What is FFS?
Project History
2003 Exhibition
Gallery of Past Exhibits
FFS in the Classroom

Collaborating organizations:

Japanese American
National Museum

California African
American Museum

Chinese American

Self-Help Graphics

Korean American

Plaza de la Raza

Watts Towers
Arts Center

Santa Barbara Museum
of Natural History

Skirball Museum

finding family stories: Mapping the Journey to Community Engagement

By Kinshasha Holman Conwill

To finish the moment, to find the journeyís end in every step of the road, to live the greatest number of good hours, is wisdom.
--Ralph Waldo Emerson

On my journey now, Mount Zion / Well I wouldnít take nothing, Mount Zion / For my journey now, Mount Zion.
--African American Spiritual

What happens when you invite the community in to truly participate in the life and work of your museum? The journey into and by institutions unaccustomed to such in-depth encounters can be fraught with uncertainty and even fear. But as the bards teach us, the road to greater community engagement can also be a path to wisdom and a priceless sojourn. How do we reconcile the fluid and changing needs and desires of our communities with perceptions of museums as permanent, authoritarian, and static? Do we redefine the notion of museums or reframe them? Research shows that museums are among the most trusted institutions in the country. How do we build on that trust and use the museumís authority as a positive catalyst for learning and connecting?

These questions are central to the discourse on the role of museums in contemporary life, and coming to terms with them is essential--whatever the answers for individual museums--to mapping our collective journey ahead.

My own journey as a museum professional has been marked by experiences in individual institutions that have left indelible memories. When I traveled to the Japanese American National Museum (National Museum) in the mid-nineties, I had an experience that has resonated ever since. In the museumís original exhibition galleries, I saw a remarkable series of art works that drew me into the family narratives of artists from a wide swath of Los Angeles. The intimacy of my encounter with each piece allowed me to become immersed in the individual worlds envisioned by their creators. I later saw the related installation at the Skirball Cultural Center and was once again struck by the quiet power of each work. Later, as I reflected on my visit, I realized that what I found so engaging in the exhibitions was not only the work itself, but also the very fact that these museums had imagined and realized a project as courageous as finding family stories. The more I learned about the project and its depth of dedication, its range of partners, and the willingness of those partners to wrestle with complicated issues, and not give up on each other or give in to a focus on their differences, the more deeply impressed I became.

At the core of the American Association of Museums (AAM) Museums & Community initiative is the aspiration to encourage and promote community dialogue, civic engagement, and sustainable relationships that are exemplified by finding family stories. Both the process--inreach to invite a mutual sharing of community and museum resources--and the product that such an effort entails--building and sustaining museum/community relationships--calls for imagination and institutional commitment. But more than anything else, creating a museum that is community-conscious requires the desire to "learn, experiment and transform" (i). The National Museum has taken those challenges to heart and provided a singular example to other museums seeking common ground with each other and with the communities they serve. Indeed, the National Museumís achievement, along with its partners, manifests the core principles of AAMís Museums & Community initiative: to move beyond "business as usual."

Overcoming traditional barriers to such efforts, principally, differences in capacity, resources, and internal operating culture, or the default refrains of "itís not in our mission," or "thatís not the way we do things here," is no easy undertaking. But the National Museum has shown that such efforts, rather than diverting or diminishing resources, can enrich the growth and development of the organizations involved. finding family stories began when the National Museum was in its original space, and the project grew along with the institution. The ongoing evolution of both the project and the institution shows us that it is possible to stay true to a museumís core mission and values, while enhancing and inspiring the possibilities of what that museum can become.

In order to map museum assets and resources and those of our communities, we need partners and kindred spirits. For the organizers of finding family stories, those partners, past and present, include an array of cultural organizations from communities in Los Angeles (ii). Those collaborators, especially the diverse artists whose works are the manifestation of both the letter and the spirit of the initiativeís goal--to strengthen relationships between existing institutions and the communities they serve--are part of the web of connectors essential to any endeavor of this magnitude. The power of the artistsí family truths lies not only in their imaginative expression, but also in their complexity. The diversity and complexity of museums are among their greatest strengths as well.

Now, more than ever, we in museums must embrace those differences, explore that complexity, and invite our communities to be integral to our work in the future. In the wake of September 11, and on its anniversary, many museums around the country renewed efforts to open their doors to their visitors for an array of opportunities for contemplation, reflection, and remembrance. In a time of fear and uncertainty, we are left to ponder, again, our role as museums in the lives of our neighborhoods, cities, communities, regions, and nation. Do we continue to act as safe havens and places of solitude and certainty, reinforcing those things our visitors depend upon? Do we provide forums for expression and release? Do we reach out to those most vulnerable and in need? Do we continue with our core missions of education, preservation, and presentation?

Yes, to all of the above. But I believe that we are called upon to do much more. The Buddha teaches us to be motivated by our desires rather than our fears. As central organizations of intellectual thought and lifelong learning, we must continue one of our most critical roles: to do what others are not doing. As cultural institutions, we must desire wisdom and seek the myriad truths of human experience. We must ask difficult and open-ended questions; encourage others to question themselves, and us, and provide trustworthy but not antiseptic places for inquiry. We must be places for doubt and belief, for fear to be expressed and examined; and places to promote going deeper into topics and areas of thought that may be provocative, uncomfortable, and challenging.

Museums are part of the web of organizations that create the life of communities. We should call upon our strengths and our singular gifts as trusted entities, civic anchors, and sites of exploration. Whether we incorporate this "new work" into our ongoing programs, or create new collaborations, the times call us to a higher order of commitment, rigor, and intention. This moment calls those of us in the museum field to further increase our role as mediators and interpreters: not to tell people what to think, but to frame the issues and provide the information to help them in thinking for themselves.

What are the places where museums and communities meet to engage such essential issues? They are places like the Japanese American National Museum and its sister organizations--places of trust, respect and, yes, even conflict. Places where integrity--institutional, community, individual--is left intact and where our common human dignity is respected. Creating and sustaining our organizations and our relationships to others, as finding family stories has shown, is what museums can do to affect, transform, and engage the lives of their communities and visitors. And in so doing, we continue our remarkable journey together and we honor the stories that lie in each of us. i American Association of Museums, Mastering Civic Engagement, 2002, p.60. ii 1995-96: Korean American Museum; 1996-97: Plaza de la Raza and Watts Towers Arts Center; 1997-98: Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History and Skirball Cultural Center; 2000-03: California African American Museum, Chinese American Museum, and Self-Help Graphics & Art.

Kinshasha Holman Conwill is Senior Policy Advisor for the Museums & Community initiative of the American Association of Museums and former director of The Studio Museum in Harlem.

Follow these links to learn more about how this exhibition came into being:
2003 Exhibition Main Page
Curatorial Essay
Project Mission
About the participating organizations

An Arts Partnership Project of the Japanese American National Museum

The finding family stories Project was made possible in part by a grant from the City of Los Angeles Cultural Affairs Department, California Arts Council, Ralph M. Parsons Foundation, Los Angeles County Arts Commission, National Endowment for the Arts, Weingart Foundation, and Japanese American National Museum Members and Donors.

What is FFS? Project History 2003 Exhibition Gallery of Past Exhibits FFS in the Classroom