Written by Mike Murawski
Last summer (2017) I made my first-ever visit to the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History (MAH)—a long overdue pilgrimage to this institution led by author and change agent Nina Simon. She had invited me to be a ‘camp counselor’ for their summer MuseumCamp, and I could not turn down a chance to visit the MAH, see what makes it tick, and be a part of this community of changemakers that gather each summer for the MuseumCamp experience. Not only have I known Nina for several years and been a dedicated reader of her Museum 2.0 blog and her books on museums, but the MAH had just officially opened Abbott Square, an adjacent public plaza that the museum converted to a bustling community gathering place and food market. For me, the Santa Cruz museum is fundamentally one of the exemplars in turning an institution toward a focus on its local community. Since arriving in 2011, Nina has worked with her team to tirelessly transform the MAH into a thriving museum and community center for Santa Cruz.
I was fortunate to visit during their exhibition Lost Childhoods, an issue-driven exhibition that the MAH staff created with their community. Showcasing the stories, struggles, and triumphs of youth who are aging out of foster care, this powerful exhibition was co-created with the Foster Youth Museum and a group of over one hundred local foster youth, artists, and youth advocates. This community was at the core of the exhibition, and there was even a large wall text that boldly declared “We made this with our community.” Through years of getting to know its local community and becoming intertwined in its people, the MAH team has embodied a shift from being a museum ‘for’ its community to being a museum ‘of’ and ‘by’ its community. And most recently they launched the global OF/BY/FOR ALL movement to bring these community-centered practices to institutions everywhere (watch the MuseumNext 2018 keynote presentation by Nina).
Amidst all the workshops, small group discussions, beach trips, and conversations with over a hundred passionate changemakers last summer during my first MuseumCamp experience, one moment still resonates with me more than any other—perhaps because of how simple and straightforward it was. Portland-based writer, game critic, and creative entrepreneur Josh Boykin stepped up to the microphone during a series of fast-paced lightning talks. Josh works outside of museums yet cares a great deal about building community; and while he lives and works in Portland, Oregon, our paths had not yet crossed. His lightning talk was personal and inspiring, yet there’s one simple thing about his talk that has stuck in my mind. Projected on the screen behind him during the entire duration of his talk were four words, large and bold: “Let Your Community In.”
Since that moment, Josh’s message has become one of my mantras when it comes to museum practice. How do museums let community in? Is community always separate and outside of museums, in need of being ‘let in’? What does ‘community’ even mean? Like many museum professionals, I have grappled with these questions my entire career, yet the complexities and challenges of engaging communities has come into focus in recent years as my own institution has created opportunities to advance this work.
It’s so important for museums to be a local place intertwined and inseparable from local realities and issues. We are located in our communities, but we’re also a part of those communities. How do we, as museum professionals, define our place, our town, our city, our neighborhood, our community? How do we identify ways to break down the barriers between museums and their communities as well as build relevance through local community partnerships? How do we learn about the people of our places (past and present), learn about what connects us and what brings people together into a community?
Right now, at this moment, some of the more challenging questions for me are: why open up museums to the challenges and potential failures of community-centered work? Why invest the time, staff, energy, and resources it takes to do this work really well? Why take on such risks? Wouldn’t it be easier to just keep with business as usual?
When faced with these questions, I often find myself going to museum scholar Stephen Weil’s befitting statement: “The museum that does not prove an outcome to its community is as socially irresponsible as a business that fails to show a profit. It wastes society’s resources.” (Weil 2003, p. 43, as cited in Watson, ed. Museums and Their Communities, 1). As museums and other institutions take steps to embrace community engagement, it is important to understand why this shift is occurring toward working with communities and local residents. The meaning of community requires more thoughtfulness and deliberation than we typically give it. Going forward, museum professionals and leaders must embrace this complexity as they strive to understand and create social change. It is not enough for museums to become an essential part of our communities—our communities also need to become an essential part of our museums. Are we ready to let our community in, as Josh Boykin proclaimed, and allow neighbors, local residents, community members, and those who may have traditionally been excluded from our institutions to shape practices, programs, and policies?
Echoing the words of bell hooks, what would it mean for museums “to be in community, to work in community, and to be changed by community”?
* * *
Through a new series of posts, I am exploring a range of ideas, challenges, and strategies for building community-centered practices in museums and advocating for deeper connections between institutions and community. What do we mean by ‘community’? How can we value community? What are some strategies for change that we can enact now in our institutions? I’m open to all types of critiques and questions, as long as they are aimed at moving this collective work forward. My ideas, thoughts, and questions have emerged from decades of meaningful conversations with others, so I don’t claim ownership of these ideas — I simply hope they can spark new conversations and allow us all to add to our learning and growth as we work to transform museums.
About the Author
MIKE MURAWSKI: Founding author and editor of ArtMuseumTeaching.com, museum educator, and currently the Director of Education & Public Programs for the Portland Art Museum. Mike earned his MA and PhD in Education from American University in Washington, DC, focusing his research on educational theory and interdisciplinary learning in the arts. Prior to his position at the Portland Art Museum, he served as Director of School Services at the Saint Louis Art Museum as well as coordinator of education and public programs at the Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum at Washington University. He is involved in the Museums as Sites of Social Action (MASS Action) initiative, contributing author to the MASS Action toolkit, and co-created the #MuseumsAreNotNeutral tshirt campaign with LaTanya Autry to erase the myth of museum neutrality. As a cultural activist and museum professional, he is passionate about how we can come to see museums as agents of change in their communities as well as sites for transformative learning and social action. He has led workshops and presented at conferences and institutions nationally and internationally, including a keynote at the 2016 MuseumNext conference. Mike’s postings on this site are his own and don’t represent the Portland Art Museum’s positions, strategies, or opinions.