Q&A: Michael Gagne, director of Philly’s first peace museum

A museum entry design concept rendering by FIT and SUNY students Danae Colomer and Amanda Zanski.

A new kind of museum is asking Philadelphia to give peace a chance. The Envision Peace Museum, slated to open its doors in 2014 in a yet-to-be-determined space in Center City, will feature interactive exhibits about social justice geared toward provoking discussion and encouraging action. And it boasts big-name advisory board members like Judy Wicks, Alan Greenberger and Ben Cohen of Ben and Jerry’s. Director Michael Gagne spoke with Metro last week about the museum’s vision.

What was the inspiration behind the Envision Peace Museum?

A big part of it was the idea of building a space for people to ask better questions about how change happens in our society, the roots of violence and where we’re going. The first chair of the board, an [architect and museum planner] named Tony Junker, went into a museum bookshop just after the start of the second Gulf War, the invasion of Iraq. And he noticed all these books about our nation’s military history, particularly geared toward children. He found himself asking, ‘How can we break the cycle if these are the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves all the time?’ And as someone who came from a museum field, he realized we have [thousands] of military museums throughout the country, but very few dedicated to peace and justice in the world.

What will the ‘What is Peace’ exhibit consist of?

I see that exhibit, which is just being developed, as kind of a skeleton key to unlock the larger content of the museum. ‘What is Peace’ will be a springboard allowing us explore what are the fundamental questions about peace and violence. … In terms of what it’ll look like, it’s not just going to be panels on the wall. We envision really experiential exhibits – not just multimedia, but simulations and games that invite people to draw their own conclusions out of those experiences, which I think is kind of congruent with the idea of peace-building.

What’s your timeline for development?

Right now, we’re seeing this as a phased development strategy similar to the Please Touch Museum, where you open a smaller space and use it as a [springboard] to launch a large space. We plan to open our first space in 2014. … Then, the timeline for the second, what we’re calling ‘the ultimate museum,’ might be five years later, but we’re in the process of figuring that out with the communities within Philadelphia and beyond.

What it will look like

Founded in 2007, the Envision Peace Museum underwent an extended visioning phase, soliciting advice from professionals across many fields while generating buzz through a series of traveling exhibitions and, most recently, a film screening and discussion.

The museum is in the process of forming an academic advisory board to establish even more “curatorial credibility,” as Gagne calls it. Envision Peace will on Nov. 3 hold an implementation conference to assess its progress since its strategic planning conference two years ago and to discuss its next step – namely, breaking ground on a physical location. Here’s a rundown of some of the components planned for the space so far:

– A prototyping space, or “peace lab,” where the public can come try out an exhibit before it launches and offer feedback, making the museum’s content a collaborative effort between curators and the community.

– Exhibition galleries featuring living collections, such as stories, discussions, simulations and tools for change.

– A gallery and event space for multimedia art, performances and discussions – special guests TBA. “I’m really excited about number of amazing musicians and performers who are very pro-peace and pro-justice who we see being really supportive about this,” Gagne said.

– An online museum that includes story collections, exhibits and forums for discussion.

Classrooms offering training for visitors to become peace-builders themselves, “So people aren’t just inspired on a head and heart level,” Gagne said. “But to ask, ‘How do I build the skills to become an agent of change in my community?’”


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