It has been far too long since I've written a book review. But in my defence, we've been a tad busy with some other minor projects, like this little website called NovaMuse. So now that the dust is settling a bit, it's time to get back to our reference library (among other things).
A Museums & Community Toolkit was published in 2002 by the American Association of Museums (now called the American Alliance of Museums) as a companion piece to Mastering Civic Engagement: A Challenge to Museums. The initiative came from the acknowledgement that museums have often focused on one-way dialogues, of spreading the word that they determine to be important, rather than real conversations and activities that speak to the community's needs and desires.
The introduction makes a very valid point: "the museum-community relationship is one that must be nurtured if our institutions are to succeed at their mission to serve the public good." Opening a dialogue with the community can be eye-opening, and not always in a positive way; how we view ourselves is almost always different from how the public views us. Once you begin this dialogue and process, the internal enquiry must be a sincere exploration of the entire organization that involves everyone - staff, board members, and volunteers. Without buy-in and honest input from all levels and roles, it will be much more difficult (if not impossible) to make a change. The external enquiry must be handled with grace and open minds. If the public has a certain perception of the museum or society, disagreeing or trying to convince them otherwise may end up further distancing the museum from its goals of community partnership.
The toolkit walks you through the entire facilitation process, beginning with the museum's role in civic dialogue - what can it offer its community in terms of collections, activities, exhibits, space, expertise, etc. From there it talks about how to design a community dialogue event, identification of goals, participants, the role of a steering committee, logistics, and then the actual event itself. Knowing what to expect from the discussions, how many people should attend, what kind of homework needs to be done before and after...there are a lot of questions to ask and things to prepare. In looking at potential participants, the toolkit provides very general terms such as "youth organizations" and "transportation providers" so that the reader will be able to identify who from their community fits a particular category.
Perhaps the hardest part of this work is figuring out what questions to ask once the stakeholders are in the same room. Again the toolkit provides exercises and questions that have been tried and tested through the AAM's sessions. What may be surprising to some is that the questions are not focused entirely on the museum itself, but ask questions about all of the organizations and services in your community to help identify what makes it tick. The discussion time is an examination of current realities and issues as well as a time for dreams and vision work, and by the end of the day you will see clear, recurring themes and ideas that might make you a little excited. At this point, the key is to ensure that the dialogue continues, that people know this was not just a one-time event to pick their brains.
The toolkit also includes an in-depth case study from the George Eastman House International Museum of Photography and Film in Rochester NY. In this case, a specific event that rocked the community became an opportunity to build bridges and facilitate partnerships where none had previously existed. Everyone in the community wanted to be involved and agreed that the museum was the best location to hold services and events; the museum's response was a simple "use us". Museum staff referred to the experience as inspiring, and said that "it was a chance to look at how our values have been strengthened or changed by these terrible events. It also was a wonderful opportunity to make new friends."
The nice thing about this toolkit is that it is just that - a toolkit. It asks as many questions as it gives tips. It forces the reader to stop and think about their own situation and figure out who to approach and how to set up a dialogue in their community. The examples and suggestions spark the imagination, and the case studies and exercises and helpful hints set you up for a much better chance at succeeding.
As I read this book, I thought about a number of museums who have been struggling with community engagement in one way or another. While I don't live in those communities, I could envision how such conversations would play out. In some cases I think the museum/society boards are not ready to tackle this sort of work or hear what their community has to say, which is sad. But in other cases, I think going through such an exercise could be just what the doctor ordered. The thing to remember is that the reason the toolkit formula works is because participating institutions believed in and were open to the process - whatever the outcome.