Museums in Their Communities: Bridging Communities through Museum Outreach at the University of Delaware

Bonanno, Katie
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University of Delaware
The American Alliance of Museums maintains in its Code of Ethics, “Although diverse in their missions, they [American museums] have in common their nonprofit form of organization and a commitment of service to the public.”1 Yet, current controversy within the museum field in the United States shows that this ethic has not yet been accepted at large. As such, the field currently stands at a critical juncture: are museums inherently valuable as repositories of cultural heritage objects, or must they use their unique resources to serve and engage their surrounding communities to affirm their value to American society? This thesis endeavors to confirm the latter by tracing the evolution of the American museum tradition and investigating the necessity of a paradigm shift within the field to better reflect the commitment to public service set forth by the American Alliance of Museums and to contribute to American museums’ relevance, meaning, and sustainability. Translating theory into practice, a case study was conducted at the University of Delaware to assess how museums can contribute to positive social change as well as community and civic engagement. Specifically, through the University Museums, a public program series was implemented to create a social bridge between the University of Delaware’s undergraduate student population and Newark, Delaware’s historic African American community, the New London Road community. This effort built on past collaborations between the University and this local community, most recently a series of video podcasts that present a walking tour of the community, completed in 2011. This museum program series invited visitors to bring and share with others objects and memories related to the themes of the fall 2013 exhibition at the Mechanical Hall Gallery, on-campus museum of contemporary African American art. Stories were video-recorded at both storytelling programs, which were then compiled into a celebratory video, shown at an exhibition reception in November 2013. DVD copies were distributed among participants and posted to the University of Delaware’s YouTube page. An evaluation of the program series afforded an opportunity to assess the role of the University Museums in continuing to develop a working partnership with the New London Road community as well as, more broadly, the need for museums to assume social responsibility in their surrounding communities and the implications of active museum inclusion and participation on American civic life. 1 “Code of Ethics for Museums,” American Alliance of Museums, accessed March 1, 2014, ix