A Holistic Approach to Community Organizing for Museums

Research points to an expanded role for museums to collaborate with communities on shared goals.

by John FraserWilliam Spitzer
May 11, 2020

Key Findings

In a recent research paper, researchers from New England Aquarium and Knology make a case for why informal science learning centers (ISLCs) like museums are well-positioned to engage communities in civic action. They also offer a model for how this might be done with techniques that encourage action around climate change.

The paper was published recently in the Journal of Museum Education. According to the researchers, previous efforts by museums to encourage community action have fallen short because their methods have largely focused on individual choice rather than social change. They argue that museums can take on a much broader role in fostering civic action because of the position they hold in their local communities. Specifically, members of the public trust museums, and view them as authorities on certain topics, including the scientific findings that underpin important social issues. Museums can partner with local community groups to complement their understanding of large-scale social issues that impact residents’ lives, understand shared goals, and together plan action for meaningful change.

The paper highlights some existing efforts to engage with communities by institutions like the Museum of Science, Boston. However, the authors believe that museums can do more, and they point to other projects that evidence this greater potential for museums to engage with community groups around issues shaped by science and social dynamics. For example, they describe work done by the National Network for Ocean and Climate Change Interpretation (NNOCCI) which brought together a group of ISLCs to work on developing a shared language and approaches for talking about climate change with their communities and social networks.

The paper presents a case study that describes results from efforts in two cities’ data that brought together ISLCs (New England Aquarium and Aquarium of the Pacific) with local community partners to engage in dialogue, and plan action around goals and needs.

Let’s Put It to Work

For Museums & other Informal Science Learning Centers: ISLCs are well placed to connect with people in their communities, and identify opportunities for learning and action towards common goals. In addition to a mindset shift that prioritizes collaboration with communities, the authors suggest several areas where they think ISLCs need to build capacity. The list of suggestions includes using evidence-based communication techniques to “depoliticize science” and engage with lifelong learners, as well as developing skills in convening and facilitating community dialogue. The authors also recommend focusing on learning outcomes that can be pursued as part of collaboratives.

Photo by Alex Guillaume on Unsplash

Join the Conversation
What did you think of this? How did you use it? Is there something else we should be thinking of?
Support research that has a real world impact.