Voyagers museum educational program gets cut without a peep

Museums in the Public Trust
By Lee Ann Norman

 

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I've come to believe that Chicago Park District arts and culture programs are one of the city's hidden gems.

Unfortunately, a long-running favorite, Park Voyagers  will be cut at the end of the calendar year.

The program, created in 1998, is a collaboration between Museums In the Park (MIP), a coalition of 10 museums on park district property, and the Chicago Park District. The 10 museums that comprise Museums in the Park (Adler Planetarium, The Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago History Museum, DuSable Museum of African American History, The Field Museum, Museum of Contemporary Art, Museum of Science and Industry,

National Museum of Mexican Art, Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum, John G. Shedd Aquarium) funded the program, each contributing through their individual budgets.

Museums take up the charge of collecting, preserving, presenting, and educating about the culture of our time. Their legal, technical requirements are few, but these institutions are surrounded by a massive code of ethics Their acts of collecting help us remember who we were; their work of presenting our cherished objects helps us determine who we might become. 

The directors, curators, educators, exhibition designers and preparators, docents, registrars, and security staff who participate in this work play an important role not only in how historical objects and ideas are presented, but also in how they are interpreted in society as we imagine and prepare for the future. 

Education and outreach programs play a critical role in these efforts, even though they are often about audience building for diversity (which has its own set of issues). But what happens when these programs disappear? 

How are those gaps filled and for what purpose?  For over ten years, Park Voyagers has been a free, neighborhood-based after school program developed and operated collaboratively to provide Chicago youth with educational enrichment in informal settings.

The goal, per the website, has been "to awaken and encourage curiosity in children, enhance their natural ability to observe and experiment , nurture their innate capacity for creative problem-solving, and equip them for full participation in the civic and cultural life of the City of Chicago."

The decision to terminate the program was purely financial, Jean Feit, Park Voyagers Program Coordinator stressed, not programmatic.  Feit went on to explain how museums are struggling in this tough economy like everyone else, and that museum administrators felt that by ending this program, they may be able to maintain some of their other education and outreach efforts.  

Over the years, MIP has garnered a generous amount of funding from public sources.  Chicago, like other metropolitan areas, participates in a kind exchange with these institutions to show support, and underscore the value of this work and scholarship.

In recognition of the value of their contribution to the community, the ten museums located on municipal property receive a small share of tax funding according to statutes outlined in the Illinois legislature.

The resulting coalition that formed to "build greater awareness of the intrinsic value of museums" have regular meetings for professional development and to discuss ways that they might collaborate on programs and exhibitions or other funding opportunities, not necessarily with a direct, outward focus on Chicagoans, though their existence and programs certainly contribute to civic life; however, is that enough?  What does a museum owe the public for whom it collects, preserves, presents, and educates?

While museums play an important role in cultural preservation, they have not been forced to explicitly exercise that role in the past.  For the MIP, their legal obligations to the public are few- provide a certain number of free days per year, allow official school visits to enter without charge, etc. 

Besides, nonprofit institutions are supposed to serve charitable purposes, do nice things, reach out to the disenfranchised, etc., not be driven by profit.  Nevertheless, these organizations are businesses concerned with raising operating funds, creating effective staffing structures, and conducting good operations.

In an age of Wall St. bailouts, record unemployment, and the push to do more with less, the public is demanding increased accountability for everyone, nonprofits included.  At present, MIP has no plans to continue or replace Park Voyagers.  Parks that are currently participating in the program will continue until it is completed.  No new parks will be accepted for Phase I of the four-phase curriculum; however current parks will be able to complete the program in its entirety through Phase IV.

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  • Both of my kids participated in all four years of this extraordinary program, and it breaks my heart to hear it is being cut. Park Voyagers is one of the best organized, most insightful, most genuinely educational programs I've ever encountered for children. I'm convinced that this short-term budget-cutting solution will have long-term negative effects. One of the most important aspects of Park Voyagers, which has kids and their families visiting museums throughout the city about once a month for 4 years, is that it develops a real familiarity and habit of museum-going among participants. Building a love for museums, a sense of belonging in them, and a habit of attending them frequently, seems good long-term marketing sense to me. I'm so sorry that more families won't be able to experience this incredible program. What a shame.

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