Recently on the Museum-L discussion list-serve, the director of a small historical society asked the group if there is a growth ceiling for museums based on how much a population actually “cares” about our offerings. He lamented that only so many people in his community are going to “care about history”, no matter how much effort his museum puts into upping audience participation. He asked if we, as museum professionals, should simply “grind ahead with the belief that with value-based offerings, a museum can evolve into a critical community asset?”
I think that we are often asking how we can get our community to “care about history” , “care about science” , “care about art” , etc. I have no brilliant answers for you, but I do wonder if maybe we are asking the wrong questions. Instead of figuring out how we can get our audience to participate in the offerings of our institution, shouldn’t we be asking our community what they need from our museum? I do not believe that a museum can evolve into a critical community asset without the input of the community. Instead of trying in vain to convince our potential audiences that our mission is valid, why don’t we take a critical look at our mission and start a conversation with community stakeholders to see what is working and what is not working.
Now, I’m not advocating that every institution throw out their mission based offerings, I just think that sometimes we get “stuck” and forget that we have a potential to be a vital asset to our community, if we know what they need. Frank Vagnone, Executive Director of the Historic House Trust of New York City, discusses this in his talk entitled the Landing the Plane: An Anarchist Guide to Community Engagement. If you want to get to know your community, walk around your neighborhood! He suggests building in a staff community day into your schedule so that all members of your organization can get out into the neighborhood and build relationships.
Start a conversation. Ask questions. Listen. Lather, rinse, repeat. What has your organization done to build relationships, increase participation, and break those ceilings?