Think With Me
David Carr passed away unexpectedly on January 31, 2016. He was an thought leader without parallel in the cultural community. He was a scholar, a teacher and colleague. He was also my friend and mentor. I was honored to be asked to contribute to an appreciation piece with Beverly Sheppard and Marsha Semmel for Curator The Museum Journal. Here is the longer and more personal version of my contribution:
The importance of having a mentor wasn’t emphasized when I began my museum career, but I knew that I needed a group of friends, people who supported and inspired me. David Carr was such a friend. I met David when I was working at The Newark Museum and David was a professor of library studies at the Newark campus of Rutgers University. David and I shared a love of learning, talking and John Cotton Dana. I was new to the museum profession and Newark was my first “real job.” I eager to learn everything I could about museum work. David was my guide. I had a good grasp of the mechanics of my job, but David taught me about my purpose.
“The purpose of a museum is to attract, entertain, arouse curiosity and thus promote learning.” This quote from John Cotton Dana is indelibly etched in my mind. I used it in every speech, funding proposal and presentation for the almost ten years I worked at The Newark Museum. I loved reading Dana’s words, and talking with David helped me understand their meaning. Through discussions with David I came to appreciate that museums are more than the sum of their collections, exhibitions and programs. Museums are essential rest stops on our life journey, what David called our unfinished lives. “[A]ll cultural institutions, all structures of common memory, all situations constructed for the crafting of truth by ordinary people—all share one living genius. They are about the human thing, the being a human being, the living a life that wants, that abrades itself with questions and heals itself by learning.” [i]
Reading David’s essays or listening to him speak was like a metaphorical soft blanket (David loved metaphor) that protected my jagged edges during times in my career where the busyness of my job overtook the satisfaction in my accomplishments. David’s words reminded me why my work mattered.
David was both my cheerleader and teacher. He gave me courage to express my ideas and led me to new questions. He championed my decision to start a radio program about museum issues and was one of my first guests on The Museum Life.
My original copy of David’s book The Promise of Cultural Institutions falls open naturally to the last chapter, Ten Lessons and a Rule. I once quipped that it was my favorite piece because it was short and easy to remember. The truth is that it is a clear reminder of my responsibilities as an exhibit developer: arrogance, reduction, discontinuity, entertainment, fear and didacticism are enemies of learning. Now, with David’s passing, his rule speaks to me louder than ever: “Rescue the user. Every learner needs an advocate, needs to hear and trust a nearby voice.”[iii] David was such an advocate. May I honor his memory by being one too.
[i] David Carr, The Promise of Museums, Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira Press, 2003, p. 158.
[ii] Museum Promise on The Museum Life, podcast, original air date October 4, 2013, http://www.voiceamerica.com/episode/73249/museum-promise.