Sunday, December 4, 2011

Embracing Change and Engaging Communities:
A success story from Philadelphia

This post takes inspiration from Phillip Seitz’s May/June 2011 article in Museum, “When Slavery Came to Stay.”  It centers on Cliveden, a National Trust historic site, encompassing a 1767 mansion and 5.5 acres outside Philadelphia, PA.  The site was the home of the distinguished Chew family and was almost continuously occupied for 200 years.  This historic home is located in a neighborhood that is now roughly 85% African American.

What do you do when the community around your museum changes so dramatically that your museum no longer seems relevant?  According to Phillip Seitz and Cliveden, you reach out to that new community and you give them what they want—even if that means radically revamping your interpretation and mission.  For Cliveden, these ultimate risks were worth it.  Rather than dying a “quiet, polite, and irrelevant death,” this historic site is engaging with history and its public like never before (p. 42).

These radical changes began back in 2001, when Phillip Seitz (then curator of history at Cliveden) discovered evidence of the Chew family’s slave-holding plantations.  In his article Seitz relates that “subsequent digging over several years confirmed a major story of the enslaved planation community’s organized resistance—passive, active, violent—the like of which has been rarely documented” (p. 42).  This “story of slavery and profit of epic proportions” begins in Colonial Jamestown and extends right down to the establishment of Cliveden’s endowment.  Eventually it became too much to stay silent about these sobering facts. 

During this time, an unlikely partnership developed between the curator Seitz—a “chubby middle-aged white European American with a master’s degree—and the maintenance man John Reese—a slim, older African American Muslim with a sixth-grade education” (43).  Seitz shared the details of this “real, unfiltered history” with Reese while Reese taught Seitz about what it was like to be black in America.  This fruitful partnership led to a coauthored paper and the inspiration for sharing this information with the community.

In order to do this, Cliveden hired an African American community relations consultant and organized several neighborhood meetings.  These meetings began with a presentation about the new research—revealing the secret past of the Chew family and their courageous slaves.  This presentation was followed by a question and answer period and a facilitated discussion which focused on how participants wanted this kind of information delivered at the site.  The local participants did not hold back and came up with numerous ideas for engaging the community and presenting this vital information.  Their suggestions included free busing, hosting a day for visitors to share their own family’s stories of slavery, storytelling, interactive media, and food.

This was a transformative experience for Cliveden.  Armed with the community’s support and suggestions, Seitz was able to convince the board of directors to allow for sweeping changes and an entirely new interpretive message and strategy.  A series of lecture/discussions on slavery-related topics followed, which met with wild success in the community.  A psychologist-facilitated workshop came next.  Cliveden now actively engages in community outreach, storytelling artist-in-residence programs, new exhibits on the slave experience, and even the diversification of its governing board.  By reaching out to the community, truly listening to their ideas, and following through on their advice, the staff now has “the opportunity to extend Cliveden’s stories in ways that combine the War for Independence and the Struggle for Freedom while avoiding the traps of ‘shame and blame.’  [They] are fulfilling [their] vision to make history useful while building vibrant communities” (p. 47). 

Works Cited:

Seitz, P.  2011.  When slavery came to stay.  Museum, 90 (3):  40-47.
Image credit:

~ Posted by LF
Museums:  Engage your community by 
promoting the "Greener Good"

This blog entry was inspired by the January/February 2008 Museum article entitled “The Greener Good:  The Enviro-Active Museum” by Elizabeth Wylie and Sarah S. Brophy. 

Another way museums, zoos, aquariums, and historic sites can engage with their communities is by promoting environmentally sustainable practices.  Museums are discovering that “sustainability is an issue that connects their missions to local, regional, and global communities in new ways” (p. 42).  Museums are seen as trusted authorities in their communities and also have a responsibility to educate the public.  Thus, it seems a natural fit for museums to become role models in the green movement. 

Barbra Batshalom of the Green Roundtable (an nonprofit organization which promotes and supports sustainable buildings and development) notes that, “Museum staff and trustees have increased awareness around the responsibilities of being stewards and understand the need to integrate mission activities into the natural, social and built systems of the whole community” (p. 42).  Likewise, Ellen Censky, director of the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History at the University of Oklahoma in Norman, asks, “If we cannot lead by example, then why should people listen to what we are saying?” (p. 44). 

