The Johnson County Museum was recently recognized with an Award of Excellence from the Kansas Museum Association for its efforts in three areas during the pandemic it is calling “Collect, Curate, Partner, Serve: Johnson County Museum’s Response to COVID-19.”
This award is given to an institution whose project or achievements are worthy of special recognition, and was notated during KMA’s virtual luncheon on Friday, Nov. 6.
“In the throes of a pandemic with the doors of the museum closed to the public, the curators and I asked ourselves one question: how can the museum help our community,” said Johnson County Museum Director Mary McMurray, who started at the museum in early April. “Answering that question required launching and promoting a collecting initiative, creating and installing a temporary exhibition in six weeks, and partnering with internal and external partners to curate a complementary community art exhibition that calls viewers to reflect, show resilience, and rebuild.
Recognizing the historic nature of the global pandemic, the Johnson County Museum launched the Collecting COVID-19 Initiative in March 2020, complete with a collecting plan, online questionnaire, and publicity campaign. This collecting initiative asks the public to answer a curated list of questions and share personal stories and ideas for photographs, objects, and documents that represent this era.
As a result, the museum received more than 40 submissions to the questionnaire and collected items from Johnson County government offices, medical innovations, homemade masks, ephemera related to high school graduation, and more. The collecting initiative will remain active well into the future to give the community time to reflect on the stories and artifacts that will help future generations of curators tell the story of the COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on Johnson County and the region.
In time for the museum’s opening after a two-month closure, the institution put together a related temporary exhibit titled “Rising to the Challenge: Suburban Strength in Difficult Times.”
The exhibit, which opened on June 1 and will remain in place in the Creative Commons Area of the Johnson County Arts & Heritage Center through the spring, takes visitors through eras of difficulty in the county’s history - from economic crises to war, natural disasters to personal tragedies. The exhibit focuses on the ways in which Johnson Countians responded to historic challenges. Key themes include: strength and resilience, awareness and preparedness, sacrifice, innovation and adaptation, and when the challenge was met, with reflection and remembrance.
“Rising to the Challenge: Suburban Strength in Difficult Times” draws largely from the museum’s collection of photographs, objects, and stories, but also features images of Kansans from the Library of Congress and National Archives collections, and a newly-acquired object created in response to the pandemic - a 3-D printed plastic medical face shield component printed by the MakerSpace at the Johnson County Library for use in the Johnson County medical community. The exhibit includes a public feedback component, asking questions such as: How have you risen to the challenge? Who has been your hero? What does a post-pandemic world look like? It also includes an empty case highlighting the Museum’s Collecting COVID-19 Initiative.”
In considering what collective opportunities the Johnson County community would have to gather, reflect, grieve, and process the losses experienced during the pandemic, the museum collaborated with the Fine Arts Department of the Johnson County Park and Recreation District and the Arts Council of Johnson County to create a second temporary exhibit called “Resilience, Reflection, Rebuilding: Artists Respond to COVID-19.”
The collaborative partnership released a call for artwork created in response to, during, or in the theme of the COVID-19 pandemic. The call received over 90 submissions from more than 70 artists. The art was predominately colorful, but the statements revealed the extensive nature of the mental health crisis our community is experiencing as a result of the pandemic and social movements.
“Resilience, Reflection, Rebuilding: Artists Respond to COVID-19,” opened on Aug. 1, and like “Rising to the Challenge,” this exhibit is displayed in the commons area of the Johnson County Arts & Heritage Center, making it free and accessible to the public. This exhibit will remain on display until Jan. 22.
“The arts have the ability to help us feel connected in a time of physical distancing, to process, to reflect, and to imagine a better future,” McMurray said. “The artwork, which includes two-dimensional artwork, pottery, found object art, a multi-media installation, and textiles, is connected by a yellow line running around the large room at the height art is typically hung in galleries. None of the art in the show is hung at the normal height, which reflects the lack of normalcy now. Further responding to the uniqueness of this time, the arts and heritage staff created a digital flipbook that allowed the public to experience the show from a place where they felt comfortable.”
Recognizing the historic nature of these times and the power of community-based reflection, the Johnson County Museum Foundation, the museum’s nonprofit partner, joined the initiative, funding a cash prize for one community-selected piece of art to become a part of the Johnson County Museum’s permanent collection. More than 600 people voted on which piece best represented the pandemic era. The winning piece, along with an artist statement and biography, comments from voting, and other contextualizing items will join other items accessioned as part of the museum’s Collecting COVID-19 Initiative.
Like the pandemic, the Johnson County Museum’s response to COVID-19 is ongoing. Working with its partners, the museum plans to release a slate of virtual programming designed to connect people with mental health resources, participate in art-therapy-inspired activities based on pieces in the art show, and unpack the historical context of art and pandemics by looking back 100 years.
“Combined, these efforts represent the Johnson County Museum’s dedication to serving the community through innovative and engaging historical lessons, partnerships, and programming,” McMurray said.
The “Rising to the Challenge” exhibit has been highlighted on more than a dozen media appearances, and the feedback wall incorporated into the exhibit has garnered nearly 50 public comments. Since opening on June 1, “Rising to the Challenge” exhibit has had an estimated 8,700 visitors, and the Collecting COVID-19 Initiative has gathered nearly 40 responses from the public, in addition to about a dozen objects. “Resilience, Reflection, Rebuilding” has received more than 600 public votes and comments in a People’s Choice Competition, and officials estimate more than 2,000 members of the public have viewed the exhibit.
FOR INFORMATION CONTACT
Mary McMurray, Johnson County Museum Director
[email protected]; 913.715.2555