A Periodic Broadside for Arts and Culture Workers
February 2006. Vol. 10, No. 1.
Center for Community Arts and Cultural Policy
Arts & Administration Program, University of Oregon                        ISSN 1541-938X

The Museum's Community Role

Alice Parman

Architects have often proclaimed the unassailable timelessness of museums as keepers of the past. Yet museums are themselves part of history; they are living institutions that must continually cope with the present and imagine how to prepare for the future. Huge changes have been underway for several decades in schools, workplaces, and homes. The Internet and cell phones are transforming how people communicate and learn. What threats and opportunities do these trends present for museums?

The steady proliferation of new devices that purport to bring people closer has set up centrifugal forces that fling us ever outward into isolation. Destructive of family, community, and place-based meaning, a market-driven socio-cultural machine devours the natural worlds of nature and of traditional cultures, heedless of history's cautionary tales.

Individuals, families, and affinity groups seek countervailing, centripetal experiences that draw us together: gathering, meeting, socializing, playing, learning, celebrating, talking, looking for meaning, hoping to belong. Despite the ubiquity of personal computers, people continue to read books; book groups are burgeoning, and library visits and circulation increased steadily throughout the 1990s (American Library Association). Soccer, softball, ultimate Frisbee, and other amateur sports leagues draw participants of all ages (Microsoft Encarta, 2005; Fletcher, 1999).

Like libraries and Ultimate Frisbee, museums have an informal, amateur quality that makes them potential gathering places for their communities. A small-town museum draws a cross-section of local residents to its Community Conversations. A museum in a large, multicultural city invites artists from diverse cultural backgrounds to plan and install exhibits in a Community Gallery. A museum in one of the world's largest cities opens its doors and programs to the extremely diverse immigrant population that lives and works in its own neighborhood. Although they are educational institutions, museums don't set entry requirements, ask visitors to follow a curriculum, or grade them on their efforts. Once visitors have paid the admission fee, they're free to learn in their own way.

Yet museums vary in their ability to attract a cross-section of community members. A key factor is the museum's self-defined role within the community, which may be consciously chosen and maintained, or unconscious and unexamined. Where does each of your community's museums fit in?

Diagnosing the Museum's Community Role

Here's a diagnostic tool for evaluating a particular museum's community role. Remember: a museum can play more than one role. Also, you may think of additional roles that describe an institution you're familiar with. Review each description as it might apply to the museum today. Check the descriptions that you think best match how your community now views the museum. Rank order each description on a scale of 1 to 5 (1=perfect match; 5=not at all like us). Add categories and descriptions that better define the institution. Make this worksheet your own.

Community Role of [museum's name]

_________Visitor attraction

The museum is the "front porch" of the community, welcoming visitors and giving them an overview of what's special and unique about this place.

_________Catalyst for change

The museum exists to deliver a message that will encourage people to think differently about their relationship to others or to the world.

_________Center of creativity

The museum engages visitors in activities where they make and do things. Visitors, rather than the museum, determine the outcomes.

_________Memory bank

The museum displays aspects of the history of a place, person, cultural tradition, etc.


The museum interprets the history of a place, person, cultural tradition, etc. in ways that relate the past to the present--and even to the future.


The museum preserves objects and images that would otherwise have been discarded.

_________Treasure trove

The museum preserves valuable, meaningful, and/or rare and unusual objects and images.

_________Shrine/hall of fame

The museum honors a particular group or individual and assumes visitors have a built-in interest in this topic.

_________Exclusive club

Although open to the public, the museum is primarily aimed at people with special interests in and knowledge of the topic.

Staying Alive

Whatever the museum's role, staying alive isn't easy, in today's economically unpredictable environment world.

The challenges aren't that different for people and institutions: be yourself, yet somehow manage to fit in. To be yourself means to figure out who you are and who you want to be, as an institution. To fit in means to understand how your institution, with its unique identity, can relate most effectively to your community. If institutional leadership opts for business as usual, or tries to please everyone, the result is unlikely to be successful. The museum may be viewed as old hat, stuck in the mud; or chameleon-like, a sellout. But museum leaders who view these challenges dynamically find built-in mechanisms for successful adaptation:

Be yourself = Figure out who you are and who you want to be.
Focus on your mission and vision.
Develop organizational and interpretive goals.

Fit in = Understand your community.
Build an active, broadly representative board.
Make evaluation a priority.

Through strategic and interpretive planning, museums can discover how to make a unique contribution and play a valued community role. This process has been going on for more than a century as noted in Anderson's (2004) invaluable historical survey Reinventing the Museum.

Among museums that have successfully met these challenges, becoming and remaining themselves and fitting in to their communities in marvelous ways, three examples stand out for me. Seattle's Wing Luke Asian Museum ( sets an international standard for community-based exhibits and programs. The Pratt Museum ( in Homer, Alaska is noted for its work with Native people and other community members, its use of low-cost technology to produce a wealth of accessible media, and its focus on interpretation and preservation of Kachemak Bay. Manhattan's Tenement Museum ( offers memorable programs interpreting a unique historic site, while serving diverse immigrant communities in its own neighborhood and throughout the city.

