Wednesday, March 15, 2017

City Museums and Children

Children gathering information about the city (Photo courtesy of Humara Bachpan)

Among the top 10 global trends ranked by international experts, according to the World Economic Forum, is the growing importance of megacities. Increasingly, life is lived in the world’s urban centers where more than half the world’s population of nearly 7 billion is living. Global urban growth is expected to continue. By 2030, 60% of the world’s population is expected to live in cities. 

If city museums are about strengthening the connections between the city and its inhabitants, they should be considering children and youth in their vision for themselves and their cities. Children comprise about 50% of the population in urban areas and will soon make up 60% of the urban population growth.  More than a billion children live in cities worldwide. 

For city museums, this is enormous potential. Increased attendance and income from serving even a small percentage of this part of urban population has significant  implications for institutional health and attendance. Serving children intentionally in city museums is also strategically important. Children are a big part of the opportunities and challenges cities currently face and will deal with in the future. Children have a valued and different way of seeing their city that the city needs.

Jane Jacobs, American-Canadian urban theorist and author of The Death and Life of Great American Cities would agree. She insists that, “Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody.” Including children and youth.
Ghent Museum Family Day (Photo courtesy of Ghent Museum)
City museums currently do serve children in a variety of ways. Many host a “kids day,” produce a magazine for children, and offer programs for students. While certainly not representing the full extent of children’s place and presence in city museums, these examples also don‘t correspond to the size or significance of children in urban settings.

To bring children into a vision for themselves and their cities, city museums need to strengthen their connection with children on the one hand and grow children’s connections to their city on the other.

Children as Learners, Explorers, and Citizens
Imagining ways to strengthen connections with children and with the city is difficult without viewing children as learners, explorers, and citizens.  

Through their senses, movement, observation, thinking, reason, and language, children notice, follow hunches, organize information, seek out others to engage. They construct and reconstruct knowledge, revise ideas, and share meanings and stories with others. Highly resourceful as learners, children observe others doing something they can’t do and imitate them; then they do it by themselves. With a natural zest for testing and trying, they are constantly making connections between what they see, hear, smell and touch and the experiences they have accumulated in even the first few years of life. Searching for the reasons for things and for meaning, children are learning everyday.

Active from their earliest days as eager explorers, children are finding their place in the world. In ever-expanding circles, they are interested in knowing where they are, where they live, where they are going, and what is beyond. Initially, children’s experiences are mediated by adults, but rapidly children direct explorations themselves. They explore around home and the neighborhood, become familiar with routes and pathways, and gradually come to know the larger, shared landscapes of their cities.

The city of the child is not history, landmarks, postcards, and transportation networks. It is not the past. Rather, the city is immediate, present; it is a compelling invitation to notice, wonder at, and explore. Children spot power lines and trash bins; they make a game of the paving stones, and shout down the storm drain to hear their voice. They watch people at work, pass houses, move among shoppers carrying packages, and hear the sounds of traffic. For the child, even a trip to the market is an encounter with the city's rich complexity.

Moving through the city, accompanying a parent on errands, going to school, visiting family, or meeting
Children as explorers (Photo of Jeanne Vergeront
friends, children and youth are developing relationships with the city. They form relationships with places–physical, social, public, civic–and with people. They become enmeshed in daily rhythms, shared events, and a city’s cultural expressions. When children grow up in and with in the city, they forge identities about belonging, sharing with others, and participating in a life embedded in the city.

We are inclined to think of children as future citizens. Children, however, are not waiting for the future. They are writing the future now in their everyday lives. More than just residents or short-term visitors, children are participating in the only real life they know. They learn the stories of their city, feel its spirit, recognize its many faces, and share its pride. Part of a changing city they know first hand through their everyday comings and goings, children are citizens now.

Building Connections to the City and to the Museum
Inspired by an image of children as critical and valuable for a city’s long-term vitality, city museums can shape a broad agenda for growing children and youth’s connections to the city. Going beyond expanding children’s programs, another kids’ day, or a pretend city exhibit, this agenda begins deep in the museum, reaches into the city, and returns to enrich the museum.

The city is a compelling invitation to children to explore and discover. With so many possibilities, a museum needs to align its interests around engaging children with its mission and strengths and choose where to focus. What, for instance, does it know about children and their city? How might it deepen its knowledge? What larger issues around safety, well-being, or welcoming immigrants is the city addressing that the museum could also explore? Readings such as those listed below and city plans for children and youth offer valuable information about city children.

