In an article I am working on for a history journal I write, "A community is a formal or informal group with a common history. The community can be based around a geographic area or topic of interest. Communities can be represented by civic organizations, governments, informal social groups, educational institutions, causes, and the like. Cultural institutions support the collective memories of communities by retaining materials that reflect individual group member’s ideas and remembrances, documenting special events as well as day-to-day activities."
This role of community support is one of the most important jobs of a museum or Archives. Cultural institutions help transfer the knowledge, beliefs, customs, artistic essence, memories, shared experiences and history of communities. By doing so, they aid the transference of human wisdom from one generation to the next.
Members of any given community will belong to many other communities, producing overlapping social circles. Cultural heritage institutions help pronounce the overlap between groups, citing our similarities and promoting understanding and empathy. [Please pardon my not-so-perfect, rough drawing of overlapping communities. Members of one community may belong to some similar communities, but may differ in other memberships. All of the communities here can be broken down further. For example, "Beliefs" can include religion, political affiliation, etc.]
For those interested in how cultural heritage institutions feed communities, Robert R. Archibald's A Place to Remember: Using History to Build Community explains how the individual connects with his world through his own memories and experiences, while also learning from the knowledge of others passed through time. It is a book that I return to again and again in my personal library.
Much recent writing in the field of archives in particular has focused on documenting various communities. An article in the latest issue (Spring / Summer 2010) of the American Archivist titled "Documenting the Immigrant and Ethnic Experience in American Archives" discusses the need for and challenge of documenting "ethnic" communities. It is a thought provoking look at the idea of "activist archivists" who approach their work with the idea that collections should reflect diversity. The article discusses how those collecting records must work with those in the communities creating them.
If we accept that a significant role of the cultural heritage institution is to document diverse communities and we are open to the challenge of the "activist archivist" (for lack of a better term) or the "activist curator," our challenge becomes identifying the communities one should document. There is presumably an unlimited number of communities that exist. Beginning with my outline of humanity's cultural groups, cultural heritage professionals can seek to recognize the communities that their institution should embody and consider how these groups are represented by their collections and programs.