Museum practices vs. Community Wants

Making museums relevant. It sounds simple enough. However, a report from the American Association of museums shows many museums fall behind in this area. Museums, as a whole, are not making history relevant to the community they serve. That is a big red flag. So what is going wrong? Where is the disconnect? The book the Presence of the Past focuses how the average person relates to history and suggests that history needs to be personal in order to resonate with the majority of the population. Most people are not content looking at objects that have no ties to their own lives.

So what are museums doing to integrate personal history with broader themes throughout history? Elizabeth Schultz, the museum education and tour coordinator at the Oberlin Heritage Center in Ohio, has the right idea. The heritage Center focuses on a variety of local history such as the local college being the first in the nation to accept women. Additionally the Oberlin Heritage Center chooses to go into their community to visit groups that may not have the opportunity to visit the physical museum. This is especially helpful for school age children who, because of funding cuts, do not have the opportunity to take field trips to the heritage center. Presenting programming relevant to the people of a particular community promotes partnership between the museum and the community members it serves.

Museums across the country need to keep the question of relevancy in mind. If a community cannot relate to their museum then what is the point?




Roy Rozenweig and David Thelen, The Presence of the Past: Popular uses of History in American Life (New York, Cambridge University Press, 1998)
Ellen Hursey, Excellence and Equity: Education and the Public Dimension of Museums (American Association of Museums, 1992)


Elizabeth Schultz, Interview with author, September 25, 2012.


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7 Responses to Museum practices vs. Community Wants

  1. I am keenly interested in this point, and suggest, becoming relevant to one’s community is a critical step toward sustainability as an institution. I really like how this issue is addressed in Robert Janes’ Museums in a Troubled World.

    You might find this of interest on some community based museum projects we carried out here in Memphis:

  2. mmpaulus says:

    I completely agree that relevancy to one’s community is critical in museum sustainability. The link you suggested was a great case study to prove this. Why can’t you take a topic and focus in on different guests? The Native American part is fascinating however is that what the Memphis community really wanted? No. The museum realized their community needed to approach the topic differently and I would argue the museum seemed to do that quite effectively.

  3. mbalexander says:

    The more I read about community involvement in museums the more I am impressed by how much larger, more complex, and more interesting museum programs and exhibits become. I think this says a great deal about the wealth of creativity and knowledge in our communities. I wonder if this collaboration might need to begin inside the institution. When things have become stagnant and compartmentalized inside the institution reaching out beyond departmental lines and staff roles to get the opinions, expertise, and ideas of the museums internal community might be a great place to start examining relevancy. I imagine that cross departmental collaboration can stir ideas and bring about new ways of presenting topics. And if an institution is willing to share with each other internally I imagine it would be more willing and better equipped to engage in community involvement and planning.

    • mmpaulus says:

      I think you are on the right track about collaborations beginning inside the institution. I think many museums today have isolated departments that tend not to interact, let alone, collaborate with the other departments. I think through the combined teamwork of departments within a museum, as you suggest, creativity and new ideas are bound to emerge.

  4. evanme28 says:

    I really enjoyed reading Presence of the Past. The statistics in the book really shocked me in regards to what sources the general public trusts in regards to history. In fact, I am inspired by one statistic and will be using it as an example for my blog post. Stay tuned!

    • mbalexander says:

      What I find so interesting about the Presence of the Past is that it is the only study of its kind. Museums are beginning to focus attention on surveying their museum going audience I wonder if this interest will bring about another similar public study in the future.

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