by Ray Bussolari “I like to go to art museums and name the untitled paintings… Boy With Pail… Kitten on Fire.” – Steven Wright It’s funny, but in a way this joke is probably closer to the truth for every museum professional. While it’s a common desire for us to help visitors understand and engage with collections by solely employing our expertise, we often better serve our audience by cooperatively curating, labeling, and exhibiting everything we see. The opportunity to develop interpretations of an exhibition can be an empowering experience for audiences as well as museum professionals. While not all museums embrace this philosophy, this philosophy of empowering people is well understood in the social services field. The Youth Training Project (YTP) has the mission of: “empowering transition-age foster youth who are experts in navigating the institutional foster care system, to develop and deliver best-practice training for professionals who support transition-age youth.” As part of this mission, YTP is currently developing a traveling exhibit that will address universal themes in the lives of foster children. These include developmental disruption, institutionalization, powerlessness, and loss. I’ve been fortunate to have the opportunity to help with this emotionally-powerful endeavor and it’s something that I will hopefully carry with me for my entire career in the museum world.
The Museum of Lost Childhoods began as a teaching tool for child welfare professionals, using objects that represented common (and oft-times sobering) aspects of the foster youth experience to guide the professionals who worked with these children “…on a journey from ‘Lost Childhoods’ to ‘Foster Youth Empowerment’. ” YTP began by developing a collection of over 80 objects, letters, photos, clothing items, and videos donated and developed by former foster youth. It is presented as a traveling exhibit in a “pop-up” style, displayed at child youth worker conferences and workshops, mostly on black draped, folding tables and portable easels. After much positive feedback about how the display transformed child welfare professionals’ perceptions about the experiences of the foster youth with whom they worked, YTP decided the museum needed to reach a wider public with a call to action about how we, as a society, think about and treat foster youth. In 2013, YTP received funding from the Zellerbach Family Foundation to help bring this vision to reality.
At this point many challenges were presented. The museum existed in name only and began to work with Green Penguin Communications and USF faculty member Marjorie Schwarzer. I joined the project in January 2014. Thanks to USF’s Museum Studies program, I knew that many steps needed taken before the museum and its traveling exhibit could be released to the world. Some elements such as carefully crafted labels and a basic collections database already existed; yet, several additional and essential elements were required including a mission statement, donation forms, and archival storage systems were immediately employed. Aside from the basic nuts and bolts, the museum needed to develop a new way to engage an uninitiated audience. Thus, the exhibit was then privately displayed for former foster youth, similar to a focus group, with questions asked such as, “Which objects are missing from this collection?”, “Are there objects that don’t belong in this exhibition?”, “What is the importance of each object?”. The survey helped to determine six underlying themes for the exhibit. One of the most important aspects for this particular museum’s accessibility is easy travel and portability. Unfortunately, 80 objects, tabletop vitrines, easels, posters, framed photography, and mannequins don’t always travel safely and simply. It was evident that we had to choose a smaller subset of objects to convey the previously noted overall museum themes, tell the stories behind the objects, and provide a deeper feeling of engagement with a new broader audience. As Annie Gardiner from Green Penguin Communications stated, “Based on the prioritization of objects by youth and the thematic groupings, we propose identifying 20 objects that tell the story with greatest impact. We would then determine how best to display those objects (object, photo of object, photo of youth and object, digital story, etc.), bearing in mind that incorporating images and voices of the people who donated the object will produce an even more powerful exhibit, with more lasting impact, and set up a call to action.”
I worked with our committee of social workers, museum administrators, consultants, former foster youth to collaboratively chose thirty objects. Some were in better condition than others. Those that were quickly deteriorating (such as a pen and ink letter a father had written his daughter from prison, a hospital gown and slippers worn by a youth while institutionalized, and a card sent from an incarcerated youth to his girlfriend) were photographed and framed with portraits of their donors. In addition, artistic representations of themes as well as former foster youth speaking about their experiences in videos were also included. The selections were made with the caveat and desire to convey the story of what foster youth experience as simply and as effectively as possible. I believe this co-curating process should help The Museum of Lost Childhoods in its next steps of utilizing best practices to achieve its mission, obtain additional funding, maintain and grow its collection, secure publicly accessible venues such as galleries, libraries, and other museum spaces, and develop engagement strategies. In the spirit of Steven Wright, we went to the museum, identified all the unnamed themes, refined its mission, and organized a more cohesive exhibition. Most importantly, we never lost sight of the ideal that we had to be respectful, mindful, and collaborative with people whose stories we were telling: foster youth.