Monday, 21 December 2020

Sustainability through Communities of Practice

The Critical Contributions of Regular Peer Connection among Museum Professionals

by Tara Beck and Isabella Borrelli

The journey towards this blog entry began in February 2020 when two colleagues sat down to consider how their experience with communities of practice might contribute to the AMA Conference about museums and organizational sustainability. At the time, conversations primarily revolved around the value of communities of practice in combatting the institutional and professional silos common across Edmonton’s museum landscape (Edmonton Heritage Council’s Comprehensive Museum Strategy Report, 2012). Knowing the difficulty in a major city, one can only assume that our counterparts in rural Alberta face similar challenges.

A lot has happened since February which has encouraged us to broaden our considerations of the ways communities of practice can serve us in our work. Museums are at a pivotal point in their history. The Covid-19 pandemic has forced many of them to shrink dramatically, and in some cases close. The unmasking of deep rooted institutional systemic racism has called on museums to meaningfully address their histories and make changes for their futures.

What is a community of practice?

Communities of practice is a term coined in 1991 by Jean Lave and Etienne Wegner to describe “groups of people who share a concern or passion for something they do and learn how to do it better as they interact regularly.” These gatherings provide opportunities for interdisciplinary exchange in low stakes and safe environments. There are three key characteristics needed:

1)   The Domain: This implies a commitment to a shared domain – in our case, museums.

2)   The Community: The community learns from each other by interacting with each other, but do not necessarily work together on a daily basis. For example, the Impressionists used to meet in cafes and studios to discuss the style of painting they were inventing together, but often they painted alone (Wenger-Trayner).

3)   The Practice: By having regular discussions and meetings to share stories, experiences, and ways of dealing with issues, the group develop the practice.

These points combined create a community of practice and by developing those in unison one creates the community. They take us from formal to informal, yet help us develop in our field, a living curriculum.

Why are they important right now?

We are forced, by dwindling resources and tight timelines, into silos that can leave us feeling lonely and uninspired in our day to day operations. With limited and fragile resources, communities of practice offer an alternative to the more formal learning and development offers. Peer-to-peer gatherings, in person or online, offer us learning, interaction, and social support. They allow us to know that our cell is not the only one in the world, that there are peers with whom we can share ideas, worries, and experiences.

Communities of practice also have the potential to foster equity, humility, and mutual respect across the diverse professions that work in museums. Our industry is particularly susceptible to the toxic effects of competition, academic elitism, and hierarchical structure. We are a group of professionals often hired for our knowledge and our credentials. These things that get us hired can become the very elements that get in the way of achieving collaborative communities in our work. By engaging in communities of practice that are diverse in their membership, we are encouraged to think beyond our own credentials and institutional hierarchies to draw on each other as people diverse in experience and equal in value.

Finally, communities of practice are particularly relevant to our current COVID culture. The longstanding siloed existence of the museum professional risks being exacerbated by the shifts in our pandemic society. Participants in communities of practice learn by doing, becoming, and belonging (Lawthorn). This sense of belonging, critical in establishing communities of practice, has the potential to counteract feelings of disconnect and isolation resulting from strict protocols around social distancing, remote working, and limited visitor contact.


What do communities of practice look like?

The design of a community of practice can be as diverse as the reasons for which they form. Below is a table that highlights four types of basic communities and provides examples of each as they appear within the museum sector.


Type of community of practice*

Anecdotal examples gathered from museum professionals

Helping Communities:

provide a forum for community members to help each other with everyday work needs

“My colleagues and I take regular opportunities to get together to plan, discuss, and share their museum experiences. These gathering help to ease isolation, encourage ideas, and strengthen knowledge bases. They can be particularly powerful when we come together from different departments in the museum.”


Best Practice Communities:

develop and disseminate best practices, guidelines, and strategies for their members’ use

“I was managing a project developing a Children’s Gallery in a new museum. Another museum that was embarking on a similar development project reached out to us. We met regularly to discuss things we had experienced, why we chose the stories and activities, who we had collaborated with, in an effort for them to get their redevelopment on the right track. It was beneficial for us to hear their perspective on their previous gallery as well as on our ideas. In addition, our team participated in their children’s gallery forum, allowing further connections to blossom.”

Knowledge Stewarding Communities:

organize, manage, and steward a body of knowledge from which community members can draw

“Our learning team used to get together for regular co-developed and delivered mini professional development sessions. The sessions addressed a variety of topics chosen by our team. We accomplished a lot in running these sessions and they helped us to build a resource base of ideas and learnings that was great for training new staff.”  

Innovation Communities:

create breakthrough ideas, new knowledge, and new practices

“I am a member of a community of practice made up of education coordinators from a diversity of heritage, recreation, and park facilities. Hosting visitors at our sites is foundational to our programming. With the onset of COVID restrictions, we found ourselves uncertain about how to reach our audiences who we knew still needed us. Through the last 6 months, we have met every 2-4 weeks virtually to share our experiences, our approaches, and our innovations to rapidly adjust to the fundamental shift in our practice. The help we have been able to provide each other has allowed us to find solutions, not only to our short-term needs, but also to some long-term issues we have had with supply shortages.”

*Edmonton Regional Learning Consortium

We feel that now, more than ever, museum communities need to come together. It will take a diversity of approaches and dedicated intention to address both longstanding challenges of isolation and the newly highlighted issues of our times.

Communities of practice are but one tool to help museums evolve. When done well, they have unparalleled ability to develop professional belonging, purpose, and creative innovation – all of which contribute to a sustainable future for our museums and for the people who work in them.


Resource List

Rebecca Lawthom, “Lave and Wenger, Communities of Practice and Disability Studies,” in Disability and Social Theory, eds. D. Goodley, B. Hughes, L.  Davis, (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012).

Etienne C. Wenger and William M. Snyder, “Communities of Practice: The Organizational Frontier,” Harvard Business Review (2000, January – February).

Etienne and Beverly Wenger-Trayner, “Communities of Practice: A Brief Introduction,” (2015).

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