The relationship between museums and the communities they serve is a popular topic of discussion. A quick look-through of most writers’ pieces reveals that the present day museums have to open up the walls that lock out the surrounding societies. They have to synchronize with the representative communities if the museums have to remain relevant in today’s world. The political and cultural set up of different communities across the globe is rapidly changing and if the museums’ mission is to respond properly to these dynamic forces, then it is their task to open arms and break hierarchical structures within their set ups in order to accommodate accurate representation of the communities. The main purpose of this paper therefore is to examine the relationship between museums and communities and to investigate how the two parties interact.
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In her book, Elizabeth Crooke sheds light on the intimate relationship between Museums and their publics. She asserts that community engagement is a paramount responsibility of the museum and heritage sector if the museum has to achieve its missions. Further, she says that the museum is the point of interface where the public is encouraged to learn about their histories and to understand that of others (2007). Thomas also voiced that “the museum sector and communities hold a dual relationship of interdependence, although it’s not easy to tell which one needs the other more” (2000). The public needs information and they need to be educated about their histories based on the artifacts preserved in the museum display halls. On the other hand, the museum needs the represented communities in order to justify their exhibitions. It is crystal clear. The community has a molding hand on the museum initiatives and is a great determinant of how successful the institution can be. Likewise, the museum is a means to express the communities’ identity. Crooke, in her book brings out the thought-provoking aspect worth debating, “Who is speaking for the community, and why” (Crooke, 2007, p10), what adds even more curiosity is if their demands with regards to heritage are met. The museums’ intuitive role is to form identity for the communities which are also led by pursuit for heritage. Conversantly, these demands are faced by challenging, social, political and economic influences which shows that the people are getting more aware, thus the museums may need to change their approach towards serving the society by becoming accessible to a wider range of communities. This is meant to satisfy the growing need to research by the publics and is hopefully met by the intergovernmental push on the museums towards this goal.
What’s a community? In effect, this is “a social group that lives within a particular locality and shares a common culture, historical heritage and a common government” (Hoodwink, 2005). It’s very important to understand this outline therefore, especially to zoom in the activities of the museum and how they directly relate to the represented communities. However, the government has a massive impact on developments in the museum sector. Governments issue policies and guidelines to museums and heritage sector which stipulate and emphasize the roles of the museum in achievement of social inclusion and community participation. Also, the authorities push for cohesion and restoration of the society, enhanced by museum activities. These nudging policies by the government have fastened the engagement and commitment of the institutions’ indulgences towards improving the social order.
A museum scholar, Alpha Oumar said that “it is in the leaders of our village, of our cultural tradition that we work with to find a lasting solution” (2002). True as he implied, that the museums can change their perceptions and develop even better models to meet on-coming challenges, and this can only be done by community involvement. In partnering with the community therefore, the museums get a guide on how to tackle issues faced by the communities. Also, just like any other community, a museum community is made up of the people who visit it, the workers and those who live around it, and also the stakeholders and those who donated part of the exhibition collections. The community involvement policy is imperative because the society shares common characteristics and attributes as well. However, the museum being a custodian of community heritage, has a responsibility to give back to the community by putting up enough effort to craft solutions for some of the problems experienced by the civic society. The strength and relevance of a museum is moreover shown in its ability to respond to community needs and how forceful it pushes for solutions beyond its faculty. Very important also as a result of community involvement, is the feedback and response from audience, ideas, views and contributions or recommendations from the people on how to serve the society better. These are invaluable proponents that the museum can only get from a motivated and fulfilled community.
Museums should involve the community by conserving their heritage and through custom management, but more involvement can be achieved not only by moving closer to the people, but also by engaging in a partnership with them in the heritage programs. Also this can be more achieved for the benefit of both of them by urging the communities to display their heritage through donation of artifact collections, engaging in community projects, performing art, and exhibitions in the museum halls. The community is the mine from which the museum seeks to get information and supporting evidence and must therefore be soothed with concern and developmental initiatives.
You may wonder what advantages there are in community involvement by museums. Well, there is so much to mention but this paper examines just a few. Seeking the community’s participation is an awesome approach because the public feels directly involved in decision making process especially on the use of resources. Secondly is sustainability. It would be very difficult, if not impossible, to sustain museum programs without community involvement. Also harmony and a sense of ownership is a credit to the community. When they are involved, they have a direct feel of possession of what’s in custody of the museum which assures them that nothing has been stripped off their hands. It also grants them pride over their cultural heritage. Very important amongst many, is the creation of awareness. The communities’ involvement brings them to a focal point of appreciation of diverse cultures, some of which may be unheard of. The components contributed by different communities in a society are availed for viewing and education of other members of the public, therefore creating an understanding amongst divergent traditions.