Questions frame a museum’s interests and guide its inquiry. A museum may want to know more about what children think a city is, where it starts and ends; how they experience the city; or how they view nature and the city. Along with reading and discussing, museum staff also need time for observing children out-and-about in the city, interviewing them, and listening to their insights to appreciate their ideas and questions.

Ideas, places, and partners for projects and explorations are likely to emerge from this exploratory research and from children themselves. When invited to think about what is fascinating about their city and what they want to show others, children have answers and ideas. Fresh perspectives on a seemingly familiar places and new lines of inquiry emerge. Giving children tools such as maps, sketchbooks, pencils, binoculars, old photos, and cameras assists and extends their explorations of a place, an interest, or a route. In growing their knowledge of the city and its places, they are documenting discoveries, formulating questions, inventing ideas, and gathering information valuable to city planners Where does this stream come from? What was here when this tree started? How far do these tracks go? What is on the other side of the bridge? Discoveries about how parts of the city connect, new routes, and how to get their bearings as they cross the city on a bus or tram spark museum projects, exhibits, guides, programs, tours, and expo events.

Children Seeing the City
In the Municipal Infant-Toddler Centers and Preschools of the city of Reggio Emilia (IT), educators invited children three to six years to be interpreters and guides of their city. In this project, Reggio Tutta: A Guide to the City by the Children, children were asked first to think about their image of cities in general. As they then thought about their role as guides for Reggio, in particular, their perspective shifted. Using words, making maps, creating symbols, postcards, a rich, layered portrait of Reggio emerged: a city with boundaries, relationships among parts, distances, and stories. Overall the children depicted a city that is positive, livable, and welcoming.

A large project like Reggio Tutta can inspire smaller projects in various formats for a city museum to suit its size, readiness, and partners. A project, Our City at Play, might focus on places to play and what makes a good place to play. Children could interview parents and grandparents about their play memories from childhood; they could draw or construct models of playscapes for park planning. The exhibit could be laid out around the city on an audio trail or bike tour with stops at related sites. Drawings, words, models, and maps about play could likewise be installed at city hall bringing visibility to children’s insights and ideas about a playable city.

Children’s investigations of fascinating places in the city can be the starting point for designing urban adventures for themselves and others using games, scavenger hunts, and maps.  Geotagged objects or intriguing places from the city’s past could be incorporated into an augmented reality app like one created to enliven places in historic Ribe (DK).

Inviting children to participate in the life of the museum engages them as learners and citizens. Museu de les Ciències Princep Felipe (Valencia, ES), one of several science centers that has set up a children’s board of 10 and 11 year olds, it offers an opportunity for participation in museum governance.  While not city museums, the work of these museums suggests other ways children build connections with the city through authentic participation. Here, children meet and work with children from across the city. Their ideas for activities and programs are vetted by the museums’ internal processes.

City museums often create spaces for young children as the Helsinki Museum’s Children’s Town, Chicago History Museum's Sensing Chicago and other museums have done. Planning for a museum expansion or
Children's Peace City (Photo courtesy of Cavan County Museum, IE)
renovation can also engage children in the thinking of the next phase in the life of an important city landmark. Like their adult counterparts, children’s voices can be added to ideas about building design, amenities, and exhibits.
At many points in a museum’s life, children might create a guide for the museum–or its neighborhood.   

Museum collections also offer opportunities for engaging children in making connections between the city and the museum.  A museum might frame a project around children’s interest in objects in its collection that connect with a current city issue or civic campaign. Working with a curator, children might explore public transportation memorabilia, workers’ tools, or old signs. Looking over the objects children consider who used them, equivalents today, possible future versions, and what they would put on a label about the objects.

Becoming Part of the City
Cities are constantly changing and adapting. Children are part of this process and can help make cities better. When museums involve children now on different topics, they are also engaging them in thinking about what those changes might be. What might a possible future for their city look like? What would make the city better for children and youth? What would make it friendlier to newcomers? How will the city meet challenges around water? Crowding? Transportation? Children will see a different city. Starting conversations now will inspire them to imagine a new future.

When children are engaged, when they feel heard, when they contribute to their city, they become part of the city. City museums with their partners–schools, public housing, libraries, community organizations, city departments–have a large, active, and valuable role in creating opportunities and experiences that grow children’s connections with their city. Questions, interests, and possibilities–children’s, the museum’s, and the city’s–move back and forth creating strong connections. Authentic encounters with places and people which evolve into substantive museum projects, exhibits, and programs allow children to contribute in meaningful ways to the cities they live in, are growing up in, and will lead.

