The words “activism” and “museums” are not often spoken in the same breath unless you are referring to a new exciting exhibition installation. Last week, community activist and documentarian, Iris Morales, provided the possibility for those two words to be strung together. During Ms. Morales’ visit to Cooperstown, we screened her documentary Palente! Siempre Palente! This film documents the 1960s Puerto Rican activist group, the Young Lords. Ms. Morales, a former member of the Young Lords, held an informal discussion on community engagement and museums before showing the film.
Like the Black Panthers and Indians of All Tribes in California, the Young Lords were a militant group of young activists who desired better civil rights and service for the communities within which they lived. Originally formed in Chicago, the Young Lords developed branches all along the east coast and provided various services to their respective communities. In the documentary, one interviewee remarked that the New York Young Lords branch acted in the interests of the poor people. They went out into the community and asked people directly what they needed. One of the more dramatic activities conducted by the Young Lords was their occupation of a local church. They occupied the building for eleven days and developed a makeshift community center called The People Church which provided free breakfasts and cultural entertainment to locals. In watching the documentary I realized how similar the goals of museums today are to those of the Young Lords of the 1960s. We both want to meet the needs of our community.
Community engagement is a primary aspect of the Cooperstown Graduate Program curriculum. However we have learned that community engagement is not necessarily a priority among museums outside of Cooperstown. Many museums cannot or choose not to make the effort to speak to their communities, provide services or even reflect their community. As a result, many museums are losing their relevancy and support. Museums have not always been averse to change or activism. The Gloom of the Museum, by author John Cotton Dana, was a seminal book redefining museums as places for education and learning. As a result, museums all over the country have become places of learning. In a more specific case of community activism, The Strong National Museum of Playin Rochester, New York changed its entire mission to meet its local community’s need for a space for children. Museums can be community driven.
Today, museums are in the midst of societal change. Individuals are more technically engaged and the economy is growing smaller. Globalization and environmental change are major issues that American (and world) communities are facing. In an ideal world museums would endeavor to meet the challenges faced by their communities head on. Museums are often discouraged by the real concerns of funding and board requirements. However, by talking with the community leaders and individuals we could expand our view of what a museum could be and do.