Becoming a “Museum Person”

By Cathy Morris

This post was written by a recipient of a Wanda Chin scholarship to attend the 2015 Annual Meeting.

You know the saying, “you don’t know what you have until it’s gone?” Well, that’s something I learned a little more than a year ago, when I left the museum world, almost as quickly as I had entered it.

I should mention that working for a museum was never on my radar. I earned my undergraduate degree in communications, and then my Master’s in communications and digital media. My first job out of grad school was with the communications department of a local school district, followed by a marketing and social media position with a television station.

But three years ago, when a digital communications position opened at the Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture in Seattle, I jumped at the opportunity to work in a different field.

The museum world was new to me, and I didn’t anticipate how different it would be from the previous organizations I’d worked for. But over the next few months, I began to see the important role the museum played in the community, especially in terms of sparking dialogue, fostering understanding, and connecting people to this place we call home. The workload was challenging, but it was interesting, creative and rewarding at the end of the day.

A year or so later, though, I heard about a job opening at an organization that aligned with my previous work experience in K-12 schools, and offered better pay and benefits. Still owing student loans, I went for it and got it. Little did I know…

Stepping away from the Burke helped me see that I had come to view the world around me differently through my experiences there. That was a pretty powerful moment for someone who had never considered herself “a museum person.” I realized I had made a mistake by leaving. Thankfully, my position at the Burke wasn’t filled right away, and I was hired back on several months later—with a whole new appreciation for the impact that museums such as the Burke can have.

This October, I was thrilled to attend my first museum conference—the 2015 Western Museums Association Annual Meeting in San Jose, thanks to the Wanda Chin Scholarship. I came to the WMA Annual Meeting with the goal of better understanding how museums and communities can connect in meaningful ways, and also looked forward to meeting colleagues in the field.

I thoroughly enjoyed all of the sessions I attended, but there was one session, in particular, that I found especially inspiring: Art and Environment: Cultural Participation in Hybrid Spaces. All of the presenters work within organizations that are creating cultural spaces within their communities and exploring ways to engage different types of audiences within those spaces. I love these types of examples because they reinforce the importance of truly listening to our communities about their wants and needs rather than making assumptions.

One such presenter was Sibley Simon with the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History. Sibley shared an incredible story of how he helped launch an effort to clean up and transform the overgrown and crime-ridden Evergreen Cemetery in Santa Cruz into a community gathering space. The cemetery was the final resting place for a wide range of “adventurous people” who helped make Santa Cruz into the growing, modern city that it is today. “This place reflects our history,” he said, but “how can we do more to inspire?”.

The ‘before’ clean up photos show dramatically overgrown blackberry bushes, toppled gravestones, and a generally uninviting landscape. Sibley needed help, so he went to the local homeless shelter and described the project to several of the residents, who eagerly volunteered to aid in the clean up effort. Over time, it gained attention, and more community volunteers came on board. The team added monuments around bigger historical themes such as a Chinese edifice that serves as a centerpiece for engaging the community around a forgotten history, while also transforming it into a place of art.

According to Sibley, the revitalization process not only inspired the community to come together around history in their town, but also resulted in unexpected benefits—like changing some people’s perceptions about the homeless. After reintroducing the cemetery, the team was pleasantly surprised to see the community using the space for cultural celebrations and educational experiences. I found this example of “letting go,” to see what the community finds relevant and meaningful, to be particularly inspiring.

I left the 2015 Annual Meeting with an even deeper appreciation for the positive impact that museums can have in their communities and the leaders who help pave the way for museums to be more relevant than ever before. I’m honored and humbled to be a part of this “museum world.”

Cathy Morris is the Digital Communications Manager at the Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture located at the University of Washington in Seattle. She recently survived launching the Burke’s new website and is in the process of implementing content strategies across the museum’s digital platforms and social media channels. Cathy holds a bachelor’s degree in communications at Pacific Lutheran University and a master’s in communications in digital media from the University of Washington.

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