The power of museums and libraries by Marsha L. Semmel

The power of museums and libraries by Marsha L. Semmel


MarshaSemmel.JPGDetroit is my hometown. I grew up here during the 50s and 60s, lived in a neat and homogeneous white, largely Jewish, neighborhood in Northwest Detroit, and walked to the tiny Arthur H. Vandenberg Elementary School every day from kindergarten through eighth grade, coming home for lunch at noon. My world changed when I (along with four 8th grade boys) was invited to attend Cass Technical High School downtown, near Tiger Stadium. Dating back to 1904, Cass Tech in the 60s was a huge place, occupying an entire city block; nine floors high; drawing about 4,000 students from all over the city, who majored in any number of subjects—from science and arts (like me) to design and drafting, chemistry, music, performing arts, and electrical engineering.

My inclination was to opt out of the offer. The prospect of being the only girl in the group (and being labeled “smart” to boot) was not appealing. In fact, it was frightening. But in this case, my mother really ‘knew best.” She insisted that I give Cass a try, and taking that opportunity changed my life. The world I entered was diverse in every way and full of intellectual and social challenges. My teachers and peers stretched my mind, piqued my curiosity for learning, and set the academic bar high. I was a cub reporter on the Cass Technician, the school rag, interviewed visiting luminaries like Charlton Heston and homegrown talent like The Supremes (Diana Ross went to Cass), and I eventually became editor-in-chief. As a fine arts minor, I made jewelry, tried watercolor and calligraphy, and took my first art history course.

The hubbub, grit, traffic, and energy of downtown Detroit—the antithesis of the quiet, tree-lined streets around my house in Northwest Detroit—became the familiar attributes of my newly adopted neighborhood. I’d walk downtown after classes, stop into the elegant “grand dame” J.L. Hudson’s department store, enjoy its signature “Maurice'” salad, and browse the paperback book section, where I discovered Paul Goodman, Richard Hofstadter, Erik Eriksson, and other intellectuals. Or I’d take the bus up to the New Center area and hang out in the Detroit Public Library or the Detroit Institute of Arts.

Not having access to a car, my mode of transport was the bus. Several days a week, I’d bus to one of my father’s stores. My paternal grandparents founded Klein’s in 1918. The first shoe-and-clothing store was on West Jefferson in Delray (then a Hungarian Jewish enclave). Soon after, they opened another store in Lincoln Park, with my grandparents and the five children living in quarters above. By the 60s, there were five Klein’s establishments, including stores in Trenton, on Joy Road and Southfield, Plymouth, and Evergreen, and Livernois and 7 Mile Road. There I learned “retail,” going most frequently to near-downtown Delray or to the large store at Plymouth and Evergreen. I sold shoes and clothes, stocked the shelves, operated the various registers and office machines, did the accounts payable and receivable, and balanced the bank statements. I created the posters and sales kits for my dad’s Campus Sweatshirt Company, which sold customized T-shirts and sweatshirts to schools and churches.

There were many good times. But there were also shadows. I learned of JFK’s assassination while I was in 9th grade English class, and I vividly remember the silence, everywhere, when I headed home that afternoon. On the days when I headed to my father’s near-downtown Delray store after school, my fellow passengers often included anxious young men heading to their inductions (and then, likely, Viet Nam) at Ft. Wayne. There were growing signs of the racial tensions that resulted in the 1967 Detroit riots (I was a freshman at the University of Michigan when they erupted). My parents, worrying about the quality of the schools for my two younger brothers, moved to the suburbs when I was a junior, although I insisted on completing my high school years at Cass. They weren’t alone in their flight.

I ended up studying art history and English at the University of Michigan, getting my master’s degree at the University of Cincinnati (my husband had his first job as an assistant professor at U.C.), and embarking on a career in museums and in federal cultural agencies. There’s no doubt that the seeds of my love for art, language, ideas, and museums grew during those high school years. In fact, I cratered a bit during my sophomore year in Ann Arbor, and elected to take a quarter at Wayne State University and work part-time as a Kelly girl at the L & S Fastener Company, earning money for a few months of hitchhiking and exploration in Europe. Detroit was “real” and being there refueled my spirits and my energy. Although I headed back to Ann Arbor for my final two years, the Detroit “new center” area provided the necessary “comfort food” at that point in my life.

Now, here I am, the Acting Director of the Institute of Museum and Library Services, the primary source of federal support for the nation’s 123,000 libraries and 17,500 museums. The Institute’s mission is to create strong libraries and museums that connect people to information, inspiration, and ideas. I continue to be energized by—and passionate about—the power of museums and libraries as vital community organizations that are continually striving to make a positive difference in people’s lives.

Bio: Marsha L. Semmel is Acting Director, Institute of Museum and Library Services. She has been with IMLS since 2003, as Director for Strategic Partnerships and Deputy for Museum Services. Semmel has been President and CEO of the Women of the West Museum, in Denver, CO and Conner Prairie, a living history museum in Indianapolis, IN. She served as Director, Division of Public Programs at the National Endowment for the Humanities, and has also worked at the B’nai B’rith National Jewish Museum, the Smithsonian Institution, and the Taft Museum in Cincinnati.

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Gareth Branwyn is a freelance writer and the former Editorial Director of Maker Media. He is the author or editor of over a dozen books on technology, DIY, and geek culture. He is currently a contributor to Boing Boing, Wink Books, and Wink Fun. His free weekly-ish maker tips newsletter can be found at

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