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Towards a More Community-Centered Museum, Part 2: Is ‘Community’ a Meaningless Word?

Written by Mike Murawski

The term ‘community’ may very well be one of the most frequently used words these days when it comes to describing the shifting goals, values, programs, exhibitions, staff, audience demographics, and communication strategies of museums.  To be honest, I use the word pretty regularly myself.  For decades, museums (and most funding organizations) have been increasingly using phrases like “aiming to serve our community,” “reaching out to our communities,” and “strengthening our community” to create a sense of a museum’s broader mission and social purpose.  In describing some of its more recent funding initiatives, for example, the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) states that “museums are at the forefront of change in our communities” and they serve as “strong community anchors.”  In their  thirteen-page Strategic Plan for 2018-2022 entitled Transforming Communities (which is worth a read), the word ‘community’ or ‘communities’ is used thirty-six times.

Museums and cultural organizations are constantly being asked how effectively we’re serving our communities and how well we represent our community.  But foundations, granting organizations, civic entities, and funders do not have a consistent definition of what they even mean by community.  We can begin to read between the lines when we are asked about the ZIP codes we serve, the number of Title I schools visiting, and what programs we have for “at-risk” youth or “underserved” audiences (I really dislike those labels, BTW).  In many cases, community is defined as “people of diverse geographic, cultural, and socioeconomic backgrounds” or “families and individuals of diverse cultural and socio-economic backgrounds and needs.”  Whether we are defining these groups based on geography, interests, or experience, are we essentially talking about people who are not engaging with our institutions?

Nina Simon writes about this common misuse of the word community to refer to the general public or “everyone who doesn’t currently visit here.”  Inclusion catalyst and museum expert Porchia Moore discusses the dangers of using the word ‘community’ in a reductive way, such as when it is used to describe a large group of different people by focusing on a single attribute.  In the context of discussions about inclusion, Moore writes,Community’ becomes code for discussing black and brown visitors.”  Referring to a group as “the black community” or “the LGBTQ community” can be problematic when groups are perceived as a monolithic or singular community.  Moore advocates for museums to dig deeper into this language and how it reflects the decisions we make to develop one-off programs or exhibitions.

Museums have certainly been dedicating significant time and resources to reach this elusive and mysterious ‘community’ we so badly want to connect with and engage.  Institutions large and small now have staff positions dedicated to Community Outreach, Community Programs, or Community Partnerships, indicating this increased investment in what engaging community means for many institutions.  There also seem to be more departments or divisions within museums with “Community” added to the title—Learning and Community Programs, Family and Community Programs, Community Engagement, Access and Community Initiatives, etc.   And I must confess, I’m regularly interested in changing the title of my own department from Education and Public Programs to something that more closely reflects the work we’re doing to advance community-centered practices.

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community social justice art project at Portland Art Museum, 2016

Overall, there is a generally agreed-upon sense that reaching out to and engaging with community is a good thing for museums.  When we add this word to a staff position, department, or to our mission statements, it is done as a symbol of good intentions. Yet how do we effectively do this work and advocate for it if we don’t truly have a sense of what it means beyond connecting with “those other people” out there?

As museums vaguely define community or communities as groups that might not be engaging or connecting with the museum, there is also a troubling binary and divide we have created between ‘museum’ and ‘community.’  It’s so ingrained in the way so many of us talk about our work, myself included.  Museums are perceived as separate from communities; they are seen as buildings with collections, objects, exhibitions, and experts that are made available to communities on a limited basis.  Referring to some functions of the museum as “outreach” just reinforces this separation.  By default, museums then exist as disconnected, disengaged, and distanced from this idea of community.  And not thinking about where museum staff and volunteers fit into the idea of ‘community’ is problematic. When we use the word ‘community’ in our institutions, are we thinking about staff and those who work for the institution?  Overall, we are really feeding this gap by simply not addressing it.

So has the word ‘community’ just become a vague and almost meaningless expression?  Museum professionals use it too frequently and in ways that overlook its inherent complexities.   I fully realize that by writing this series of blog posts, I’m engaging in overuse of the term myself, but my interest here lies in unpacking the term and opening up many of the rich complexities tied up in this concept.

Rather than stop using this word or replace it with something else, I’m advocating for those working for and with museums to gain a deeper understanding of what community means.  I believe it is an extremely meaningful concept, and I am thoroughly excited to see it being used more frequently by museums and funding organizations.  We just need to explore and address the complexities involved with defining community and communities for our institutions.

Stay tuned for my next post in this series, which will lay out some of the ways we can define community in our practice.  Future posts will also address strategies for thinking more deeply about these issues and developing ways to bridge these gaps.

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ABOUT THE SERIES: Through this 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.

Other Posts in This Series:

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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.

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