Community Engagement is one of those terms that is tossed around in museums but can become encrusted with coded meaning. Often museums use the word community engagement to mean bringing in low-income people, with “community” being a coded term for underprivileged people. Sometimes community engagement might be used as the term for bringing in new audiences. Or, in an ideal situation, community engagement is a term for connecting people to your organization.
Not too long ago, I was thinking about the possible types of experiences that could be part of community engagement (see my handwritten notes above) Often organizations focus on how they can bring people in their doors, usually with programs.
Yet, a rounded community engagement program should strategically consider the myriad facets of interaction. Museums have collections as well as space, money, soft power. People’s draw to the museum might not be the collection, at least at first. This is a controversial thought, I realize. Community engagement, however, needs to be about inviting people into the museum community rather than demanding people use the museum the “right way”.
A huge portion of community engagement should be about sharing. Museums have many resources they can share beyond their programs. Also, there are times when what they have to offer is space, both physical and emotional. A well-rounded community engagement portfolio should balance multiple elements of the facets of community engagement, ideally developed iteratively and collaboratively with patrons.