Monday, 22 June 2015

Community Engagement and Social Action

By Susan Burrows-Johnson, Galt Museum & Archives

As a museum worker, I have been confused and concerned about the entanglement of social issues and community engagement in museums. The current literature on the future of museums directs workers to participate in the community to seek remedies for injustice and troubles. Following this strategy is full of perceived risks such as mission-drift, loss of financial support, a threat to scholarship, and insulting activists while museums join an unsolvable civil society challenge. 

Tangling participation and social issues together as a strategy makes the prediction of the outcome feel difficult and dangerous. It seems easier to understand when the museums’ actions are described on two axis. A more explicit description of where a museum, exhibit, or program chooses to be can be plotted in relationship to the two choices.

Community engagement is on a continuum of “little interaction” to “a great deal of community two-way participation”. At one end, the museum is very self-contained. In the middle of the continuum, the museum seeks the community’s advice. The far end of the continuum has the museum in a two-way, power-sharing relationship with the community.

A social action continuum moves from "not being a change agent" to seeking "a particular change or justice" in the community. This museum continuum is, at one end, object-focus to the other end of social issues focus.

The choice seems clear as we position a museum, exhibit, or program with these characteristics. The lower left quadrant might be a traditional small museum, focused on putting objects on display and telling their stories. This museum does not ask for advice, nor power-share with the community. The upper left quadrant is a museum choosing to seek a social change without the community’s input.  The museum does the research and makes the conclusion that change is required.

Museums (or exhibits / programs) that choose to engage the community are in the two quadrants on the right. The lower right quadrant would hold programs or exhibits that invite community participation in delivering the museum’s mission. A museum in this quadrant will seek advice and participation without addressing social issues. The upper right quadrant contains the museum, programs or exhibits that actively seek to deliver a social change sought by the community. Power and control is shared with the community.

To map the choice around the levels of engagement and social change can provide more understanding and control over the perceived risks. By clarifying, we can guide our institutions to the relevant, useful purposes we intend rather than rejecting any tools that might help us create public value.

Thursday, 18 June 2015

Demonstrating Resiliency to Maintain Relevancy

By Charleen Davidson, Operations Lead, Alberta Museums Association
At the 2015 Canadian Museums Association Conference: Public engagement… not a trend, but the future, Jack Lohman, CEO of the Royal British Columbia Museum, cautioned delegates in his keynote address that museums must engage with their increasingly diverse communities or risk becoming irrelevant. We must be flexible and adaptable in our efforts to connect with our communities, while ensuring museums continue to strive towards meeting their mandates and missions.  
At the conference, which was filled with innovative, inspiring, and challenging examples of community engagement, it was easy to identify the theme of resiliency weaving throughout the various sessions. Richard Sandell’s Fellows Lecture, Ethical Engagement (Or… ‘Who’s invited to the party and, more importantly, what are we celebrating?), encouraged transparency, responsiveness, mindfulness, and a willingness to nurture the considerable trust the public places in museums. Sandell, Professor at the School of Museum Studies, University of Leicester, England, argued that because museums have a unique capacity to shape ways of seeing and thinking, they need to address current events and educate the public to engage in informed debates.
Similarly, Jasmine Palardy, Director of Programs at Beakerhead, discussed Beakerhead’s focus on inclusiveness and encouraged museums to create space for everyone. Palardy stressed that by learning something new and participating in the event, visitors are transformed from onlookers  to participants, which creates a sense of ownership and pride, and simultaneously creates a more inclusive and sustainable space.
Ensuring accessibility is also crucial to ensuring that museums are welcoming to all visitors. At the Conference, the Canadian Museum for Human Rights (CMHR) discussed their efforts to create a fully accessible facility by forming a committee of community members to help inform the planning stages of the museum. This committee provided feedback to museum personnel throughout the planning and development stages, and brought to their attention accessibility factors that had not been previously considered. Ultimately, this led to the publishing of a Braille Gallery Guide, the addition of Universal Key Pads with tactile controls and voiced instructions, the use of signers from the Deaf community on videos with audio content, and even a re-design of the building’s entrance. According to CMHR representatives at the conference, sharing ownership ultimately helped them develop a much better final product.
There are many ways to help community members become active participants in telling their stories, and it is important to ensure that our spaces are accessible and available. The message is universal: as museums travel along the path towards resiliency, we need to make sure that we do so hand in hand with our communities.  
This article originally appeared in the Spring 2015 issue of Alberta Museums Association INFOrm.