Education Features

Museum finds success engaging historically marginalized stakeholders

Written by Mindia Whittier

New family-friendly exhibition explores the guide that helped Black Americans adventure with confidence during the Jim Crow-era.

Thanks to a $30K grant, Fort Worth Museum of Science and History (FWMSH) has developed new programming reflective of the city’s diverse population – and it is showing early signs of success.

“The Museum is located in a majority-minority region, so we want to be sure what we are offering as a community institution is consistent with what and who the community is,” said Dr. Morgan Rehnberg, Chief Scientist at Fort Worth Museum of Science and History.

To that end, FWMSH opened Fort Worth and the Green Book on Feb 11. The exhibition explores the numerous challenges Black travelers in the ‘30s, ‘40s, and ’50s faced both on and off the road as car ownership exploded, and how they navigated racism in mid-century Texas. Through their desire to enjoy safe travel and community, Black populations created the “Negro Motorist Green Book,” an annual guide featuring restaurants, hotels, and many other businesses deemed safe for Black travelers and road trippers.

“What helped make this happen was connecting with North Texas Community Foundation and the Fund to Advance Racial Equity,” said Dr. Rehnberg. “The fact that there was a community organization in North Texas funding these kinds of things was what allowed us to take this from something that would be great, to something that’s actually open.”

Once FWMSH leaders conceived of the idea and connected with the Community Foundation, they knew it was a topic that needed nuance. The Museum didn’t have anyone on staff who had expertise in that area, and looked for someone who did. They ultimately developed the exhibit in-house through a partnership with Dr. Frederick Gooding, the Dr. Ronald E. Moore Professor in Humanities in the John V. Roach Honors College at Texas Christian University. The exhibition’s guest curator is also a leader of TCU’s race and reconciliation work.

The fact that Dr. Gooding does this kind of work specifically in the context of Fort Worth convinced FWMSH leaders the institution could do a good job with the exhibition. Artifacts from the Museum’s own collection were supplied with content developed in partnership with Dr. Gooding to make the story more concrete for people.

“As a historian, this honestly is a DREAM come true – to go from visiting museum exhibits as a younger child to curating museum exhibits as an older child is an absolute treat,” said Dr. Gooding.

An important motivating factor why FWMSH felt this story was important to tell was the organization’s own history. When the museum was founded in the 1940’s, it was established as a segregated institution. Black travelers of the time who came to Fort Worth knew it wasn’t possible to visit and enjoy the Museum. FWMSH leadership felt that given the institution’s role in the community, it was important to bring that story to the community on their behalf.

“The fact that we contributed to that environment as an institution told us it was important to act as an institution to improve it,” said Dr. Rehnberg. “This exhibit shows we can look back and speak honestly about past actions on not only a governmental level, but on an organizational and individual level. No one action or group of actions can change what happened in the past. But we can say we acknowledge that, and this is how we’re moving forward into the future.”

FWMSH says the exhibition is perfectly aligned with its mission, which is in part to share the stories of the southwest.

“The southwest is a region of enormous diversity today,” said Rehnberg. “As a history museum with such a broad mission, we’re making a mistake and disservice if we’re only sharing a slice of that history. By expanding the stories we tell, we’re diving deeper into our mission to reflect what’s happened in our past here in Texas. That’s something we haven’t been able to do as effectively throughout the Museum’s history.”

The new exhibition came to life because current Museum leadership supports exploring more diverse ideas and expanding the organization’s view.
 
“If you don’t have that support from the top, it’s hard to make that growth within the institution,” said Rehnberg. “Senior leadership and board support has given the freedom to explore ideas like this.”

Fort Worth and the Green Book is the latest example of programming in an area FWMSH calls the Heritage Gallery, which focuses on centering stories of the whole community. The Museum previously hosted an exhibition in this area looking at women activists and leaders in Fort Worth who were forces of change in their community. Now, the area is dedicated to talking about a visionary Black activist from the mid-century that had an impact in North Texas.

“Similar programing moving forward will focus on other interest groups in the city, so people can feel like they see themselves in the museum when they come, not just old white guys on the wall,” said Rehnberg.

The value that FWMSH sees in this type of programming is broadening its audience.

“Fort Worth is a city of almost a million people, but we don’t have millions of people coming through our door every year,” said Rehnberg. “So there’s an audience out there that isn’t coming into the institution. It behooves us to explore ways we can reach out to those communities and offer programming that can help convert them into patrons of the museum and build a relationship with us.”

There are early indicators the strategy is working. In addition to the Fort Worth and the Green Book exhibition, FWMSH featured Dr. Gooding as a guest speaker on “Navigating the Road to Reconciliation” in the second installment of its Lecture Series. The Lecture Series is a chance for guests to hear from the most exciting thinkers, makers, and doers in the world of science and history. Rehnberg says the diversity of the event was as good – or better – than any event they’ve had, and the community interest they saw was as good or better.

“It helped validate for us that it’s not a business risk for the institution to diversify our offerings like this,” he said. “If anything, it’s helping us grow the audience in a concrete way.”

Rehnberg notes that attendance at the exhibition is outstanding as well, and has exceeded FWMSH’s expectations.

“We’ve gotten specific feedback from visitors that they are excited we’re offering this particular content,” said Rehnberg. “They say ‘I’m so happy to see my story, my families’ story, represented in the museum.’ Those anecdotes are encouraging and powerful for us to see that our goal of fostering a sense of community amongst the entire community is being borne out with this project.”

The success has led Museum leaders to look for similar opportunities that will capitalize on the demand in the community for a wider range of content and expand on its other existing diversity efforts.

“The Museum has undertaken over the last few years to increase the inclusiveness of its offerings, such as overhauling display signage to be bilingual due to the Spanish speaking population in North Texas,” said Rehnberg. “We see ourselves as a community serving institution, and want what’s inside the museum to be reflective of that. We’re constantly considering and developing a variety of ideas.”

FWMSH is now open five days a week. Regular museum hours are Wednesday through Friday, 10 AM to 5 PM, and Sunday, Noon to 5 PM. Fort Worth and the Green Book runs through August 31.

“I sincerely hope visitors enjoy the exhibit as much as I enjoyed the exhibit creation process,” said Dr. Gooding. “If people walk away from the Green Book experience with at least one new insight, then we are at least one step closer to reaching our desired destination of a [more] understanding Fort Worth.”

About the author

Mindia Whittier