It is important to note, however, that in order to lead by example, museums must connect with the whole community, not just with the self-selecting audience who chooses to visit the museum.  In other words, this means “reaching not just the audience attending lectures, visiting exhibits and participating in town meetings, but the audience that lives or works in the neighborhood, reads the newspaper, buys light bulbs, feeds their families, drives a car and generates trash” (p. 42). 

Nevertheless, the risks and hard work associate with reaching out to the entire community and adopting eco-conscious initiatives do not go without rewards to the institution.  Several museums have proven that supporting sustainability can be mutually beneficial to both communities and museums.  These benefits include immediate and long term positive effects like:  increased attendance, financial savings, and knowing you’ve helped your community make smarter, better choices.   

So what are some ways for museums to promote sustainability in their communities?  What ideas have been tried and have succeeded?  Museums can look to others like them in the field and find a plethora of prosperous programs and ideas that both promote environmentally sustainable practices and and engage the entire community.  Here is a sampling:

  • Recycling Programs:  An easy way to reach out to the public and promote environmentally green habits is to start a program for people to deposit paper, plastics, batteries, and electronics for recycling.  For example, the Cabrillo Marine Aquarium in L.A. asks students to bring in recyclables in lieu of admission fees.  Places like Cleveland’s MetroParks Zoo and the Discovery Museum in Acton, MA partnered with local recycling businesses to create an onsite recycling center.  

  • Farmers’ Markets and Community-Supported Agriculture (CSA) Programs:  Partnering with a CSA or hosting a farmers’ market or stand is a great way for museums to draw connections between their mission and sustainable agriculture.  These types of programs “aim to increase quality f of food and care given land, plants and animals while reducing potential food losses and financial risks for producers” (p. 43).  Additionally, farm stands and markets can produce additional revenue and bring in new audiences when museums host dinners and festivals featuring local, organic produce.  Institutions currently reaping these delicious rewards include the Woodlawn in Alexandria, VA and the Massachusetts Audubon Society.  

  • Promote Sustainability in your Café or Food Court:  Most visitors to museums stop by the café or food court at some point during their visit.  Consequently, your food court can be a powerful and effective instrument through which you can encourage guests to make environmentally friendly choices.  For instance, the Kids Café at the Brooklyn Children’s Museum “extends its green initiative to visitor’s plates with ecologically conscious products and practices such as:  low-volume packaging, biodegradable and recycled napkins and tableware, biodegradable and low-phosphate cleaning supplies, and a sorting and recycling program for waste” (p. 46).  The museum also encourages visitors to dine green by using local and seasonal produce.   

  • Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED):   Developed by the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC), LEED consists of a suite of rating systems for the design, construction and operation of high performance green buildings, homes and neighborhoods.  Several museums and historic sites are serving as leaders in environmental stewardship in both new construction and the retro-fitting of older, existing buildings on their campuses.  Examples include the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History at the University of Oklahoma in Norman, OK, the Brooklyn Children’s Museum in NY, and the Lincoln Cottage in Washington, D.C.  

  • Offer Sustainability Interpretation:  Reach out to your community by offering classes, programs, lectures, and demonstrations that teach sustainability and environmentally friendly habits.  Partnering with green non-profits and special interest groups can allow for a whole range of activities.  The Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum (CBMM) in St. Michaels, MD has created programs that teach local homeowners to create living shorelines instead of seawalls.  They also offer programs that give lectures via kayak and have partnered with the Adkins Arboretum to plan stormwater-containing rain gardens to reduce runoff.  Finally, CBMM partnered with over eighty environmental organizations to put on a “Bay Day” festival which encouraged locals to help save the bay with at-home and volunteer opportunities. 
All of these methods give museums ways to connect their mission to action in their communities.  Another piece of advice garnered from practitioners in the field:  In addition to simply taking sustainable action, museums must make sure they are telling people what they are doing and even more importantly why they are doing it.  This can be done via signage, websites, interpretation, and program partnerships. 

Everyone can embrace sustainability and community action.  In this day and age, no one can afford to overlook the deep connection between global environmental health and institutional health; the future of our museums and our planet depend on it! 

Works Cited:

Wylie, E., and Brophy, S.S. 2008.  The greener good:  The enviro-active museum.  Museum, 87 (1):  40-47.
Image credit:

~ Posted by LF
Why should museums reach out to communities 
and who says they have to?

There’s been a lot of talk about museums and historic sites reaching out to communities.  You might be wondering, “Why is it so important to work with my local community?”  This post highlights some of the reasons for engaging communities and who says it is important. 

