From the Teaching column of the December 2011 issue of Perspectives on History
Building Community to Engage Community:
The College Museum as a Site of Civic Engagement
In 2008, Ursinus College—a small liberal arts college outside of Philadelphia, with its own, accredited campus museum—received a grant from Project Pericles to fund a course that would "investigate the theoretical underpinnings for the notion of the museum as a site of civic engagement through readings, classroom discussion, and group work … [and then] put these theories into action in a series of community-based projects." As I designed this course, I hoped that it would equip students to learn how they and the museum might work from community priorities while benefitting from community insights and input: in other words, how the students might go about establishing the common ground of their own strengths with those of their community partners.
Museology—as a discipline and in practice—has only recently begun to encompass such notions as partnership and collaboration. Historically, the museum emerged as a bastion of "top-down" enlightenment, from its inception in the private "cabinets" of the elite during the early modern period through its development into a more publicly oriented space in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The course introduced the students to the exclusive and excluding history of the field even as we began to punctuate accounts of that history with counternarratives of inclusion and engagement that would reshape the field in the late 20th century. That "reshaping" would take place in our classroom too, as we moved from historical and theoretical readings to community-based projects, implementing the kinds of changes about which we had been reading.
In this article, I outline a few of the ways in which building community in the classroom through various pedagogical means provided the scaffolding for what would become a broad-based engagement on the part of the students with the wider, regional community; that is, the ways in which we would gradually achieve the goal of "establishing the common ground of their own strengths with those of their community partners."
We began the course by together examining a "Museums & Community Resolution" passed in 2002 by the board of directors of the American Association of Museums. The prologue to this resolution declares:
Museums are community cornerstones. They are cultural symbols and contributors to community enterprise, stewards of collections, and providers of educational experiences. They are treasured places where memories are created and shared. But museums can also transform the way people view the world... They foster research and life-long learning and encourage the expression of differing points of view. These strengths accord museums the opportunity to assume an expanded civic role in society.1
The prologue is followed by a list of operating principles that became guiding principles for our class as well:
Museums are defining new relationships with communities based upon expanded mutual understanding, recognition of common concerns and interests, and a desire to collaborate for the benefit of the community.
This process of expanded participation by museums in community life, and by communities in museums, is invigorating but hard work and requires an ability to take risks and entertain new ideas.
Collaboration between museums and communities requires sharing creativity, vision, responsibility, and resources.2
Our governing questions in the course ultimately revolved around how we would come to understand and define the notion of community, both in and outside of the classroom, through historical and critical readings and through engaged experience. We asked how we might build and expand mutual understanding between our museum and our communities, thus defined; how we would identify and address common concerns and interests among communities; and how we would honor the commitment to collaboration with our communities.
The course was divided into four phases. In Phase 1, we read and discussed critical and theoretical readings tracing the trajectory of museums' development and history. Who was in the picture and who was not? We surveyed the historical relationships between object and viewer, space and viewer, collector and viewer, thus beginning to develop a critical language of community engagement (or the lack thereof). Phase 2 provided our first connections with a community broader than that taking shape within the classroom—weekly guest lecturers spoke with us about their own experiences of arts-based civic and community engagement, discussing both their trials and their triumphs.
In Phase 3, students were introduced to two opportunities for civic engagement projects rooted in nearby communities, one within and one outside of the college walls. The first consisted of a collaboration with the director of a fledgling local house museum to organize a public forum that would bring front and center some of the sensitive issues that had arisen among the museum's board members regarding how the future of the museum would best be secured, even as its very mission was being contested by various stakeholders. The second project was more open-ended. Students were challenged to reach out to a community that they, themselves, had to define to begin with; and to do so in such a way as to create community dialogue about an exhibition on display at the Ursinus Berman Museum of Art. This somewhat controversial travelling photography exhibition titled Beggars and Choosers: Motherhood is NOT a Class Privilege in America, guest-curated by historian Rickie Solinger, problematized the notion that "motherhood is a privilege reserved for people with enough money to give their children advantages." It posed such questions as "What are the implications and consequences for our country when so many of us believe that motherhood is an experience most properly reserved for 'independent,' middle-class women? What images and information are we missing when we come to these conclusions?" by picturing mothers in ways that sought to unsettle and disrupt these assumptions.3
The students formed teams according to their interests in the projects and began work on them. During the second half of the course, they met with community stakeholders, strategized the planning of the projects with them, defined the collaborative and issues-based goals of the projects, and brought the projects to fulfillment. This phase also included promotion and evaluation of the projects.
In Phase 4, the final project for the course gave each of the students the opportunity to explore in depth a topic of her choice relating to museums and their communities. Its primary goal was to challenge students to demonstrate their newly-acquired understanding of what is involved in planning, implementing, and evaluating a community-based partnership project.
But what did the students think about it all? Students were asked to complete a specially designed evaluation at the conclusion of the course (in addition to the standard teaching evaluations the college required). As is common with student evaluations, the views expressed from student to student were sometimes contradictory but also almost always enlightening.
For instance, in response to a question that asked them to evaluate whether the course had put into practice in meaningful ways the Project Pericles principles of dedication to civic engagement, one student noted that "although the course put great emphasis on the principle of civic engagement, practice was limited," while another responded:
I feel that our projects allowed us to engage with the community in ways that facilitated the exchange of ideas [about] … current social issues that will ultimately enhance the awareness and … amelioration of these problems.
In response to a question that asked students to evaluate the relationship between theory/scholarly research and practice in the course, answers ran the gamut from "There was more focus on theory and scholarly research than on the practical aspects of museum engagement. I would have liked to see a little more of the theory translated into practical advice about how to best be an engaging museum," to "I think that this course investigated and examined the ideology behind the new museology as a site for civic engagement through the readings and projects that we did. Therefore, we were able to incorporate the readings into our projects and put our knowledge to practice. These partnerships and projects helped us really understand the potential and power that museums can have to enhance communities."
When asked to identify whether and how the primary goals of the course had been realized, one student had this to say:
I think that it is very important for the museum to understand and define [its] … community or communities and assess what they want. This is the first step in which museums can act as a site for civic engagement, while attempting to break the mold of museums as hierarchical institutions. However, there needs to be a curatorial voice present to create the perfect give and take and relationship drawing on the strengths of both the museum and its community.
In conclusion, the Periclean teaching and learning strategies my students and I put into play in Art 350, "Museums and Their Communities," enabled us to build community within the classroom and thus establish paradigms for community engagement beyond the classroom, defining a nexus of historical study, critical analysis, and collaborative, community-based work. This is not to say that there wasn't plenty of room for change or revision, as some of the students' evaluations pointed out. But that is for another course and another article.
Project Pericles is a nonprofit organization founded by philanthropist Eugene Lang to facilitate and encourage the integration of participatory citizenship into the educational programs of institutions that become members of the project. For further details, visit the web site of the project at
Susan Shifrin is assistant professor of art history and associate director for education at the Berman Museum of Art, Ursinus College.
1. "AAM Board of Directors Museums & Community Resolution," Prologue, www.aam-us.org/sp/m-and-c-board-resol.cfm, accessed June 8, 2011.
2. "…Museums & Community Resolution," Principles, www.aam-us.org/sp/m-and-c-board-resol.cfm, accessed June 8, 2011.
3. Quoted from exhibition text panels, Beggars and Choosers: Motherhood is NOT a Class Privilege in America, installed at the Philip and Muriel Berman Museum of Art, Ursinus College, January 14 – March 22, 2008.
Copyright © American Historical AssociationLast Updated: November 25, 2011 8:59 PM