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In virtually every museum planning workshop I’m involved in these days, phrases like, ... collaboration is in our DNA, ... with our long-term strategic partners, ... connecting with diverse communities, and ... community engagement are part of the discussion and they are plentiful.
Whether in strategic planning, master planning, education planning, or transition planning for a museum starting up, expanding, or reinventing itself, words and phrases referencing stakeholders seem to have a noticeably higher profile. From one planning session to another, the particular community context and specific partners’ names do change. In some museums stakeholders are clearly identified and in others, actual recognition of groups as stakeholders has not yet come into full focus. Museums, however, are not only talking about their stakeholder more, but they are integrating them into planning more.
Stakeholders are the people, groups, constituencies, and institutions who are likely to affect or be affected by a museum, its vision, plans, or projects; who invest in the museum and in whom the museum invests.
Every museum has stakeholders whether or not it recognizes them, serves them well, or engages them effectively. From my experience, museums’ awareness of and value on their stakeholders seems to be expanding. I sense a move from a rather generic view of undifferentiated groups as “the community” to a view of invested stakeholders deserving a more prominent and intentional role in partnership with the museum. With this shift, the likelihood of groups, individuals, and constituencies actually playing a more active and influential role in the life of the museum also increases.
Several factors seem to be converging to give stakeholders greater prominence in museums’ planning and work. Museums are responding to voices inside and outside that view them as having a responsibility to serve their community fully. The expectation is of increasing access to resources and to the social benefits that help create a stronger community.
Viewing its position in and responsibility towards its community in new ways expands a museum’s perspective on relating to its stakeholders. No longer satisfied with casual connections, a museum looks to cultivating sustainable relationships with stakeholders that are long term, mutually satisfying, and negotiated. They recognize the assets of families, museum neighbors, school partners, members, and underrepresented communities, and marginalized groups.
These shifts generate new questions about what authentic engagement is from the stakeholder's perspective; new ways the museum might afford informal interactions around meeting others and learning; and the nature of connections built out into the community. A museum becomes more attuned to common interests, building a sense of shared identity around those interests, and framing mutually satisfying goals. These steps inevitably uncover new opportunities to bring groups and individuals into processes earlier, whether planning a new museum, developing an exhibition plan, or creating a community-based learning framework. Some tools and processes for engaging stakeholders explored in past Museum Notes focus on this work.
• Stakeholder Mapping. Museums have and need stakeholders to accomplish their goals and serve their communities well. Stakeholder mapping is one tool that assists museums in knowing and understanding the individuals and groups who share and influence their interests.
• StakeholderEngagement Audit. Museums can’t do well for themselves or their communities without investing in their stakeholders. A stakeholder engagement audit can convey how large and active the museum’s stakeholder base is; point to new stakeholder groups and ways to strengthen relationships with them; and reveal stakeholder activities that are not relevant.
• Stakeholders +Engagement. Authentic engagement has the potential to add another meaning to “friending" the museum. Expectations are high for engagement that is frequent, accessible, customized, and satisfying. Every museum should have multiple answers to, “what are meaningful ways to engage our stakeholder groups?”
Significant work still needs to be done to further develop these and other tools and processes for engaging the diverse stakeholders every museum hopes to serve in meaningful ways. Preparation for engaging stakeholders necessarily starts long before a museum plans a program, holds an event, crafts its messages, or greets its friends at the door and continues long after a visit, an encounter, or a connection.