American Association of Museums (AAM):  Originally published in 2002, and again in 2005, AAM published Excellence in Practice:  Museum Education Principles and Standards, which was developed by AAM’s Committee on Education (EdCom).  This pamphlet was “developed to help guide and inform the practice of museum education” and should be used by everyone who supports “informal education and teaching with objects, both inside and outside the museum field” (p. 4).  The “Principles of Best Practices for Education in Museums” is based on three components:  Accessibility, Accountability, and Advocacy.  Principle number ONE in this list of best practices states: 
Engage the community and serve the museum’s audiences.  Develop and maintain sound relationships with community organizations, schools, cultural institutions, universities, other museums, and the general public.  Reflect the needs and complexities of changing society.  Shape content and interpretation toward relevant issues and create a broad dialogue (p. 7).
Additionally, the “Professional Standards for Museum Educators” states as its FIRST standard:
Focus on Audiences and Community.  Museum educators have knowledge of and respect for the audiences their museums serve.  They promote museums’ public service role within our changing society. 
Clearly AAM believes that connecting with communities is paramount to the core mission of museums to serve their audiences.  What other authorities call museums to engage with their communities?  Besides the mission, are there other compelling reasons?  The answer is YES!

National Trust for Historic Preservation (NTHP):  In 2008 the NTHP published its Final Conference Report:  Sustainability of Historic Sites in the 21st Century:  The Call for a National Conversation.  The first two findings of this report state: 
Successful stewardship of the nation’s historic sites requires financial sustainability.  Sustainability begins with each historic site’s engagement with its community and its willingness to change its structure, programs, and services in response to the changing needs of that community (p. 6).
So in addition to being part of a museum’s core mission, engaging the community should also be an important part of its plan for financial sustainability.  This financial recommendation stems from the realization that the “heritage tourism” model is no longer financially sustainable for most sites.  Instead, NTHP and the AASLH (see below) recommend that sites seek to provide what their communities need—or else run the risk of becoming irrelevant to their communities and defunct as a consequence. 

American Association for State and Local History (AASLH):  As mentioned above, the AASLH also recommends that historic house museums engage their communities for financial sustainability reasons (in addition to their missions).  The AASLH’s Technical Leaflet #224:  How Sustainable is Your Historic House Museum?  lists as its first “Characteristic of a Sustainable Historic House Museum:” 
A sustainable historic house museum serves its audience and is valued by its community (p. 2).
As you can see, our profession’s top associations and governing bodies are leading the call for museums and historic sites to engage with their communities.  Not only is this an issue of the utmost importance to a museum’s mission—because why are we here if not to serve our audiences?—but it is also a critical step in ensuring the long-term financial sustainability of a museum or site.  Relevancy is one of the top issues facing museums today; we must embrace changes in society and change with them.  The public depends on us to provide education and inspiration; we depend on the public for existence.  Why not work with them?

Works Cited:

American Association of Museums – Committee on Education.  2005.  Excellence in Practice:  Museum Education Principles and Standards.  Washington, DC:  AAM:  1-16.
American Association for State and Local History - Historic House Affinity Group Committee. 2008.  How sustainable is your historic house museum? (Technical Leaflet #244). History News, 63 (4):  1-12.
Vaughn, J.  2008.  Introduction:  The call for a national conversation.  ForumJournal, 22 (3):  5-9.
Image credit:

~ Posted by LF
"An Embarrassment of Riches":  
Reflections on the SI Community Reef

I spent last summer interning at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History. Part of my summer internship entailed helping with the de-installation of the Smithsonian Community Reef, which was a part of the Hyperbolic Crochet Coral Reef temporary exhibition in the Ocean Hall. At first I must confess that I was less than enthused – taking down thousands of pieces of crochet did not sound like a fantastic way to spend what I had hoped would be a mummy-filled summer (I was there mainly to help with the Eternal Life in Ancient Egypt exhibition) but once I got started I was hooked. (All you crocheters can go ahead and snicker, the pun is intentional!)  What I discovered shocked and inspired me, and I will never forget the time I spent working on the reef and the lessons I learned.

