Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Guest Post: Community and Civic Engagement in Museum Programs

Stacey Marie Garcia came to the MAH first as a graduate intern in the summer of 2011. Since then, Stacey has become an indispensable member of our staff, leading our community programs and inspiring us to think in new ways about how we can build social capital in our community. I learn a ton from her every day and wanted to share her thinking--and her graduate thesis--with you.
Visitors bond and bridge through participatory experiences at MAH.
Writing my masters thesis for Gothenburg University’s International Museum Studies program while also working four days a week as the Director of Community Programs at the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History this spring was certainly a challenge but also an incredible opportunity. 

There were times when coordinating a fire art festival while researching social capital theory made me want to burn my computer. But, overall I felt overwhelmingly fortunate to be in a job, a museum and a community that I loved and furthermore to be afforded the valuable time most of us do not have to devote to further researching, thinking about, reading and discussing the theories that comprise the foundation of my work.

I chose to focus my thesis on Community and Civic Engagement in Museum Programs.  The purpose of my thesis was two-fold:
  1. To research and analyze community and civic engagement practices, methods, theories and examples in other museum programs.
  2. To apply the results of my analysis to produce a community-driven program design specifically for implementation at the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History (the MAH). 
You can download and read the full version of my thesis here. For the purpose of this blog post I’ll discuss three key ingredients from my thesis that can activate community engagement in museum programs and how we apply this to programs at the MAH: assessing and responding to community assets and needs, building social capital, and inviting active participation.

Assess and Respond to Community Assets and Needs

If you want to activate community engagement in your programs, you first need to work together with your communities to determine their diverse needs, assets and interests. This can be accomplished through a variety of feedback methods conducted both inside and outside the museum.  Deeper community relationships through focus groups or community advising committees can further help museums connect with issues relevant to their communities while also hold the museum accountable for their responses. 

Two exceptional examples of community committees stand out: one long standing, The Community Advisory Committees of The Wing Luke Museum of the Asian Pacific American Experience and one emerging, the Creative Community Council of the Children’s Creativity Museum.  Both emphasize museums reaching out into the community to support, understand and experience what the community is already doing. They stress community engagement should be an asset- over needs-based approach. It’s not solely about how museums can serve communities but rather what are the communities’ resources, knowledge and interests that can inform museum practice? Furthermore, how can museums and communities work together to share strengths in the community?

Museum programs need to then actively respond to their communities through a variety of ongoing discursive, collaborative and inclusive formats that address needs and assets but also invite communities to be active participants in this process. 

At the MAH

Our first program goal is to meet the needs and assets of our community as defined by our community.  We seek to understand this by listening to and developing ongoing dialogues with a range of community members. We attentively respond to requests and purposefully use different modes of feedback to inform program design from our comment board, social media outlets, conversations and observations both inside and outside the museum, creative feedback at events such as our Show and Tell Booth and online visitor surveys specific to our programs.  We continuously and actively respond to requests as well as invite people to be a part of our programs.

We also formed a Creative Community Committee (C3), composed of a diverse range of multigenerational community representatives from social services, the arts, business, education, the city, technology and our board of directors to provide a multitude of perspectives and expertise.  C3 meets bimonthly to help us understand and brainstorm ways the MAH can collaboratively implement and address the needs and assets of the vast array of communities in Santa Cruz County.

Build Social Capital

A crucial theory in community engagement through museum programs is social capital theory, best defined by Robert D. Putnam, who has written extensively about social capital in American society in his book, Bowling Alone. Putnam defines social capital as “connections among individuals-social networks and the norms of reciprocity and trustworthiness that arise from them.”  Social capital has two main forms; it should gradually and increasingly encompass both distinct forms of bonding and bridging to create healthier, wiser, more connected, economically and socially sustainable communities.

Bonding social capital refers to networks that bring people together with common interests to strengthen relationships in preexisting groups.

Bridging refers to an inclusive and outward looking form of linking different and diverse individuals and groups together to form new relationships.

Museum programs can be designed to further bond similar groups together such as families and friends in family workshops such as the Dallas Museum of Art’s First Tuesdays. Museum programs can also bridge different groups that might not typically interact such as the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum’s Educational Residential Centre, which designed a program specifically to bridge children of two groups engaged in social conflict, Catholics and Protestants.

