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?

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Debit Museum Tix with Bank of America

For all the news circulating about Bank of America, something I came across that I think is really cool is their Museums on Us program.

In short, Bank of America card holders can save a trip to the ATM and simply flash their BoA card at participating museums, zoos, science centers, botanical gardens, etc. at over 100 institutions across the United States on the first full weekend of the month. NYC participating venues include the Intrepid Sea, Air and Space Museum, the MET, and the Whitney (to name a few).

I love this idea and only hope that it can expand to more cities with more institutions on more occasions. It reminds me a little bit of such incentives for employees at certain companies who have access to museums and cultural venues for free by showing their work ID (and if you don’t already know what your perks might be, talk to your human resources department to inquire if/what access you may have).

Virtual Visitors: A Community of Clickers and Commentators

The virtual revolution will not be televised.... although you'll probably get a tweet about it.

The virtual revolution will not be televised.... although you'll probably get a tweet about it.

Isn’t it fascinating how quickly (or maybe it’s not that quickly) our technology has advanced, increasing our sense of interconnectedness? I must admit, for awhile I assumed there might be a backlash of sorts where people would start to feel too consumed and overwhelmed by the extent of such connections. Alas, we are probably safe from all that, at least for the time being.

Innovative web and application programs make it possible for local communities to become more connected as well as the formation and cultivation of new virtual communities which extend beyond geographic borders to encompass individuals with similar interests and values.

Threadless is a “community-based tee shirt company with an ongoing, open call for design submissions.” Participants can create tee shirt designs, solicit feedback, and ultimately win a cash prize if your design is selected. At first I thought to myself, who is the community in “community-based tee shirt company.” To answer my own question, in this case it is the community who rates and comments on the participant’s idea. Anyone checking out the website can score designs. What I love about this is that there are numerous entry points to participating and becoming part of this community. The website also allows for designers who are not sure if their design is “ready” to have a preview of sorts which can be reviewed by the greater community. I know you may be asking…. why is Val talking about tee-shirts anyway…. To respond and to affirm, we can look beyond museums for inspiration.

Such opportunities to submit and evaluate works of art, brings to mind the Brooklyn Museum of Art’s 2008, Click! A Crowd-Curated Exhibit (side note: inspiration for this exhibit actually came from a book). The museum encouraged museum visitors, artists, and the general public to participate in this co-created exhibit experience with web-access to forums for discussing submitted photos, a virtual tour of the exhibit,  a “blurb book,” and a link to the results of the evaluation process (as the selected images were chosen by this community of participants). What was really neat about this exhibit was that the selected works on display were sized based on their votes (i.e. the more votes you got, the bigger your photo).

This notion reminds me of my previous post about the Partners in Preservation project in the Greater Boston area where participants could vote for a historic site to receive funding and another post regarding the Smithsonian’s NMAAHC asking participants to help select the winning design of the new museum. Creating a virtual community by asking others to vote or make a decision empowers individuals, sparks a desire to participate, and allows them to contribute thoughts and ideas. A likely side effect: people will surely buzz about this to their friends.

In another previous post, I asked if/what museums are doing to talk about all these great changes happening within the museum and if the outside word is aware of all the buzz…. perhaps the Smithsonian was listening to me? Check-out the their Call to Action, “Voice Your Vision” YouTube video:

What a creative way to start a lot of buzz about the museum’s (new) outlook and also solicit ideas and thoughts from the public!

From Facebook to Twitter, social networks also offer plenty of opportunities to reach out to, expand, and engage your virtual community (and if you’re wondering why we should care, check out Nina Simon’s recent blog post). With opportunities to create your own social network and emerging Web 4.0 applications such as Thwonk (a pretty wild “platform and community….giving you full access to manipulate and change the social rules of email list communication”) we should challenge ourselves to effectively and authentically engage our virtual communities while embracing all these innovative (and constantly changing) technological advancements.

I recently heard about the New York Hall of Science’s social network called MySci where their program participants receive usernames from the museum to access and interact with fellow museum program participants, contribute to blogs, and dish science. The network is only available for out-of-school-time program participants; a sort of members only approach with a safe space for kids to share openly. What’s really cool is that even after you grow-out-of or leave the out-of-school-time  programs your account remains active.

