National Engagement for a "National" Museum

Above: The NPHM banner at MacArthur Foundation's "How Housing Matters" convening in D.C.; NPHM staff with board member Francine Washington tabling at the NAHRO coference in Baltimore.; NPHM Staff with former head of CPS, Jean-Claude Brizard.

How does our “little museum that could,” still work hard to close a contract on our designated historic property, make good on the promise of our name, and deliver a museum of “national” stature?

Over the last few weeks, the staff, Board and I have been traveling between Chicago and the nation’s capital region with a collective mindset to meet the ever-present challenge of our name. That is to say, to think through how we deliver a story that is national in scope without losing the grassroots character that created the NPHM.

Two weeks ago, we attended the “How Housing Matters” conference convened by the MacArthur Foundation and the National Building Museum. In addition, we participated in national housing conversations in Baltimore, hosted by Board Member (and NAHRO Chair) Preston Prince.

Thanks to the generosity of Nixon Peabody and the Preservation Action Foundation in Washington, DC, I had the opportunity to meet recently sworn-in HUD Secretary Julian Castro on October .  His speech before a small group of folks at the intersection of preservation and housing brought home one way how our work to preserve public housing heritage in Chicago speaks to a national conversation about the “public good”.  He visioned a robust and holistic civic sector that might meet the growing demand for affordable housing while also protecting the heritage of the built environment for future generations.

One week later, NPHM staff and programs vice-chair Roberta Feldman were invited by our colleagues at the National Building Museum and friends at the MacArthur Foundation back to Washington for the “How Housing Matters” conference, on our way to join Board members Francine Washington, Saul Himelstein and Preston Prince at the National Association of Housing and Redevelopment Officials conference in Baltimore.

At both convenings we saw clear evidence from practitioners, policymakers and researchers demonstrating that public investments in housing can leverage dramatic impacts across a range of civic concerns from education to employment.  

Against this optimistic future, the current lack of commitment from lawmakers to public investment was a common cautionary refrain.  We were encouraged by the many conversations we had about how our museum can create a national network that build bridges between housing experts and the general public through the tools of storytelling unique to museum of arts, culture and creativity. 

The need is plain (10,000 units of housing a year are lost to disrepair which removes shelter for families and creates gaps in our community fabric).  We believe it possible to convey the scale of this need through stories that get at a shared heritage and common future to the folks who weren’t at those convenings.

So we came back with more allies who get why we work to open the doors of a fragment of the  “real Chicago” to the general public.  We were excited to discover a shared vision of what might happen at a site of conscience when visitors to Chicago --a national capital of cultural tourism--  go home and become part of the transformation of their own communities.  As we convened at the nation’s “center” we heard stories from scattered sites, Native communities and veterans homes from coast to coast. We imagined the urgency and humanity of what people discover at a National Public Housing Museum having a significant impact by including more folks in the conversations taking place in city councils, block clubs and Congressional offices nationwide.

by Todd Palmer, Interim Executive Director and Curator of the NPHM