Opening day at the Central Park Children’s Zoo, September 28, 1961. Photo courtesy of Parks Photo Archive.
Dear Members of MANY’s Museum Community,
Memory deceives me into believing that as a child, I spent all my Sunday afternoons at the Central Park Zoo watching zookeepers toss fish to sea lions, peering into the whale’s mouth at the children’s zoo, and counting hours to the spinning animals on the Delacorte Clock. On one visit, the hippopotamus swam towards my father and me, stopping at the glass wall of its enclosure close enough for us to see the drops of water on its skin. My father didn’t notice a wide gap between the upper glass sections and accidently stuck his hand into the hippo’s mouth. When he jumped back in fear that the animal would attack in retaliation for the intrusion, I was knocked to the floor. This minor disruption transformed our zoo routine. Subsequent visits excluded the hippopotamus tank and I learned to look more closely at the built environment.
As we negotiate ways through COVID-19’s major disruption to our lives and our jobs, we need to face the many inequities and injustices exacerbated by the federal government’s insufficient response to the pandemic. The pandemic also revealed to those with privileged assumptions, the myth that we live in an equitable and civil society. Some museums have been operating under the assumption that they are accessible to everyone in their communities, that they promote an unbiased work environment, and that they are inclusive storytellers. Those myths are now being revealed in mainstream and social media by those who have been harmed. They are also being acknowledged by progressive leaders.
We are fortunate that in NY that we have been able to limit infection rates and move slowly to reopening. It is now time for our museums to also move from disruption to transformation and rebuild our institutions with greater inclusivity, empathy, and open doors. Perhaps now more than any other time in our generation, our history museums, historical societies, and town historians are critically needed, to retell the story of our nation more completely. We need our science centers to share their knowledge of corona viruses in ways that inspire people to behave safely and responsibly. We need to sustain our art museums that offer inspiration and respite in difficult times, and value the lessons learned when a child comes face to face with a hippopotamus.
How do we begin to transform museums? A place I’d like to propose we start is to encourage museums to once again embrace the value of visitor and community engagement studies. MANY’s 2019 State of NYS Museums Survey (in the distant, pre-COVID past) revealed that of the 160 museums who responded to the question, 65% had not conducted a visitor survey in the past five years. The 35% that conducted surveys leveraged their findings to improve visitor services and amenities, physical accessibility, wayfinding, and readability of wall text in galleries. Responding museums took newsletters from print to electronic distribution, invested marketing budgets in social media, and updated their websites. They changed the times and types of classes offered and exhibitions in development to address requested subjects and themes.
In these rapidly changing times, it is critical for museums to uphold and expand their roles as community anchors and to share all of our history, art, culture, and values. If you know more about a silver tea service in your vault than you know about a person who visits your museum only when you offer free admission, you are strongly positioned to transform your museum. Working with other non-profit organizations, libraries, and community centers to gather data collectively would reveal far more than single source data collection. By learning more about the people you serve now, how you can serve them better in the future, and make your collections and spaces an open and welcoming place for more people, museums can help promote and sustain a more equitable and civil society.