New website collectives also offer virtual space to grow, inform, and involve community groups about any range of topics. While at AAM, I attended a session entitled, Places and Stories That Matter: Digital Experiments and Community Involvement where presenters discussed ways they are using digital technology to engage audiences and bridge differences. The Historical Society of Pennsylvania plans to launch (in September 2009) PhilaPlace, an interactive “multi-ethnic web-based resource” that explores the history, culture, and neighborhoods of Philadelphia, PA. The goal of this collaborative project is to “bridge disciplines, media, and audiences by creating a new model for connecting audiences.”  Throughout the planning and development stages, the Historical Society collaborated with community partners and individuals to obtain stories, memories, photos and experiences.  The sneak peek we got during the session was an eye full; Google maps meets Twitter meets Flickr meets YouTube meets established historic archives meets…. well you get the picture.

Similarly, City Lore, is a New York-based non-profit that specializes “in the creation of programs and materials for public education and enjoyment.” One of their many initiatives, in collaboration with the Municipal Arts Society,  is Place Matters “a city-wide initiative to identify, celebrate, interpret and protect places that tell the history and anchor the traditions of New York’s many communities.” Places are nominated by New Yorkers through a Census of Places that Matter and for the sites highlighted on the website, viewers have access to read stories, advocate for these places of importance, and learn about upcoming events and programs.  Another City Lore program, City of Memory, also provides access and opportunities for people to share stories and experiences “that happened forty years ago or something that happened this morning” which are mapped out (so virtual visitors can pin-point these locations and  become actual visitors). I definitely plan on doing a bit of my own research to see if my grandfather’s butcher shop is included among the wonderful stories already shared!

These are just a few of the buzz-worthy, web-based resources that connect, cultivate, and engage folks to grow community interest, involvement, and interaction. Of course the question remains, what if you’re being savvy with technology and no one responds!?

  • Well first things first, reach out to your local and virtual communities using a variety of mainstream and creative methods to build an interest in developing technology-based programs.
  • Secondly, use programs that work for you (you don’t need to have a Twitter feed for the sake of it, I actually follow a couple of museums who hardly ever update their twitter- kind of pointless). Think about ways to virtually engage the public beyond your website, but also consider the time and resources you will need to maintain a presence on the Internet. In considering the time constraints  posed on visitors as contributors, check out this interesting Museum 3.0 post by Monika Lechner.
  • And of course, try new things and look beyond museums for inspiration. Depending on your resources and availability, such applications can be just what you need to revitalize your programs and brand while expanding your reach in serving your community.

To my community of readers: Are you vritually connected to your community, if so how? What are some projects or thoughts you’d like to share about connecting with your local community virtually and growing a virtual community? Do you feel virtually connected to museums, do you care to be? Are you an active member of online communities, when do you participate, how?

Garbage Museum To Be Scrapped?

Trash on exhibit? That’s not someone’s opinion. At the Garbage Museum in Stratford, Connecticut, the trash on exhibit is trash – literally! Developed and maintained by the Connecticut Resources Recovery Authority (CRRA) this museum, which first opened its doors in 1993,  serves to educate and explore “the many challenges and solutions of waste management,” while also highlighting the importance of recycling through education programs and tours for children and adults. According to a recent Associated Press article by Dave Collins (found in the Staten Island Advance, 4/19/09), “…the truckes keep dumping trash and the school buses keeping dumping children.”

Upon reading the above mentioned article entitled, “It’s always Earth Day at trash museum,” I was surprised that I was not (yet) familiar with this museum, nor was I aware of it’s sister museum, the Trash Museum in Hartford, Connecticut. Although the museums boasted reported a combined visitation of over 57,000 people last year, the Garbage Museum is facing money problems. It is interesting that while some museums struggle to reflect and defend their relevancy to the public, with the growing popularity of “being green,” recycling, and using sustainable and environmentally friendly products, the Garbage Museum is struggling to keep its doors open. Unfortunately, the Museum received its funding from one source (the Southwest Connecticut Recycling Operating Committee, SWEROC) and between contracts being up and the global recession, SWEROC is no longer in a position to cover the museum’s operational costs (approximately $225,000 annually), leaving the museum to “scramble” to find alternative financial support. If this is the case, I may not get the chance to meet Trash-o-saurus, a dinosaur made from a ton of trash (representing the amount of trash an average person throws away in a year) on display at the museum.

With a modest admission price of $2, the museum offers interactive experiences of walking through a giant compost pile and “watching what happens to recyclables in a ‘sky-box’ view of the tipping and sorting process.” As the Garbage Museum is connected to its regional recycle center, such experiences beautifully intertwine the purpose and mission with its programming and offerings. As the museum is open to the public on select weekdays it may be difficult to plan a visit, however do make a point to visit as the museum soon, as it may only be able to stay open thru the end of the summer.

