fbpx
Subscribe

Search Museum Next

Radical Exhibitions: Uplifting Community Voices

 

At the MAH we brought together a group over 4x the size of their entire staff to create an exhibition on a single local issue. Hear the lessons we learned and the framework we developed to make it all possible. Discover how to amplify the voices of a community and inspire action through radical community storytelling and rigorous collaborative design.

Speakers

Victoria Lee
Community Experience Catalyst
MAH : Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History

Ashley Holmes
Marketing & Brand Coordinator
MAH : Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History

Victoria:

… Everyone, you made it to the end of the conference. Amazing. How is everyone feeling? Are you all still awake, still with us? Awesome. So we have a little game for you, if you just need some extra encouragement to focus through this. We want you to just go ahead and count how many times we say community in the next 20 minutes.

Ashley:

Hint, it’s going to be a lot. All right, cool. Let’s jump in. So, green button. Cool. My name’s Ashley…

Victoria:

And I’m Victoria.

Ashley:

And we’re here to talk about how the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History, the MAH, uses a radical community-based approach to transform community stories into meaningful exhibitions. So, at the MAH, a community-based participation model of design is the keystone to our exhibition philosophy. We believe great exhibitions, the ones that are welcoming, accessible, and designed within this community first approach can help, not only strengthen your institution, but make your communities grow stronger and more connected.

Victoria:

So, you’re likely already familiar with the shift toward participatory models of museum design, being the incredibly informed bunch that you are. But today we want to talk about how you can actually make it happen in your museum and how you can do it relatively easily. At the MAH, we’re a pretty small production. We have a modest budget. We only have one curator, one designer, one public programmer, but just over the past year, we were able to work with nearly 800 collaborators who came together to help us share the stories of our communities.

Victoria:

Once we started making the shift toward community first storytelling, we noticed a really, really amazing impact happening. We found that our public got so much more engaged. These shows see huge peaks in attendance, they bolster our volunteer programme to the largest it’s ever been, they bring in more collaborators than anything else we do, and we started receiving some really incredible press, better than we had in the past.

Victoria:

So, we want to talk to you today about how this can happen for you as well, because we believe that it can be really, really easy for anyone who wants to do these processes if you’re willing to just listen to your communities. But first, before we dive in, I want to provide a little bit of context about what the MAH is all about. The MAH is truly not your typical museum. We work with thousands of people across Santa Cruz County to produce exhibits and events that are platforms for our many diverse communities to come together and share experiences.

Victoria:

Let’s see…

Ashley:

You’re doing great.

Victoria:

Thanks. It wasn’t always like this. For many years, the MAH really struggled to connect with its communities, but we had to learn through all of these challenges that we could turn them into creative opportunities. So, in 2012, after this decade long struggle for relevance, we brought in a new executive director, developed a new leadership model and started making some really significant changes. We started asking one super important question. We asked why. We began challenging everything. We asked, “Why should museums continue to perpetuate these traditional hierarchies of power that they tend to? And why shouldn’t they be built, not just for the communities they’re meant to serve, but by those communities themselves.”

Victoria:

So, we changed our perspective. We changed the museum entirely by changing its purpose. It became a platform for people to come together. We were once a place that showed art and history, but now we’ve become a place that uses art and history to help folks connect over unexpected experiences. Yeah, that’s me.

Ashley:

That’s me.

Victoria:

This is an event we do every year at the museum called Power Hour where about a hundred strangers come together and do 61 minute activities that get them to connect in really unique ways, like crowd surfing or flossing on one long strand of floss together. It’s a really weird experience and we got paid to do it.

Ashley:

Yep. Truly incredible. Okay. So, one way we bring this mission and vision to life is through what we call community issue exhibitions. So, these exhibitions we put on every other year and are really our flagship shows. So, in these shows, really we worked together with a close, specific community to uplift their stories and their voices to… Yeah. Really handing over full curatorial control of that exhibition to inspire action on an issue that matters most to them. These exhibitions act as a platform for these communities to tell their stories, in their words and on their terms. They focus on things like personal experiences, group ideation, interactive design, and sparking meaningful action around that issue.

Victoria:

When you shift curatorial power out of the hands of your institution and put it into the hands of those impacted by, involved in, or passionate about the social issue you’re talking about you achieve three really specific outcomes.