Co-created programming that represents the complex range of voices in communities, offers platforms for communication, collaboration and shared experiences that can enrich preexisting relationships while also offer a space for new relationships to form and strengthen.  An example of this is The Portland Art Museum’s partnership with the faculty and students in Portland State University’s Art and Social Practice Department for their annual Shine a Light program.  The program is an experimental playground that bridges artists, students, chefs, comedians, hairdressers, bartenders, dancers, wrestlers and even tattoo artists to produce a community-led event.  Collaborative programs with diverse groups bring in a variety of visitors causing new audiences to interact and connect.

At the MAH

Our second community program goal is to build social capital by strengthening community connections with our collaborators and visitors.  This is a continual process of bonding within preexisting groups and bridging between groups and individuals who might not usually interact.  

Our programs bond our collaborators by closely co-creating programs with community organizations which strengthens their individual internal connections and their relationship to the MAH. For example, the MAH’s Poetry and Book Arts Extravaganza event partnered with Book Arts Santa Cruz and Poetry Santa Cruz to collaborate with 61 talented book artists and poets.  Evaluation surveys showed that Book Arts Santa Cruz members felt their bonds were strengthened as they connected with members in a collaborative capacity that increased group dialogue and stimulated a sense of pride, identity and vision around their work as a group at this event.

Cardboard tube orchestra at Radical Craft Night.
MAH programs are also designed to bond and bridge visitors through creative activities that form participatory dialogical spaces where knowledge is enhanced, widened and deepened through meaningful opportunities for visitors to converse, discuss and collaborate with each other. Relationships can grow as families bond over a Family Art Day experience or friends can work together to create their own shoebox guitar at Santa Cruz Music 3rd Friday or strangers can collaborate by participating in a cardboard tube orchestra. 

Sometimes we purposefully bridge distinct groups as well such as middle-aged women from local knitting groups with young college students interested in street art to yarn bomb our stairwell for Radical Craft Night.  The MAH’s historic Evergreen Cemetery brings together the Homeless Services Center and MAH volunteers or the local rugby team to collaboratively restore the cemetery.  We are constantly looking for new meaningful opportunities to bridge groups and individuals in our programs.   

Design to Invite Active Participation

Participatory design can be one of the most effective vehicles for developing relationships, building social capital and engaging with community members in museum programs.  Implementing participatory activities and constructivist learning theories allow the learner to actively experiment cognitively and physically, individually and socially, and to collectively build meaning and knowledge. Participatory programming highlights alternative narratives, activates communities and reverses the role of the visitors from consumer to producer, which in turn engenders more connected and active communities.

The value of participatory experiences is epitomized in FIGMENT, a free, creative, participatory, non-profit, community art event.  This participatory event led by emerging artists from all backgrounds, engages communities by encouraging a culture of making, doing, creating and collaboration rather than spectatorship. 

The Denver Art Museum has been leading the way with dynamic programs such as Untitled, which offers a variety of non-traditional encounters with art and the museum through participatory, multidisciplinary activities led by Denver’s creative community. 

At the MAH

Our third community program goal is to invite active participation by offering opportunities at events for visitors to have meaningful, hands-on, cultural experiences in which they act as contributors and co-creators, not just consumers.  We scaffold levels of participatory experiences at events that are intergenerational, multidisciplinary and appeal to different types of learners. We give visitors a new skill to claim rather than a product and work intensely with our collaborators to insure active participation in their activities.

All of our events require some level of participation. Sometimes that results in an artist-led cascading collaborative sculpture of 475 visitor-made scrap metal fish.  Other times it’s a collaborative collage animation workshop, a black light art activity with red lentils, dodge ball, recording songs to send to loved ones, writing haikus for strangers or an urban history scavenger hunt on bikes.

Artists from different worlds, brought
together through Street Art Night.
Our events invite our collaborators to work with us to design participatory activities and offer visitors active, collaborative and meaningful experiences that inspire citizens to positively and actively contribute to their communities.  

Final Thoughts

These are certainly not the only components that constitute successful community engagement in museum programs but they are central for MAH programs and for our community.  This summer, at our Street Art Night, when I saw a young graffiti artist learning how to knit from a woman in her sixties and then taught her how to spray paint or at Experience Metal, when a motorcycle repairman learns how to operate a new tool from an art bike welder or when families work together to create their own cardboard neighborhood or when two individuals who met at one of our events team up to collaborate- it allows me to see first hand the gradual impact of our goals on the community and makes me realize all those late nights spent writing my thesis were completely worth it.

Stacey will be responding to your questions and comments on this post. Enjoy her thesis, share your own example, have a meaty conversation.
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