This April, Chairman Adams will attend his first meeting of the American Alliance of Museums in Atlanta. The conference, which draws approximately 5,000 museum professionals and students every year, takes as its theme “The Social Value of Museums: Inspiring Change.” The chairman will moderate a panel discussion “Museums Re-Imagining the American City” with leaders of three of the nation’s foremost urban museums: Daryl Black, executive director of the Chattanooga History Center; Lori Fogarty, director and CEO of the Oakland Museum of California; and Morris J. Vogel, president of the Lower East Side Tenement Museum, New York.
Chairman Adams will engage these leaders in a conversation on their institutions’ relationships with their respective cities and audiences, and how they have changed over the last decades of the 20th century and in the first two decades of the 21st. During these years, museums in cities have struggled to re-define their relationship to their public audiences and the urban communities of which they are a part. These efforts have been informed by new ideas about civic engagement and the social role of the museum, and by a vision of museums as centers of civic discourse and as forces for urban revitalization.
Exciting public projects continue to bring new ideas and experiences to museum field. The Chattanooga’s History Center is currently at work to tackle issues of race and historical memory that divided Chattanooga for generations. A new exhibition is underway that uses interactive kiosks, listening stations, and innovative “memory lanterns”—installations that present diverse views on key historical events—to explore the city’s rich and complex past.
The Oakland Museum of California has been a pioneer when it comes to engaging the communities of the San Francisco Bay area. After transforming its space in 2010, the museum dedicated itself to strengthening its role as a forum for civic discussion, inviting visitor participation in its galleries and public events. Today, the museum’s art, history, and natural sciences curators collaborate with community members, local artists, writers, and scholars as they interpret the city and the region, drawing on diverse voices and perspectives.
The Lower East Side Tenement Museum has a well-deserved reputation in the field for interpreting the urban immigrant experience, past and present. Through immersive experiences, creative use of technology, and stirring stories, visitors are able to see, touch, hear, and imagine how immigrants on the Lower East Side lived in the early 20th century. The museum’s innovative presentations allow visitors to forge emotional connections to the people who inhabited the city in the past, and to appreciate the hurdles immigrants encountered as they became Americans.
The National Endowment for the Humanities has supported many landmark museum exhibitions that interpret American cities. As NEH marks its 50th anniversary, Chairman Adams will reflect on that record in conversation on these three case studies, which shall surely provide rich food for thought on where the leaders of the field find themselves today in thinking about museums and their cities.