Friday, November 23, 2012

Community Engagement in Museums: Partnering and Collaborating with Community Organizations

One way that museums can effectively practice community engagement is by partnering and collaborating with community organizations. In a way, museums can view other organizations as a kind of “audience” to work with when creating exhibitions, developing programming, or holding special events. In the process of building these relationships, museums can further engage various groups and individuals in the community, as well. In fact, if you look at the ways in which museums are currently engaging many of the audiences that we have discussed in class (when I presented on museums who have successfully engaged individuals who are homeless, for example), partnerships with outside organizations or other museums oftentimes play a significant role in this process.
While researching the topic of community partnerships and collaborations, I came across an excellent resource that I wanted to share – a document tilted museum/community partnerships: Lessons Learned from the Bridges Conference, put out by the Philadelphia-Camden Informal Science Education Collaborative and The Franklin Institute. The Bridges Conference (held in June 2008) invited museum/community partnership programs that serve families to participate in a discussion on what it takes to create and sustain successful community partnerships and collaborations. According to the report, “The Bridges Conference was designed to bring together professionals with long-term museum/community relationships, and to offer opportunities to share and develop new strategies to: 1. address the practical issues inherent in funding, developing, and managing museum/community collaborations aimed at bringing science and math to underserved families, and 2. focus on the unique challenges and benefits of collaborating to work with families. Information shared during the conference was intended to contribute to advancing the field of intergenerational learning and informal science as a whole."
Though this conference specifically focused on science museums and community-based organizations that serve families, many of the themes brought up can apply more generally to all kinds of museum/community partnerships, as well. I found the first section of the report, in which they discuss the main points of the conference itself, especially useful. At the end of this section, they list the takeways that came out of the conference with regards to creating successful, mutually rewarding relationships between museums and community-based organizations. They are as follows:

  • Take time to observe prospective partners in action, get to know them fully, and consider possibilities for collaboration before leaping into a formal partnership.
  • Ensure that partners share common goals. While two or more organizations may have similar or complementary programs and resources, this is not enough to establish a solid collaboration. Unless all parties share common goals, they may wind up working at cross-purposes.
  • Carefully construct a mutually satisfactory memorandum of understanding (MOU) that lays out not only the fact of the collaboration, but also detailed information regarding each partner’s rights and responsibilities; any financial agreements; and processes to be followed in the event that one or more parties wishes to end the association.
  • Develop clear and regular procedures for communication, which includes opportunities for formal interaction, and social gatherings.

I highly recommend reading the article in its entirety, as it goes into further detail about each of these points and delves into other topics that relate to museum/community partnerships and their outcomes. The article also addresses certain challenges that go along with developing these kinds of complex relationships, and how to handle them. As to-be museum educators, learning about these various aspects of community partnerships and collaborations will help us to create successful and productive community relationships (both on the organizational and individual level) in the future.

I know it is always helpful to see some real-world museum examples and applications -- two museums that I came across that have quite an impressive list and explanation of their community partnerships (and the events, exhibitions, etc. that they have put on as a result) are the The Tech Museum of Innovation in San Jose, CA and the Minnesota Children's Museum in St. Paul, MN. You can see that each of these museums has collaborated with a variety of organizations that might not immediately come to mind when you think of community engagement in museums, including the American Red Cross and local public libraries. One additional resource that I found particularly relevant and useful in terms of thinking about community partnerships and collaborations is Strategies for Long-Term Community Partnerships by Jim Zien.

Before closing this post, I would like to share a quote from another resource I came across in my research. In Community Partnerships, an article that focuses on community partnerships and libraries, Nann Blaine Hilyard explains that, “Partnering with municipal government, with businesses, and school communities, and working with other community organizations has bolstered our claim of being the hub of the community and proven our relevance to those who fund our efforts. I cannot imagine how we would make our case without their support." Though Hilyard is referring to libraries in her article, we can certainly apply this quote to informal education institutions in general. We all know how important it is for museums to remain relevant and valuable to their surrounding communities. Community partnerships and collaborations can help with this by making museums an important, integral part in a network of community organizations.

As rewarding and productive as these relationships can be, collaboration is hard work. I noticed that Lori brought up a good question on a previous post with regards to advocating for community engagement in museums. It is certainly possible that we may meet some resistance with regards to community engagement in museums. I think that much of this goes back to what we discussed in Carol’s class this past summer with regards to best practices in museums. If you look back to Excellence and Equity: Education and the Public Dimension of Museums (American Association of Museums, 1992), #6 on their list of recommendations is to: “Engage in active, ongoing collaborative efforts with a wide spectrum of organizations and individuals who can contribute to the expansion of the museum’s public dimension." I would say that the best thing you could do to help prepare yourself to advocate for community engagement in museums is to be aware of the best practices and standards for museums, learn the current trends in museums as they relate to community engagement, and explore how other museums are practicing community engagement in with outside organizations, groups of people, or individuals in their communities. In general, knowing how to find the information that will prove the value of community engagement for your museum will be beneficial in this process. The evidence is certainly out there!
Feel free to comment and share some other examples of community partnerships and collaborations that you have seen or learned about! We’d love to hear about them. I would also be interested to hear if you have any other ideas of how to advocate for community engagement in museums in response to Lori's question.


  1. I think a way to advocate for community engagement in museums is by promoting shared value(to learn more visit ). Shared Value is the idea that corporations should work for benefits beyond profit and enhance their home communities. As museums are centers for communities, museums are in a prime position to be a liaison between companies working to improve their communities and the communities themselves.

    1. Not sure why my link got cut off