Kelly Moffitt is a Mizzou journalism student. She is working with Joy Mayer this semester on what journalists can learn from other disciplines. She contributed this post to Joy’s blog. See part one of Kelly’s work on participatory museums.
At the intersection of museums, journalism and this constantly thrilling ride we call engagement, there is a man who can attest to the fact that community involvement practiced in the new world of museums can be practiced in journalism.
Ron Chew (business site and Wikipedia page) spent 13 years as a reporter for the International Examiner in Seattle, after which he was hired as the executive director of the flailing Wing Luke Asian Art Museum. Over his 16 years there, he worked to transform it from an out-of-touch neighborhood building housing artifacts to an expanding, vibrant community organization thriving fiscally and culturally. The kind of museum he helped to foster is what is known as an “ecomuseum,” which values personal experiences as informing a greater historical perspective.
Ron said that his experience as a community journalist has informed every job he has had since then. (Currently he’s working as the Director of International Health Community Services in Seattle.) As a reporter, he was living and breathing the area he was reporting on, where “sharp divisions for objective news reporting and opinion editorial work didn’t exist… When you were doing stories it wasn’t so much about objectivity as it was fairness.”
In some respects, the reporting experience made him a community advocate rather than a detached observer. That prepared him for increasing interest in the Wing Luke. “That meant exhibits that had strong social content, that were about taking stands for greater tolerance, social justice, equality, those kinds of things,” Ron explained.
His overarching theme has been community organizing. In journalism, art and health care, his passion is getting people together to work toward a common goal, and he believes that idea is at the heart of engagement.
“I think those community organizing skills, ability to navigate/negotiate between different people, ability to communicate across generations, ability to work collaboratively, all of those are skills for the 21st century,” Ron said. “They are at the core of museum work. I stress the hiring of people who are less subject-specialist and more people who are community builders, good collaborative skills.”
Here are some more tidbits from my conversation with Ron on his colliding worlds of museums, journalism and engagement.
Was community engagement being practiced when you got to the Wing Luke back in ’91? When I got there it was a very traditional museum, everything moved at a snail’s pace. Being a historical site, it looks backwards most times instead of forwards. It isn’t so much involved in the issues of here and now and today. [The transformation] was about creating a shorter time frame for exhibits, making it more dynamic, basing it on issues that were happening in current time.
I read that a lot of your exhibits utilized community members’ input. How did you go about finding community that would be interested? You just look outside your door, and talking to people who are not museum professionals but more community activists and longtime leaders, or students who have idealism. Then you find a ready source. People are there, its just inviting them in to be a part. That’s the challenge. And I think a little bit of rigidity. We began to base a lot of the work around oral histories rather than artifacts, objects. Once you start doing that, the institution starts taking on a much more live feel.
When you got to Wing Luke, what was your first step to rejuvenate the museum? We began to change the exhibition schedule … we had exhibits that were rooted in the community, being oral history based. One of the first exhibits we did was on the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II. That issue helped galvanize a lot of support from the Asian American community. The story was told by combining a few generations of people together. We promoted healing.
How did you go about measuring your success? One was, how many people were actually involved in committees we created to help create the exhibitions. We also looked at the sheer number of participants and the number of attendants. Everything elevated dramatically.
Do you think what you did with Wing Luke could be applied to any other museum? I think yes and no, the community engagement strategies can be applied to any institution across the board. We had the benefit of having a much more narrow focus in some respects because we are an ethnic-specific institution. We had a very clear audience. For some museums that are more general purpose, that have a broader cross-section of audience, it may be harder to reel in who the stakeholders are and how you want to get the content out there. I’ve actually written about this model as a journalistic model. It was about the notion, that this should be story-based, its about topically based work, journalism is about here and now, breaking news.
Did you ever feel like the museum lost any authority by letting the community have so much input? Once upon a time, the perspective was this omnipotent idea in exhibitions. There was a statement, a fact like “the world is flat.” And that’s how it started, not much interpretation. Then this idea arose that there is more than this one perspective. It shifted to saying “She says the world is flat.” It’s actually being interpreted where it came from, its not just a statement of fact. Then it evolved to “She says the world is flat, he says the world is round.” Multiple perspectives. And then it kind of evolved to “She says the world is flat, he says the world is round. What is your perspective? Lets talk about it.”
The authority keeps broadening and becoming better because it is more transparent. People are realizing there is no one single perspective. Of things that you thought were facts, they are mostly perspectives disguised as facts. In presenting something that has richness and depth, you need to bring out those perspectives in fair ways. And having a discussion.
Did you ever encounter a situation where you thought ‘We should show them this’ but it was totally different from what people wanted to see? Before you reach that point, you have community adviser committees. You come up with an idea, you have to float it. That’s where the people you’ve established a relationship over a long-time basis, will advise you on the short-term exhibits. They can tell you ‘Why are you doing this?’ And then you have to justify it before you go on. You at least have a way to test things.
Why is engagement important? It creates depth and keeps it on track. If you don’t have an engaged audience, an institution doesn’t have much reason to exist. You have to have actual measures of an institution of increasing its visitors…are tours continuing to come in? Are people donating more oral histories to your collection? Things like that. Its important, that is the lifeblood. Engagement ensures the organism breathes.
What is the end goal for a perfectly engaged museum? For me, it was developing a new layer of leadership so an institution can develop into the future. It’s about having intergeneration contact and dialogue so knowledge can be shared. It’s about building a stronger financial base, so it can continue to pay its bills. It’s about creating exhibitions of some relevance, so the community can have a dialogue to solve problems. There are many, many measures. In the case of Wing Luke, it needed to be an important partner in the economic revitalization of the neighborhood.
— Kelly Moffitt