Risk vs. Reward: Community Engagement

Community Engagement can be exciting, challenging and rewarding.  It can also be a “hassle,”  another entire job on top of your current one, and the rewards don’t always equal the work one has put in.  Why do we as museums and educators continue to initiate these programs with all of the negative aspects that are attached to them?  Why do we work so hard to sustain them regardless of the negative aspects?  Can we see quantitative results?  In the following blog post we will take each community activity or group mentioned in our previous blog posts and talk about why the effort is worth it.

STEM programs for women/girls, (esp. the under priviledged/marginalized):

This is not an endeavor that can be taken on by one institution.  Collaboration is the key between museums and schools and between other museums.  While nearly 63 million visits are made to science centers and museums(not to mention zoos, aquariums and planetariums) every year, continuation of teacher professional development needs to be stressed and supported(US News and World Report By Ioannis MiaoulisDec. 7, 2011).   Teachers in under-represented areas are taking advantage of resources outside the classroom for their students, as they recognize their classroom resources are insufficient.  The partnership is in place is working.  44% of the schools using informal science institution programs come from underserved communities.

In addition, informal science programs because of space and resources can serve many students at one time, and are generally are under-enrolled.  53% of programs could handle more students, with only 24% having to turn people away.  So this means the students are there, the programs are there and continual advocacy, possible financial support, or other logistic support is needed to make the connections.  (sucessfulstemeducation.org)

Looking into the future, support for working mom scientists is key.  According to the article, “Moms and Scientists” by Molly Michelson at the California Academy of Science seven women won the MacArthur Genius award in STEM fields in 2013.  For one single mother who also happens to be a scientist, she used part of the $625,000 to pay the bills.  Even though the money is unrestricted, this caused ripples in the scientific community.  This idea of “scientist first, mom second” is pervasive according to the scientists who are moms that were interviewed.  They blame it on the male dominance of the field.  They also mentioned a drop in productivity especially in research time, fieldwork, and paper writing.  The women agree though, that flexibility in the workplace is important, and acknowledgement of the difficulty in the form of legislation is what will create a better work environment.  At the time of the article, a new bill passed by the San Francisco board of supervisors giving employees the right to ask for a more flexible schedule if they are taking care of a family member.

We as museum educators need to promote lifelong learning now that STEM programs are flourishing.  We also need to support programs and legislation that reinforce positive change throughout the community that are not just centered around the institutions or schools.  As seen with the passing of the bill, while more women would be affected, we all benefit from healthier lives and more creative scientific thought.

Teens take selfies at a California Academy of Science event.

Junior Historians:

While the Junior Historians might not have a lot of empirical data but they are learning skills and making friendships that will last. The creatorof this program was a teen volunteer herself and it shows that these experience can help spark life-long interest in museums. One of the junior historians also talked about her experience and what skills she had learned being a part of this program. She talked about the researching work she was doing like being a detective. She also expressed a love of lifelong learning, when talking about glowing tones about learning something new every time she does research. The full stories behind these can be found at http://dhvblog.org/2014/07/05/it-should-really-be-no-surprise/ and http://dhvblog.org/2012/07/03/guest-post-becoming-a-historian/


Installing the Dining Room label. They also added the sandwiches on the table. Photo by Drew Timmons.   


Philadelphia Public History Truck:

Why would compiling oral community histories be worth it? Why would sharing ownership and authority be worth it? Why would creating and sustaining partnerships be worth it? Why would acknowledging authority and empowering neighbors be worth it? Hope you all got a sense of snarky retort in those rhetorical questions! Grants awards, public responses, and intentionality and purpose tell us why projects such as the Philadelphia Public History Truck are worth it.

I started the above list with Grants, because there are those that demand quantitative data over qualitative. Grants being awarded show both the success and (literally) the worth of a project as deemed by some (all too often arbitrary) powerful institution. Public responses show worth where it matters when talking about community engagement. Quotes from those involved and media reactions/attention often reveal a worth that can’t be measured (unless you are exceptionally gifted at creating evaluative, qualitative measures). Intentionality and purpose need no introduction to museum educators. These pervade our motivations and provide us with drive and grit while making sure we continuously see the worth in going through all of these efforts.

