Principal of Resilient Heritage, Chicago US; Board member of ICOM US.
February 27, 2021
Keywords: Journalism; Collaboration; Covid-19; Partnerships; ICOM US; United States; American Alliance of Museums.
The Prairie State Museums Project is a collaborative museum project involving journalists and museums across the American State of Illinois. It is an example of how museums can actively collaborate with professionals outside their field. Funded by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting’s ‘News Collaboration Challenge’, the Illinois Humanities (the State’s humanities funder) and individual donors, the project focused on the resources of the journalism community in reporting on museums. Resilient Heritage, led by Principal Daniel Ronan, gathered and coordinated a group of 16 freelance journalists across Illinois, from June to August 2020, to bring attention to the impact of Covid-19 on museum institutions across the State.
The Covid-19 pandemic has presented the world with a pressing problem that has questioned the very foundation of industries, including the museum field. With the risks of museum closure – a real threat to institutions suffering from a lack of visitation – museums have been forced to innovate in order to survive. To address these dire circumstances, the Prairie State Museums Project (named after Illinois’ moniker, ‘Prairie State’), went to work.
Focus on diversity
Bringing together 16 journalists from 13 different Illinois news outlets, and one national outlet, the project reflected the geographic diversity of the state, featuring more than 35 stories about how museums are innovating in the face of the pandemic. Noting the need to diversify of the journalism profession, the project team also prioritised gender and racial diversity, helping to promote more equitable reporting, particularly due to the overrepresentation of communities of colour among those suffering Covid-19-related infections and deaths.
Highlighting the inherent cultural and economic value of institutions in their communities, the journalists came from a wide range of news outlets, including flagship newspapers, weekly alternative publications, online blogs, magazines, and National Public Radio affiliates. They covered an equally diverse range of museums – over 50 across Illinois – including the historic house museums of Katherine Dunham, the famed dance choreographer, and the home of jazz musician Miles Davis, both in East St. Louis, to the National Public Housing Museum and the National Museum of Mexican Art in Chicago.
From innovative online engagement programmes to new collecting initiatives, the stories showcased museum innovation in the Covid era. Coverage also included the frustrations of the pandemic which have presented both smaller and larger museums with sobering financial cliffs. Uncertainty around the state’s Covid-19-related travel and quarantining guidelines further complicated recovery efforts.
One thing is certain: journalists reported just how much museums across the State care for their audiences. The National Museum of Mexican Art, partnering with a local nonprofit community, CALOR, hosted outdoors Covid-19 and HIV testing for community members as their art galleries remained closed. The museum’s re-focus on public health reflected just how much museums like the NMMA can serve their communities despite the pandemic.
Benefits of the collaboration
While stories from the Prairie State Museums Project focused on the effect of the viral pandemic, the murder of George Floyd in May 2020 also brought to the forefront a centuries-long pandemic of institutionalised racism and the legacy of slavery in the US and the world. Accordingly, many of the journalists focused on the current US political climate, featuring the Black Lives Matter movement and the US presidential election as the backdrop for Covid-19 recovery.
To assist journalists in connecting with story sources and background information, the project team coordinated with ICOM, the American Alliance of Museums, the Association of Midwest Museums, and the Illinois Museums Association to present the Project to the journalists on two online conference calls. The calls also enabled journalists to collaborate on news stories, notably on a joint article about the plight of museums of colour, including the National Museum of Puerto Rican Arts & Culture, the National Museum of Mexican Art, and the DuSable Museum of African American History.
The project team reached a key insight about museums and journalism. While the traditional museum US model has taken a more-recent financial plunge, journalism has had to contend with this challenge for the past two or three decades. From a slough of disappearing newsroom positions and the declining state of print journalism, today’s journalists, much like the museum professionals of today, have been forced to innovate.
While innovating as a result of disinvestment in journalism and museums is necessary, it is the concern of another article to explore how the professionals of both sectors can continue to fund these two institutions that are so critical to an informed democracy. What is important is the need for museum professionals to adapt to the situation and continue to advocate for institutions that provide meaning, context and belonging to so many in their communities.
References and resources
More about the Resilient Heritage, an arts, culture and heritage consultancy based in Chicago, US: https://resilientheritage.org
To expand upon the conversations and themes presented in the published stories, the project team produced the following video to highlight the collaborations from the project:
A detailed report about the Prairie State Museums Project will be available on the project website after a series of Pulitzer Center public programs, featuring the journalists funded as a part of the collaboration. To read journalist stories from the collaboration, visit: PrairieStateMuseumsProject.org.
Joint article produced by the journalists of the Prairie State Museums Project, ‘As Big Museums Get Rescue Grants, The President Of Chicago’s Puerto Rican Museum Says He’s “Tired Of Being Left Behind”’, Mark Braboy and Olivia Cunningham, 31 July 2020, wbez. Available at: https://www.wbez.org/stories/as-big-museums-get-rescue-grants-the-president-of-the-nations-only-puerto-rican-museum-says-hes-tired-of-being-left-behind/cfeb94d1-c6f4-4741-881e-6430b315bbac
More about the The National Museum of Mexican Art and CALOR partnership: https://southsideweekly.com/chicagos-mexican-puerto-rican-museums-host-digital-summer-covid-19/ by Olivia Cunningham
‘News Collaboration Challenge’: https://pulitzercenter.org/coronavirus-news-collaboration-challenge