As I muddle through this stage of my thesis work, I am struck by unexpected sources that create new connections. My thesis is focused on new outreach museum initiatives and their feasibility towards under-served family audiences who show financial need. In the interviews I have completed, I am gaining a better understanding of the creative fabric of Philadelphia and how the work interconnects.
For example, last week I attended an incredible panel discussion (as part of DesignPhiladelphia) that tackled the idea of: “Will Philadelphia’s mega-museums snatch visitors from the city’s smaller cultural institutions? Or will these legacy projects collapse under the weight of their own outsized ambitions? Or, will all boats be lifted?” I anticipated this lecture to focus specifically on the impact of design and architecture, but instead it became one of the finest and most comprehensive talks on museum work that I’ve been to. It was like a mini-grad course in how museums function in communities. (I’ll sum up some of the highlights of this talk further below). But in getting back to my thesis, I found real insight from all of the panelists, as well as those in attendance (particularly two journalists), but one particular panelist really confirmed my thesis work and inspired me.
|Image of exhibition, Courtesy of DesignPhiladelphia|
Aaron Levy was on the panel and spoke with a quiet deliberate and calm tone. He is the founding Executive Director of the Slought Foundation, a small Philadelphia-based institution whose programs focus on histories of cultural experimentation and political advocacy as well as the creation of social practices. According to the Slought website, “Levy has developed an approach to the curatorial which mobilizes historical models and imagines small organizations as agencies that produce new correspondences, relationships, and practices of engagement.” Levy spoke eloquently about the next phase of the Slought Foundation in the coming years to develop a site of collaborative knowledge production and civic engagement for Philadelphia neighborhoods. While speaking on the panel, he was a champion of finding ways for museums to better serve their communities and to build connections. Although the talk did not mention financial access per se, there were discussions about rising entry costs and whether big construction and some of the flashy work of museums takes away from their relevance to the citizens. I felt that his insights were inspiring to my progress and the proverbial lightbulb went on… in that this person and his existing work might open up new avenues of connections for me.
I am finding that the key sources in my work that really matter are meeting with and speaking to people who are passionate about cultural access in their profession. I look forward to connecting with Aaron Levy as I think his insight will complement other interviews I have completed with museum professionals who also look beyond their particular field and find innovative ways to partner in the community to best serve visitor needs.
And to return to the lecture for a moment, it was moderated by Tom Stoelker from the Architect’s Newspaper and the panel included Rosenbach Museum and Library Director Derick Dreher, Philadelphia Inquirer architecture critic Inga Saffron, and the Faculty Director of the Center for High Impact Philanthropy at the University of Pennsylvania, Peter Frumkin – in addition to Aaron Levy. They discussed so much about overall administrative issues: how museums affect communities, why museums make fancy expansions, why financial planning and fundraising often does not meet the needs of these ambitious ideas (and how/ when these often go off track), and they gave some inside information on what is happening with current museums in Philadelphia (specifically the African-American Museum, the National Constitution Center, the National Museum of American Jewish History, the Philadelphia History Museum and the proposed American Revolution Museum). The passion and detailed information provided by the Inquirer journalists at the talk was outstanding. It provided me with lots of useful information that I will carry with me in my future museum work.