Closing out my first semester as a professor in the Museum Studies Program at George Washington University was inspirational. Graduation was perhaps the culmination of the students’ achievements, but it was also seen in their final products in the three courses I taught. I always aim to give them a major project that provides a real-world experience, such as completing an Organizational Assessment report from AAM’s Museum Assessment Program (MAP). In the “Museums and Community Engagement” class, the final assignment is a community engagement plan but it was done in partnership with several local museums, creating a mutually-beneficial relationship.
Because The National Society of The Colonial Dames of America (NSCDA) has the largest alliance of museums and historic sites in the nation (except for the National Park Service), I prepared for the course by reaching out to my colleagues at Dumbarton House in Washington, DC, which is the headquarters for the Dames. Karen Daly and Catherine Nuzum welcomed the partnership between this course and their sites, providing advice along the way and helping me identify four museums for this pilot project :
- Craik-Patton House in West Virginia
- Hoover-Minthorn House Museum in Oregon
- Mount Clare Museum House in Maryland
- Neill-Cochran House Museum in Texas
I divided the ten students among the museums, encouraging them to work in small groups to share resources and review drafts. Each student prepared a plan, which ensured that each site received two-three plans by the end of the semester. In class, we looked at community engagement from the perspectives of the museum and the community to identify three target audiences, one of which was explored further to develop an engagement strategy. Each element required extensive research and because we’re at a university, I took advantage of the special resources in our library to introduce Geographical Information Systems (GIS) to their research and analysis. Our library has a special STEM lab that provides training, computer lab, and assistance so we devoted four classes to learn QGIS (free and open source!) to better understand the community as well as the museum’s supporters. Students were mystified and perplexed at times by the software (it’s like learning Photoshop), nevertheless, they felt it was one of most rewarding aspects of the course. As one student mentioned, “We learned things that would actually be useful to museum professionals.”
By the end of the semester, students developed a holistic view of community engagement as well as some new skills. The final assignment pulled many ideas from our readings, discussions, and research into a single practical plan, a tough assignment to complete in 14 weeks when it’s a brand new concept. The benefit, however, was clear to the students: “Our final project was a great way for us go gain real-world experience and have something to add to a portfolio.” The biggest weakness was that students were unable to visit any of these sites, which severely limited their knowledge and understanding. They had to rely exclusively on what they could learn online or through a short interview with the director.
In late April, I presented the results to Northeast and Midwest regions of NSCDA, who not only were impressed by the work of the students but also wanted to continue the partnership in spring 2019. If your museum is affiliated with the Colonial Dames and you’d like to participate, contact Catherine Nuzum at Dumbarton House to learn more about the process and eligibility at CatherineNuzum@NSCDA.org.
This fall, I hope to continue these partnerships with local museums because they are mutually beneficial. In an upcoming blog post, I’ll share an opportunity that may interest your museum for my fall 2018 course, “Managing Museum Projects,” which will help prepare a Museums for America grant application to the Institute of Museum and Library Services. Intrigued? Stay tuned.