Composed of coral-like forms crocheted from traditional fibers and recycled materials by more than 800 contributors, the Smithsonian Community Reef (SCR) represents the melding of science, art, and community in a national museum setting and is a clear example of just how effective and meaningful such a union can ultimately be. The reef was composed of over 4,000 pieces of crocheted coral contributed by 819 men, women, and children. The reef itself was an impressive structure to behold, towering over views at 9 feet in height, 10 feet in width, and 16 feet in length. It took over 770 volunteer hours to prepare and assemble the reef, and this amazing number bears testament to the value and impact volunteers attributed to the collaboration. Contributors and volunteers overwhelmingly professed newfound relationships to the museum, increased awareness of the need for coral reef conservation, commitment to reducing the amount of plastics consumed, and a profound sense of pride at having been a part of the project. One contributor poignantly noted that she “loved having a new way to interact with museums” while another expressed that she now “feels like a part of the Smithsonian community.” The SCR has thus provided the NMNH with a new means of engaging audiences and represents a new way for the public to interact with the museum.

Jennifer Lindsay, contracted as the SCR Programming Coordinator, collaborated with Catherine Sutera, the Assistant Ocean Science Educator, in the organization of widely attended workshops and events that brought reef-making into the museum while also providing event participants with substantive educational programming about coral and coral habitat.  These sessions directly connected participants in the project to the museum’s staff, educational mission and rich collections. Additionally, Jennifer Lindsay generated a great deal of interest in the Smithsonian Community Reef in only five months via effective collaboration with 13 fiber shops and 29 community crochet groups, along with online social media and a weekly-updated email newsletter. Through this diverse approach, NMNH successfully incorporated national and international visitors into the project within the context of the Museum. 

The time, energy, and enthusiasm of a large number of volunteers were crucial to the success of the SCR. Many of these volunteers worked tirelessly to teach people to crochet in community groups or sponsored workshops, manned the most successful table at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival in 2010, and helped to sort, prepare and install all 4000 of the crocheted coral pieces. After the exhibition opened, volunteers worked in the exhibit space and served as exhibit hosts, tour guides, and led the “Crocheter Is In” cart program (based off of the popular the “Scientist is In” cart program. 14 volunteers alone contributed over 511 hours of their time and interacted with over 31,130 visitors. 

The Smithsonian Community Reef was a project unprecedented in type, scale, and scope at the Museum. The impact of the project far exceeded the exhibition team’s expectations and pleasantly surprised museum staff, community contributors, and audiences alike. Benefits of the success of the community reef are manifold, but most vital are the following: the fostering of new relationships between public and museum, a new-found appreciation for the role that community projects can play in the achievement of the museum’s mission and educational goals, a deeper understanding of the amount of coordination necessary for a community project of this caliber, the reinforcement of the crucial importance of volunteers in NMNH projects, discovering the relevancy of synthesizing art and science while incorporating current topics in ocean research and conservancy, and an profound sense of awe at the incredible and wide-sweeping impact of a project of this nature. Clearly, the SCR was an important and paradigm-shifting exhibit that will not soon leave the minds of museum staff and audiences alike, and contributors to the reef will be waiting and watching to see how the NMNH engages the public in future collaborative projects.

To learn more and see pictures of the SCR before it was de-installed, check out this link:

The SCR did NOT die when we took it down – instead it found a new home at the Putnam Museum and IMAX Theatre in Davenport, Iowa. If you’re ever in town, go check it out! For info on their new installation of the reef and info on how to see it, go here:
And now, for your reading pleasure, a few bullet points that I compiled regarding things I learned while I was working on the reef…enjoy!

SCR – Community Information:
  • People of all ages and backgrounds participated
o   contributions sent from multiple states
o   many expressed increased desire to learn about coral reefs and made changes in lifestyle (such as using less plastic) as a result
  • Almost everyone expressed the desire to see more community projects like this – merging art and science – at the NMNH
  • 343 people attended “thank you” reception and many came with family and friends to view their work
o    generated a tremendous amount of excitement and goodwill towards museum and fostered a sense of engagement and belonging
o   spurred many who had not visited museum ever or those who had not visited in many years to come back…those who came back report being very pleasantly surprised and happy with new exhibitions and the SCR in particular

Anonymous Surveys (contributors)
Common Words:
Personal, beautiful, spectacular, eye-opening, immediate, creative and ingenious, stunning, impressive, unique, rewarding, fun, relevant, inspirational, EMPOWERING, educational, exciting, bonding, delightful, amazing