Victoria:

One, you invite the public to get involved in improving their community. You create a space where people can start having dialogue. You uncover these underlying social issues that you didn’t know existed before and, beyond that, you start building the capacity to create empathy needed to address them.

Victoria:

Second, you empower partners to raise awareness and inspire action around their work. You uplift entire networks of change makers and elevate the important outcomes that they’re striving toward.

Victoria:

And third, you strengthen your institution’s position as an inspiring community gathering place. Credibility is important. It’s that difference between talking the talk and walking the walk that determines your institution’s position within the community and the amount of trust that your community is going to place in you.

Ashley:

So, in our current community issue exhibition, that’s on view now at the MAH, we’ve worked with over 180 people. That’s nearly five times our entire staff, with full-time and part-time staff included, to address a serious and often unspoken health epidemic in Santa Cruz County and beyond, loneliness among older adults. The exhibition is titled We’re Still Here, Stories of Seniors in Social Isolation.

Ashley:

Through a lot of trial and error and user feedback and building these exhibitions over the course of a couple years, we’ve identified five key steps to bring these exhibitions and raise these community voices in a really thoughtful and intentional manner which is, as you guessed it probably, is what we’re here to talk to you about today. So, we’re going to go through each of these five steps, one by one, and we’re going to use We’re Still Here, our current exhibition, as a case study so you can see how we checked off these boxes and really brought this exhibition to life this past year.

Ashley:

So, the steps are as follows. The first one you want to do is identify the specific issue, something that’s clear and actionable, and well-defined. Two, you want to assemble your team of change-makers and collaborators. Three, co-designing every aspect of the exhibition together. Four, developing a strong, direct, clear call to action for the guests to get involved in. And five, co-hosting events and experiences to activate the space past its opening.

Ashley:

So, let’s dive in. The first thing is identifying an issue of local significance. You can’t have a community issue exhibition without a clear defined community issue that’s actually actionable and relevant to your community. So, this can happen in a lot of different ways but the most important thing, at the end of the day, is just that you’re listening to your communities and you can’t do that through inside your office or your boardroom, you really have to go out and seek those conversations and open up those doors to learn and truly know what is of concern to your community.

Ashley:

In the case of We’re Still Here, the County of Santa Cruz Human Services department reached out to us after the last rendition of this exhibition that focused on local foster youth. They were really inspired and identified another issue in Santa Cruz County and beyond that could really benefit from having their stories told. And, that issue, as we identified earlier, was loneliness among older adults. So, they approached us with the drive to be a primary collaborator, key facilitator, and an equal level planner in this process. They were the perfect lead partner because not only could they identify and accurately address the issues that this community was facing, but they were ready to really do more and get into the weeds and do the work.

Ashley:

So, it was a really powerful collaboration with them but, at the end of the day, we knew it wasn’t our story to tell so our second community issue exhibition was born. Your journey may look something different. It could begin with just one person who’s really excited and passionate to create that change. Maybe it’s a community brainstorm that you had, some members that are really passionate, or maybe it comes out of a debate at city council. But, when you open up and allow your communities to be seen and heard and empowered, to create that change, you have the chance to create something truly special. And, like we said, taking the time to listen to your community in this way, not only strengthens your institution as an inspiring and welcoming gathering place, but it can create lasting and powerful change for those communities, which is something that we, as museums, are really fortunate to be able to have the space and the ability to do.

Victoria:

The second step is to assemble your community partners. This is your team of superheroes who will work together throughout the whole exhibition to uplift the art, voices, narratives, and histories of the community at hand. You might consider reaching out to groups like advocates and organisations who have deep connections to the community or professionals who work alongside the social issue. Maybe artists who are creating community centred artwork in your area, or policymakers and leaders who have an interest in and passion for the type of social change that you’re trying to enact. But the most important thing is to remember to involve the impacted community at every step along the way, taking care to centre their lived experiences and expertise. We have this kind of informal rule at the MAH, that impacted community members should always far outnumber any other type of participant, including our own staff, in the community project.

Victoria:

The more meaningfully you can involve your community and the earlier on you do it, the more deeply their expertise will be reflected in your exhibition and the farther the project can spread. So, it’s really critical to assemble this team that will serve as your advisory board or advisory committee throughout the process, right from the start.