A version of this post is included in the spring issue of ICOM's CAMOC Review. I encourage you to explore the other articles about city museums in the Review.

Suggested Reading
• Bernard van Leer Foundation. Early Childhood Matters
• Derr, Victoria, Chawla, L. and Van Vliet W. (2015). Children as Natural Change Agents:Child-friendly Cities as Resilient Cities 
• Growing Up in an Urbanizing World. (2002) Chawla, Louise (Ed.) UNESCO: New York
• Mara Krechevsky, Ben Mardell, and Angela N. Romans. (2014) Engaging City Hall: Children as Citizens, The New Educator, 10:1, 10-20.
• Municipality of Reggio Emilia (2000). Reggio Tutta: A Guide to the City by the Children. Reggio Emilia, Italy: Reggio Children. 

Thursday, March 2, 2017

Some Museum Trends

Museums create, follow, and sometimes are swallowed up by trends. Like trends in general, museum trends reflect directions in which movement or change is occurring. Trends might be related to changing demographics, the popularity of particular experiences with visitors, or changes on the horizon requiring preparation.

Often trends are associated with external factors over which museums have little control but which they do need to plan for like changes in funding sources, changing housing patterns, or birthrates. Sometimes focus on a social issue like social media can highlight how museums might be helpful to children, families and the community and to themselves. Still other trends emerge from excitement about something new one museum has tried, like rat basketball, which ripples from one museum to another.

There are past, current, and future trends; trends that are strategic, financial, operational, and programmatic. Trends come from and affect different types of museums–art museums, science centers, history museums, or children’s museums–differently. One example is a set of seven trends relevant to science centers world-wide that a group of science center leaders and researchers first explored at ASTC 2015 and then shared in an article in the Informal Learning Review (No. 136, Jan/Feb 2016)We also learn about trends from research and analysis that identify shifts that are occurring that might affect visitation.

Trends with long-term trajectories affecting museums are explored annually in TrendsWatch published by AAM’s Center for the Future of Museums. The just released forecasting report, 2017 TrendsWatch, explores how each trend plays out, implications for society and museums, and how museums are and might respond to them.

Whether followed diligently or not, trends inform and guide us. Trends help us shape a future and the museum we want. Studying them is helpful in planning and is often a preliminary step for strategic planning, preparation for a major capital project, or taking corrective action. Many museums attend to trends for inspiration, staying current, and being more attractive to visitors and supporters.

I look at and think about trends to push on my assumptions, organize information, share practices with others, and think about the future. I've gathered 11 trends I have been noticing. I hear colleagues talking about them and they are showing up in conference sessions, articles, studies, reports, and blogs. While these trends may not be completely new, shifts are occurring, perhaps spreading to more museums, assuming greater influence, and evolving. Several relate to larger trends identified in TrendsWatch.  

Museums can reflect on these trends and how they might play out in the context of their audience, museum, and community. Of course every trend is not necessarily a good fit for every museum but there are often ways to approach or incorporate a trend to increase its relevance. In what ways are these trends playing out in your museum?

1.     Extending the Museum’s Age Range. Over the past several years, science centers, natural history, art and history museums have been reaching down to serve a younger audience, while children’s museums have been reaching up. Some of this may be encouraged by reports like IMLS Early Learning  that highlight the value of early experiences and the role museums and libraries can play. A growing focus on family learning encourages keeping families–often with children of several ages–together. Finally, extending the age range either way, promises attendance growth. Museums reaching out to new audience groups will want to be prepared for planned and unplanned shifts and reactions. Museum Notes: Managing Multiple Museum Audiences 

2.     Awareness of Informal Learning. While museums have long identified themselves as places of informal learning, they are increasingly intentional about their roles and opportunities. In free-choice or informal settings, learning is social, learner-motivated, voluntary, tool and object-based, and contextual. Occupying an important niche in their local learning ecosystems, museums have distinct opportunities to accommodate non-traditional learners, develop talents, model active learning for local schools, and contribute to educational reform. As more studies highlight the benefits of informal learning and their settings, museums are increasingly able to use these qualities in planning learning experiences and encouraging learners to extend their learning over time. Museum Notes: The Dance: Informal and Formal Learning

