Museum Activism with Current Exhibits on Current Events

Kind permission from Colorado Public Radio for showing this Pat Mack photo.
Kind permission from Colorado Public Radio for showing this Pat Mack photo.

I recently listened to an interesting crowdsourcing story by Pat Mack on Colorado Public Radio about Denver’s History Colorado Center. The story detailed an exhibit project that lets homeless people connect with the broader community. The artifacts in the exhibit consist of handmade signs collected by Assistant Curator James Patterson from homeless individuals in downtown Denver. Patterson offers $20 for each sign along with the signmaker’s personal story. The exhibit tweaks the public’s consciousness related to issues faced by Denver’s homeless. Their stories are diverse and poignant, just like their signs. A few of the sign messages include:


  • Used hobo free to a good home.
  • Helping the homeless is sexy.
  • I talk 2 myself
  • Needs $ for room Plz HELP


History Colorado’s COO Kathryn Hill emphasizes that the museum’s approach to exhibits is becoming smaller, ephemeral and more current. They involve people in the community in their exhibits in a variety of ways including planning and development. Hill suggests that “connecting the present to the past will make History Colorado’s projects more relevant.” This approach makes a museum more likely to be a catalyst for conversations about current life. The older paradigm of sharing collections of artifacts in cases has not gone away but History Colorado and some other museums now seek more creative ways to engage with the communities they serve. Museums that focus on current community or global issues go beyond the cataloging and display of collections. Some go so far as to suggest specific actions people can take, while others maintain just enough distance in their displays that any activism on their part appears to be unintentional. Either way, bringing these issues into the public consciousness as part of a museum’s programs and exhibits not only captures them as part of our ongoing human experience, fulfilling the traditional role of museums, but it also creates the opportunity for reflection and action in real time.


Museum educator Aaron Maluwa has a frank discussion with a local woman during a program about HIV threats.
Museum educator Aaron Maluwa has a frank discussion with a local woman during a program about HIV threats.

I have written before about our admiration for the Museums of Malawi. More than a decade ago they refocused their efforts, moving away from the traditional display of artifacts in an urban museum to more active programming in villages to protect people from disease and starvation. They use cultural dances and stories to help people understand and protect themselves from malaria, HIV and hunger. Most people have no more than three or four years of formal education but cultural songs and stories are a part of their life continually, so new messages in traditional songs and stories will have impact.


Cultural dances and storytelling in Malawi have messages designed to inform and protect people from poorly understood diseases, HIV in this instance.

Aaron Maluwa’s work as a museum educator in Blantyre, Malawi, has placed him and the museum at the forefront of healthcare provision and social problem solving in local communities. Their educational programming in villages does not stop with the program. They partner with nonprofits working with HIV and malaria prevention so clinical services are provided after the cultural dances, songs and stories encourage people to use more safe practices in their daily lives. We introduced friends in Czech Republic to these programs several years ago and Dr. Rasti Madar and doctors from Czech Republic with International Humanity are now building a hospital in Fanuel, Malawi, in partnership with the museum programs.


I recently visited a major museum in a large city and generally enjoyed what I saw. I learned a few gee whiz facts that have no real relevance to my life, most of which I’ve already forgotten. There was no enduring message and I was not challenged to get involved with anything. I looked back through my photos of the museum to see if I missed the message, the stimulation, but it wasn’t there. I accept that some museums choose to stay rooted in the past, displaying but not interpreting the relevance of their collections. But I much prefer the museum that challenges me to think more deeply about the world around me, particularly the world I’m living in today. I appreciate the opportunity to see historical perspectives about how things came to be the way they are, but I crave the chance to have an impact on the present and future. Museums that look for ways to engage people in their communities with important ideas can help shed light not only on our past, but also on our potential.


– Tim Merriman




Published by heartfeltassociates

Lisa Brochu and Tim Merriman are married and serve as Principals of Heartfelt Associates. They write fiction and non-fiction, raise miniature horses and consult with parks, zoos, museums, historic sites, nature centers and aquariums on heritage interpretation and visitor experiences.They live on the Big Island of Hawaii on a small Kona coffee farm overlooking Kealakekua Bay.

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