Museums serve in a unique yet vital manner as stewards of humanity’s cultural heritage. Collections are the method of service. However, the ICOM definition of museum notes that behind the public service is the need for meaning and relevance to this purpose. Museums, as stewards of humanity’s cultural heritage, must leverage unique professional talents and resources “in the service of society and its development.” There is nothing new or revolutionary with this perspective. It merely stresses the centrality of meaningful and relevant public service. In his article, “Transformed from a Cemetery of Bric-A-Brac,” Stephen Weil summarized the evolution of the museum field’s focus from institutions “oriented primarily inward” on the collection to “an outwardly oriented organization” upon its visitors and its community (6). When clearly summarized as an orientation of focus, upon the public served rather than the collections housed, the primacy of public service becomes the defining trait of what I describe as outward museums.
During a recent trip to Charlotte, North Carolina, I explored The Levine Museum of the New South, which beautifully embodies an outward museum. Like most travelers, I first browsed the internet to determine personal interest prior to my visit. While scrolling through the museum’s website, the “About Us” tab notes the museum’s commitment to “using history to build community.” With this statement, there is a dedication to leveraging institutional resources and talents to address contemporary issues for the betterment of the community. The Museum of the New South’s policy institutionalizes the primacy of outward orientation.
Walking in the doors, a permanent sign spans the room above the information desk with “Welcome” scrawled in a plethora of languages. Beneath, two smiling faces reflect the diverse community of Charlotte. As a first impression, the Levine Museum of the New South rocks outwardly. Once in the permanent exhibition, visitors follow the history of the South from reconstruction through today. Like the staff, visitors that day included a comfortably middle class, older white couple, a school program with a rainbow of fascinated faces, a group of German tourists, a Latino family speaking a charming mix of English and Spanish, and a handful of millennials typical of Charlotte’s uptown community. Many museums would kill for the visitor diversity found on an average weekday at the Levine Museum of the New South.
This demographic success is most likely due in part to the incredible nature of the museum’s exhibition and programming. As I wandered through the permanent exhibition, Cotton Fields to Skyscrapers, I was struck by the multiple narrative threads. Visitors experience the housing of sharecroppers, see the work of the 20th century textile mills, walk Main Street beside suffragettes, take a seat with the lunch counter sit-ins of the Civil Rights Movement, and step in the shoes of global businessmen. According to research by John Falk in Identity and the Museum Visitor Experience, visitors come to museums for personal meaning making, and the Levine Museum of the New South successfully creates multiple opportunities for personal meaning to nearly every demographic of the community served (136-142).
The recently concluded special exhibition, ¡NEUVOlution!, explored the mutual impact of Latinos and the South upon one another. With the ongoing debate of immigration, ¡NEUVOlution! provided a safe space (literally, there were couches and an explanatory sign) to explore all sides of the issue with respectfully curated insights from museum staff and community collaborators.
Visitors were also encouraged to participate with personal insight of exhibit themes through music, quotes, or stereotypes left behind. To conclude the experience, a visit to the gift shop further inspired community comradery; the official museum t-shirt reads, “Yours, Mine, Ours, Everyone’s History Matters.”
The Levine Museum of the New South’s practice of outward orientation does not end with the visit. Following the recent tragedies in Dallas, Baton Rouge, and St. Paul, this outward museum moderated a safe virtual space to explore racism in America, acts of violence, and to promote Dr. King’s message of community over chaos. The hosted tweet chat, with the designated #ComeToUnderstand, featured diverse opinions offered with respect and an open mind by participants. Most importantly, the broad message of community rather than chaos was successfully underscored, and the experience became a virtual platform to facilitate healing and solidarity through Twitter, Facebook, the museum blog, and Storify.
The Levine Museum of the New South beautifully embodies my favorite visitor experience, the outward museum, prior to, during, and following the actual visit. As a museum professional, my visitor experience at the Levine Museum of the New South likewise provides incredible inspiration with institutional policy that recognizes the primacy of public service and museum practices that embrace and facilitate a better community for all its members. From the incorporated seating that promotes conversation of contemporary issues through a historic lens – to dedicated hashtags that inspire respectful debate – to exhibition interactives that encourage visitors to leave their stereotypes behind – to a mission statement that features community, I am professionally motivated to answer the question “How can I be an outward museum today?”
Want to write for AASLH? Learn more and submit an article here.