3.     Collaborative Experiences. Museums are finding that collaboration works at many scales: with members of the community, with other organizations, internally among staff, and among visitors in exhibits and programs. A 21st century skill valued for both individuals and groups, collaboration engages different perspectives, amplifies new voices, shares expertise, and extends resources. Collaborative efforts allow a museum to accomplish goals for its learners, itself, and its community that it could not otherwise accomplish from enriched experiences to being more inclusive and increasing impact. Any museum that has been engaged in collaborative efforts will know that along with the benefits come challenges of time, trust, and managing change. From the Field: Growing Bigger, Staying Collaborative

4.     The Power of Place. Place is more than physical setting, an address, geography, weather, or an historical marker. It is something we experience directly, physically, and intensely through our senses, experiences, and emotions. As daily life becomes more global, museums are recognizing that being local is increasingly valued. Experiences grounded in place connect with what an audience finds distinctive and meaningful; builds on local knowledge; and deepens a sense of connection and identity. As a museum looks for ways to distinguish itself, tell its story in new ways, and deepen its roots in the community, it is likely to find some direction from the power of place. From the Field: Places of Invention:  Museum Notes: Place Matters 
5.     Authentic Materials. Real-world stuff–tools, utensils, natural materials, building materials, fabric, biofacts, and everyday objects is full of information about the world, how it works, and how it is likely to work. Materials motivate, hold stories, express possibilities, and deepen our understanding of concepts. Museums recognize that in a world of increasingly virtual experiences and objects that may not actually be made of what they appear to be, direct experiences with authentic materials are critical for our understanding of materiality and how our body gathers information and how it understands. Using authentic materials can be staff intensive and requires adequate, convenient storage.  Museum Notes: Managing Materials for Making and Tinkering   

6.     Nice + Necessary. Increasingly, museums realize they must be outstanding at being both nice + necessary. They must be inviting and attractive and they must matter. A museum is nice, a pleasant place to spend time, to bring friends from out of town, or to celebrate. A museum is necessary in strengthening community, contributing to a more robust regional infrastructure around well-being, or playing a critical role in early literacy. Like 2 sides of a coin, nice + necessary need one another. Nice provides credibility and brand recognition for being necessary which in turn confers credibility and confidence about the museum's long-term value. Museum Notes: Unpacking Nice + Necessary

7.     Visitor Engagement. More museums are finding more ways to plan and work with as well as for their audiences. They are inviting citizen insights into their community into the museum, crowdsourcing ideas; and co-curating projects with visitors. Visitors help research and prototype exhibits. Besides enriching museum experiences and offerings, visitor input adds new voices, expands perspectives, increases relevance, shares authority, and broadens ownership of the museum. Many museums are experimenting with this bottom up approach, finding ways to increase engagement, personalize interactions, and stay in touch. To manage well and respect visitor input, museums need clear goals for what the engagement is intended to accomplish and how input will be used. From the Field: What Is Engagement, and When Is It Meaningful?

8.     From STEM to STEAM. A concern about STEM literacy especially for girls, underrepresented groups, and the workforce pipeline has been bubbling for years. A shift from STEM to STEAM, integrating the arts–music, visual arts, language, sculpture, dance–into STEM learning experiences addresses some of these concerns by increasing entry points and motivation for exploring STEM concepts. At the same time it welcomes creativity in science, imagining what’s possible, and application of design skills. Just as science centers and museums are adding the arts to STEM learning, art museums are adding science to arts exploration. From the Field: Artlab+Q?rius Art-Science Workshop Series Evaluation2015 

9.     Maker Spaces and the Maker Movement. Making brings puttering and crafting in from the garage, basement, shed, or knitting circle. It’s a DIY, from scratch, messing around mindset that amps up the self-directed learning, level of interactivity, and social engagement we are now seeing in museums, libraries, and community centers. Experiences in maker spaces, facilitated by prepared staff, are able to serve a wider range of ages and visitors, from young children through adults while providing access to a range of materials and tools. Maker spaces draw on high-and low technologies and engage makers in a variety of processes including material exploration, designing, and building. As the larger "maker movement," grows to more settings, how will museums distinguish their maker spaces? From the Field: Learning to Make in the Museum   