I do want to note some creative measures the museum is taking in reaching out to the public for support; including a link on the CRRA website to donate to the Garbage Museum, become a  fan of the museum on Facebook, and a link to the Save the Stratford, CT Garbage Museum blog. With regard to the blog, of particular signfiicance is the mention of local high school students who created a video helping to “spread the word” about the importance and current struggles of the museum.

The Best Things in Life are (Sometimes) Free

So while I burned the midnight oil and attempted to list all the fabulous museums that have free/reduced/pay-as-you like admission opportunities, a simple tweet put that all to rest – it’s been done.

While some institutions have the ability to provide such opportunities for visitors, other museums feeling the economic crunch have raised admission prices. In this interesting Forbes Magazine article published last month, Judith Dobrzynski proposes creative alternatives to these price hikes. She highlights the success of other venues and companies in providing price discrimination and tiered pricing for programs and performance tickets and asks why museums shouldn’t also consider raising admission prices during certain times of the day or days of the week.

Dobrzynski discusses the options and opportunities for variable pricing with the understanding that, “The benefits have to be obvious – early entry, fewer people.” As a museum professional, I must admit that my museum experiences are quite positive and memorable when I get a sneak peek and behind-the-scenes look at exhibits, often when the museum is closed to the public because of special programming. Even so, when I plan my museum adventures, I often look for opportunities to save money, even if that means visiting during more heavily trafficed times of the day or days of the week.

Museums that might consider variable pricing should first consider their audience and their mission and if such admission changes are appropriate. As the story goes, if the community is not supportive of “x” changes, their outcry will be heard and the end result may tarnish the relationship and mutual respect between institution and community. Furthermore, the idea of variable pricing may confuse and alienate some visitors who have embraced the idea of the museum as a forum with equal opportunity for interaction, engagement and participation. Dobrzynski responds to such concerns by adding, “…the public has to understand the rationale, knowing that those who can’t afford the premium are still welcome during most museum hours.” However, considering some stereotypes about museums, such pricing alternatives may only contribute to the notion that museums are elitiest institutions for the elite.

Keep your eyes and ears open for museums that may consider this alternative, and do share your thoughts!

Survival of the Fittest? More Like a Dose of Healthy Competition!

I recently received an email from a Bostonian friend, urging me to “vote” for my favorite (Boston) historic site. With me and my New York state of mind, I was a bit confused and so I visited the program’s website to understand exactly what’s going on in Beantown….. and what I found is pretty cool!

American Express partnered with the National Trust for Historic Preservation a few years ago and launched the Partners in Preservation, a program committed to contributing over $5 million dollars over a five-year period. With a focus on preserving historic places throughout the United States, the program has already funded historic places in San Francisco, Chicago, and New Orleans with it’s latest program recently launched in the Greater Boston, Massachusetts area.

A few really cool things to point out:

  • I mentioned voting before…. basically the public will help decide what historic site should receive the allotted funds by voting online. This is a really great way to get all  (who have access to the internet) involved in contributing to this “community-oriented” initiative. With Boston being such a large tourist magnet, it’s great to see that individuals not living in the area can also participate (or in my case, those of us who used to live in the Greater Boston area).
  • While the winner of the public vote is guaranteed funds, additional sites will be selected by a committee to receive funds too!
  • The website includes an easy way to get some basic information, click by click, about each site which can be a useful tool beyond the actual competition and also provides information on how you can help spread the word.

It’s interesting to see where some of the museums part of the competition are currently ranked compared to other neighborhood sites. To check out the current top 10 sites and vote for your own, click here. Voting will conclude on May 17th so get a move on!

Design Competition for NMAAHC Heats Up!

I received via email a link to the Smithsonian’s Blog, highlighting the current buzz about the design competition involving a handful of world renown architects for the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC). A poll on the blog asks viewers to choose which design should win the bid. I’m not sure how great of an impact the poll will have on deciding the winning design; the final decision will be announced on Tuesday, April 14 (um…. yep that’s tomorrow). Regardless, it’s really neat that the museum seeks the participation and involvement among their public and those interested in this process. With a tentative opening date slated for November 18, 2015 (a few years after the 2012 groundbreaking) it’s never too early to get started! It’s also never too late to get involved, check out the designs and vote today!

On a personal note, having worked at Amaze Design Inc., the Boston-based exhibit deisgn firm part of the fantastic team responsible for the Interpretive Master Plan for the NMAAHC, I am very happy to see this project progress and I definitely plan to stay updated on the latest news.