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Engagement and Sustainability in Museums

December 27, 2011

Engagement and sustainability are the two words that come to mind when thinking of the challenges facing museums in 2012.  As a small institution, at the C. H. Nash Museum in 2011 we had the luxury to step back a bit, think through those two concepts, without the burden of a huge infrastructure and payroll to preoccupy our every action.

We started off the year by completing a program restructuring to assure we met the expressed needs of our visiting school groups.  We also surveyed our e-newsletter readers to get their input on program priorities for our museum.  We made certain that these discussions were firmly situated within our mission statement.

In April, we led a 12 paper session called “Re-imagining the Engaged Museum” at the Society for Applied Anthropology meetings in Seattle.  This was a fantastic opportunity to hear from other museum professionals on efforts to make their institutions socially relevant.

This year we completed our second Museum Assessment Program (MAP) study.  A key part of both our 2010 Institutional MAP study and the Collections based study this year focused on sustainability.

This fall, visitation by school groups dramatically increased at our museum compared to the past few years.  We attribute the increase to our revised programs. word of mouth advertising, and an aggressive and consistent social media presence.  We have also developed a reputation for having a staff that is very focused on visitor service.  As we remind each other regularly, the only reason we are a museum is because of our visitors.  Without visitors, our function would be that of a repository or research center.

This fall, in staff discussion of our programs for 2012, a common theme was that all of our museum offerings need to be driven by the community that we serve.  I have posted before that our anticipated upgrades and redesign of the main hall exhibits will first solicit the input of key stakeholders and users, along with the casual visitors to our museum.  As well, all of our substantive projects for 2012 including the medicinal plant sanctuary, reconstruction of prehistoric houses, and excavations of the 1930s era Civilian Conservation Corps Camp will only occur with the active participation of our key stakeholders and users – the very same people who will inform our exhibit redesign.

In 2012 and beyond, sustainability of our institution will only be accomplished as a result of community engagement.  We will heed the advice posed by Nina Simon and others that the Participatory Museum should not simply be a hands-on experience for the sake of being a hands-on experience.  Rather, the Participatory Museum’s goal is to fully engage the visitor in the public institutions of which they ultimately have responsibility.   I remain convinced that the long-term sustainability of our cultural institutions will occur when the public for whom we perform the function of stewards for their collections are effectively engaged in the entire museum process.

What challenges do you see for 2012?

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