How do you do Community Engagement

Community Engagement is a commitment. Often organizations need to go through stages to improve their engagement with patrons. At the lowest level of engagement, organizations want to include people in their existing programs without changes. At the highest level of engagement, the organization is willing to make changes and as a result their community changes. A small example of a coevolution might be when procedural changes, like waiving rental fees, are put in place to run a community-originated program.

Most organization’s work in community engagement between “consult” and “collaborate.” Each subsequent level of engagement requires increasing amounts of trust, truth, and time.

Organizations need to give a little and learn a lot in order to do community engagement well. In non-profit, particularly museums, while the stakes feel high, the outside world rarely understand our norms. Many of the concessions to connect to the community and increase involvement do not change us at the core. They require listening and improving; they do not require changing who we are.

Community engagement is a good relationship, like a long marriage/ partnership when you lose track of the small changes each partner has made.  But, like all relationships, engagement needs to start with an honest, truthful commitment. Then, museums need to follow through.  (Museums have more need for this relationship, so they must model follow through. If they do, communities eventually will.) If museums do, they can expand and improve your work, eventually finding that the museum and the community have both been inextricably improved by this faithful communion.

What is Community Engagement?

Capital, Collections, Cultural Capital and Infrastructure are what museums can offer.
Facets of Community Engagement

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.

Thinking about Value: Universal Rights of Humanity & Free Arts/ Culture

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights proclaimed in 1948 explicitly calls out the importance of arts and culture. Article 27 states “Everyone has the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community, to enjoy the arts and to share in scientific advancement and its benefits.” This estimable document includes a number of essential rights, like the right to life and work. Amongst those foundational needs, everyone has the right to knowledge and culture.


The importance of intellectual and cultural pursuits might be seen as a right by the United Nations but are often unfunded mandates in many countries. In the US,  arts and culture funding generally combines private and public funding like a complicated crazy-quilt. A patron at a library, theater, and/ or museum would be hard-pressed to perceive the sources of money that keep the lights on and the culture coming.  Arts and culture seem to just be there.

The opacity of funding can be a sincere challenge in building ownership in patrons as well as maintain sustainability. Patrons need to understand costs if they are being asked to help pitch in. National Public Radio (NPR) offers a useful model of articulating the actual cost of services. During funding drives, most stations delineate the costs and then remind listeners of their responsibility to pay for what could be free. Breaking down costs concretizes services that otherwise seem ephemeral.

Museums and arts organizations, like NPR, are often available on the user’s timeline. Rather than a theater performance, you can go to the museum during open hours.  You might choose to spend the full day in the galleries or walk out in ten minutes. At the symphony, you would be ejected by polite red-coated volunteers if you tried to stay the day and judged, equally politely, if you walked out in ten minutes.  While this self-determined timeline can be positive for visitors, it can also have ramifications for the perception of value. One museum professional shared that they felt that, “People see us as the friend who is always there for you when you don’t have plans, and this is also the friend that you don’t really pay attention to.”

Visitors often do not understand the true costs of running arts or cultural organizations. Museums and arts organizations support their funding mostly through large donors, who basically subsidize the low-cost or free entrance. So, the visitors are merrily ignorant of the hard work the development staff engages in daily. They see the benefits of this labor as a given.  Alternately, many performing arts organizations have a different model. Patrons pay fees for tickets. These fees do not completely cover the operating costs. But, patrons understand that there is a cost associated that that cultural experience.  The distributed funding model in performing arts exposes the funding needs to a broader sector of their community.

Patrons will not innately understand costs. The onus is on the organizations to make this clear to their broad audience. Many of the costs of this work are different than the costs in other fields. Most office buildings have framed posters on the wall. Not all visitors will understand why the cost of framing and hanging an artwork on a museum wall is exponentially higher. An arts-professional shared the importance of expressing funding needs…”CHRISTINA”



Value has a complicated relationship with cost. For example, if the value is seen to be less than the cost, the patron will likely be deterred or disgruntled. If the value is perceived to be more than the cost, the person will be thrilled to make the payment.  But value is not just about getting a steal.  Value can grow over time. Repeated contact can be necessary to really appreciate some costs. Gym membership, for example, is a cost that you might need a few months to truly appreciate.

