Robert Connolly is an educator/museum director/anthropologist/community activist and advocate, a combination that he enjoys immensely. Specifically, he is the Director of the C.H. Nash Museum at Chucalissa in Memphis, Tennessee, U.S. and teaches in the Anthropology Department at the University of Memphis, where he is also on the Advisory Board for the Graduate Certificate Program in Museum Studies. He currently serves as Chair of the Society for American Archaeology’s Public Education Committee.
Museum related things he enjoys include facilitating the exploration of big things, reading, travel on blue line highways, computer graphics, writing, photography, making the box bigger, and all of those two-room county museums spread across this country.
I work as the Director of the C.H. Nash Museum at Chucalissa in Memphis, Tennessee, U.S. I also teach courses focused on Museum Studies in the Anthropology Department at the University of Memphis.
What’s your educational background?
I have a B.A., M.A. from the University of Cincinnati and PhD in Anthropology from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. In high school I was tracked into general education and not allowed to take college prep courses. Guess I fooled them. Today, I particularly enjoy MOOC offerings from coursera.org.
What was your ‘sticky’ moment?
I did not realize this was a sticky moment until about 10 years after it occurred. In my first archaeological field school in 1986, the late Dr. Patricia Essenpreis was adamant that students understand the concepts of community outreach and public engagement. Ten percent of our grade was based on how well we explained the field school research to site visitors. Pat said something like, “If you cannot explain to the visitor why these excavations are important, then you might as well go home.” That was over 25 years ago but I remember the event like yesterday. What stuck to me about that experience is that when the visitor is truly brought into the dialogue and not lectured at, the magic really happens. I appreciated that sticky moment 10 years later in the response I received from a 5th grade girl during a classroom presentation in Lafayette Louisiana and my validation of her observation (http://wp.me/pJf2X-eS). That Louisiana experience is the sticky moment story I tell most often today. An important line on this concept is how Nina Simon in The Participatory Museum describes co-creative processes as a means “to give voice and be responsive to the needs and interests of local community members; to provide a place for community engagement and dialogue; and to help participants develop skills that will support their own individual and community goals” (Simon, 2010, p. 187).
What is the name of your blog? How long have you been blogging?
What do you blog about? Why?
I started the blog after attending a meeting of the Southeast Archaeological Conference where I presented a paper in a session on public education in archaeology. Also in the session was my former boss, Nancy Hawkins of the Louisiana Division of Archaeology, who has been in the forefront of public outreach in cultural heritage for over 20 years. She started her talk by saying that “it is nice to see the choir assembled” – noting the small but loyal cadre of advocates for the public outreach work who attended the session. I was amazed and wanted to evangelize about the talent in that room. I decided to start a blog where the work of these folks could be promoted and shared with the broader community of professionals. Since that time I have been poking at public outreach in cultural heritage from a bunch of different angles.
What’s your “go-to” blog/online museum resource?
One of my favorites is The Alaska State Museum Bulletin. I have never been to Alaska and have no plans to go. However, I am consistently pleased with straightforward presentation, informative content and broad scope of the bulletin that is as relevant to a museum director as a volunteer or visitor. I regularly read Max van Balgooy’s Engaging Places blog for the same reason. Both are excellent resources to stimulate thought in the day-to-day operation of museums.
What’s the last exhibit you saw?
Marking the 100th anniversary of his birth, the Brooks Museum and University of Memphis Art Museum (UMAM) exhibited works of Carroll Cloar. The Brooks Museum exhibit contained some 70 or so pieces of Cloar’s work. The UMAM exhibit, along with works of art, included the walls and furniture from Cloar’s studio plus didactic panels that detailed Cloar’s life and career. I can be frustrated with art museums that exhibit artwork without any contextual information. I enjoyed that the two exhibits complemented each other.
Do you tweet? Why or why not?
I am a rather lazy tweeter @yagumboya – gumboyaya was already taken. I see the value and appreciate Twitter as a means for disseminating links, networking, and sharing ideas. I like that if I read a good blog, come across a valuable resource, in 5 seconds I can tweet this out to my followers. I am a bit overwhelmed by the personal/social end of Twitter and the idea of tweeting meetings. I don’t actively try to increase followers and I am less regular than I should be in checking tweets to maximize the utility of the tool.
Name the last professional development book you read. Would you recommend it?
The Small Museum Toolkit – I now assign a few readings out of this small set of books in my Museum Practices seminar and posted a review earlier this year on the Toolkit. This summer, I read through the entire set. I appreciate that such straightforward, hands-on, and jargon-free resources are available, particularly for those who work or volunteer in the smaller museums that make up the vast majority of our cultural heritage institutions today. I definitely recommend the book.
What do you see as the biggest challenge (or opportunity) facing museums today?
The overt challenge seems to be finances. In Museums in a Troubled World, Robert Janes asks “if museums did not exist, would we reinvent them and what would they look like? Further, if the museum were to be reinvented what would be the public’s role in the reinvented institution” (p.14). I believe that part of the underlying cause for the financial challenge is the need to more effectively demonstrate a museum’s relevance to the public who fund the institutions. I preach to students that the sole reason museums exist is for the visitor. Were it not for the visitor, museums would simply be repositories or research institutes.
I now ask the following question in written comprehensive exams for graduate students:
Put yourself in the position of John or Josephine Q. Public. In the current economic chaos, the bank is foreclosing on their home, they have lost their jobs, and the city just reduced their public services. In referring to the National Endowment for the Arts and the Institute of Museum and Library Services, the House Budget Committee recently argued that “The activities and content funded by these agencies…are generally enjoyed by people of higher income levels, making them a wealth transfer from poorer to wealthier citizens.” Isn’t your research or the position you aspire to as a museum professional just another example of this wealth transfer? What do John and Josephine Q. Public get for their tax dollars that fund your research/position?
I have gotten some insightful answers to these questions. Being relevant is a challenge but also a fantastic opportunity. If we address these questions, we can expect the public to become and remain engaged with and support museums in the future. John Cotton Dana showed this to be true nearly 100 years ago!
Thanks for participating in Meet a Museum Blogger, Robert!
In case you missed it, Robert blogs at Archaeology, Museums, and Outreach.
Do you have any additional questions for Robert regarding his profile above? Feel free to start a conversation in the comments below or reach out to him directly on Twitter at @yagumboya. Please use the #MuseumBlogger hashtag. TY!
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