With a career as diverse as the city she worked to represent, guest speaker Kathleen Benson offered students with an interest in Museum Studies insight into education and community engagement in museums over the past five decades.
Benson was in Gainesville this week on a visit to the University of Florida to speak about her late husband James Haskins, who was a prolific author and professor of English at UF. Benson spent her entire career working at the Museum of the City of New York until her recent retirement. During that time, she went from a member of the education staff to the Curator for Community Engagement.
She told students about her organic approach to community engagement, such as the time she met a woman on her regular bus route who was doing an anthropological research on aging women in Spanish Harlem, which led to a collaborative exhibit on the topic.
One of Benson’s most rewarding accomplishments was an exhibit representing Arab citizens of New York City. She explained that the exhibit was already funded and that her team had been working on it for two years before the terrorist attack occurred on September 11, 2001.
Instead of giving up on the exhibit in the wake of the event, the museum challenged her to make the exhibit even bigger. Her team worked tirelessly for 8 months and what resulted was a powerful and complex exhibit the community could learn from and enjoy.
The intimate setting allowed students to ask many questions, which developed into a larger conversation on topics such as diversity in museum staff, social justice in the museum and how to maintain a close relationship between a museum and its community.
The students asked her for insight on how to serve a diverse audience.
“Have something present in the museum that represents them,” Benson said. “There’s something about seeing yourself in the museum that changes things for you.”
The talk was especially helpful for the students who are currently in the Museum Education graduate course, as it solidified their learning with concrete examples. Those who attended the talk shared their experience with the class and led a discussion about education and social justice.