Contributor’s thoughts:
  • “made me aware that it’s not just a place for old exhibits”
  • made them “feel like a part of the Smithsonian community”
  • “made new friends and built a true community”
  • “loved having a new way to interact with museums”
  • brought “purpose to knitting”
  • loved the ability to share their interests with others
  • gave many an incentive to visit museum for the first time ever or the first time in many years

  • sense of responsibility towards Smithsonian
  • sense museum is more interesting now and has more to offer
  • sense of engagement, sense of togetherness and community
  • sense of personal and communal accomplishment
  • sense that reef has multi-generational aspect (grandparents bringing children and grandchildren to see work)
  • sense that exhibit is something new and invigorating
  • sense of connection
  • increased awareness of museum and of coral reef conservation messages

  • far exceeded expectations, from the community, artists, and scientists
  • people would definitely participate in similar projects and hope for more projects in the future
  • made people aware the Smithsonian is interested in them and their thoughts
  • many happy at melding of art and science in a science museum
  • many became docents
  • reignited interest in NMNH from people who had not visited in many years…realized that museum is now more interactive and visitor friendly…made or intend to make repeat visits
  • got people interested and active in reef conservation and fiber arts
  • started crochet groups, told friends and family
  • many state they are recycling more and using less plastic
  • many thrilled at being a part of the project, a part of the Smithsonian (fostering sense of belonging and pride)
  • many profess awe at magnitude of project and degree of community involvement

~ Posted by CP

10 Commandments for Museums Engaging 
in Community Engagement

So, by now you’re probably dying to know all about the best practices for community collaboration. The reality is that there is no one set method or structure that you can use to ensure that your collaboration project will result in success. Success in collaboration takes time, trust, respect, dedication, flexibility, and good ol’ fashioned hard work. While there is no singular path to success, Nina Simon advises her readers that “a clear institutional goal, as well as respect and understanding for participants’ needs and abilities” are fundamental to finding what process will work for a given collaborative project (5). Simon specifically advises museums to start with a design challenge, which she defines as “an institutionally-developed question that helps guide decisions about who to engage as participants, how to structure development, and what the collaboration will produce” (5). Examples Simon uses to illustrate her points are:
  • How can we tell the story of children’s immigrant experiences in a way that is authentic, respectful, and compelling to immigrant and non-immigrant audiences?
  •  How can we give people with disabilities the tools to document and share their experiences in a way that supports their creative development, is sensitive to their privacy, and accessible to other audiences?
  • How can we guide amateur to successfully develop interactive exhibits for our music and technology gallery?
Obviously, as Simon advises, “the more specific the design challenge, the easier it is to develop a process that is likely to address it” (5).

While there is no standard way to ensure success in collaborative projects, we’ve decided to distill what we’ve learned through readings down to a sort of “10 Commandments” meant to guide you on your path to meaningful and impactful partnerships. While by no means comprehensive (for example, some of our points are modified from Brian O’Neill’s 21 Partnership Success Factors!) our list is meant to outline what we see as the most vital steps towards fruitful collaboration.

1. Thou shalt endeavor to know and understand thy audience
This commandment applies to ALL museums, period. If we’ve learned anything this semester in our Museum Audiences class, it’s that knowledge of your audience provides a fundamental baseline necessary in order to deeply connect with and provide meaningful services and educational experiences for any given group of people. Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs further echoes this sentiment – in order to provide an ideal learning environment so that individuals can become more self-actualized and self-transcendent (i.e., so individuals can step outside the worries of the here and now and begin to understand bigger picture ideas and concepts) – we need to first understand and meet the basic physiological and psychological needs of our audience.

2. Thou shalt create content with thy audience, not for thy audience
I’m sure everyone has heard the expression “there’s no ‘I’ in team!” and community collaboration is no exception – collaborative projects are about working in tandem with a partner, not dictating down to them what should be done. By creating content with audiences and not merely for audiences, museums generate much richer, more vibrant, and ultimately more interesting exhibitions that can be enjoyed by a wide range of audiences. By making exhibitions with community collaborators, institutions have the opportunity to learn more about a segment of their audience. Each new collaborative project brings with it the opportunity to learn new things and reassess older assumptions. In endeavoring to teach others, we must also be open to being taught. As O’Neill sums it up “partnerships are about ‘we’ not ‘I’…they are about creating an equality of importance – an environment where individual personal egos are subservient to the interests of the whole.”
Keep in mind that engaging in collaborative efforts does NOT mean that your institution must give up autonomy or influence, but successful collaboration requires sharing power and control. A good partnership, according to O’Neill, is one that represents a delicate balance between maintaining one’s own identity and adding value to a collective effort.

