Museums and Libraries As Community Catalysts

How do museums and libraries catalyze communities? More specifically, how do they serve as “enablers of community vitality and co-creators of positive community change?” These are fundamental questions the Institute for Museum and Library Services (IMLS) is asking as part of the Community Catalyst Initiative. IMLS launched the initiative, in partnership with the William Penn Foundation and the Reinvestment Fund, in July 2016. On September 8–9, IMLS hosted around 70 museum and library professionals for a two-day Community Catalysts Town Hall in Philadelphia. The program invited attendees to reflect on how cultural institutions respond to challenges in their community, and how they work to improve the well-being of residents and the community at large.

Many topics were explored during the convening, including types of community well-being (e.g. economic, social connection, ethnic diversity), types of collaborations (leading vs. contributing vs. facilitating), and ways in which institutions understand the various needs of the communities they represent. However, what most piqued my interest was a discussion on institutional mindset; the philosophical underpinnings that make certain institutions better at implementing this type of community-based work.

It was mentioned repeatedly that museums and libraries are often perceived as trusted and neutral institutions. On one hand, trust in the foundation of all relationships. Trust between a cultural institution and its constituents is core to effective collaboration, especially those seeking to benefit a community. However, on the other hand, I question how an institution can truly catalyze a community if its intent on remaining neutral. To catalyze requires action and neutrality, by definition, affords inaction.

If cultural institutions are to become more effective catalysts, then staff must work to be more rooted in, and responsive to, the communities they serve. This is tough work. It requires working beyond the standard hours of operation. It requires knowing the needs of the community and how institutional assets can be leveraged to address the various needs. It requires continuous learning and improvement through both iterative and incremental approaches to program delivery.

I believe that our friends at the Wing Luke Museum of the Asian Pacific American Experience in Seattle best articulate what is required to be successful through their institutional values:

People give us meaning and purpose.
Relationships are our foundation.
We desire community empowerment and ownership.

To do this, we have found the following:

The work is labor intensive.
The work requires flexibility.
We willingly relinquish control.

This is an incredibly bold philosophy for a cultural institution. It shifts the institutional mindset, disrupting traditional power imbalances, and is both empowering and responsive. It roots community at the center of the institution’s work. I wonder how more traditional cultural institutions can adapt to incorporate such an approach; one that is connected with community and reciprocating in terms of benefits.

Cultural institutions that seek to become greater catalysts could learn a lot from community organizers. In many ways, becoming a catalysts requires a community building mindset. We should learn from the grassroots approaches of these organizers to further our work.

I’m optimistic about the direction museums and libraries are heading. And, I’m grateful that funding agencies like the IMLS are pushing the field to think about the evolving positions of cultural institutions in their respective communities. I look forward to seeing what emerges from the Community Catalysts Initiative and I encourage IMLS to put forth greater resources to enable cultural institutions to explore this approach to their work.

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