Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Forgotten History: Generating Public Interest in a Museum's Permanent Collection

Small-town museums, focused on local artwork and history combat a problem: What to do when the community has seen and learned what the museum has to display and teach and the institution does not attract enough tourists to maintain business?  There is no easy answer to this question as each museum and community has its own needs and objectives.  This essay will focus on the Mildred Huie Plantation Museum at Mediterranean House, a small operation with significant history, which showcases the work of Mildred Nix Huie en permanence, therefore limiting the ability of rotating exhibition.  An exploration of this museum's collection will pose some answers to this question and suggest future plans to reinvigorate the local public's interest in the works on display.

The presented solutions to this pressing issue entail breathing new life into a long-existing exhibit by bringing new items with which to relate to the current displayed objects.  Firstly, a museum in this position can make connections for visitors by exhibiting artwork or objects which raise questions that visitors would not have propounded themselves.  If the existing exhibit features works from a particular art movement, introduce works which were created during the same era from a different movement and explain how the two displays contrast to or parallel one another.  In the example of the Mildred Huie Museum, some exhibited works are from the 1960s, a period when the artist reflected on Fauvist concepts of the 1920s.  However, during this period in the art world abstract expressionism was outmoded in favor of pop art.  An interesting exhibit would feature artworks of a Southeast Georgian pop artist from the 1960s adjacent to the Fauvist paintings of Huie.  This would allow viewers to ask questions such as: What is at stake for each artist during this period?  Why did Huie choose to rely on a more traditional style in a time of prolific neo-avant-garde movements?   Another provoking exhibit would showcase local feminist artworks from the 1970s, a time when Huie was influenced by turn-of-the-century Impressionism.  Standing before this juxtaposition, a view might ponder: Why did Huie regress by looking to a movement dominated by male artists when feminist artists of the time where changing the canonical framework of art and art criticism?

A second way to encourage new perspectives on long-term exhibits is by connecting visitors to their locality by showcasing other art forms of the region and exploring how the two displays correlate or dissociate.  Because the Mildred Huie Museum collection highlights the artist's passion for local history and beauty, it would be valuable to understand how other artist-residents of the Saint Simons Island region depicted their environment.  It may seem like a far reach, but an exhibit featuring artworks by pre-Columbian Native American inhabitants may show more analogous features than one might think.  The exquisite and naturalistic intensity of the Golden Isles has endured for many centuries, and one may wonder if, cultural differences aside, someone living six-hundred years ago would view the landscape similarly to a modern-day woman named Mildred Huie.

The scenarios laid out above suggest ways in which a museum with permanent collections can generate excitement of its lasting exhibits.  These solutions focus on the additions of rotating exhibits, but there are also ways to invite and welcome the community's own ideas into the institution.  For example, plan lectures in which the community can hear information directly from an individual educated on the exhibited topic in a setting welcoming of their questions and concerns.
Ask the community for their opinions on what they would like to know more about and would like to see exhibited in the museum.  Both of these ideas aid in breaking down barriers between museum institutions and the general public.  This effectively allows the two to work together in a symbiotic relationship and ultimately keep one another informed and perpetually inquisitive.  A relationship such as this will permit the museum's objective to remain in the forefront of the community's mind and prevent the forgetting of history.

** As curator of the Mildred Huie Museum, the director and I work diligently to operate the museum to the best of its functionality and purpose.  Some of the propositions outlined above are foreseeable future endeavors while others may never be realized.  However, many projects are in the works which bring us closer to our community and help us to maintain the relationships necessary to preserve our corner of history.  For example, I am preparing to present a lecture discussing the topic of the blog entry from April 1, 2011.  This lecture would provide the opportunity for the audience to connect the techniques used by Huie to different art movements, thus generating interest in our permanent collection.

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