Localizing Museum Love: Getting to the Heart of Your Community

Untitled-1I know I am not alone in believing in the strength and power of museums to cultivate community pride, create access to programs rich in cultural diversity, and encourage cultural understanding through open dialog and meaningful offerings. Still reveling in my recent professional development experiences and considering trends in community development, growth, and participation I want to share some thoughts and findings about cultivating, engaging, and sustaining programs for such local audiences.

Be creative in approaches to realizing your museum’s mission in connecting with your community. Make an effort to bring your museum to your community. Learn about the needs of your community through personal connections and interactions.

  • Just as museums should seek to truly “Know Thyself” it is also so important for these institutions to know thy community. Knowing who your neighbors are and what needs they have better positions you to be of help. In the April/May 2009 issue of IPM, Ben Dickdow’s article, “Museums as Community” discusses experiences and programs where museums serve “as a hope for the community, building an enthusiastically engaged relation between museum and public,” and “as a platform from which a community can begin to meet their needs.” He stresses the importance of “bringing museums to the community and forging personal, engaged relationships in neighborhoods.” Of the examples he provides in demonstrating what this looks like, one of my favorites is the Buffalo Museum of Science. The museum created “science spots” to cultivate community involvement and brought the museum experience to the greater public by these program spaces.
  • The opportunities that museums have to tap into community networks through relevant, cross-cultural programming seems endless. Rosa Cabrera’s 2006 Museum New’s article, “Beyond the Museum Walls” discusses at length, the Field Museum’s Cultural Connections collaboration which encompasses partnerships and cross-culturally relevant topics to foster cultural understanding and examines the “value of cultural differences” to bring together ethnically-diverse communities in the Chicago area. Just as an FYI, “Planting Seeds of Community” is another article from the July/August 2006 issue of Museum News with fantastic programming examples related to this topic – definitely worth checking out.
  • At this year’s NYCMER conference, I attended two sessions which focused on the notion of community. During one of the sessions, Dr. Paul Radensky, Museum Educator for Jewish Schools, at the Museum of Jewish Heritage discussed the four month-long Interfaith Living Museum project, an extension of the Living Museum program. This year the project brought together students from the Solomon Schechter School of Manhattan and the Islamic Leadership School of the Bronx to share experiences and knowledge with each other, their teachers, and families using museum-inspired approaches like cataloging personal artifacts and creating mini-exhibits. As quoted in a press release about the program, Solomon Schechter principal Gary Pretsfelder stated, “It has given our fifth graders the opportunity to meet and engage peers from very different backgrounds and from a community with which they would ordinarily have very little, if any, contact. It is important to us that our students recognize at a young age what Muslims and Jews have in common so that the future discourse, which right now is so intertwined with politics, can have a chance to succeed.” The museum recognized the need to encourage cross-cultural dialog and utilized its resources to provide an opportunity for this. While this program is a great undertaking it is not without it’s own challenges which are mainly related to the inclusive exhibiting of artifacts and approach to connecting these rich narratives and personal stories.

Research and reach-out to fellow museums, non-profits, cultural organizations in your neighborhood. Find out what is already being done and where the gaps are – fill the void and find your niche so that you can bridge that gap between your community and your museum.

  • Dr. Radensky’s talk reminded me of a project I collaborated on as a grad student in the Tufts University Museum Studies program. Along with a couple of classmates, I developed an adult ELL (English Language Learners) program proposal, Savvy Sea Stories for the USS Constitution Museum in Charlestown, MA in which participants would also work closely with artifacts. Especially in heavily touristed cities it can be challenging to solidify strong bonds with local communities and potential patrons. In preliminary research, we came to understand more about the diversity of the Charlestown community and their needs. In doing so, we sought collaborations with local libraries and ELL classes to complement and enhance their current program offerings to build English language skills while alleviating some costs and resources likely incurred if the program were to be developed independent of partnerships. We saw a niche for the museum to welcome this audience and use artifacts as a springboard for sparking conversations and connections among participants while practicing skills developed in their classes.

Show your community you care! Support local businesses and attend community events. Consider access to your museum: Does your community feel welcomed? What can you do to encourage participation and connections with and among your community members?

