Tuesday, October 22, 2019

Community-Engagement, Visitor-Centered, and Other Words

Written by Seema Rao

I've written about Community Engagement often on my old blog, Brilliant Idea Studio. Last March, I wrote up some general notes about community engagement based on a mind-map I did at a #MuseumNext talk.

Here is the gist of my remarks: Community Engagement is one of those terms that is tossed around in museums but can become encrusted with coded meaning. Often museums use the word community engagement to mean bringing in low-income people, with “community” being a coded term for underprivileged people. Sometimes community engagement might be used as the term for bringing in new audiences. Or, in an ideal situation, community engagement is a term for connecting people to your organization.

I bring this up because the interrelationship of humans and museums are the topics of this month. I wrote at the beginning of the month about human-centered museums. And, last week, I compiled the notes from the Western Museums Association conference about engagement broadly. This week, as I always do, I started a conversation on social to use as the basis of the month's summary post.

Kate Livingston brought up a great point. Often in these debates, the meaning of key terms get obfuscated. As such, people speak at cross purposes. She was talking about visitor-centered being misunderstood. So, this month, I thought I'd give you my definitions for the key ideas of the month. I'd love to hear your definitions:

Visitor-centered means centering your visitors in your work. When you keep them as the center of your planning and decision-making, you will make choices that work for your visitors. For me, centering visitors is different than being visitor-driven. The latter is like letting the two-year-old plan and make dinner; the former is making dinner the two-year-old will enjoy but that falls into your desires as a parent. 

Community Engagement (as I said above) is connecting people to your organization. These people can be local or national (virtually). They might be underserved or not. They might be of color or not. They might be marginalized or not.

Human-centered means understanding the humans in your museum, including staff, and designing for their needs.

Data-informed is a way of using data, often generated through visitor-actions to help you make decisions as you become more visitor-centered. (Unlike data-driven which is using data in lieu of other tools to make decisions).

Often visitor-center work also overlaps DEAI work. Those terms are also important to define. I am constantly revisiting how I define the terms.

Diversity is the inclusion of people who identify in different ways, including by race, gender, age, and class.

Inclusion is the practice of breaking/ transforming barriers to include everyone.

Access is creating affordances that help anyone participate in your organization.

Equity is developing methods, platforms, and systems that allow for the inclusion of diverse people into your organization.

In my mind, museums need to be human-centered, including being visitor-centered, which is accomplished by being data-informed. One of the processes by which museums enact their visitor-centered culture is through community engagement. And, community engagement is essential in making museums more equitable, i.e. places where diverse people feel included and find no barriers to access. 

What other terms are important as we think about community engagement, visitor-centered museums, and audiences? How do you define these terms?

Share here in the comments or on social.As always, tag me in your posts and shares so I can include you in my summary post at the end of the month (TW @artlust, Linkedin@seemarao, IG @_art_lust_)
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