Museums are increasingly noting the importance of fostering ongoing community engagement within the walls of their institutions, and as such, numerous innovative programs have emerged that merge museum strengths with community needs. For example, the Lower East Side Tenement Museum in New York City recognized the shared experiences between the contemporary community of recent immigrants in their surrounding neighborhoods and former residents in the tenement’s history. As a result, the museum created the Familiar Strangers program, which provided English learners the opportunity to improve language skills while discovering historical parallels to many of their personal experiences.
The Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) also developed programming aiding non-native members of their community by creating tours and resources supporting language development for English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) programs. The V&A also developed “Citizenship Tours,” corresponding with a component of the ESOL curriculum. Taking place in the Museum’s British Galleries, the goal of these tours is to increase ESOL students’ “awareness of UK history and cultural diversity, and offer[s] them the opportunity to develop their language skills in a stimulating environment.” This purposeful blending of collection strengths and community need has created meaningful resources with specific outcomes for the V&A’s non-native community.
In addition to programming for immigrants, the V&A has created a number of programs to engage student audiences. Through a joint partnership with the School of Humanities at the Royal College of Art two innovative graduate programs have been developed: M.A. in History of Design and M.A. in Conservation. The program utilizes the facilities of both institutions, curatorial and professorial expertise, and informed programming such as research seminars and colloquiums to create a unified and cohesive study courses and resources.
The Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania recognized their student community when envisioning their strategic plan. Director Samuel Taylor stated midway through their plan development, “one of our most important recommendations will include inviting local graduate students to plan exhibitions and contribute to the curatorial process.”
Although student and teacher communities often receive attention from museums, there are relatively few meaningful partnerships between museums and local, developing artists. Derrick Cartwright, former director of the Seattle Art Museum (SAM), titled his October 28th, 2009 blog entry, “How do museums show that they are engaged with artists at a deep, supportive level?” In this entry he discussed the benefits of SAM’s Betty Bowen award, which is given to a selected artist in the early stages of their career. The award committee is comprised of “artists, collectors and others committed to boosting the Pacific Northwest culture” and works with SAM’s curator of modern and contemporary art to narrow the field of submissions, leading to one winner receiving a cash award and display opportunity at the museum.
The Art Museum of Eastern Idaho has developed the “Museum Artists” program, fostering a relationship in which both the museum and a network of artists benefit. The Museum Artists volunteer for various events and classes at the museum, allowing the institution’s limited staff to provide a greater number of educational offerings. The museum offers artists the opportunity to take part in live model drawing sessions, numerous scheduled exhibits, social events, and special classes. The group functions as a membership level of the museum, and as such there is a fee associated with participation.
In addition to developing programs and resources to benefit niche communities, some museums are liaising amongst neighborhood organizations to create networked coalition of community assets to benefit the more universal needs of their surrounding area. The Tate Modern has established a Community Advocates program that builds links between “key individuals who represent a wide range of communities – including individuals who work at grass roots and at senior management levels – and Tate.” Through regular meetings, participants, all of whom live or work in neighborhoods surrounding the Tate, are given the opportunity to present the association they represent and discuss collaborative means of community engagement. This program is open ended, and intended to create ongoing dialogue and to foster relationships between neighbor institutions and associations in the museum’s surrounding area.