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Using History to Build Community

Category: Center for the Future Of Museums Blog
This week’s guest post is by Dr. Tom Hanchett, staff historian at the Levine Museum of the New South, one of the museums profiled in AAM’s recent report on the challenge museums’ face in coming decades to serve an increasingly diverse American public. Tom writes about a surprise partnership that is boosting the Levine’s bridge-building to their potential Latino audiences. 
Since an overview of Changing Places was included in the white paper “Demographic Transformation and the Future of Museums,” the exhibit has enjoyed considerable success … and one conspicuous failure.

Visitors are flocking to the installation. Levine President Emily Zimmern decided to extend the original closing from February to November 2010 – a good call since the Museum has now rounded out its fiscal year with the largest attendance in its 20 year history.

Though Changing Places was drawing lots of visitors, and also attracting considerable diversity in ages and ethnicity, one particular demographic was noticeably absent: Latinos. Charlotte is the nation’s second-fastest growing Latino metro area, according to a Brookings Institution study. The Museum has Latino board members, has partnered with the local Latin American Coalition for many events over the years including hosting Charlotte’s annual Day of the Dead celebration, and worked with Latino advisors to include Spanish text and a Spanish gallery guide as part of Changing Places. But while Latino leaders often come to Museum events, general attendance remained negligible.

Then in April, Emily received a remarkable offer of support.

Norberto Sanchez, a Levine Museum board member, runs Norsan Multimedia, a burgeoning Latino media company with three radio stations and Mi Gente newspaper in Charlotte, plus a growing number of radio affiliates across the South. Would Levine Museum be interested in a partnership?

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Sanchez felt that the Museum could be a vital bridge between Latinos and mainstream Charlotte. The Museum’s exhibits and programs offer the kinds of historical and community background that help connect newcomers to this new place. Audiences from Latin America, though, are generally not accustomed to museum-going. Using Norsan media outlets and lots of repetition, Sanchez said, those attitudes likely could be changed.

By the same token, Levine Museum is already a place where longtime Charlotteans get to know their Latino neighbors. Could Norsan resources add to those experiences?

Today Levine Museum and Norsan are pursuing several initiatives – at no charge to the Museum – and more are on the drawing board:

  • A twice-monthly hour on Latino talk radio 1310AM (in English and Spanish) with educator Janeen Bryant and staff historian Dr. Tom Hanchett. Topics include general Southern history, from Civil Rights struggles to the stories behind major holidays, and also discussion of upcoming events at the Museum.
  • A summer program series “Verano Multicultural” at the Museum featuring poetry and dance by new arrivals from across Latin America.
  • Regular half-page ads for Levine Museum in Mi Gente plus a monthly column by Dr. Hanchett.
  • A Spanish translation of the Museum’s general brochure, plus discount cards in Spanish. Norsan provided the translations and also helps distribute these at festivals where its radio stations have promotional booths.
  • A greatly expanded Day of the Dead event in late October including a photo exhibit Mujer en la Revolución Mexicana loaned by the Mexican Consulate, a reception with the Consul General and showing of an independent documentary provided by the Consulate entitled Those Who Remain about life in villages where many sons and daughters have left for the U.S.
  • The Museum will be watching to see if Latino visitorship increases. Even if that is not the case, thousands more people are now being exposed to Levine Museum and its message via the airwaves and the pages of Mi Gente.

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