3. Thou shalt strive to be proactive in seeking community involvement
This commandment is useful to consider when first deciding whether or not your project will benefit from collaboration with a particular group. In some cases, collaboration might not be the best way to accomplish your goals – always be sure to put proper thought and planning into collaborative projects BEFORE you begin them! Once you’ve decided that collaboration is, indeed, the way you want to go, be proactive in finding partners – seek out the partner or partners that can best help you accomplish your goals. This can only be done if you’ve carefully thought through your needs (a design challenge is an excellent way to go about thinking about what you need/want out of collaboration) and have done your research on what sorts of groups might be ideal collaborators. From there it should be easy to explain to groups of interest why you approached them, what you hope to accomplish with their help, and what they can expect to see (benefit-wise) from working with you.

4. Thou shalt have clear goals and specific projects for thy collaborators and thou shalt give them the power and responsibility to provide useful/actionable feedback to thy institution
Once you have made the decision to partner with community collaborators, it is crucial that you communicate to them the goals and projects you would like them to work on, their particular responsibilities in the project, and the means they have of communicating advise, constructive criticism, and other forms of feedback. Successful collaboration means that you must have a definite role or project for your collaborators and that they must have the power and responsibility to effect meaningful changes during the course of the project. If any component of the above is missing from your collaborative project…you’re doing it wrong!

5. Thou shalt communicate continually, clearly, and consistently with thy collaborators
As Brian O’Neill aptly states: “partnerships, like any human relationship, are about communication, communication, and communication.” However, as easy as it sounds, good communication can be tricky on a person-to-person basis – not to mention the fact that the Internet has opened up a new can of worms with the myriad forms of instantaneous electronic communication now available to anyone with a computer. A misunderstanding can lead to a negative Tweet, which, in turn, can lead to a whole flood of angry people who may be less inclined to visit or support your museum based on some misunderstanding. Open, clear, and consistent communication should help to alleviate this problem.
Another aspect of this commandment is the fact that communication with collaborative partners should not cease as soon as the project is over – it is important to continue communication with partners after the fact so that the wealth of support and good-will that they have towards your institution does not dry up once the collaboration has ended. Take the time to stay in touch and update partners with new projects you have in the works!

6. Thou shalt put thy words into actions, honor thy commitments to thy partners, and shall always put thy agreements into words
This commandment functions as a reminder to museums to act on the promises they make to their collaborators and to formally put the agreements they make with collaborators onto paper. Both parties are thus held accountable for their words and actions. As O’Neill puts it: “partnerships need formal written agreements and work plans that define mutual interests and expectations, the roles and responsibilities of each partner, and clear accountability for the work to be performed.” Such an agreement is necessary because it serves as a mutually-binding contract – in other words, it ensures that each partner recognizes and realizes their responsibility to the other. Agreements of this type are likely to change over the course of a collaborative project (again, flexibility and understanding are crucial to success), so be sure to update or amend the agreement as necessary.   

7. Thou shalt know, utilize, and maximize thy resources and the resources and talents of thy collaborators
It should go without saying that each collaborator brings with them unique skills, talents, resources, and capabilities. Knowing the strengths (and weaknesses!) of each partner is crucial in decision making during the collaborative process. Being able to dole out assignments according to ability and resources will maximize your institution’s resources and the overall efficiency with which you accomplish your goals. If you don’t know all of your partner’s skills and assets…ask! Communities engage in collaboration because they see relevancy and value in it, and may be more than willing to marshal their resources to benefit the collaboration. You won’t know, however, unless you take the time to figure out what resources are available (and which partner is the most effective at mustering said resources.)

8. Thou shalt seek out and develop relationships with local schools, teachers, and children and make those partnerships points of pride in thy organization’s culture
The most meaningful and long-lasting collaborative projects require sustained effort, consistency, and continuous communication, and this is especially true in the case of projects involving schools and children. Collaborations with schools often fail because the champion(s) of the project move away, get a new job, or retire…much to the detriment of the next class of children. It is important that collaborative projects of this sort seek recognition in their respective institutions as being something of great relevance and significance that cannot be allowed to lose momentum or cease to exist. By showcasing the triumphs of the program (and taking the time to celebrate success stories), both partners increase the likelihood that the program will be seen as something of enduring value and something that is worth the extra effort to maintain from year to year.

