How a Cultural Institution Can Shape Receptivity in a New Immigrant Destination

The news media and broader discourse has recently featured the concept of receptivity toward migrants and refugees more prominently—as my colleagues here at The Migrationist have described here, here, here, here, and here. The recent spotlight on refugees arriving in Europe has sparked debate among European countries as to just how welcoming Europe should and can be toward newcomers. A trend of mixed receptivity is seen not only at the national level, but also at the local level as communities and municipalities position themselves within a context of warm, cool, or mixed receptivity toward newcomers.

Mixed receptivity is not only seen in Europe, but in other immigrant-receiving regions like North America. States and localities in the United States, for instance, express variable receptivity toward newcomers. Examples from the national to the state to the local level of warm, cool, and mixed receptivity abound. The momentum, however, appears to be among the growing number of cities choosing a path of welcome and inclusion toward newcomers. Just last month, as I described in my previous post, communities and organizations across the United States held events marking National Welcoming Week. And there is a growing list of examples of local governments, community-based organizations, and other partnerships working on cultivating communities of welcome for everyone, including immigrants and refugees. Also last month, at the federal level, the White House launched a national campaign to help build welcoming communities in partnership with Welcoming America. Subsequently, last week Welcoming America held a Welcoming Summit meeting for its members; and the White House, building on its Task Force on New Americans, hosted a convening in Washington, DC for the Building Welcoming Communities campaign.

As the welcoming cities momentum continues to accelerate, what is one process by which local communities can shape immigrant receptivity? My colleagues and I recently published a study in the journal Museums and Social Issues describing how a cultural institution such as a museum can proactively and strategically shape receptivity toward newcomers in a city navigating rapid cultural change. Our paper, “Speaking of Change in Charlotte, North Carolina: How Museums Can Shape Immigrant Receptivity in a Community Navigating Rapid Cultural Change,” was a collaboration among museum staff, urban social geographers, and urban education scholars, and focuses on the Levine Museum of the New South in Charlotte, North Carolina—a new immigrant gateway destination in the U.S. South.

Paul pic 2

Charlotte skyline. Photo by James Willamor.

Charlotte, like many cities in the U.S. South, has experienced among the highest foreign-born population growth rates in the U.S. since 1990. From 1990 to 2010, Mecklenburg County, North Carolina, where Charlotte is located, saw a foreign-born population increase of 595 percent, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, and the foreign-born population made up 14.8 percent of the county’s total population in 2013. Due to such growth, scholars describe Charlotte as a new immigrant gateway.

Amid this growth, Charlotte’s Levine Museum of the New South developed a new exhibit—Changing Places: From Black and White to Technicolor—to describe the population and demographic shifts occurring in the Charlotte region. Specifically, the Museum described the context of the exhibit as follows: “Charlotte today stands at a critical juncture in U.S. history. The South—historically one the United States’ most isolated regions—has become a magnet for newcomers from across the U.S. and around the globe. People are arriving daily from New York, Ohio, Mexico, El Salvador, Vietnam, Bosnia, Somalia and hundreds of other places. African Americans are returning to the South in record numbers. In 1990, Mecklenburg County had 500,000 residents. By 2010, it held more than a million. Future historians may well look to Charlotte as the national bellwether for how the United States addresses issues of growth and community in the early 21st century. The cultural challenges are great. Newcomers bring their own traditions, habits and assumptions—their own cultures. The combination of old and new enriches a city, but also creates tensions.”

Levine Museum of the New South, Photo by Tech. St. Brian E. Christiansen, NCNG Office of Public Affairs.

Levine Museum of the New South, Photo by Tech. St. Brian E. Christiansen, NCNG Office of Public Affairs.

The Museum developed community-engagement programming to accompany the Changing Places exhibit, and my colleagues and I were involved with the research and evaluation of this program. The engagement program process, called Speaking of Change, brought together intact community groups from an array of sectors across Charlotte and Mecklenburg County. Groups represented community-based organizations, non-profits, schools, churches and other faith-based groups, government offices, business offices, and other groups. Participants went through the exhibit and then participated in a facilitated focus group discussion and completed a survey. Some individuals also participated in follow-up dialogues and a follow-up survey. Our research and evaluation methodology consisted of observations of the content and process of 12 out of the 98 dialogue group discussions at the museum, analysis of a post-dialogue survey (N = 1,285), observation of two follow-up dialogues, and analysis of sixty-three follow-up surveys. Our study yielded four main findings: (1) The museums programming can act as a shaper of receptivity; (2) the museum can be a shaper of actions; (3) the museum can be a moderator of mixed receptivity; and (4) the museum can play the role of a proactive and positive receptivity leader in the community and metropolitan region.

As we demonstrated through our research and evaluation of the program, the Museum as a local cultural institution played a powerful role in helping shape openness and receptivity of local leadership and established communities. This process translated into a community-wide climate of immigrant welcome, successful integration, and growing appreciation of cultural differences. As such, a cultural institution like a museum can prove to be pivotal within the context of a new gateway in shaping and reshaping the degree of welcome defining a community’s collective immigrant receptivity—all of which is critical for effective immigrant integration.

“The Levine Museum of the New South’s Speaking of Change program is illustrative of a positive and proactive response to the unexpected, large scale, and continuing immigration in a newly emerging gateway city,” we note in the conclusion. “While it may be premature to state that the museum has achieved the goal of significant and tangible change across the community as a whole, we see clear evidence that the practice through its pairing of exhibit and dialogues is shaping and reshaping receptivity at multiple scales and ultimately guiding our community towards a more open and welcoming position on the receptivity continuum.” We also observed that the fact-based actions of a cultural institution such as a museum can provide an important counterbalance to documented reactive and negative state and local responses to the changing geography of immigrant settlement in a new immigrant destination city and region.

Regarding Charlotte’s ongoing story specifically, the Levine Museum of the New South’s programming on immigration helped steer the city in the direction of warmer receptivity. Indeed, the museum continues to shape and guide that process. In 2013, for example, the City of Charlotte became a “Welcoming City” and an affiliate of Welcoming America’s Welcoming Cities and Counties initiative. The Charlotte City Council also passed a resolution creating an inter-agency task force to explore ways to maximize immigrants’ economic and civic contributions to the city. The task force, composed of members from different community sectors, and managed by the city’s Office of International Relations, was co-chaired by Emily Zimmern, president of the Levine Museum of the New South. The task force presented their findings to the city council in March 2015.

As for the Levine Museum of the New South itself, the museum is continuing the theme of exploring population change in the U.S. South by opening a new exhibit in September 2015 exploring Latinos in the new south. ¡NUEVOlution! Latinos and the New South explores “the surprising ways that Latinos are shaping the South and the South is shaping Latinos.” After a run through October 2016 at the Levine Museum, the exhibit will move to the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute and the Atlanta History Center. Atlanta and Birmingham are also new immigrant destinations. Clearly, the museum’s positive impact on immigrant receptivity continues in far-reaching ways in Charlotte and beyond.


Harden, Susan B., Paul N. McDaniel, Heather A. Smith, Emily Zimmern, and Katie E. Brown. 2015. “Speaking of Change in Charlotte, North Carolina: How Museums Can Shape Immigrant Receptivity in a Community Navigating Rapid Cultural Change.” Museums and Social Issues 10, 2 (October): 117-133.

Title photo by Andy Ciordia.

One comment

  1. […] and organizations in different places at different levels in the U.S., for example, have been shaping identity around immigration and receptivity toward newcomers. Some cities and states have passed policies and legislation attempting to thwart […]


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