I have been thinking about some of the key concepts to address in community outreach around cultural heritage issues in 2013. Here are my top three:
Presentation – Cultural heritage institutions continue to curate more and more material both in real-time and digitally. What seems crucial is the ability to present this wealth of material to the public whom we serve. In the past couple of years at the C.H. Nash Museum at Chucalissa we spent hundreds of hours tagging and digitizing 50 years worth of black and white photos. We report the progress on this project in our newsletters and occasionally post images on our blog or Facebook. However, we have yet to develop an effective means to present these digitized images to the public. We might reasonably expect public interest in these photos to range from scholarly research to more casual access. Similarly, although at Chucalissa we have logged thousands of hours over the past several years to re-inventory curated cultural materials, and linking those collections with their associated records, we have barely scratched the surface in the potential of presenting the material to the public.
Participation – In 2010, Nina Simon’s The Participatory Museum synthesized and institutionalized the past several years of discussion and innovation on museum visitor engagement. Simon’s scheme of contributory, collaborative, co-creative, and hosting types of visitor activities is a particularly useful model. A challenge for cultural heritage institutions remains to truly incorporate the co-creative experiences that Simon notes are aimed “To give voice and be responsive to the needs and interests of local community members; To provide a place for community engagement and dialogue; To help participants develop skills that will support their own individual and community goals.” Such an approach involves moving beyond staff discussions that attempt to anticipate or interpret national trends to better incorporate the visitor into museums. Such co-creative approaches cannot be limited to projects with ready financial support, staff, or research interest but truly be in line with expressed community interests. My colleague Natalye Tate was interviewed about community engagement a couple of years ago when she worked as a graduate assistant at the C.H. Nash Museum. Her comments remain very relevant today when she noted: “Our role at the museum is to broker ideas to bring in volunteers who are members of communities, and ask what do you want to see, what do your kids want to see and what’s the direction you want to take this collection . . . our job is not to be the creators, but to make sure the process gets done and gets done well . . . not to be a house of authoritative knowledge where we tell you what you need to know . . . which remains a problem in America . . . that we tell people what their history is and they never go find it out for themselves.”
Relevance – Since reading and writing about Robert Janes’ Museums in a Troubled World, the simple concept of relevance remains in the forefront of my thinking. Debbie Morrison at online learning insights reports on the MOOC coursera.org and their plans in 2013 to start making money on their online offerings. The gist is that for select courses coursera will begin to offer upgraded versions of a certificate of completion for a fee. I expect that the MOOC naysayers will come up with a big “We told you so” that the free stuff was too good to last. My suspicion however is that coursera, that never claimed a nonprofit status, is moving forward with a very sound and relevant business plan. If even less than 10% of the current number of folks completing coursera courses opt to pay up to 75.00 for the enhanced version of a certificate of completion, then a typical course could generate $50,000.00 in revenues. To the extent the enhanced documentation proves relevant to the enrolled student, coursera will make money. My own experience in taking coursera offerings is that successful completion of a course can approach or even exceed the results of a bricks and mortar higher education course offering. To the extent coursera can demonstrate this result to employers and students, the relevance of that 75.00 fee will be a bargain price.
Presentation, participation, and relevance that go beyond proposals and theoretical discussions, but stand the test of a rigorous evaluation will likely separate the wheat from the chaff in cultural heritage work in the coming year. In the same way that higher education must prioritize the student to remain competitive, in 2013 cultural heritage institutions have an opportunity to demonstrate relevance to the public we serve.
What are your key concepts for 2013?