Arts and culture also have a perception problem. These pursuits are seen as being appreciated by a rarified audience. Certain skills are seen as necessary to “get it.” They have to be “your thing.”  And, if they aren’t your thing, you won’t find enjoyment. A recent British study articulated this issue:

Onboarding is, therefore, a major problem for the field. Entry programs, often through schools, can help people gain an appreciation of arts and culture. However, if these programs are not valued in their family, students often do not grow to value arts and culture in the long term. Families often preference other leisure pursuits, even if those have costs, unlike the free arts and culture. All is not lost, of course. Arts and culture appreciation can grow in young adulthood, often through friends. However, young adulthood is a time of high student loans and low disposable income. So, young adults might not experience arts and culture enough to build a sustained habit.

Free programs, therefore, can be a way to build broad audiences. As one cultural professional said “[without free programs], I think our audience would be even more middle-aged and middle-class than it is, and I don’t know that it would have the chance to diversify, both in those terms and in others.” Free programs are the easiest way to break down a tangible access barrier. Free allows anyone and everyone to enjoy the benefits of arts and culture.

Arts and culture are also often best enjoyed collectively. A live reading of a poetry is different than listening to an audiobook at home. Live theater allows patrons to connect not only to the story but also to the energy of being in a room full of like-minded individuals. When a social group goes to an exhibition, they can learn and explore together. Arts and culture are also cost-effective when experienced collectively. The cost of mounting an opera is exorbitant, and so sharing those costs are the only way that such experiences can exist. Real Rembrandts, and frankly many fake Rembrandts, are too costly for most people to own. Most people’s chance to experience high-quality art is in art museums.  As, the power of experiencing arts and culture, though, is not universally obvious, free opportunities allow people to tap into these experiences of collective learning with authentic arts and culture.

Free also has a number of problems, however. As mentioned above, free means costs must be raised in other ways. Also, as mentioned above, free means people do not understand the true costs, and so they cannot determine the true value. Therefore, for some organizations free becomes a different type of barrier. As a professional at a free museum shared, “People just assume that they can come when they want, and so they never come and go to the things that they pay for. No one wants to lose money.”

Value and cost, therefore, have a convoluted relationship. These organizations are seen as exclusive.  Charged fees support the perception of exclusion. The real costs of running these types of organizations are often invisible to users. However, most people do not place enough value on these resources to pay even a portion of the cost. After all, even when available free, these arts and culture amenities are often eschewed for costlier options. When free programs are valued, patrons grow a deep appreciation and donate funds.


The rights to art and culture are one that is not universally appreciated. There is no single way to run arts and culture nonprofits to help patrons understand their value. Broad social appreciation of these fields is required to sustain audiences. Costs can be an access barrier, certainly, however, fees can also signal value to patrons. Availability can be a way to grow engagement or a means of building engagement.

However, the salient issue here is about perceived value. In order to maintain the arts and cultural sector, writ large, the social value has to be clear to potential patrons.  These programs have to appeal to patrons (rather than organizations). In other words, the arts and cultural sector cannot expect to draw new patrons (or even existing patrons) by maintaining the status quo. They need to find better ways to express their value to their local community while also working nationally as advocates.


Looking into the Well-Reported Statistic about Museums, Starbucks & McDonalds (Data)

A well-reported statistic compares the number of museums to Starbucks and McDonalds. There are 1.5 times more museums in the country than the caffeine and fries purveyors. A friend Michelle Epps got me thinking about what this statistic. (You might know Michelle from her tireless work on the Emerging Museum Professional network).

In looking at the numbers, Michelle is right. While statistics about the sheer numbers of museums seem positive, they mask some real challenges. Museums can easily grow their reach. They have the physical space to interact with more people and the cultural capital to improve our society. But, they also don’t have the staffing capacity across the board. The majority of American museums have 3 or fewer full-time staff. Most, if not all, museums buoy their organizational capacity with volunteers. This staffing challenge is hugely detrimental to the field. Volunteers are wonderful, and I myself love volunteering with local organizations. But, they also effectively subsidize work at these institutions. Starbucks, in the opposite, is well-known for its commitment to giving numerous benefits to retain staff.

Starbucks and McDonalds (combined) are serving 70 times more people than museums.  These scores of patrons are also always interacting with paid staff when they are at those establishments. As Michelle pointed out to me, people don’t get a Master’s degree to volunteer at Starbucks. Instead, they work at Starbucks to be able to afford to volunteer at a museum.


