Museums 3.0: Implementing programs/exhibits which are a community resource

In recent years, museums have evolved from presenters and interpreters of objects with little visitor interaction to “Museums 2.0,” where visitors play active roles in content development and the experience is more of a dialogue. So what’s next? What does “Museums 3.0” look like?

In a Saturday afternoon session, Lath Carlson (The Tech Museum of
Innovation, San Jose), Priya Mahabir (New York Hall of Science, Queens), Kristin Leigh (Explora, Albuqueque), and Devon Hamilton (TELUS Spark, Calgary) shared their experiences in trying to move their museums beyond being seen primarily as fun, educational destinations to becoming valued as truly essential resources by their communities, much like libraries and parks, used by residents as opposed to just visited. Three characteristics that museums share with libraries and parks can form a basis for building toward 3.0—our institutions are noncommercial, inherently social, and safe spaces for exploration and experimentation. Session panelists shared programs their institutions have developed to build upon these attributes and deepen relationships with their local communities.

One successful strategy that several panelists shared was partnering with schools and community organizations that are already deeply engaged with audiences the science centers wished to reach. Both NYSCI and Explora have begun hosting evening school programs at their centers attended by both students, parents, and teachers. They each also provide free family memberships through schools or community organizations, but have taken steps to engage beyond simply sending a membership card. In Queens, where a large percentage of local residents have immigrant backgrounds, NYSCI holds orientation sessions for their free 3-month membership program in Spanish, Mandarin, and Chinese. Explora distributes its free memberships through community organizations, such as Nurse Family
Partnership Project, where nurses hand-deliver the memberships to mothers during home visits and talk about the benefits of visiting.

Listening to the community to learn more about its needs can take centers down the path of becoming essential. TELUS Spark has developed a highly collaborative relationship with a local large suburban/rural school system that began with one Junior high school teacher asking if her students could create exhibits for the center. The project led to a second school participating, and then professional development for the systems’ teachers being held at Spark, and then the development of Spark’s Science Communication Mentorship Pilot Project which culminated with over 500 high school students installing 273 exhibits at the center for family, friends, and local community leaders to come and see. Spark is no longer just a field trip destination; it’s part of the school system’s toolkit.

Making science center facilities, such as Maker Spaces, more accessible to communities can also help forge deeper relationships. The Tech has a vision of being a resource for innovation that they are working to fulfill in part by providing space and encouragement for community programs. Its Tech Studio is a dynamic space, easily adaptable for a broad range of skill-building workshops used by outside groups. Those organizations actually provide the content; the museums provides the infrastructure. The museum has also hosted Beta Jams, where Silicon Valley companies bring in prototypes to test with visitors, Hack-A-Thons, and a Start-Up Weekend, where entrepreneurs built and tested products and created companies by the end of the event. For all of these community events, The Tech’s primary contribution is its space.

Museums 2.0 moved the field past one-way presentation and interpretation to creating ongoing dialogues with audiences. To be truly essential to their communities, though museums must evolve again to 3.0 and become primary resources for their neighbors.