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!


Teens and History Together

Junior historians cut the ribbon to re-open an exhibit they worked on

Junior historians cut the ribbon to re-open an exhibit they worked on

Community Engagement Example 5: Dallas Heritage Village’s Junior Historians Program: A program which has youth become curators and educators for this historic village. 

When you talk about teens and history, people usually think you are talking about two things that do not go together. A historic village in Dallas is out to prove this wrong through their Junior Historian Program.

This program brings together teens from 11-18 for a week of training and afterwards they can either work together on a project, become guides or help out during special events. The project in the past has reinterpreted a doctor office and hotel that are part of the village. They did the research, set up the exhibit, created labels and were docents for these areas. They also created online content about the hotel including audio and video clips.  The teens gain valuable skills and the village now has two areas that are reinterpreted. This is shows that collaboration and sharing power has a positive affect on both parties.

Check it out here: http://www.dallasheritagevillage.org/JuniorHistorians.aspx or here: http://dhvblog.org/tag/junior-historians/

The basics of Community Engagement met through this project: community ownership, relationship building/partnership, collaboration and sharing power.

Cue Museum Anarchy!

In the early 2000s, warning signs began appearing that historic sites—one of the largest segments of the museum community—were in trouble. With articles entitled “Are There Too Many Historic House Museums?” and research statistics that showing a majority of visitors hate guided tours, the time is ripe for change in the field, and in the quest to gain relevancy, community engagement has been a big initiative for HHMs. Today, I’m going to focus on LatimerNOW, a community engagement museum laboratory based out of the Latimer House in Flushing, Queens, New York, which interprets an African-American inventor.

The Latimer House is part of the Historic House Trust of New York City (HHTNYC) consortium, an organization headed by the self-proclaimed museum anarchist Franklin Vagnone. Vagnone. Vagnone defines his philosophy of practice, as laid out in his “Anarchist’s Guide” as “collection of concepts that push for historic house museums and sites to rethink their relevancy and how they project their information through engagement with communities.” Vagnone implemented this by first researching who his community was. The Latimer House told an African-American story, but though the Flushing community was diverse, it was only 2% African-American. Therefore, Vagnone focused on ways that the interpretation could cross different segments, such as focusing on inventiveness. Programs include the “Latimer Lounge” which is a program that invites community members and artists to come in and present pieces celebrating the objects and architecture of the house. Another program called “What Brightens Your Day?” is a mobile cart program that staff take to various community events to engage audiences in conversations about ingenuity in their own lives.


A community member writes about what brightens his day outside the Latimer House in Flushing, Queens.

A community member writes about what brightens his day outside the Latimer House in Flushing, Queens.

HHTNYC has worked with several classes at local universities, including architecture students at Columbia and museum studies students in the Cooperstown Graduate Program, to research the methods being used at LatimerNOW and other properties in the consortium. To follow the project blog and read studies, go to http://www.latimernow.org. For an interview with Franklin Vagnone: http://artsfwd.org/franklin-vagnone/

Museums helping minority girls rise

I had to sigh when I read these statistics yet again.  Only three venture-backed companies were made up of all female teams in 2013, and the per capita income of blacks in Silicon Valley dropped 18% between 2009 and 2011.  In addition, women in Silicon Valley make 49 cents to every dollar a man makes in comparison to the 77 cents to one dollar income disparity in the rest of the country.   (These numbers are from the Silicon Valley Index published by Joint Venture Silicon Valley and The Silicon Valley Community Foundation.)

Enter http://www.girlsrisenet.org


Objectives include:

Utilize the national network of science centers and museums to raise awareness and broaden access for girls underrepresented in STEM.

Develop linkages between organizations with the common purpose of increasing the pipeline of minority female engineers.
Facilitate translation of gender and diversity research into practice through a unified training program.
Provide ongoing services, access to program materials, and tools to broaden the ability of science centers to provide relevant and engaging programming for girls.

