Tuesday, June 28, 2011

12 Imperatives for a Museum of Durham History!

Long before officials leapfrogged it to build the spectacular Durham Performing Arts Center, a local history museum had long been the top cultural priority of Durham residents across every socio-ethnic group as evidenced by both scientific public opinion polls and master plans.

While Durham’s 12th and largest performance theater, not counting those in high schools such as the excellent 1,000-seat GSK Theater at Riverside, is a huge success, the only gapping hole in Durham’s cultural fabric remains the need for a local history museum.

Unfortunately, as often happens, advocates seeking to justify the theater a decade ago as a means to augment an economic development project felt the need to trash the idea of a local history museum as a threat, even going far as to bully a consultant to stop him from raising concerns.

It always takes time for the effects of propaganda like that to wash away.  Unfortunately, it isn’t new nor exclusive to Durham to see cultural facilities such as convention centers, ballparks, museums and theaters, often to their detriment, strapped like hostages to the front bumper of economic development projects.  People in my former career field are too often complicit.

All the while, however, Durham residents have continued to soldier-on as evidenced by a number of fundraisers including a benefit concert by volunteers from Durham Tech called “History Rocks” that will be held on July 16th to raise funds for a store-front precursor to a full-fledged Museum of Durham History.  Check out another prelude-project by Museum called History Beneath Our Feet, an online guide to Durham street and school names.

Fittingly, the event will be held in the 500+ capacity Motorco, an old mid-century showroom where 1960s Lincolns and Mercurys were sold which has been adaptively restored as a live music venue in Downtown’s unofficial but organically emergent NoCo District (NOrth of COrporation.)

Local history museums are vital to a community’s sense of uniqueness beyond their significance as a tool for both traditional and visitor-centric economic and cultural development.

Along with one of my own near the end, here are eleven long-term-trend-based observations noted in a 2008 study conducted by Reach Advisors on behalf of The Center For The Future Of Museums, “a think-tank and research and design lab,” about the continued relevance of museums in the future (download the full report by clicking here):

  • Far into the future, “museums will be places of cultural exchange in their communities…They will be one of the most powerful agents in helping all children understand the future and ensuring they are prepared to take leadership roles.”


  • “With educational attainment becoming a more visible tool of social mobility than ever, museums provide more opportunities than ever for [those] from less-educated families to gain exposure to topics that drive academic interest…As important players in the formal and informal education system, museums will…meet the rising expectations highly educated moms have for their children.”


  • In a world undergoing incredible change, “museums will educate the public on how past societies coped and adapted to tectonic shifts in their resources.  They will help society learn from history as we cope with a new era of expensive energy, lower consumptions, carbon constraint and climate change.”


  • “Museums are stable oases in the mist of turmoil…museums play an even greater role in sustaining the well-being of their communities during a prolonged downturn. Whether for the retiree managing lower post-retirement income than anticipated, or for schools with fewer enrichment opportunities for students, museums are there for their communities.”


  • “Museums play an important role in helping communities…reinvent themselves in the new knowledge-based economy. Responding to society's need for greater global awareness…promote dialog and understanding about other cultures and our place…”


  • “Museums are among the few institutions that bring together people of all economic classes…valued for their ability to redistribute wealth in the form of access to scientific, cultural and artistic resources, mitigating the cultural gap that arises from income disparities.”


  • “the fundamental human condition responds to a variant of Newton’s Third Law of Motion: The prevalence of the digital, virtual world raises public awareness of the increasingly rare world of non-digital assets that help tell the story of how humans got where we are.  Museums play  a more critical role than ever as purveyors of the authentic, addressing a human desire for the real as the wonders of technology march us towards the opposite path.”


  • “…Museums provide common experiences for diverse audiences, serving as safe public spaces for civic dialogue. As one of the most trusted sources of information, museums help people navigate the vast new world of information by filtering and validating credible content.”


  • “Museums…play a vital role in nurturing, documenting, organizing, interpreting and making accessible…creative output…They are repositories of knowledge about traditional craft, sources of inspiration for new designs and processes, and through their collections and exhibitions” they are “validators of new.”


  • “museums provide unique opportunities for today’s youth to exercise their gaming skills and satisfy their expectations for immersive narrative.  This increases their engagement with museums but also the community and the world, providing levels of social and global awareness they might not otherwise absorb while sitting in front of a screen.”


  • “Museums will be oases of the real in an increasingly virtual world.  Along with the outdoors and places of worship, museums represent the best opportunity for getting away from it all.”

It was clear to me from a now concluded four-decade career focused on marketing communities to visitors, including newcomers and relocating or start-up executives, that local history museums uniquely provide a place where existing residents, visitors and newcomers can explore the soul of a community and appreciate and perpetuate the temporal values and traits that make a community unique and distinct.

They are essential to place-making.  They engage all five modes of cultural involvement including inventive participation, interpretive participation, curatorial participation, observational participation and ambient participation.

For anyone prone to be list checkers with little patience for the future or the past, the report begins with an insightful quote from futurist Paul Saffo:

“The goal of forecasting is not to predict the future but to tell you what you need to know to take meaningful action in the present.”

Ironic for a community with a history arguably deeper and more significant than most, Durham has waited too long for a Museum of Durham History.

Proponents must remember another quote I like by Saffo, “never mistake a clear view for a short distance.”  Keep the faith!.

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