Sources and Numbers:

Starbucks: 453600000 people served, 8,222 stores, and 238,000  staff (does not staff if these numbers are full-time staff only)
McDonalds:1266960000 people served, 14140 stores, and 375000 staff (does not staff if these numbers are full-time staff only)
Museums: 85000000 people served, 35000 museums, and 725000 employees

Connecting Experience and Research

Research is the fuel in the engine of the museum’s output. Like a car, which is basically inert without a driver, the museum only fulfills its full mission when drawing visitors. Visitors are now a scarce commodity. Drawing more visitors requires considering our offerings and the way those offerings come to fruition. This does mean going all the way to the sources, including research. We need to be thoughtful about how we do research, who does research, and which research is prioritized. All those choices will eventually determine which visitors we draw. When we place research outside the realm of bias and inclusion conversations, we are putting bad fuel in our engines.


Centering visitors takes work. Museums often start with objects then come up with ideas for installations and exhibition, then turn to thinking about visitors while producing the outputs of that research, like in the diagram below. The challenge is that when you do your research that not centered on your visitor. Now, this is in some ways a challenging proposition. Research is an unwieldy process.  Anyone who has done research understands the sort of free-flow, errant paths that you must travel and the secret travails you must brook. Centering your visitor in your research means simply as you look at your work remember you are doing this for someone–not just yourself or your museum. Use that as a guiding idea throughout your work (as seen above). Just as a writer knows that someday someone will read these words (please read these words :>), a museum researcher should hope that their work will be consumed by someone. In other words, keep that goal in mind throughout your research.

Interpretation : Focus on Tactile and Kinesthetics

In museum galleries, we signal ideas through a variety of ways. Collections are visible in the galleries. Interpretation adds more signals, like ancillary images, audiotours, and of course text. But, we also omit many stimuli. We often completely exclude two major forms of meaning-making, kinesthetic and tactile. What happens when we do this? And, what are ways that we can foster these senses?




Every moment of the day, awake or not, we make take in sensory information and make sense of the world. Some stimula are fairly direct. We smell a musty odor and match that to a memory of skunk smells. Other times, we receive information that has been translated by an individual (like you are reading about skunk smell now).

Most objects in museums are translations of phenomena. Fossils were once a living, breathing creature. Artworks might relate a concept, idea, or experience.  Look at the example above. An artist has created an image of a cat. Now, in understanding that object, you can use your senses. In museums, you will most likely not be able to touch it. You could listen to an audiotour, but you couldn’t be able to hear the sounds of striking it (ping) or dropping it (crash). Most likely you will need to use vision as your primary sense, either through looking at the object or reading the text (a translation of the object into text that the reader must interpret.)




In other words, in the vast majority of museum settings, visitors must rely on the mediation of the museum interpretation. They need to use visual sense as the primary source whereas in the rest of the world they use many more sources of information.

Humans have a distinct haptic system, where they use touch to reflexively seek and acquire information, even more quickly than with the sense of sight.  Many types of information are most easily ascertained through touch like hardness, temperature, pliability, weight. These topics can be learned through verbal communication, yet they are more easily ascertained if you just reach out your hand. People often act on this need to understand through touch before their rational senses take hold.

Touch can evoke memories but also quickly immerse people in new experiences.Touch is a type of learning that is often fostered in early childhood. Engaging in learning through touch is pleasurable.




Touch is not the only sense that people lose in the museum. Spatial and kinesthetic sensibilities are often challenging. Works are seen out of context. While the fossils of some dinosaurs are seen in its full forms, many bones might be framed in a case. Because of that, you can’t walk around the whole creature. You can’t understand your relative scale to this animal, for example.

Kinesthetic experiences allow learners to connect actions to ideas to develop deeper understandings of concepts and developing critical thinking efficiently. This connection of body and mind is called embodied learning, in which abstract ideas are made more salient when connected to concrete physical action. While kinesthetic learning is so important for meaning-making, this form of engagement is underrepresented throughout the educational ecosystem.

Kinesthetic learning has some important ancillary benefits. Experiences that foster learning through actions usually have a flexibility that encourages creativity, experimentation and problem-solving.  The sheer act of moving put learners in a position to see spaces and objects from a new perspective. In museums, ideally, kinesthetic learning should feel authentic and meaningful. And, kinesthetic learning also encourages collaborative action.



Streamlining to visual senses have major problems for visitors. Spatial and tactile learning can certainly help those with hearing and sight impairments, but these types of experiences empower everyone making collections more memorable for all. Together these senses can evoke emotions and encourage fascination.

The challenge for museums is that touch and kinesthetic action are natural ways that humans make meaning. The sense of touch is the easiest way to ascertain authenticity, for example. People are well aware when an experience feels inauthentic.  Museums need to be thoughtful, therefore, in the experiences they produce, for example, using high-quality replicas. When chosen appropriately, handling replicas or other materials can stimulate engagement.

