Museums and Communities Connect

Posted by Michele Peregrin
May 18, 2012
Children Participating in Museums Connect

For decades, the Department of State has recognized the importance of cultural institutions and the arts to connect individuals, build community, and showcase world cultures. At the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, we believe that arts and culture have the ability to go beyond language barriers to open new channels of communication and bridge differences.

A few weeks ago, I was fortunate enough to travel to our country's largest yearly conference for museum professionals. Organized by the American Association of Museums (AAM), this year's theme was "Creative Community." The conference focused on ways for museums to not only reach out to their local community, but to explore ways they can engage community members in the activities of the museum. The President of the Association, Ford W. Bell, remarked that for museums, creativity is their tool, and community is what they build. This is why it's so fitting that we, at the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, partner with AAM on a special initiative called Museums Connect. Museums Connect links U.S. communities with communities abroad through innovative, museum-based exchanges. The program supports projects that involve community members as active participants in shaping their own collaborative experience and in implementing activities that reach beyond museum walls.

In addition to attending fascinating panels focused on how to build community and how to connect communities internationally, I heard about the impact that Museums Connect has had on its alumni. A museum team from The Apartheid Museum in South Africa was so impressed by the Birmingham Institute of Civil Rights' inclusion of high school volunteers in its activities and operations that they decided to launch their very first volunteer program, with the Museums Connect participants as its first cohort, upon their return. Almost a year after this exchange took place, I learned that the South African students not only continue to volunteer, but were so inspired by their trip to Alabama that they are now focused on actively pursuing scholarships to study in the United States.

Stories about the positive outcomes continued: the "Identities: Understanding Islam in a Cross-Cultural Context" project between the Ben M'Sik Community Museum in Morocco and the Museums of History and Holocaust Education at Kennesaw State University developed an online media platform that exhibits their extensive work and collaboration. The Ministry of Education in Morocco has been following the activities of this project and due to its success, has invited the team at Kennesaw State University to help establish a College of the Arts.

There's more exciting collaboration on the horizon. After the conference, I met with a group of high school students from Latvia and Philadelphia, who are working together to collect oral histories from community leaders and encourage volunteerism and civic engagement from their peers. In just a few weeks, a group of museum professionals from El Salvador will be in Washington, D.C. to celebrate an exhibition of art works created by Salvadoran and Salvadoran-American students in both communities, in response to topics like tradition, identity, and community.

From empowering youth to preserving cultural heritage to fostering civic engagement, Museums Connect projects represent the diverse and transformative work being pursued by museums today. Clearly, from the individual to the institutional, these projects have long-term impact.

This summer, another round of exciting projects will launch. To watch for the announcement and to learn more about the program, please visit http://www.aam-us.org/museumsconnect or www.exchanges.state.gov.

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