PPHT provides us with such rich examples of “why the effort is worth it.” I’m positive in hoping and saying that those in charge of this mobile community engagement based museum operation rarely if ever question themselves on “why their effort is worth it.” And you know what? That’s a good sign that they’re doing the right thing.

Bernard takes notes while local resident, Edward, shares why he chose to bring a book of old Kensington photographs to the block party.

Latimer House:

Franklin Vagnone and Deborah Ryan, the creators of the museum phenomena of the “Anarchist’s Guide to the Historic House Museum”, began thinking about radical new approaches to historic house museums in the late 2000s and early 2010s in response to a decline in attendance rates nationwide. Vagnone and Ryan realized that in order to stay relevant, educators and interpreters at historic houses needed to “let go” of the traditional model, abandon the “Rembrandt Rule” which dictates that every museum object is priceless and irreplaceable, and start thinking of historic houses as homes rather than houses. At the Latimer House in Queens, projects such as “What Brightens Your Day” uses lofty, universal ideas that anyone can connect to to build bridges between the site and the community, instead of focusing on a history that the neighborhood feels now ownership or connection to.

Most museums either have non-profit status, receive federal funding because they are part of local, state or national governments, or receive large federal grants. Therefore, most museums are accountable to the taxpayers, and have an obligation to provide programs that are attuned to public interest. The Latimer House is a city-owned property, meaning that the trust is overall, accountable to the taxpayers of New York City. The administrators of the site have an ethical obligation to “meet the audience where they are” and to use the resources that get put into historic sites for the public good by integrating the public into the planning and implementation of programs.

The Latimer House is intended to be a “laboratory” for innovative ideas in historic house management. Vagnone and Ryan are under contract to publish a book next year, which will release the studies of their findings. Meanwhile, they continue to offer new programs. What they are doing is so important because it’s helping foster a sense of ownership among the Flushing community, as they realize their own connections with Benjamin Latimer, a prominent resident of the past. The educators working at these sites have created programs that ensure that people have entry points to a community resource, which is valuable work.


Lewis Latimer invented a new method of making carbon filaments


Yolocalli has exemplified how a large, national museum, the National Museum of Mexican Art, can have a substantive impact in their local community. The National Museum of Mexican Art chooses to focus their community outreach efforts on young people in their Chicago neighborhood, believing that by inviting teens to participate in the arts, they can also reach the teens’ families, friends, and larger communities.

A major component of Yollocalli’s programming involves mural-making in public spaces all around Chicago. This takes the Museum right out into communities, which may not already be attending the Museum. This helps the Museum gain positive exposure.

Yollocalli is also uniquely situated as a complete youth arts development organization, which is embedded within the National Museum of Mexican Art. By being exclusively dedicated to this goal, Yollocalli can sincerely pursue it without necessarily being bogged down by other goings on and concerns of the Museum, while still being able to take advantage of the Museum’s unique resources.


“With All of Our Might”  The Little Village Boys and Girls Club

The enjoyment, innovations, and improvements to communities have demonstrated that the reward is far greater than the risk.  We hope to see our proposed projects in action some day!


3 thoughts on “Risk vs. Reward: Community Engagement

  1. The audiences and programs that you touch upon in regards to community engagement are interesting and this brings up some interesting and not commonly talked about ideas about non-mainstream audiences, or people who are not typical in the general public. I would be interested to see how these ideas and programs could be used and replicated as either role models for other communities or jumping off points for communities in which there is a need (or an audience that begs to be provided for) in a museum environment.


    • I think the one that I am most curious about is the Philly History Truck and tracking it’s success. I have been reading about other museums that have either trucks like this or RVs, and I imaging the start up costs are significant, but after that probably not so much, only gas and insurance as well as updating the exhibits inside. This idea of not being able to hide from the truck and all that it has to offer because we are going to park it in your neighborhood is appealing to me. Also it is a little kitschy too, so people who are going to the museum on a regular basis might be excited about it for that reason. I loved it when the “Bookmobile,” a traveling library in my town came to my neighborhood when I was little. It was better than the ice-cream man. My mom always said yes, that I could get a book!


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