Victoria:

For We’re Still Here we worked with groups like local senior homes, quilting clubs, organisations that were providing free and accessible health care to older adults, volunteer centres, and over a hundred local seniors themselves who became this sort of all-star cohort of change-makers that worked with us through the whole process. We learned that when you listen to your communities and truly listen to them, you get access to entirely different worldviews. You’re able to tap into expertise and experience that you didn’t even know existed and you’ll create a project that is far beyond the capacity of just your institution alone.

Ashley:

So then, now you have your all-star, superhero team of change-makers and you’re ready to co-design the exhibition. So, this process is going to be very collaborative and collaboration is a really powerful tool that should be done thoughtfully, emphatically, and intentionally. So, you and your staff act as the facilitators for this intensive in-person meetings to bring partners together, to flesh out all the details. I mean, our cohort picked the paint on the walls to the title of the exhibition, to every piece of art and where it was located.

Ashley:

And so, once you have everyone together in the same space building off of each other and brainstorming and that creativity’s flowing, you’ll really find that it’s a powerful space. We urge you in that space then to really listen, and you’ll find more beautiful and unexpected creativity than you could ever really imagine on your own. So, when co-designing We’re Still Here, we brought everyone into the museum, essentially shutting down the whole first floor for these small breakout sessions at different tables and our staff went around to kind of facilitate the conversations, cause we knew what we needed for the exhibition to be completed, right? And so, we are facilitating the conversations, leading those discussions, but really letting them take the floor.

Victoria:

It’s these group brainstorms that will allow you to develop the shared goals that you’ll need to drive the exhibition forward. So, we want to share with you a little bit about what that brainstorm process looked like for us and what it might look like for you.

Victoria:

The first step is to identify the empathy questions that are going to be relevant to your community. We asked our group questions like, “What does loneliness feel like to you? Look like? Sound like?” The next step is to then work with them to define the need that’s embedded in their answers. From this cohort we heard that loneliness is dark, heavy, isolating, that it feels like a barrier between us and the outside world. As we continue to talk with them and understand these experiences a little bit more, we found that what they felt was missing was understanding between different generations.

Victoria:

They identified a lack of a bridge between older and younger experiences. So, it turns out what they really needed was empathy. Once you define this need, you can start asking your how might we questions. These are the questions that will allow you to ideate solutions and figure out what success looks like for you and for your communities. We ask things like, “How might we inspire younger generations to empathise with older adults? How might we bridge that gap?”

Victoria:

From there, we were able to transform those questions or challenges into action-based solutions that became the goals for the exhibitions. The goal that our cohort identified here was that visitors will empathise with older adults by seeing and experiencing what loneliness and isolation feels like for them.

Victoria:

The final step is to allow the goals to then transform and influence your design process throughout the entire show. For this particular case, we worked with a local printmaker, Ry Faraola. Ry uses design to elicit empathy. So, together with these seniors who worked one-on-one and in small groups to gain better insight into what their experiences were and what stories they wanted to share, together the group created a game of Life.

Victoria:

It’s a massive, immersive, and fully interactive piece that’s the first thing that visitors experience when they walk into the museum. In one game, guests are given a limited income and are made to think about how they would spend it between difficult decisions, things like rent, healthcare, food, and fun, challenges that many of our seniors face. In another game, guests interact with the heat sensitive art piece, leaving their mark, only to watch it slowly fade away, reflecting many of the stories that the seniors shared with us.

Victoria:

Throughout the brainstorm process you’ll gain so much information, pages and pages of insight, and it might seem overwhelming at first, but we learned that the most important thing is to truly listen to your communities, setting aside any of your biases or concerns about feasibility and cost at first, just to let their ideas flow. The most important thing is to work together to develop those shared goals and then find meaningful ways for the guests to connect with them.

Ashley:

Great. So, another really unique attribute of this exhibition style is developing a really strong, clear, and simple call to action for your guests. Most people don’t just want to learn and, if you’re doing it right, they probably just want to help. You’ve done such a good job inviting them in and empathising with them that they want to create that change with you. So, it is your job, alongside everything else in the exhibition, to empower your visitors, to create that change and give them the tools to do so within that space.

Ashley:

There’s many ways to do this. You could set up a way to donate to local charities, or you have letter writing station to local policymakers but, in We’re Still Here, what they really wanted to focus on was acts of volunteerism in Santa Cruz County so we created an action wall. The action wall is brainstormed up and it includes over 40 acts on there, big and small, things like dropping off groceries to a senior, bring in your puppy to visit somebody or signing up to be an in-home care provider. Anyone could grab a card on their way out of the exhibition, it’s the last thing you see. And, on the back, it has the direct contact or the organisation that is ready and willing to help you complete those tasks as soon as possible. And, it’s really impactful because, to have this space on the way out or involved in a main part of the exhibition, because it empowers those guests who feel compelled by the exhibition to implement the change that your cohort of change-makers really so diligently work to address.