What do these projects have in common?

Each is grounded in a place and a community (Fit In).

Exhibits and programs are small-scale and low-cost (Be Yourself).

Goals and execution are characterized by imagination, creativity, and quality (Be Yourself).

Change is step-by-step, incremental, goal-directed--and may take years (Be Yourself).

The ensemble is attractive and rewarding for locals and tourists alike (Fit In).

Big projects can be successful, but many are destined to fail. Overbuilding can be dangerous. Too many museums open with big debts and unrealistic admission projections. Within the last 10 to 15 years, several much-ballyhooed regional attractions have opened and closed within a year or two (e.g. Denver's Ocean Journey aquarium and the Bellevue, Washington Art Museum). "Build it and they will come" may come true in the movies, but in the real world of museums it has proved to be mostly a fairy tale.

Yet some startup and re-invented museums and other cultural attractions are thriving. In Oregon, the Columbia River Maritime Museum ( has made big gains in admissions, membership, audience diversity, and store sales following the renovation of its visitor services and Great Hall exhibits. (Notably, that project was scaled back after a feasibility study clarified the scope of funding that could reasonably be expected.) A consortium of museums and other heritage organizations is just beginning to market Oregon City as a destination for history buffs. Careful planning, expert consultation, and a unique configuration of historic properties bode well for this ambitious effort.

Checking Your Vital Signs

If you are contemplating a change in your museum's role, assess your situation before you commit for the long haul. What are the ingredients of a successful startup or re-invention project? These are the vital signs that will help you stay alive and accomplish your goals:

Vision. A key person serves as the driving force, whether visibly or behind the scenes. A personable style, openness to collaboration, and boundless energy will help attract the support of colleagues and community leaders, as well as significant donations.

A committed board. Project planning and implementation takes an extraordinary amount of time and effort. Problems will inevitably arise. Strong support from board members is indispensable The board should be prepared to make extraordinary contributions of time and funds, setting a leadership standard for volunteers and community supporters.

Community support. How will your project benefit a variety of constituencies and stakeholders? What unique contribution will the museum make to people's lives? What key institutional partners are in your corner? Critical masses of people have to understand and support your project--or it won't be sustainable.

Seed money. This can be raised from a variety of sources. Foundations and business leaders, board members and volunteers are likely prospects who may want to get in on the ground floor. You can go back to many of the same sources later for implementation funding.

Persistence. New ideas are often controversial. Successful projects build on past efforts, emulating their strengths and learning from their mistakes. An inclusive, open planning process is essential. To succeed, an interpretive project must ally itself in a mutually respectful way with other community-building efforts, creating a special role that fits the hopes, expectations, and needs of a broad cross-section of citizens and organizations.

Expertise. You'll need qualified professionals such as an architect, exhibit designer, fundraising consultant, graphic artist, etc. Many consultants are willing to do a certain amount of pro bono work and this gives you an opportunity to try on a working relationship. Check with colleagues in your region for recommendations. Once you've established a scope of work, ask for formal submissions of qualifications and firm quotes. Choosing the appropriate consultants is critical to the achievement of your project goals. Look for experience that fits your subject matter and scope.

Conclusion: A New Community Focus

As you move forward, evaluate your plans and progress in light of your chosen community role. Each time you make a difficult decision, remember that as an institution, you need to be yourself and fit in. Your role in the community will be defined and strengthened not only by the project outcome, but also by the quality of your planning process.

Nationwide, community-focused museums are making a difference for people of all ages and backgrounds. Exhibits and programs invite visitors and members to explore common interests and engage in dialogue about current issues. And as community members gain confidence in the museum as a safe space where all viewpoints are welcome, there is potential for fruitful conversations on controversial and divisive topics as well.


American Library Association. (n.d.). Public libraries in the United States: Statistical trends, 1990-2002. Retrieved January 24, 2006, from

Anderson, G. (Ed.). (2004). Reinventing the museum: Historical and contemporary perspectives on the paradigm shift. Walnut Creek, California: Altamira Press.

Fletcher, Amanda. (1999, January 27). Ultimate Frisbee popularity soars as UCLA, world sport. Daily Bruin, . Retrieved January 24, 2006, from

Microsoft Encarta. (2005). Softball. In Online Encyclopedia 2005. Retrieved January 24, 2006, from

With a background as a high school teacher and a Ph.D. in Education, Alice Parman began her museum career as educator and administrator at Chicago's Field Museum of Natural History. After a 15-year career as a museum educator and director, since 1989 she has worked as an interpretive planner and organizational consultant for a variety of nonprofit clients. More information at

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©2006 University of Oregon Center for Community Arts and Cultural Policy unless otherwise noted; all other publication rights revert to the author(s), illustrator(s), or artist(s) thereof.

Editors: Julie and Robert Voelker-Morris                                        Advisor: Dr. Douglas Blandy. 

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