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“Expertise & Participation”: What Museums can learn from Town Halls


By Mira Cohen.

RelatedDeveloping Uniquely 21st Century Museum Experiences  /  Bridging the History/Art Divide: The Multi-Disciplinary Museum of the Future Museums: What do Kids Want?

When I stretch my imagination, I can conjure up images of 18th century New Englanders engaging in serious conversations regarding the governing of their newly formed colonies.  In my mind, these good people are wearing wigs and tights.  While their ideas and practices form the basis of our country, they are firmly placed in a very different time period which is simultaneously quaint and terrifyingly dangerous.

In each of these cases, there is a sense of both expertise and participation – an informed citizenry at work, coming together to discuss issues and make important decisions in a place of honor and respect.

This sentiment might be echoed in the opening and displaying of historic town halls across America from states from Florida to New Jersey.  These spaces are preserved, in tact, often by historical societies across the nation. 

But lately, I hear the term “town hall” used to describe all sorts of experiences that are worth examining.

In my quest to determine the contemporary meaning behind the term “town hall”, I discovered a cluttered field of operations ranging from political websites, restaurants and bars, speakers bureaus, advocacy groups and a community cultural center. whose moniker states “where your opinion counts” reveals an interesting take on the term.  The only thing is, I didn’t get the sense my opinion really counted for much.  I got to read about a lot of other people’s opinions.  I learned interesting news.  Bruce Bialosky explained why the upcoming election will determine whether or not we “return to serfdom.”  I also learned about the two dozen doughnuts Obama’s campaign team picked up.

I learned a bit about the Town Hall Coalition which is described on its website as “a grassroots social movement of citizens from all walks of life who have come together to advocate for the protection of public health and safety, the environment, and the common good.”  OK. Who gets to determine the common good in this situation?

Sometimes the term “town hall” seems to be used for speakers’ bureaus.  Opportunities are provided, for a fee, to hear experts discuss issues among themselves.

Interestingly, the most enticing play on the term "town hall" came in the form of the website for the Townhall Brewery in Minneapolis which is worth checking out.  I’ve never been there but now that I’ve seen their website, I’d like to.  The mix of sound, themed graphics, events, and menus make it feel like a great place to be.

So, what does all this have to have to do with museums?  Can museums be the town halls of the 21st century and do we want them to be?  If so, what really is the essence of the contemporary town hall and why do so many different types of people want to lay claim to it?

In trying to answer my own question, I ended up with more additional questions than answers.

  • Do you have to get together in person to have a town hall?
  • Do you engage in debate? Do you want to?
  • Do you make decisions?
  • What about the informed part – how do you get informed?
  • Do you have to walk in the “door” informed or can you get informed while visiting?
  • Who informs you? Does it matter?

There is clearly something critical about the term as part of the American cultural lineage and common comfort ground.  As such, I’ll bet that the answers to many of the questions above help determine the kind of museum experience visitors will have – regardless of the collection and specific content of the museum. 

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