Monday, May 16, 2016

Should Museums Be More Like Constables?

I'm working on an exhibition for the Royal Newfoundland Constabulary Historical Society, in St. John's, NL.  I've been digging deep into their archives to learn more about the two hundred year history of the force, but a few weeks ago, I found some materials that I thought held some important lessons for museums.

I found a file containing a series of reports from 1948 from outport communities all over Newfoundland.  This was a critical time for what is now a province, because the vote about whether or not to become a part of Canada was drawing near.  It seems not far away, but as you'll see, it was still a time when those communities were often cut off by weather and bad roads.   These monthly reports were generally titled, "Economical and Social Life of the District,"  and were written by the local constable to be submitted to the chief constable in St. John's.

Here's a few excerpts:

In Corner Brook, in January, "the economical condition is quite good, and people in the main are employed gainfully and there is no report of able-bodied relief.  However, the herring fishery during the month is not nearly as good in previous years..."   and in February, the health of that community was "good during the month and there was no serious illness; there was however, a series of colds with no ill effects."

From Gander in February, "The Social aspect of the community remains more or less unchanged. However there has been some activity in connection with the various churches and the British Red Cross...the Gander Public Library is also filling an important position in the life of the community and is also increasing its services to the public..."

February was a quiet month in Ferryland, "There were no dances or parties of any kind held during the month" and the economy was bad, "Quite a number of men from Ferryland, Calvert and Cape Broyle are applying for relief."   In Trepassey, the weather was so bad that "the roof blew off Leonard Hachette's house and was beaten into matchwood."  As the bad weather continued there, "the men are complaining very much of having no food for their cattle.  There is no hay or oats anywhere in my territory as there is no boats running from here to town they cannot get food."

Spring finally comes that year, and the constable in Clark's Beach reports in April, "There have been no seals taken this month.  The people are all getting their fencing done for planting their vegetables...a card party and supper was held in the C.E. school at Salmon Cove and it was well-patronized by all."

Every month, the constables also took the political temperature of their towns around the issue of confederation or not, even though, said one,  "it's difficult to say."

What do I think museums can learn from these reports?

I can't tell you the number of times I've heard museum staff, board and volunteers say, "but no one comes, no one is interested."  That's because, I believe, you're not interested in them.  What would happen if you regularly spent time at a board or staff meeting talking about the social or economical conditions of your community?  Could you then learn about concerns--and equally importantly, learn about the parts of your community that you, as an organization don't connect with in any way?

I'm also struck by the empathy shown in these reports.  There's a real understanding of how and why relief is needed, of what benefits a community, and of the challenges and successes of community life.  That comes from attentiveness to the places we live--and all the people who live there too.  Our work can and should be a reciprocal process--that's how we can become essential parts of community life.

Top:  Constables and community member, RNCHS collection
Bottom:  Adults in kitchen, Pools Island, Bonavista Bay, Gustav Anderson Photo Collection, The Rooms.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Linda, your points are well taken. I am a student in the Tufts University Museum Studies Program and wanted to take a few moments to respond to your post, as we discuss issues of community engagement and museums regularly.

If most museums were to stop and ask themselves “who do we serve?” one’s immediate community would be at the top of the list. As the demographics of the US are changing, communities surrounding museums—small history museums and historic house museums in particular—also change and it seems we are at a point in which many institutions need to reassess the socio-demographic makeup of their community, their communities needs and desires, and take a hard look at how one’s museum supports its community.

With so much information online, people seek activities outside of their homes for experiences as well as learning—to interact physically with spaces, objects and each other. Getting to know the needs of ones community could help a museum best figure out how to create the experience that their community wants and that makes sense with their mission and collections. I was lucky enough to be present during a lecture of Dr. David Young, Executive Director at the Cliveden of the National Trust in Philadelphia, PA, where the museum has taken serious time and effort to get out into their community and learn how to integrate themselves into the development of social structures and community conversations. Cliveden hosts a number of programs in response to the needs of their community, including Cliveden Conversations, which focus around social history and race history, putting these subjects into a local context and then drawing them into the present through meaningful, planned and focused conversations. Rather than looking inward at itself, Cliveden turns outward and looks towards its community to create enriching experiences for its visitors. I see museums truly becoming ‘third places’ where visitors can connect with each other and their larger community; places that are being lost as social interaction increasingly exists online. This potential for creating a physical community, offering spaces to create dialogue around pressing community issues, and tie these experiences into ones collections as an active and relevant part of history-making, is huge and local museums are poised to begin entering into this role.

To answer your initial question—I think museums should be more like constables, and am seeing that some are taking the initiative to become community stewards. Not to say that community development should be the main focus for all museums—but for many, encouragement of community based activities and learning can help generate a new role for museums in this ever-changing world. Where remote Canadian communities in the 1940s were cut off from other by bad weather and poor road conditions, we are cut off from each other by the vastness of the internet and the speed of contemporary life: perhaps museums can offer a space to slow down, reflect, and create productive and positive activities, all while growing visitation and participation from within their own communities. Thank you for a thought-provoking post!