9. Thou shalt trust and appreciate thy collaborators and respect differences of opinion, seeking to make decisions via consensus whenever possible
This commandment is a blend of several of Brian O’Neill’s Partnership Success Factors – namely 7 (Maintain an Environment of Trust), 16 (Always be Courteous and Diplomatic), 17 (Honor Your Commitments), and 19 (Respect the Right to Disagree; Act on a Consensus Basis). Trust is an essential element in any human relationship, and collaborative projects are no exception. As O’Neill puts it “trust must be demonstrated and earned day by day…you build trust through the consistency and integrity of your actions over time.” A single betrayal of the trust between collaborators can be devastating and there is no guarantee that you will be able to rebuild and regain that trust once it has been shattered.
            Another crucial part of the trust equation is showing your partners that the trust goes both ways – you must trust your partners in order to be trusted yourself. Collaborators have to trust museums not to misrepresent or inaccurately portray/display their contributions, and museums have to trust the community not to give them inaccurate information and provide quality material worth the time, money, and effort poured into the collaboration.
            Also important to note in this commandment is the call to respect differences and embrace solutions that are satisfactory to both parties. In any endeavor, differences of opinion are likely to arise, and it is vital that both sides respect the other’s right to disagree. O’Neill states: “in successful partnerships, ground rules are established to give each partner a veto power over proposed actions.” Simply put…working on a collaborative project means that much time is spent reaching consensus among collaborators. Be prepared for this reality, but also realize that time spent reaching agreement is time well spent – at the end of the project both sides should be able to walk away happy with the end product and feeling that they have made a valuable, meaningful contribution.

10. Thou shalt be open, flexible, creative, playful, and responsive
The more open and accepting of change your institution is, the greater potential there is for meaningful collaboration. As Daniel Spock wisely muses, “if you invite people to really participate in the making of a museum, the process must change the museum” (6). By being open, flexible, and responsive to our audiences, museums are better able to adapt their content and create experiences that are profound and meaningful as well as educational. The old view of museums as “authoritative cultural arbiters of truth, validity, or esthetic worth” (Spock 7) where knowledge is conveyed in a unilateral, authoritative sense is giving way to a new view of museums as centers of civic engagement, where “content creation is shared with the public in a dialogical process” (Spock 8). This transition from authority figure to mediator is scary for some, but is not something that is going away – look at the abundance of social media, the prominence of Wikipedia and YouTube, and the phenomenon of open-sourced programs on the ‘net – audiences are clearly interested in participating in the generation and dissemination of content. Instead of running from the public, museums need to embrace the eagerness of this new generation of tech-savvy users and open up to innovative, playful, collaborative projects that enable us to tap into the wealth of creativity, knowledge, and enthusiasm that is evident on the Internet. In turn, we will be able to reach out to, educate, and become relevant to a wide variety of new audiences the world over.

Works Cited

Brian O’Neill’s 21 Partnership Success Factors. National Park Service. 1 November 2011 <>. *

Simon, Nina. The Participatory Museum. Santa Cruz: Museum 2.0, 2010. **

Spock, Daniel. “Museum Authority Up for Grabs: The Latest Thing, or Following a Long Trend Line?” Exhibitionist Fall (2009): 6-10.

Please Note:
* References to Brian O’Neill’s 21 Partnership Success Factors are unaccompanied by page numbers since this is an online document

** References to Nina Simon’s The Participatory Museum contain page numbers meant as estimates. The chapter of the book used for this blog was Chapter 7: Collaborating with Visitors, and since I accessed the book online, I have no way of knowing what real pages correspond with the pages I printed out. Thus, a notation of (1) corresponds with Chapter 7, page one.  The page numbers correspond with pages printed from the online version in single-spaced, 12 point Times New Roman font. 

~ Posted by CP

Defining Collaboration:  What is it and 
why should we bother?

While community collaboration is not a particularly new trend - museums have sought partnerships with communities in various forms for decades - it is a concept that has become increasingly relevant to the growth and survival of museums in the 21st century. What does community collaboration entail? Collaborating with a community is the obvious answer, but in order to understand why collaboration with communities is so important we should first define both in context to museums and cultural institutions.

