by Alice Parman

The worldwide ascendance of global capitalism, furthered by unimpeded technological advance, 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 world, 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. Hence the great turn to religion, worldwide; and big changes in entertainment and the arts, as people abandon spectacle in favor of more personalized, intimate experiences. People continue to read books; book groups are burgeoning, and libraries have never been more heavily patronized. Many professional sports teams are in trouble, soccer, softball, ultimate Frisbee, and other amateur sports draw participants of all ages.

Where do museums fit in? 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.

Community Role of [museum’s name]

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.

__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 dangerous (and often heartless) world. The challenges aren’t that different for people and institutions: be yourself, and fit in. 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 can 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; see Gail Anderson’s invaluable historical survey, Re-Inventing 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.
  • Exhibits and programs are small-scale and low-cost.
  • Goals and execution are characterized by imagination, creativity, and quality.
  • Change is step-by-step, incremental, goal-directed—and may take years .
  • The ensemble is attractive and rewarding for locals and tourists alike.

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, quite a few much-ballyhooed regional attractions have opened and closed within a year or two. “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.

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:


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.

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? A critical mass 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.


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.


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 work on spec, 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.

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.

Copyright 2005 by Alice Parman

This article will appear in an upcoming edition of CultureWork CultureWork is an electronic publication of the University of Oregon Institute for Community Arts Studies. Its mission is to provide timely workplace-oriented information on culture, the arts, education, policy, and community

© Alice Parman, Ph.D., 2004-2009. All rights reserved.