In the last thirty years, there has been a paradigm-shift in community perception towards museums. More and more museum professionals are becoming comfortable experimenting with exhibit format and taking risks. This change has resulted in museums becoming vessels for dialogue and a conduit between living history and the community. For example, the Ziibiwing Center of Anishinabe Culture and Lifeways had a very deliberate mission in mind, coupled with newer, riskier presentation methods. Their mission was to educate the public to the plight of contemporary Native Americans, share the history of the Anishinabe people, and serve as a place of healing for those who have experienced historical trauma. The Ziibiwing Center accomplished these feats through strict adherence to their mission statement:
The Ziibiwing Center is a distinctive treasure created to provide an enriched, diversified and culturally relevant educational experience. This promotes the society’s belief that the culture, diversity and spirit of the Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe of Michigan and other Great Lakes Anishinabek must be recognized, perpetuated, communicated and supported.
The clarity of their message, the relevance of their goals to the community and the sincerity shown served to lend the Ziibiwing Center’s mission a sense of urgency to their community. The museum is not just a repository of artifacts and knowledge. It serves as a proponent for social change and cultural preservation in their community. It is my belief that as museum experts become more professional and are drawn from academic backgrounds, museums will serve as a vanguard to inspire reforms in social justice, inspire unity and collaboration in communities. Museums and museum professionals will accomplish this feat by starting a dialogue with the community utilizing the language of history and cultural experience.
Since this is in some ways a departure from what museums have historically been, the mission statements of museums must be reflected upon as well. In a sense, these ‘new model’ museums serve to inspire collaboration and empathy. ‘Old model’ museums served to educate the public on established truths with minimal room for dialogue and debate. Museums have historically served, as I stated before, as a repository of artifacts and knowledge. Many newer museums are performing this same task, while simultaneously valuing the input of their community and incorporating their stories into the running narrative. In this way, the ‘new model’ museum is a community center, a forum, a grief counselor, a cultural icon and a leader in the community. While this may be chasing an ideal somewhat, the proponents of the Ziibiwing Center would certainly testify to this statement’s truth. Museum professionals should continue to communicate history as a living, breathing entity that permeates every facet of our society. In doing so, museums will show that history is identity, and that the preservation of that history is a means to perpetuate the ‘life-ways’ of a community.