It’s explicit today that most museums are trending towards bridging the gap between them and the local communities. The prickly spot though, is how to engage these communities and to maintain the relationship. Most scholars have had their debatable suggestions, Nicholas Macho, adding that “museums should positively contribute in community development by eradicating poverty and empowering them economically” (2005). With that, most museums have had authority by statute to protect sites and monuments of both national and international heritage which has landed them into conflict with the local communities. Nevertheless, their mission to eradicate poverty has been perceived in activities of community involvement like employments in regional museums, involvement in community projects, and archaeological excavation activities (Abungu, 1998). Additionally, in the past, most museums would invite members of the public to participate in museum activities but it’s all taken a reverse turn today. The museums are visiting the locals and putting up programs that reach out even more to most members of the community. Education programs are also in place to reach out to the public and learning institutions which are meant to develop pride in the diverse historical, cultural and natural heritage and are designed for the suitability of all levels of learning.
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The cost of running a museum is relatively high in some regions and this has to be recovered through sale of entry tickets. However, today the tickets are highly subsidized by governments to encourage locals to access the facilities and educate themselves on historical and cultural legacy. Low income groups found this to be relatively high still and thought they are locked out by their inability to pay for the charges, but authorities had taken note of that. Most museums now allow locals to access the facilities at very low charges especially if they can identify themselves as groups of members with a research or learning mission. Those out of this category are also given a chance to visit the facilities free of charge on particular dates, given equal chance to learn about the historical and cultural heritage. No one is left out for that matter and the museum and heritage sector are moving on even closer each day towards a more synchronized relationship between the institutions and the civic society.
Communities play an important role in preservation of cultural and natural heritage through practice and observation of traditional practices inspired by indigenous knowledge. Since the indigenous knowledge is developed by the community and it represents and important aspect of their style of living, the museums, though some have taken the step already, should create resources that aid in research for indigenous knowledge. These should aim at collecting and preserving the knowledge of the practices by local communities. The people in the most remote areas of the society must be involved in this in order to get the most accurate documentations to be preserved in the housed of artifact. Most recently, a dispute erupted in Kenya when two communities got into dispute because of a supposedly sacred forest. It’s a forest very important to the local people, the Kikuyu clan, but totally had no meaning to the neighbors who threatened to make it bald (Opondo, 2011). It’s arguable, but the national heritage preservation authorities had clearly not educated the rest of the community about the importance of the forest to the Kikuyu clan. This forest is a place held very sacred by the community and is a site for “appeasing the spirits in events of calamity, sacrificing for rain, peacemaking, and conduction certain rituals” (Opondo, 2011). In effect, it is therefore important that conservation of the cultural landscapes be upheld and secured by authorities. In collaboration with the communities, most of the landscapes have been protected for their cultural and even biological value but some have still been left out. This is either because they are undiscovered or a greater wall still exists between the community and the heritage preservation institutions. In occasion, much needs to be done to pull them on board.
Museums promote both cultural diversity and multiculturalism by merging different ethnic practices to suit a wide variety of members of a society. The institutions reflects an awareness of multiple cultural practices, some which are easily adopted by other societies, therefore it has to do this carefully to avoid malpractice. The art center is a point where communities come together to share ideas within the social, political and cultural context which adds great value to the mode of inter-relation between communities. Indeed, museums improve intercultural understanding and harness the community appreciation and celebration of their differences thus making the institutions a great equipment of social change.
Finally, it’s important to note that the communities and museums have a symbiotic relationship.. Involvement of the community by the museum in its activities demonstrates the institutions’ invaluable role in cultural preservation and development. Traditionally, the institution would be confined to the walls of its exhibition halls, but today it goes deeper into the society to help solve issue of poverty, conflict resolution, heritage conservation, and more even about tourism. The community and the museum are two parties with equal shares of need for each other. Therefore, the community would be if involved in all the major aspects of their unitary development. First, both parties should be involved in the planning process that requires input from both of them rather than let the community come in as a substitute. This is the best way to create trust amongst them. The museum should also welcome new ideas and contributions from the public and with a sense of vision, should implement as many of them as is possible. On the other hand, the community would be better off by letting go of the past and availing as much accurate information as possible for education of the general public. Much benefit would also be accrued if cultural artifacts are collected and displayed for viewing and education of other communities to share in the appreciation of socio-cultural and historical heritage. This can only be done if members of the community are willing to give what is required. Indeed all these activities are funneled towards a better and happier society. A community in which all the divergent members understand the lifestyles of each other without undue judgment, yet this is only possible if the people are taught about its importance, and they, together with the museums corporate to achieve a common goal. For a better community therefore, both the museum and the public have to work in cohesion because they both seek a common goal, an informed and peaceful civilization.
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