This review originally appeared in the Winter 2019 issue of History News.

Book Review: Museums Involving Communities: Authentic Connections
By Margaret Kadoyama
(New York: Routledge, 2018)
Reviewed by Inez S. Wolins

On a daily basis, museum staff create and present a wide range of tangible products: programs, exhibitions, newsletters, publications, and galas, to name just a few. Add to this mix the notion of co-creating experiences with communities, a relatively nascent way of thinking and working, and institutions may need some guidance for this approach. Luckily, there is a new resource to help navigate operations, inspire reflection, and provoke institutional change.

Museums Involving Communities: Authentic Connections explores how museums can involve members of their local communities in their everyday work. Sounds simple enough, but at its very core, this book is both a challenge and a promise toward relevance. Somewhere along the spectrum of the museum-community relationship lies the invitation to become engaged through more extensive involvement. That overture is often forged by a museum employee to a target group, with the goal of increasing meaning and diversifying audiences by offering something of value that speaks to them. Learning what a group wants requires foresight, patience, and conversation, and listening to what a community group needs takes practice and discipline. Listening well facilitates relationships, and in part, that is what this book espouses.

This publication is both practical and tactical, philosophical and inspirational. It is a how-to book ripe with insights. It is a cheerleader encouraging museum workers to jump in, fail, achieve, and continuously improve. Kadoyama shares theory about change management and situates the work of relationship-building in a social and historical context, and the plethora of examples from the field and her years of experience shed light on just how hard it is to connect.

Rose beds in a garden on a sunny day.

One case study highlights the Thanksgiving Point Institute in Lehi, Utah, a farm, garden, and museum complex that draws upon the natural world to cultivate transformative family learning. TPI staff sought to better serve their community, and through active listening sessions, realized that they had to think about their institution differently. Through understanding what their community needed from them, they adapted their work to use their unique assets and resources to provide it. The “Operation Inquiry” program was developed with parents, teachers, and counselors from local secondary schools and set up an afterschool makerspace where at-risk teens could build technical skillsets to prepare them for jobs, higher education, and careers in the STEM industries that surround the Thanksgiving Point area. Participants learned about biotech, film and video production, and design thinking while developing problem solving skills and new relationships. The program benefited students academically and personally, and this community involvement enabled TPI to deepen its relationship with neighbors as it worked alongside them and facilitated meaningful interactions with area families.

Museums Involving Communities: Authentic Connections offers plenty of worksheets, tips, and advice for the novice and the expert alike. It digs deep to unpack the role of museums in the cultural and civic life of local communities and as agents of community change. The deepening of relationships by museum workers looking to make an impact, while building long-term partnerships with local communities, can profoundly benefit the individuals involved, the museum and its bottom line, and the community. The extent to which this book can assist museums in developing engagement strategies for implementation and evaluation will cement its true value to the profession. It’s not only a tall order, but a collective call to action that positions institutions to shape a better tomorrow for those they serve.

Inez S. Wolins is the Chief Public Experience Officer at the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City, OK. She was previously Executive Director of the C.M. Russell Museum and Director/CEO of the Wichita Museum of Art. Inez can be reached at [email protected].

Are you interested in contributing reviews to History News? Apply here.