10.  Technology Everywhere. There isn't an area of the museum where new technology is not well established: mobile giving, social media, mobile apps, augmented reality, depth sensors...and more. TrendsWatch over the last 4 years has more or less documented this. Engaging new technologies are dramatically changing the museum’s relationship with members, donors, and the community. With new technology, visitor and gallery experiences increase learners' access to content, combine physical with digital experiences, and help in visualizing complex ideas and relationships. Museums of all sizes are struggling with technology adoption, needing to develop a museum-wide digital strategy, manage the demands placed on resources, and keep pace with technical infrastructure. From the Field: NMC Horizon Report 

11.  Places of Research and Evaluation. Research and evaluation activity has been growing across the museum field. Not so long ago, few museums conducted more than an occasional program evaluation or summative evaluation as required by a funder; a museum rarely conducted research. As a maturing field expected to demonstrate its value, museums have been growing internal and field-wide capacity. Field-wide research agendas have guided studies and supported research networks and research exchanges. Educators, evaluators, developers, designers, and researchers at museums, small and large, are developing their own research agendas, framing questions, and connecting theory and practice that is meaningful in their museums. Most likely, some of the results of this research will generate coming trends.  From the Field: Developing a Research Agenda Aimed at Understanding the Teaching and Learning of Science at a Natural History Museum

What trends would you add to this list? How do you use trends in your museum? What's helpful in using them?

Photo credit: Nuernberg Installation by Markus Linnenbrink

Monday, February 13, 2017

Museums as Learners

Photo: Bethlehem Museum of the Mind

“We are a learning organization.” I’ve come across that statement in countless strategic plans and learning frameworks. Executive Directors often describe their museum in this way in recruiting new staff or updating the board. This phrase appears in countless capacity building grants too. While pleased by this statement, I am also curious about what a museum means and how it acts on that pledge.

All organizations learn; some are more intentional and strategic in learning and in channeling knowledge into being a better organization. How is your museum as a learner?

In The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization MIT professor Peter Senge describes 5 characteristics, or disciplines, that need to work together as an ensemble for building companies into learning organizations. A prominent management fad in the early 1990’s, approaches to learning organizations have spread to other enterprises and have been updated. Related ideas have emerged as learning cities, learning communities, communities of practice, and learning circles.

Business management trends may come and go, but learning as a long-term interest persists in and defines museums. At all stages of their development and regardless of size, museums promote life-long learning for visitors, generate new knowledge through research, share and learn from peers and partners, and develop new skills and strategies for navigating a complex, dynamic environment. How are museums able to do well for themselves and for their visitors and communities without being learners themselves?

David A. Garvin and Amy Edmonson, professors at Harvard Business School, note that learning organizations are skilled at two things. They are skilled at creating, acquiring, interpreting, transferring, and retaining knowledge. They also act purposefully, modifying their behavior in response to new knowledge and insights they’ve acquired. Within a learning organization, 3 conditions must be present: specific practices that support learning processes; an environment that encourages learning; and leadership that values learning.

What kind of place is your museum for organizational learning and cultural? Is your museum a place that learns continuously and strategically? That integrates learning into its work? That responds to change and challenge by learning together? Is your museum’s leadership continually looking for opportunities to learn? Does learning cross team and department boundaries and create a sense of community?

Some guiding questions and related examples may provide useful pieces for advancing your museum as a learning organization.

Does your museum have a learning agenda?  A learning agenda designates and communicates areas that are a priority for the entire museum and that overlay professional development topics for a department or team. Learning areas might be community engagement, adult learning, play, green practices, social media, or inclusion. The focus may emerge from the strategic plan, the learning framework, collaborations, weak organizational performance, or a city issue.

A collective commitment that could stretch over months or a year, a learning agenda may seek to deepen current knowledge, build a shared understanding in an area of emerging importance, or develop new skills. Besides providing clarity and direction, having a learning agenda demonstrates that staff, trustee, and volunteer learning is valued by and valuable to the museum.

For instance...
• A museum that included being a learning organization in its commitment statements in its planning framework also identified 4 related commitments: evidence-based practice, many kinds of teachers, knowledge shared with others; and revisiting and challenging assumptions. 

• In reporting on his trip to Berlin with Hüttinger Interactive Exhibits (Nürmberg, Germany) Paul Orselli described the coordinated staff training and learning excursion he participated in and how he saw it expressing a commitment to staff learning and capacity. 