Girls Rise. net has partnered with:

California Academy of Sciences, San Francisco, CA
Connecticut Science Center, Hartford, CT
COSI, Columbus, OH
Explora, Albuquerque, NM
Maryland Science Center, Baltimore, MD
Miami Science Museum, Miami, FL
Kentucky Science Center, Louis
NYSCI, Queens, NY
OMSI, Portland, OR
Saint Louis Science Center, St. Louis, MO
Sci-Port: Louisiana’s Science Center, Shreveport, LA

The California Academy of Science has an internship program for underrepresented groups in STEM fields.  The Connecticut Science Center has STEM workshops that fit into the core curriculum, and the Miami Science Museum has a girls engineering competition every year.  Each museum on this list and others throughout the country have seen a need for these types of programs and filled it either through the partnerships with Girls Rise.net, or on their own to service the neighboring community.

Another group to look at is http://www.blackgirlscode.com, a nonprofit organization that teaches programming skills to young women of color and http://shetechphilly.com with study resources and an active calendar of events based in Philadelphia.  Tell Me More host Michel Martin also engages innovative women in tech around the Twitter hashtag #NPRWIT.  The movie “Girl Rising”  about breaking the cycle of poverty and poor education for all girls is currently streaming on Netflix.

Hanan Abdel Meguid of Arab Women Rising says it well.  “I believe that technology is not, for us, another fluff or luxury; it’s an essential creative tool. . .we use the scarcity of our resources to maximize our potential.”  Let’s continue to offer and promote STEM for minority women and girls!

Yollocalli Arts Reach

Community Engagement Example #2: Yollocalli Arts Reach: An arts and youth development program, part of the National Museum of Mexican Art

Yollocalli Teens

Yollocalli Teens and Artists

Check it out, here: http://yollocalli.org/

Yollocalli is home to innovative programs developed by contemporary artists for young artists in Chicago. Built on a philosophy of respecting youth participants’ voices as creative makers and community change-makers, Yollocalli offers a dynamic slate of classes, artist residencies, and youth leadership opportunities. With a focus on serving youth, Yollocalli’s programs also work to serve local artists with paid teaching opportunities, as well as bringing the arts to various communities across Chicago with over 30 youth-created murals to date. By involving youth in the program development process, Yollocalli has remained a relevant and vibrant part of the Chicago creative community since 1997 with program alumni continuing to stay involved in the organization.

Important to note is that Yollocalli is part of a larger museum, the National Museum of Mexican Art. While it could stand alone as a scrappy youth arts organization, its role in a museum serves as an example for other museums about how to create long-lasting, sincere investments in their communities.

The basics of Community Engagement met through this project: community ownership/sharing power, use of geographic/neighborhood space, relationship building and partnership, and multiple audiences.

Community Engagement on the Go

What does “Community Engagement” mean? What does “Community Engagement” look like? Can you evaluate it? Why should should museums and cultural institutions care about this two word, catch-all, glitzy phrase?

In this portion of the blog, we will tackle this idea of Community Engagement through real-world examples and analysis. Check back for five total posts on these examples with discussions, and the culminating analysis in the sixth week of what we (the authors) think Community Engagement in Museums means. Now that you know what we’re about, let’s get started!


Community Engagement Example #1: Philadelphia Public History Truck: A mobile museum exploring cultural access and engagement through community curating

Two women stand beside the Philly History Truck in an abandoned lot in Kensington, Philadelphia at dusk

From Newsworks.org – Two women stand with the Philly History Truck in the Kensington neighborhood of Philadelphia

Check it out, here: http://phillyhistorytruck.wordpress.com/about/

This mobile history museum seeks to connect the neighbors and neighborhoods of Philadelphia through public history, community engagement, and accessible content. The “Truckers” have a ten step plan for achieving this goal. Overall the idea of community engagement comes from their emphasis on accessible content. Throughout the project and in their goal descriptions, the writers of the website use phrases such as “with the community” and “with the neighborhood.” This “with” dramatically shifts the collected content from isolated, inaccessible history to personal, accessible past. The PPHT works in conjunction with neighborhood associations, community spaces, and community voices to create curated, engaging, content.

The basics of Community Engagement met through this project: community ownership, use of geographic/neighborhood space, relationship building and partnership, and accessible content.