Touch does not mean to wildly grab collections. Museums need to help visitors learn appropriate handling behaviors. Ideally, touch can be added into museum spaces without unleashing an avalanche of destruction. Reality-based interactions on tablets can offer some of the benefits as touching objects. While more research needs to be done, virtual touch does seem to be a real option.

The Regional Arts and Culture Ecosystem

No institution is an island. Understanding your part in the greater whole of your community can help, your organization find the best way to work in the community.

  • Large Single-Sited Institutions: ex. Museums
  • Multi-Sited Institutions: ex. School systems, Library systems
  • Event-Focused Organizations: ex. Reader/ Writing Events, musical festivals
  • Small Single-Sited Organizations: ex. Arts centers
  • Mobile/ Outreach Organizations: ex. teaching artist programs

Most organizations have a core competency. For example, a museum might have a housed-collection in a vast building downtown. They might then decide that connecting to the collection requires mobile outreach. However, their core competency is their sited space.  An efficient, thoughtful approach would be to partner with an organization that does outreach well.

Coalitions allow organizations to pool resources and gain the benefit of competencies they don’t naturally have. Additionally, the community wins exponentially. Remember, all the organizations are working together for the community (which is a more mission-driven approach than thinking that you are competing for audiences).  Understanding where you fit in the ecosystem is a useful way to find efficiencies, build audiences, and learn from adjacent fields.


What Museums Can Learn from the Black Panther

The stars of Black Panther including Zuri in purple carrying an impressive blade (Marvel’s Black Panther, 2018)

Taken from the Marvel Comic Books, the Black Panther is a movie about a fictional African nation that cloaks its advanced civilization as a form of self-preservation. The king of the nation has superhuman strength thanks to serious sumptuary success. The Black Panther’s trail to bring a bad guy to justice starts some even worse experiences for him and his nation.

1. Great story with POC doesn’t have to be about color
While the Black Panther mentions slavery, colonialism, appropriation, and the art market, they are in support of a great story. Certainly, the many challenges in the history of the African diaspora are worthy of exploring in film, as well as literature and exhibitions. But, people of color are not just the sum of the worst of their history. Black Panther told a great hero story, using all the elements of the character’s history, good and bad. But, this is a really an adventure romp.

In other words, don’t essentialize POC’s experiences in exhibitions or programming. Appeal to the whole people if you want their whole participation.

2. Market for Success
Disney put real money into the marketing, and their investment was returned by being the fifth biggest box office opening domestically.

Museums often split up their marketing with the smallest part going to education programs and diversity programs. And, then people don’t come. If these people are the hardest to get, you probably need to try the hardest to get them into your doors.

3. Synergy Sells
The Black Panther will be in the upcoming Infinity War, apparently. Most Black Panther audiences know this because the ad ran before the movie this weekend. Every person who liked this movie saw that. Some portion might even attend that movie as a result. That said, not every person in the theaters this weekend is a Marvel fan. Many came out to support a Black-led and performed film. But, the synergy is a classic Hollywood trick. Snag extra audiences by pushing products in existing audiences.

Museums often sell hard to a sector of an audience for specific exhibitions, like African-American audiences for an exhibition of Kerry James Marshall or young boys for an exhibition of Dinosaurs. That is good marketing sense. But, most museums can do better about cross-promotion. Look for ways that you might find connections to other parts of your collection. Offer them some connected ways to maintain a relationship with your organization’s collection. The Marshall attendees might love figurative painting. The Dinosaur boys might like whales. To find the best synergies think broadly, don’t essentialize people, and consider doing some evaluations of audiences about other interests.

4. Don’t Shy Away from the Hard Stuff
There is one scene in a museum where a woman (curator, marketing manager?) is standing in a gallery (with coffee!) nearly apoplectic when being accused of cultural piracy/ theft of artifacts. There are many tougher issues about race that are brought up in this movie, though woven into the narrative. I remind you that this is a Disney blockbuster movie being advertised during the Olympics.

Controversial issue and blockbusters don’t need to be in opposition. In fact, if you avoid controversial issues, you might find that you have alienated audiences making for a far-from-successful blockbuster.

5. Celebrate rather than Blind Yourself to Color
Disney worked to create a film within the Marvel universe that worked for the audience, and then made sure people knew what they were getting. It’s right in the name, “Black Panther”. This was not the African-American panther (not to mention he is meant to be from Africa). This story was pretty honest about race, but also matter of fact. From the advertising alone, no one thought that they were going to be seeing one or two black faces. But, at the same time, it was not just about race. You didn’t forget their color but you let the Black Panther, his enemies, his friends, and everyone else in Wakanda be their whole selves.

