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Embracing Audience Engagement: A Small Museums Scholarship Recipient’s Experience

by Claire Blaylock, Executive Director, Clackamas County Historical Society on

This past September, thanks to the Small Museums Scholarship, I was honored to attend the AASLH Annual Meeting. One reason I wanted to attend the Annual Meeting was because so many sessions applied to my organization’s situation.

As with most of you, I’m sure, The Clackamas County Historical Society is currently re-examining our story, mission and role in the community. We currently operate two properties: The Stevens Crawford Heritage House and the Museum of the Oregon Territory. Between these two properties we have over 50 volunteers and 4 paid staff members. As a group, we’ve had formal and informal discussions about how we can be more engaging. I’ve always believed in sharing authority, but taking that risk can be difficult for any organization. For that reason I singled out the session, “The Courage to Co-Create: Practicing Engagement with your Audience,” as one of my ‘must attend’ sessions.

As I listened to the team from Big Car discuss the creative ways they approached engagement, a lightbulb turned on in my head: giving people a voice is the heart of engagement! Simple solutions, such as giving visitors the opportunity to voice their opinion and provide feedback, can lead to increased involvement.

Our organization never used this tactic, but the session also reassured me that it’s okay to take this sort of risk. Even something as small as providing gallery space for thoughts and responses can be scary, but the rewards outweigh any fear of failure. After hearing how white boards, Post-it notes and markers encouraged visitors to comment on other museums’ work, we saw how easy it is to make big changes with small steps.

IMG_5042At our first staff meeting after my trip to Louisville, I presented the team with my thoughts and encouraged them to address our challenges by taking some risks. They were excited about gathering feedback using white boards and Post-it notes, and we immediately started brainstorming questions that were potentially thought-provoking. It was not only refreshing to experience true collaboration, by the end of the meeting we had a complete plan ready to go. Later we began to discuss other risks we could explore in social media, programming, and extending our outreach.

The white boards are on their way, so we’ll see how our experiment with audience engagement goes. We hope all of this visitor feedback provides us with valuable insight about new exhibit features, programming events, and our role in the community.

Our staff and volunteers have embraced the notion of taking risks, and we’re seeing more creative ideas than ever before!

I’ll write back in the upcoming months and let you know how our experience with audience engagement is working!

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