The Challenges and Opportunities of Institutional Outreach (Part II)
– by Stacia Kuceyeski
In the SHA Wednesday Workshop at the AASLH annual meeting in Louisville, the 20 participants discussed the role of outreach in historical organizations. In separate blog posts Tim Hoogland of the Minnesota Historical Society (SHA Class of ’08) and Stacia Kuceyeski of the Ohio History Connection (SHA Class of ’12) will share insights from their presentations.
In Tim’s presentation (and in his blog post) he focused on some of the nuts and bolts of outreach in museums: what it means, what it includes, how to do it, etc. He then was able to connect these larger themes to how it looks in practice using outreach to the K-12 community as an example. I then took over with a closer look at community engagement as a subset of outreach.
Google “community engagement” and look at what Google Image brings up: lots of brightly colored thought bubbles, raised hands, and people with different skin tones shaking hands. This snapshot is a glossy, feel-good version of community engagement. However, like most things that are worthwhile it’s not easy. I’ve been yelled at and taken to task by communities for what my organization (or museums in general) have done, I’ve logged miles upon miles in our motor pool cars, and I’ve gotten frustrated at the entire process. My idealism was finally crushed in my late 20s during one project that worked to engage both a K-12 community and a geographic community. While I look back on my poor, shattered idealism I see how that made me a better museum professional (that’s a different blog post), but it also turned me off to community work for a few years. That was until I finally grasped the main point of engaging communities which is it’s not about me or my organization, it’s about the community.
Now that might seem obvious but take a program at your organization that’s outcome is community engagement. If you look with a critical eye is that really the outcome? Or is the outcome to bring more people to your museum? Are you trying to make yourself more attractive to a funder? Are you checking a box? Chances are it’s not quite as altruistic as you think.
I shared all sorts of interesting information, and some of my best PG-13 rated analogies about community engagement, but in reflecting on the workshop, the discussion, and the comments from the evaluations, I’d have to say that the overarching point I’d like to make is that community engagement is about a community, however that is defined (again, another blog post), not about the cultural institution. I know people disagree with me, but we need “the community” more than they need us, so what are we doing to actively listen to our communities and not just go to them for a seal of approval once we’ve already “figured it all out?”
I LOVE the blog Nonprofit with Balls by Vu Le for any and all discussions about how we are messing all this up. One of my favorite posts is “Are you or your nonprofit or foundation being an askhole?” Chances are you are getting it right a lot of the time, but you are also making some missteps; I know I am, but that’s all part of the process. Once we start thinking we’ve got it all figured out as museum professionals is when it’s time to find another career.
Ohio History Connection