  • Sometimes it’s a matter of making your institution welcoming and accessible to your local community. Let your community know that you are there and that you are interested in them. I remember an inspiring lecture that Nina Zanniere, Executive Director of Paul Revere House in Boston, MA gave to one of my Museum Studies classes. She spoke at length about the North End community and how she sought opportunities to embrace and connect with local residents so that the museum’s neighbors would likewise care more deeply about the historic site. On a small scale, it may be as simple as supporting local establishments whenever possible (from buying coffee to office supplies) or providing space in your museum for community groups to hold meetings.
  • This brings to mind something I just heard recently while speaking with staff from the Bartow-Pell Mansion Museum in the Bronx, NY. The staff provides free tickets to all children from school groups to entice these young visitors to come back to the museum with their families…. and it works! I love this idea mainly because making connections with younger visitors is likely to have two results: 1. If these young visitors had a good experience they will most likely bug their families about going back to the museum (I mean “bug” in the most endearing, positive, cute way of course). 2. The museum empowers the child by placing importance on her/him as an active decision-maker while indirectly promoting and cultivating  lifelong learners with strong connections to their institution.

Share your findings!!

I’d love to hear about your thoughts, ideas, approaches, concerns with such programming! You may also be interested in following  this thread on the Museum-L list serv, which I’m sure will get a lot of responses for education programs in museums that fill a need in the community (I’m sure the publication, once completed, will be a great resource). Also, if you’re in the New York area, you may also want to check out “How to Build a Community Around Your Brand,” a meet-up event on June 15th which will bring together a lot of creative individuals across disciplines to share best practices, tactics, and tips for community engagement.

Put on your community member hat for a moment: Do you feel connected to museums in your communities? What are these museums doing to empower you as a member of your community? Would you be interested in such programs? Are your local museums helping to connect you to the rest of your community?

Put on your museum professional hat for a moment: How do you serve your community’s needs? Can you think of current offerings that can be tweaked to better serve this local audience? What are your goals for reaching out to your community and what are anticipated challenges? What are five immediate things you can do to strengthen your relationship with your community?


2 thoughts on “Localizing Museum Love: Getting to the Heart of Your Community

  1. Great points, im wondering though if we need to really hammer out what community means to museums? Is it the people who come to the museum, the people who live around the museum, or both because these two groups have very different needs and desires in my experiance. Just wondered what you thought.

    • Hi Danny, thanks for your comment! I think you bring up a great point, something I completely overlooked in terms of elaborating on how museums define community or rather how we should consider community in our own practice. You’ve already discussed a couple of great examples:

      Museum Visitor Community: The community of patrons already coming through your museum doors. While some of these individuals may already be members of your museum it is important to consider all visitor-related motivations (check out my previous post which speaks more about this). This is an important community that has the power to shape programs and market the museum using word of mouth to share experiences with friends.

      Local Community
      : In terms of physical location, and I spoke briefly about this in my post, the idea to reach out to your neighbors to support the greater community so your local community takes an interest in your museum and its programs. Knowing the expectations and needs of your local residents may better position your institution from sparking controversy. In the cases where this cannot be helped, at least having some foundation in building strong ties and using open communication may help.

      To add to this I thought I’d mention:
      Non-Visitor Community
      : I spoke about this group a bit in a previous post. These potential visitors may be part of your greater community and you may need to get creative to provide a welcoming place of interest. Similarly, just as museums vie for people’s free time (along with sporting events, shopping malls, amusement parks, etc.) it is important to first understand why people aren’t coming to your museum so you can consider options and opportunities for changing this.

      There are many ways to interpret community: virtual community, school group community, family communities, communities related to culture, ethnicity, age, interests, geography, and so on. I think for museums, depending their location, mission, and resources the extent of cultivating these various communities into audiences and visitors varies. From the article I mentioned in my post by Ben Dickow, he describes a small community meeting he attended while participating on a dinosaur dig in Montana, stating, “…the town’s people were extremely engaged with how their museum would impact their community, in some ways to a greater degree than those of us who worked in large established museums. To some of them, this town’s museum could actually rebuild the community, spurring growth and inspiring their young people to stay in town.” I would like to think that all museums have this kind of relationship to and with its community, however that is unfortunately, not the case.

      What are your experiences with museums and communities? Rather than find a definition described in a text book, I think this becomes a very personal question based on experiences between specific museums with specific community groups.

      Speaking from personal experience, I previously worked in a rather large museum which greatly served national/international visitors (tourists) and NY school groups. Although our public programs served children and families from the New York City and greater New York regions, it was challenging to cultivate partnerships and develop programs of interest for our neighbors (our geographically-approximated community).

      Patience, awareness of the challenges, and understanding your institution’s resources and abilities is definitely needed for such undertakings.That is to say, understanding your community’s needs will not happen overnight and even when you understand this, your museum may not be able to fulfill all these needs. It’s a balancing act to the say the least and something that develops over time (if at all). In the meantime, I think there are things museums can do to get the ball rolling with this: trying new approaches to see what works and reaching out to these communities to show you’re interested.

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