“Local” is a buzzword that is practically inescapable these days, sometimes a codeword for expensive organic farmer’s market produce and sometimes an adjective that describes grassroots communities sprung up around a cause. Local economies, local groups, local issues. With all this increasing focus on what we have at home (and with the idea that buying local is what will save us from neoliberal economic bloat), what is the role of museums in promoting the communities of their immediate areas? How can museums balance responsibilities to the local neighborhoods with the global pursuit of access to archives for everyone? Particularly thinking about social media: does a digital presence serve people close to home or far away?
To answer these questions, we have to think about museums in two ways: first, as a physical presence immediately felt in its neighborhood, and second, as an idea that can be easily distributed worldwide. Museums do not just house objects, museums themselves are also objects, archives with a material building and a material impact. That is, museums take up space in a community, in neighborhoods, and have a responsibility to justify their use of that space by working to better the area they are in. Luckily for many institutions, the very presence of a museum can do good for their area; small businesses and local landmarks give back more to neighborhood economies and communities than impersonal chain stores often favored by market policies. Museums themselves are a symbol for knowledge, history, and a desire to preserve the past, all of which can be valuable to local groups and towns. When museum institutions and staff capitalize on this view through community outreach, a focus on local issues, and a desire to become a resource for the people in their area, the institution benefits from visitor engagement and populations benefit from tourism revenue, public good developments, and the understanding that the history and culture in the museum belongs to them.
With the increasing ability to house collections online, the mission of the museum to extend their ability to serve people remotely has naturally increased as well. Online collections and other resources, especially in education, have become a major part of museums all over the world, particularly large museums with the resources to truly develop a usable online portal. For people in areas without the ability to come to museums in person, these online resources have made the archives of museums more accessible than ever before — not to mention the great opening of collections, which are often limited by the physical space that the museum can hold.
Serving just one or the other of these communities is to fail at the mission of museums, often with negative results. Reaching as wide an audience as possible is a key part of that mission, and information and archives must be made available to people on the global level, but cannot be done while leaving out the neighborhood community that museums occupy physically. Digital presence gives museums the reach not only on the global stage, but on the local level as well — as we have seen with local tweetups and activist hashtags. For museums to thrive, and for their local communities to thrive, a relationship must be built between the two, a relationship that will only build up both sides.