Museums in general still make the mistake of essentializing people of color, particularly black/ African-American people. Coded language flourishes in museums and museum culture. The word “diversity” in most museums means, not variation as it should, but instead moves to include black people or people of color in the museum ecosystem. This is a terribly bad way to grow audiences. You are basically inviting people in to change your demographic but not changing for them. What happens, then, is that you don’t have true change in museum demographics.

Black Panther showed that people of color will respond to quality entertainment that is more than about race as long as it doesn’t shy away from Race. Also, this was not a sneaky move to create a movie that had an almost all-black cast. This was all-out, right-on Black made and performed.

Museums can learn bringing people in, different people than you have now, requires real effort, real money, and a truthful product. After all, if you aren’t planning to go big, people will just stay home. Don’t believe me, ask the people who didn’t stay home this weekend.

And if you were here for the art, here are 12 artworks from cultures that inspired the Black Panther designers.

Vistor-Centered Interpretation


There is a symphonic aspect to exhibition and museum gallery planning. Many ideas come together to create something coherent and ideally pleasing to the audience.  Just as some music is appealing to only a few, and others hit the charts, some exhibitions and museum spaces work for more rarified audiences. That said,  museums can do better about understanding what types of ideas are broader audience-specific and what are for more rarified circles.  The challenge can be that museums focus too much on those items that are most interesting to the fewest people.

The graphic highlights the types of information on the scale of ease and impact. Ideally, museums should strive for balance. An exhibition with only top-level information (“the thing” in the graphic) might hit the broadest audience but will leave die-hard patrons cold. Similarly, an interpretation that only drills down will be irrelevant to the majority of visitors.  The grade-grey triangle above shows the relative amount of interpretation by category. The majority of their interpretation should be in the categories, “the thing” “the cool thing” and “the cool thing is like this thing I know.”  In these three categories, the museum is helping visitors find answers to the biggest questions and helping visitors make relevant connections.  In this way, they are centering the majority of visitors through interpretation.

Employee Engagement: Cultural Silos and Personal Ladders

Trends come and go in business. You might hear one person say in a meeting, “It’s all about stories.” And then all of a sudden every article in business journals and blogs are about stories. Breaking silos is a particularly fashionable phrase current.


Silos dot the countryside in much of the US. These tall structures which store grain are all about use and little loveliness. On farms, silos are vital structures, their utility is apparent in their form. They are functional. Their usefulness has made them ubiquitous. And, their need has not changed much. In other words, farmers had silos to hold grain, and they continue to use them to store grain.

In terms of organizational structures, silos be an apt metaphor. Just as silos contain a single type of grain, organizations develop departments based on functional capacity. In some way, organizational silos can be positive. Likeminded people have a short-form type of connection that can foster deeper connections and increased productivity.


Safe Incubators

Think of a moment when you are trying to figure out a problem at work, one that has made you pull at your hair. In that moment, you turn to a colleague who works in a totally different field. You spend so much energy trying to explain the problem, only for them to suggest an inane fix. Then you call someone who does what you do. In one sec, without giving you chance to waste breath on an explanation, they offer the right fix. They get it! You sigh relief and move onto the new task. Silos are good at helping you do what you are doing right now better.

But, why are articles allows agitating for the takedown of such vertical hierarchies? The silo doesn’t need a takedown; it’s the leaders.

Communication & Bridges

Silos only work if people make purposeful bridges out of the structure. Farm silos have only one point where grains can be removed.  Many workplaces take this metaphor seriously, allowing ideas to move in and out of the structure through a single upper-level person. Often, this plan is a result of a lack of trust in colleagues. The result is that information, access, credit, and goodwill stagnate at the top level of the silo, with the bottom of the hierarchy groaning under the weight. The bottom of any workplace hierarchy is usually doing a huge amount of important work.

What is the solution?

  1. Make the silo strong: Foster interpersonal relationships in the silo, so that they feel like a cohesive group
  2. Create ways for information to flow freely throughout the silo: Don’t make the silo feel like it will crush the lowest-level staff.  Share information throughout the group. Don’t hoard credit at the top levels.
  3. Make the silo porous: Develop bridges at every level and in-between levels between silos in your organization. Develop processes that encourage staff to create personal ladders between silos.