What supports for organizational learning are in place? A selected topic can be explored in various ways. A museum may commission a study of best practices, form study groups, develop a training program and schedule, or form a task force. It may identify a question to study together as a staff: how has community engagement changed us as an institution? Or what does it mean to be a thought leader? Whatever the approach–and often multiple approaches are selected–dialogue and inquiry flow through the process.

Regardless of particular methods, it is critical to allocate time in schedules; span teams, departments, and hierarchies;designate shared practices; and introduce systems to capture and share knowledge. Without tangible and intangible supports for constructing knowledge collaboratively, organizational learning is a struggle.  

For instance...
• In active practice, a team member brings an activity or program to engage the group in discussing how it supports an innovation strategy, engages participants, or supports family learning. With the group’s input, the activity is aligned and strengthened.

• Minnesota Children’s Museum has a Video Volunteer who is responsible for capturing museum staff development efforts through digital video and sound. Videos are for training new staff members on museum philosophies and practices.

• Inspired by Reggio pedagogy and guided by research agendas and learning frameworks, museums including the Exploratorium, Providence Children’s Museum, Columbus Art Museum, and Portland Children's Museum (OR) are following practices for making learning visible.

How do you make new knowledge into institutional knowledge? Everyday, each of us has numerous opportunities to rethink, learn, and discover some piece of information, assumption, or idea. Some encounters are incidental and some are central to a museum’s learning interests. We learn about a membership structure a museum is implementing, hear about a study on curiosity, go to a workshop on inclusion, or read the task force’s report on digital technologies.

For organizational learning to make a difference, a museum needs practices for sharing information, reflecting on and consolidating new knowledge, determining the relevance of information, and getting information and ideas to stick. With time and dedicated practice a museum will develop its own approach to learning as a group.   

For instance...
• Lisa Marcinkowski June describes in her 2013 post, Is Your Museum a LearningOrganization?," a process similar to After Action Reviews from the U.S. Army that captures the lessons learned from past successes and failures, with the goal of improving future performance. The exercise uses 4 questions: What did we set out to do? What actually happened? Why did it happen? What are we going to do next time?

• Recognizing that all museum staff and volunteers interact with visitors in some way, The Wild Center has developed a set of training opportunities so all staff and volunteers have a shared language and understanding of The Center’s interpretive practices.

How do you use new knowledge to create change? Putting new knowledge to work to make a difference is a critical moment in emerging from a one-time learning project to creating an on-going learning culture. At this point, a museum starts to use data to inform decision-making. It discovers whether its strategies are, in fact, able to move performance indicators, and whether its feedback loops relay meaningful information to the necessary people.

Throughout the process, a museum also needs to be open to stumbling on and capturing unexpected  connections and insights which may be as, or more, valuable than intended outcomes. Before hitting the pause button on a project, a museum needs to ask what it will do differently as a result of this work and what it has learned from this learning project to improve the next.

For instance...
• After implementing the museum-wide training program, The Wild Center saw an increase in membership, an improved visitor satisfaction, and fewer visitors reporting they did not interact with staff. Results have been sustained and improved over 5 years. 

Along with along with the signature, position, organization, telephone numbers, fax, and address on an email I received recently from an executive director, was, “I am currently reading The Lean Start Up by Eric Ries. What book or journal would you include that you are reading? What book would your colleagues name?  

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Snow Shoveling as Community Building

In Minnesota, we take our snow shoveling seriously. It’s not just the annual average of 45 inches of snow in Minneapolis or the occasional snowstorm like the great 1991 Halloween blizzard that dropped 31 inches on the Twin Cities. We have an average of 100 days each year with at least 1 inch of snow on the ground; and that’s just the “southern” part of the state. Prepared with a muscular snow blower, a collection of shovels, ice choppers, and supplies of sand and de-icer, snow shoveling goes beyond removing ice and snow from sidewalks and steps. Snow shoveling is community building across neighborhoods in cities and towns.

On my residential street 2 miles from downtown Minneapolis, snow shoveling goes something like this. Our renter shovels our walks and steps while I shovel the walk and steps for our 85 year-old neighbor, Lily. This includes clearing a short path between our houses for Amanda the postal carrier to use; she always makes time for a quick, friendly chat with Lily that is reassuring to all of us. Several neighbors take turns shoveling the steps and walk of a neighbor, now in assisted living, making it easier for her daughter who’s away at school and for the mail carrier to navigate. The neighbor across the alley clears in front of our garages. Lads from a group home down the street clear sidewalks on both sides of the street with a snow blower; being good neighbors is one of the house rules. At least once each winter, they receive a gift of cookies from an appreciative neighbor.

