The Detroit Historical Society is Committed to Building a Museum Without Walls

The society builds interactive programming for a two-way engagement with the community.

The Detroit Historical Society is the conservation group that manages the Detroit Historical Museum and the Dossin Great Lakes Museum at Belle Isle, but the society is not only about artifact collecting and exhibition planning. The society is staunchly committed to engaging with the community to become, as DHS public program coordinator Charnae Sanders puts it, "a museum without walls." She says, "We want people to come into the museum and not only be more educated on the history of our city but also feel that connection and that relatability. We have to show people why these stories matter, why you should care about them."

One story that's continued to permeate throughout the city is the 1967 Rebellion. In preparation of the 50th anniversary, the Detroit Historical Society launched the Detroit 67: Looking Back to Move Forward community engagement program in 2015, a "multi-year endeavor designed to think about the history but also about 50 years from now," says DHS director of community engagement Kalisha Davis. In 2017, particularly, the DHS kick-started more than 200 programs with the help of eight other cultural institutions, in a citywide reflection. Many of these were geared specifically toward engaging young people, like the Detroit Design 2067 Youth Immersion Program.

For five days in April last year, 11 Detroit-area high schoolers worked with the DHS and four community groups to learn more about the 1967 uprising and use design thinking concepts to address current social issues; they were awarded a $350 scholarship at the end. Davis says the program will be back again this year. The Detroit 67 project as a whole – for which the DHS also collected personal stories from Detroiters and developed a comprehensive exhibition – won the DHS the Institute of Museum and Library Services' 2018 National Medal.

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The museum's Third Thursday Speaker Series has also proved popular. Held every third Thursday of the month, local scholars and experts are invited to share insight on Detroit history, usually involving civil rights and social justice. These talks are free and open to the public. Sanders says, "Having different groups coming out giving so much viable insight to the community as well as encouraging the actual community, when they come, to ask questions and really engage in a powerful discussion, that's really what makes those programs successful." The Black Historic Sites Committee is a branch of the DHS and, Sanders says, "Their mission is to kind of focus on the contributions and the significance and understanding of African-Americans in Detroit." The group's upcoming "Bring the Dream to Life" on Martin Luther King Jr. Day will be a celebration of the leader's legacy, featuring children's activities, performances and more.

Partnerships with corporations and other organizations are a crucial component in bringing these events to the community. "When we partner with folks like UnitedHealthcare, it really does help us expand our reach so that we have the opportunity to reach out to people that might not otherwise hear from us," says DHS chief development and communications officer Rebecca Salminen Witt. "And that interaction is something that's really critical for us – and for all kinds of cultural institutions like us who are really making an effort to reach out to a broader network." Detroit Historical Society is inviting the community to contribute to what will become one of the latest artifacts in the group's collection – its Four Freedoms quilt. A collaboration with the Henry Ford Museum's Enduring Ideals: Rockwell, Roosevelt & the Four Freedoms exhibit, locals are encouraged to write a message, draw a picture or, Davis says, "to share any inspirational words in relation to those four freedoms," the ones Franklin D. Roosevelt articulated in 1941 – of speech, from want, of worship, from fear. DHS will then work with the Great Lakes African American Quilters' Network to design and sew the quilt in the likeness of the Detroit flag, to then enter its collection and be displayed periodically.

"We have made a real commitment to community engagement and outreach, to listening to the community and sort of baking their input into our programming," says Salminen Witt. She adds, DHS takes care to ensure "that we're presenting programming that is meaningful for folks across the city, wherever they live, in any neighborhood, so that they can really see their own stories in our museum."

Third Thursdays Speaker Series: Salvaging Sound, Jan. 17

"Bring the Dream to Life," Jan. 21

Weaving the Community Fabric: Add to our Four Freedoms Quilt, Jan. 26

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