Sunday, June 6, 2010

The Art of (Community) Engagement

“Community engagement” has taken hold as one of those 21st-century phrases that seems almost inherently “feel-good.” What well-meaning corporation or non-profit offering public services wouldn’t want to engage its community, strengthening local ties in a competitive global marketplace? Of course, many heritage organizations have been working at this for years out of necessity; repeat visitors and volunteers often provide money and manpower to keep the doors open. Still, fresh ideas are key in an increasingly crowded market, and a couple of the sites we’ve visited stand out to me for their local initiatives.

Many museums and historic sites utilize volunteers in their day-to-day operations, from running the gift shop to serving as guides throughout the property. Fewer institutions involve their volunteers in research, but the Bowes Museum in little Barnard Castle has put community involvement at the forefront of its new program, “Archaeology and the Arts.” Designed to spotlight the Bowes’ archaeological collection, which has not been on display for many years in the fine art museum, the program is relying on about a dozen volunteers to undertake the collection’s first detailed audit. When not supervising these efforts, newly-hired community curator Samantha Belcher travels to schools and community events to promote use of the collection, often taking objects for all-ages activities. The goal is to re-introduce the public to a long-forgotten and very different portion of the Bowes, not through passive observation in an exhibition, but through physical interaction with the objects themselves. Compared to the necessary “look, don’t touch” provisions of most art and history museums, it’s apparent why target goals for participation have been exceeded in the program’s first five months. Combined with the popular interactive conservation activities in the ground-floor galleries public interest in the art of conservation seems to be alive and well at the Bowes.

The Beamish Museum is also bringing the community into its storage facility, but for a different reason. On a few top shelves, large boxes known as “heritage cubes” house the collections of several different groups, including police associations and social clubs. Designed to help smaller local organizations which are planning to open their own museums, the cubes are awarded through a competitive process. There are only two significant caveats. One, the storage is strictly short-term only and subject to an annual review; and two, each group must put on a small exhibit each year. This is “living history” of a different sort for the museum, but the program still fulfills founder Frank Atkinson’s mission of preserving the culture of northeast England, albeit more indirectly.

As I applaud these efforts, I still find myself considering the end result of these interactions. What long-term benefits do volunteers reap when they help catalog a collection? Is it historical knowledge learned, or information about the process itself? Or maybe that warm and fuzzy feeling that “I’ve helped with something important and done a good thing” is enough. Similarly, how do heritage cubes help their users think outside the box (pun intended)? Do conversations with professionals and small trial exhibits help small groups create quality museums, or do they just produce more questions than answers. In both cases, it seems like some sort of museums resource center might be nice – something that offers information and connections after the end date of a project. After all, engaging your community is one thing, but after they’ve been hooked, you have to know what to do with them. Encouraging connections that last a lifetime and pass through generations: that’s true “community engagement.”

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