Communities are defined by the American Association of Museum’s National Interpretation Project as “a collection of constituencies or stakeholders:  (1) audiences, (2) scholars, (3) other public interpreters, e.g., press, interpretative artists, (4) program providers--arts groups, etc., (5) repositories, including libraries, preservation agencies, museums” (p. 12). Communities can also be based on geography, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, religious affiliation, age, special interests, etc. It is crucial to understand the community you are endeavoring to collaborate with – their history, needs, and goals – and to work with that community to develop a shared vision of what will be accomplished from your collaborative efforts. Keep in mind that effective collaboration means partnering with the right community or communities, given the need you are trying to fulfill in your institution. Meaningful collaboration with communities requires dedication, trust, power sharing, flexibility, and work. Finding the right partners for a given project will take legwork and research, but the end result (a successful and highly meaningful collaboration) will be worth the effort.

What then, is this collaboration we keep talking about, and what does it entail? Collaborative projects are defined by Nina Simon, author of The Participatory Museum, as projects that are “institutionally driven partnerships in which staff members work with community partners to develop new programs, exhibitions, or offerings” (1). Elaborating on this, Simon notes that “participants may be chosen for specific knowledge or skills, association with cultural groups of interest, age, or representation of the intended audience for the outputs of the project” (1). According to Simon, there are two broad categories of collaboration projects that museums typically pursue: consultative projects and co-development projects (3).  

Consultative projects are defined by Simon as projects “in which institutions engage experts or community representative to provide advice and guidance to staff members as they develop new exhibitions, programs, or publications” (3). Examples of consultative projects are those involving focus groups, formal advisory boards, and other such councils consisting of members of special interest groups. In order for consultative project to be effective, participants’ roles must be clearly defined and there must be particular projects or problems for them to address. As Simon puts it: “clear goals and specific projects help both participants and staff members feel that collaboration is valuable” (4). 

Co-development projects are defined by Simon as projects “in which staff members work together with participants to produce new exhibitions and programs” (3). Unlike consultative projects, participants in co-development projects function more like contractors or employees. These types of projects require a large investment of time (from weeks to months of engagement with participants) and a significant amount of staff time, institutional planning, and coordination between museum and collaborators. Because of the large amount of commitment and investment involved in these projects, they typically involve smaller groups of participants working with dedicated employees. Given the small size of the groups, Simon argues that collaborative projects of this type are most valuable when they ultimately serve broader audiences. Thus, “from the institutional perspective, it’s easier to justify spending time and money on a small group project if participants produce something that can be experienced and enjoyed by many people” (5).

 Finally, it is important to note that the fundamental difference between these two types of collaboration is the degree to which community participants are involved in the implementation of their efforts. As Simon states: “consultative participants help guide projects’ development. Co-developers help create them” (3). Determining the extent to which your collaborators will be involved in project implementation is crucial during the planning phase of your project – ideally this decision should be made before collaborators are engaged so that your institution can adequately define their roles and responsibilities at the outset. Keep in mind, however, that roles can and should be free to evolve during the course of a collaborative project, and being open to change and flexible enough to implement it when necessary are key to having successful ongoing collaboration. 

By now you’re probably scratching your head and saying “wow, this collaboration stuff sounds like it could be complicated…why do we need work with communities anyway? Museums are cultural institutions – beacons of knowledge - that provide the public with valuable educational resources – we’re here to teach them, not the other way around! They should be happy absorbing whatever we chose to offer them.” Well, YOU’RE probably not saying this (you enlightened museum educators, you) but the sentiment certainly exists and is something that champions of collaborative projects have to continually fight against. Our next blog entry should help to answer some of these questions (and give you some ammo for the next time you find yourself fighting to instigate a new collaborative project.)

Works Cited

American Association of Museums – Committee on Education.  2005.  Excellence in Practice:  Museum Education Principles and Standards.  Washington, DC:  AAM:  1-16.

Simon, Nina. The Participatory Museum. Santa Cruz: Museum 2.0, 2010. *

* References to Nina Simon’s The Participatory Museum contain page numbers meant as estimates. The chapter of the book used for this blog was Chapter 7: Collaborating with Visitors, and since I accessed the book online, I have no way of knowing what real pages correspond with the pages I printed out. Thus, a notation of (1) corresponds with Chapter 7, page one.  The page numbers correspond with pages printed from the online version in single-spaced, 12 point Times New Roman font.

~ Posted by CP

Welcome to Museums and Communities!

This blog is dedicated to exploring the topic of how museums engage with their communities.  We hope our posts inspire you to consider how your institution and you as a professional can better connect with your audiences.  Please share your thoughts as well!