So the sidewalks get cleared for all of us including dog walkers from surrounding streets. The postal carrier has an easier time getting through in snow, wind and sleet. Lily is checked on. And the lads make a contribution appreciated by many.

This is not just on my street. Friends in other parts of the Twin Cities share similar versions of snow shoveling as community building on their streets. I have no doubt that variations on our cold weather community building exist in cities, towns, and neighborhoods across the country. Very likely they are also small, personal, and very daily gestures. Yet, taken together they take care of people, create connections, and contribute to cohesion and community. 

Could snow shoveling as a metaphor for community building extend to museums, libraries, arts organizations, and other community resources?

The neighborhood might be the sidewalk around the museum; the block, cultural corridor or warehouse district where the museum is located; the west side, uptown, old town, north loop, or urban landscape that resonates for the museum. Neighbors might be in the houses or apartments across the street or around the corner. They might be regular or occasional passersby, friendly and familiar strangers waiting for the bus, dog walkers, storeowners, or shoppers returning from the market. Staff and residents at a nearby restaurant or shelter, the mail carrier, office workers, museum vendors, or the chatty barista around the corner are neighbors that introduce vitality and potential connections daily to the museum neighborhood to foster social well being.  

Good Partners and Good Neighbors
In addition to engaging in many intentional partnerships, collaborations, and networks, museums can also be valued neighbors. They can generate goodwill and strengthen community in multiple small, informal, spontaneous interactions right outside their doors, down the street, and around the corner. From the cashier to the facilities manager, from the groundskeeper to educators and director, museum staff and volunteers can make the most of even brief encounters by being friendly, building relationships, going a little out of the way, sharing, acting on good intentions, and playing good will forward. 

Be friendly. A visible, friendly presence towards neighbors and regular passersby is reassuring and welcoming. Wave and nod to them. Introduce yourself. Learn names and, when you can, greet others by name. When possible introduce one neighbor to another. Gradually you’ll get to know who they are, what they do, their interests, and their connection to the community.  

Connect and build relationships. Casual interactions offer possible connection with another person. A connection may begin in a nod, a smile, a hello, or a few words. Following-up and building on previous, even if brief, conversations, build relationships with people, a place, and ideas–the foundation for relationships that are critical for a sense of safety, trust, and understanding.

Go a little out of your way. Make a bit of extra time to be helpful. Watch children crossing the street, stop in at the local market or restaurant, or attend the annual National Night Out block party. Keep an eye out for the older couple on their daily stroll. Staff out for a walk over the lunch hour can pick up trash to make the museum and the neighborhood look better. Being proactively helpful speaks volumes.

Share. Sharing, whether space, expertise, or connections, matters. And it goes in both directions. A resident’s local knowledge about the neighborhood’s history can be fascinating and helpful to the museum in building and deepening its understanding of the community. Share produce from your garden, let the neighborhood association meet at the museum, or loan your snow shovel.

Act on good intentions. Don’t just think about engaging the community in the life of the museum. Invite familiar faces and new acquaintances to participate and join in actively. Listen to new friends as part of a focus group, benefit new perspectives during prototyping, or bring neighbors together to contribute to a project. Thank them heartily for their participation. And invite them back.

Play it forward. If someone picks up on your wondering about community artists, return the favor of helpful information. The museum’s expertise in social media or green practices could be valuable to a small non-profit or a group of neighborhood artists. Add books to the Little Free Library down the street or set one up in front of your museum, filling it with books and engaging with those who take and leave books.

Neighborly shoveling doesn’t replace the need for each person to clear walks or for snowplows to clear streets and alleys. Similarly, small acts of community building do not replace well-planned partnerships and collaborations. In both cases, being a good neighbor fosters connections and good will in ways other activities can not.

Start with thinking and talking about what being a good neighbor means for your museum, in your neighborhood, and how you can be helpful. Appreciate both the tangible and intangible benefits that emerge from daily interactions, concern for familiar faces, and a welcoming presence. Small gestures can change the way people relate to each other; enrich museum perspectives; build bridges between people unlikely to meet otherwise; advance local and specific neighborhood needs and interests; and infuse a culture of welcome, inclusion, and belonging throughout your museum. Let well-being, connection, and community start at the museum’s front door, move out along its sidewalk, and spread throughout its neighborhood, reaching neighbors, friends, and acquaintances.