The Prairie State Museums Project is a model for future museum partnerships.
In the spring of 2020, AAM announced that one in three museums could close permanently as a result of the pandemic. The International Council of Museums (ICOM) forecast that nearly 13 percent of museums around the world could close permanently. A year later, the museum community may have avoided some of the catastrophic closures most feared, but persistent questions about the future of the museum field linger.
Another sector not unfamiliar with cost-cutting, layoffs, and closures is journalism. The Pew Research Center reports that between 2008 and 2019, newsroom employment across the United States fell by 23 percent, a loss of about 27,000 jobs.
As the leader of Resilient Heritage, an arts, culture, and heritage firm, I noticed the similarities between these two sectors and sensed an opportunity for collaboration. The opportunity came in the form of a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, based in Washington, DC.
In April 2020, Resilient Heritage applied, along with 236 others, for a grant from the Pulitzer Center’s Coronavirus News Collaboration Challenge to explore ways newsrooms could jointly report on issues stemming from COVID-19. Resilient Heritage proposed the Prairie State Museums Project, which would explore the impacts of the pandemic on arts and culture by collaborating with 16 freelance journalists from 14 news outlets from across Illinois, one national news outlet, and five museum and cultural organizations, including the Illinois Association of Museums, Arts Alliance Illinois, the Association of Midwest Museums, AAM, and ICOM.
These individuals and organizations worked together in the summer of 2020 to document the impact of COVID-19 on museums in Illinois, also known as the “Prairie State.” The project sought to bring together the expertise of the museum field with the practitioners of today’s journalism in newspapers of record, alternative weeklies, online blogs, and NPR affiliates. These partners created a unique model of collaboration that characterizes the flexibility and openness needed in a time that calls for resilience in museums and communities.
How the Collaboration Worked
The grant from the Pulitzer Center funded more than 35 stories written by the journalists, who were informed by the local, national, and international perspectives of the cultural and museum organizations. In two Zoom meetings, the organizations provided background information and sources and insights into potential stories on museum recovery and resilience, and the 16 journalists connected about potential story ideas and collaborations.
Throughout the project, the Resilient Heritage team facilitated the communication between the cultural and museum organizations and the journalists, including forwarding on presentations, relevant news articles, and reports documenting the COVID-19 crisis. The team also maintained direct relationships with each of the editors from the news sources participating in the project. To bring additional attention to smaller museums, Resilient Heritage facilitated introductions between the journalists and small-museum staff, with editorial discretion left to the journalists and their editor. As the stories were published, they were posted and promoted through the project website (PrairieStateMuseumsProject.org) and dedicated social media accounts that featured biographies of the journalists and links to the articles using #PrairieMuseums. The stories brought to life a detailed picture of museums across Illinois and the cultural and economic value they bring to their communities.
What the Project Produced
In “Fighting for Katherine Dunham’s Dream in East St. Louis,” published in the Riverfront Times, reporter Eric Berger covered how the Katherine Dunham Museum in the economically depressed city of East St. Louis, Illinois, had to manage several emergency facility failures while also contending with the closures—and lack of revenue—caused by the pandemic. Nonetheless, dance legend Dunham’s goal to bring a “cultural awakening on the East Side” in the 1970s was palpable in the board’s determination that the institution persevere beyond the pandemic.
In another article, published in the Rockford Register Star, reporter Alex Gary covered the July 2020 reopening of the expanded Laurent House in Rockford, Illinois, notable as the only house designed by Frank Lloyd Wright to be fully wheelchair accessible. The all-volunteer leaders of the museum dedicated themselves to creating a welcoming—if physically distanced—tour for visitors who come from around the world to see this architecturally significant house. The museum’s efforts to continue safely operating through the pandemic underscore its importance to the community.
Additional stories from the Prairie State Museums Project detail museums’ tenacity and problem-solving abilities during COVID-19. “[This] project demonstrated that collaboration is possible between museums and journalism,” says Tom Hundley, senior editor of the Pulitzer Center. “In particular, the focus on engaging freelance reporters in a concerted fashion has demonstrated the potential for museum professionals and journalists to reach their distinct goals—the museums to interpret and to preserve, the journalists to document and to tell.”
When the museum profession ventures outside its usual pathways of thinking and doing, new collaborations can reveal themselves. In a time marked by ever-increasing environmental shocks and stresses, from pandemics to chronic underfunding, museums can foster resilience by being ready to collaborate creatively and proactively with unlikely or unusual partners.
Working with Journalists
Approaching journalists with a story idea can be intimidating. Following are some recommendations on how to work with the news media:
Don’t diminish the medium. Every medium—including newspapers, alternative weeklies, blogs, magazines, and radio stations—has an audience and is worth engaging.
Develop relationships with journalists before newsworthy projects come up. Journalists don’t necessarily want to be your friend, but they appreciate consistent (but not constant) notifications about meaningful stories.
Journalists appreciate stories. Stories are not just events and happenings, but narratives that have arcs and can relate to current events and history.
But don’t take it from me; here’s some advice from journalists involved in the project:
“Museums are responding to current events and showcasing how they tie into our collective history. I believe there are countless opportunities to strengthen the understanding about how museums are reacting to current events and that, specifically, can be of great interest to journalists.”—Brian Munoz, Multimedia Journalist, Carbondale, Illinois
“I would suggest museums think about not only what they are doing for their organization, but how what they do impacts as directly as possible their community. Journalists want a fuller picture than just an event or an exhibit to cover; they want a story to tell. I appreciate stories that can bridge the gap between the imaginative and the practical.”—Olivia Cunningham, Journalist, Chicago, Illinois
“The struggles of one museum in a midsized city in Illinois is not going to attract much notice, but when you bundle a dozen or so such museums together in one project, then you’ve got a story with real heft, a story that touches a lot of people and a lot of places.”—Tom Hundley, Senior Editor, Pulitzer Center, Washington, DC
The Prairie State Museums Project: PrairieStateMuseumsProject.org
The Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting’s Coronavirus News Collaboration Challenge
Eric Berger, “Fighting for Katherine Dunham’s Dream in East St. Louis,” Riverfront Times, July 22, 2020: bit.ly/3sjMg4E
Alex Gary, “Expanded Laurent House reopens with safety restrictions,” Rockford Register Star, June 30, 2020
Daniel Ronan is the principal of Resilient Heritage (ResilientHeritage.org), an arts, culture, and heritage firm based in Chicago, Illinois.