Victoria:

Now, fast forward past months of brainstorming, collaborating, and co-creating and the exhibition is finally up. The opening was a celebration. We had confetti poppers, cake, sparkling cider, no champagne, but just about everything you needed for a party. Community members packed the museum from wall to wall and seniors took the stage to share stories about what this experience was like for them. They shared about what it felt like to feel so seen and what it meant to be a part of something significant, not just to them, but to their entire communities.

Victoria:

It was a really, really beautiful evening and it was very moving, but we knew that the work didn’t end there, we knew we still needed to make sure that these voices were elevated throughout the entire run of the exhibition and through any related events. So now, we host monthly exhibition related events that always put our community partners centre stage. These are things like senior story slams where high school seniors and older adults share the stage over slam poetry or things like high school reunions, where folks who graduated in the fifties, sixties and seventies come together at the museum for a reception and dance party. And I promise you, it’s the cutest thing you’ll ever see in your life.

Victoria:

We also do more change based things like caregiver cafes, where adults who are in need of work can come to the museum and be trained and complete all the paperwork to become in-home service providers. It’s a process that can typically take up to months and can be really expensive, but at the MAH they’re able to do it in one day, totally for free and the event culminates in sort of a speed dating or meet and greet with older adults in need of care so folks can make sure they’re finding the right fit for each other.

Victoria:

You can also meet one of the seniors on any given day in the exhibition, as they take the floor as art ambassadors. They’re there to welcome in visitors, spark dialogue, show off the really amazing art that they made and bridge all of those gaps that they identified earlier in the process.

Ashley:

So, a big part of this exhibition, again, is measuring the impact on the community. So, We’re Still Here’s still on view, but we’ve been keeping a close eye throughout the process to really know how it’s going, right? So, the caregiver cafes Victoria was talking about, we’ve helped place nearly three times as many in-home support service providers than the County did all of last year and we still have one more event in December. That’s a huge impact for our exhibition.

Ashley:

The action cards, we’ve had almost 200 be completed or started in Santa Cruz County so that’s like 200 puppy visits maybe, I don’t know, potentially. And then, we’re really excited to be saying that we’re touring the exhibition in 2020 so it’s going to move through California, not Santa Cruz. It’s going to move through California and really bridge that gap of uplifting the voices beyond Santa Cruz County and expanding the impact in 2020. And then, the exhibition also continues to be visited by city officials and County board members to tour and engage with the activities and meet the seniors involved to really bridge the gap between impacted community and the systems that are there to serve them in town.

Victoria:

And, beyond the incredible community impact of these types of… And that’s the slide that went with that.

Ashley:

Yeah, shoot.

Victoria:

Beyond the community impact that you’ll generate what’s really cool about these exhibitions, too is that they help bolster your own growth as an institution. Like I mentioned in the beginning, these shows see more attendance than any of our other shows. They bring in more collaborators than anything we do,, bolster our volunteer programme and receive really, really great press. So we hope that you feel inspired to go back to your institutions and bring some sort of community first approach to the narratives that you’re sharing. Just while we want to leave you today with one challenge and that is when you go back to work on Monday, or whatever day you’re going back to work, to make some decision based on empathy, grounded in a human centred and human first approach that prioritises your community’s needs beyond your own and beyond those of your institution and let us know how it goes, too. But the first thing to remember is that it always starts with just listening to your communities.

Ashley:

Ta-da.

Related Content

Climate crisis: how museums could inspire radical action

The Gallery of Ecological Art (formerly China gallery) at the British Museum of Decolonised Nature. Image courtesy John Zhang and Studio JZ, Author provided Colin...

Film: Building a museum through community collaboration

Myseum is a museum without walls in Toronto. They partners with diverse cultural organisations who own the collections for their communities, and collaborates with artists...

Community engagement with Fun Palaces

Bringing culture to the community is at the heart of Fun Palaces The word “engagement” sometimes feels like it has been hijacked by digital marketers....

Subscribe to the latest museum thinking

Fresh ideas from museums around the globe in your inbox each week