have an open door policy. I know it is a luxury that larger museums may not have. My door is both figuratively and literally open, and over the past three years, the community around me has realized that I really enjoy folks stopping by to ask questions or talk about history. My goal is to have people leaving the museum with the message that history is always being made, and that their story matters.

It is one of the reasons our museum’s collections have finally started diversifying to reflect more of the community around us rather than focusing on a romanticized vision of the mid-19th century. One of our missions, set with the last Board President, was that we would work to make this museum the cultural center of the community and that we would demonstrate ourselves to be a repository that was interested in and capable of preserving the history and culture of our community. Individuals and groups have approached me with interest in creating exhibits. Likewise, I have approached individuals and groups to help create exhibits. I often reach out to the membership and beyond to help make these hyper-local exhibits happen.

In an upcoming blog post, I will discuss my current exhibit, and how I have made use of traveling exhibits from Humanities Texas to start ongoing conversations with the community that turn into future exhibits down the road.