Mining the Museum

If you followed our Tweets a couple of weekends ago, you’ll know that we spent a big part of our July board meeting at the Field Museum. We invited more than 30 of our grantees from both the Chicago and Lowcountry regions to join us for tours and deep dive conversations about collections. Our hope was to mine the Museum and the collective expertise of our grantees to help further inform our collections grantmaking strategy.

Our visit began with an exploration of three very different collections at the Museum. A behind-the-scenes glimpse of the Museum’s famed avian collection provided insights into the challenges and opportunities inherent in managing a collection of half a billion bird specimens. A stroll through a traditional exhibit of Native American collections dovetailed intriguingly with a new exhibit co-curated by Pawnee artist-activist Bunky Echo Hawk. In the Abbott Hall of Conservation, select items from the Museum’s cultural collection revealed how peoples from Peru to Chicago’s Calumet region are protecting the earth’s biodiversity.

The tours were prologue to a panel discussion and Q&A with our grantees, board and staff. Facilitated by Camille Ann Brewer, executive director of the Black Metropolis Research Consortium, the discussion surfaced a number of key issues. Many collections institutions, for instance, seek to increase access to their collections. But what does increased access really mean? Is it enough merely to digitize images and make them available on the Internet? Is an on-line experience of collections the same as experiencing them in person? And what is the role of artists and other creatives in providing alternative, perhaps provocative insights into collections?

The conversation continued during an informal cocktail reception afterward. We believe this kind of open dialogue helps keep us grounded in the field and makes us better partners with the stewards, interpreters and miners of our region’s vast repositories of history, culture and art.

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