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A Museum Engagement Niche

May 14, 2012

At the C.H. Nash Museum at Chucalissa we are in the middle of creating a strategic plan that will set our agenda for the next five years.  This process benefits from a good bit of staff discussion over the past couple of years.  We revisited our mission statement, considered our experiences, strengths and weaknesses, surveyed visitors, and more.  We discussed finding our people and program niches – not trying to be all things to all people.  This latter process proved particularly helpful.

Here are a few thoughts on the people side of our niche that have been in my head over my past few years at Chucalissa – specifically the people who supplement our full-time staff of four in creating and managing the activities at the Museum:

Educational Center for Museum Studies – We employ 3-5 Graduate Assistants from the University of Memphis (UM) who “work” 20 hours per week at the Museum.  Generally, these students are also enrolled in the UM’s Museum Studies Graduate Certificate Program.  Over their two-year period of employment at Chucalissa, the students take part fully in the day-to-day operation of the museum along with projects that focus on their own career interests such as collections management, programming, or exhibit development.  We also host several graduate and undergraduate interns each semester who spend 150 hours at the Museum learning about a range of museum practices.  Each year Chucalissa also serves as the location of 5-10 research projects by students for other UM class projects.  I am reminded of how important this educational component is at our Museum every time I run into a former student.  For example, former graduate assistant Lauren Huber recently wrote to me about how her work with our volunteer programs, newsletter, and social media projects are instrumental in her new position as the Volunteer/Docent Coordinator at the Heritage Farmstead Museum in Plano Texas, where she is now employed.  Clearly, we fill a niche in Memphis as a premier location for student education in a range of museum practices.  This relationship is reciprocal because our Museum relies on students as staff and to help create exhibits and programs.  The C.H. Nash Museum also serves an integral role in the Museum Studies Graduate Certificate Program and other educational opportunities at UM.

Community Service and Community Service Learning (CS/L) – I have posted before about the growth in our CS/L opportunities at the Museum.  We look forward to hosting another AmeriCorps Team this August and September.  Our proposal for the upcoming Team includes projects at Chucalissa, in the Westwood Community near the Museum, and at the adjacent T.O. Fuller State Park.  The CS/L opportunities also tie back into UM student training.  Mallory Bader, a Graduate Assistant at the Museum and a student in the Museum Studies Graduate Certificate Program at UM, for her 300-hour MA practicum project in the Anthropology Department will help coördinate the upcoming AmeriCorps Team projects and develop a template for future CS/L projects that will engage with multiple agencies in southwest Memphis.

Volunteer Programs –   Over the past several years we built a renewed volunteer program at the C.H. Nash Museum.  The program began in 2008 with processing prehistoric artifacts and has grown to include a wide diversity of activities including digital photography, library data entry, landscaping, and more.  Volunteers include long-time supporters of the Museum such as the Friends of Chucalissa.  As well, the Memphis Archaeological and Geological Society that was formed in 1952 specifically around volunteer work at the then recently discovered Chucalissa site continues to participate with groups of up to 25 on recent Volunteer Saturdays.  Coupled with the more traditional volunteer base, we also draw new volunteers to the site through the UM, other area colleges, and from the Memphis community.

Community Engagement – In the past few years the C.H. Nash Museum has made substantial efforts to engage the community surrounding the Chucalissa site. On an annual basis, the single largest zip code recorded of visitors to our Museum is the one that surrounds the Museum.  Our community engagement has resulted in exhibits and other hosted events.  We are able to collaborate on projects of mutual interest.  For example, to complement our Traditional Medicinal Plant Sanctuary (that will officially open on Saturday May 19), members of the Westwood community this summer will plant a Traditional Food Garden at the Museum.  This fall the Museum will host a Harvest Festival event that will bring together community and UM resources to highlight foods traditional of both the prehistoric and modern communities who have lived on the  built environment of the Chucalissa site.

The Engagement Lesson –  The different people engagements listed above are well-suited to the C.H. Nash Museum.  They draw on our strengths and mission.  The combination of our total “people niche” at the C.H. Nash Museum is unlike any other in the Memphis area.  That is, as an integral component of the University of Memphis we have a strong set of educational resources and opportunities available.  A part of that resource base flows from a mission of community service and community service learning.  The community outreach is also integral to our mission and provides an opportunity to recruit and engage with volunteers.  Our location in southwest Memphis as a cultural heritage venue ideally situates us to engage with our neighboring community.  This total combination of engagement provides us with a unique opportunity to form relationships with a diversity of Memphians and others as we live into our mission.  We cannot draw sharp lines of distinctions or create silos between the engagement types that form our total people niche – which in my more cosmic thoughts amounts to a luminous web of interconnectivity.

Of particular importance is the inability to draw a clear distinction between who is serving and who is being served.

Who is in your engagement niche of people that makes your institution go?

3 Comments leave one →
  1. June 8, 2012 8:01 pm

    Nice point about the spirit and action required to genuinely engage with the local community. How do you inform the community about what you are doing and what is available for them through your institution?

    • June 9, 2012 1:20 pm

      We have an enewsletter and Facebook page where we put out info about our activities. More importantly, we solicit community input on all of our activities and programs in advance. For example, in our planned redevelopment of our main exhibit hall, the very first step was conducting focus groups and interviews with our community of users and stakeholders. We attempt to embrace the very essence of the Participatory Museum, less as a hands-on for the sake of hands-on, but more as a means to have the visitor and general public integrated into the very life of our institution.

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