Beyond the Walls: Building the Capacity for Community

Last week we had the pleasure of being the keynote speakers for the 2017 Small Museum Association Annual Conference. Needless to say, we were honored to have the opportunity and were excited to share in the importance of small museum institutions to the future of museums. Below is a brief––very brief––overview of our keynote presentation. As always connect with us on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram to continue the discussion.

If what we want for the future of museums is community-oriented public service, small museums should be our major model. Small museums have expansive ecosystems, the ideal location, and the richness of specificity that make up the new direction of the field.


When we say ecosystem, what we mean is the way an institution functions as a whole unit, thanks to the individual contributions of the people who work there. Ecosystem does not describe the building’s four walls or the items in the collection. Descriptions like “fast-moving, heavily bureaucratic, or community-run,” speak to the working environment of the organization. We are describing the work done by the people at those institutions, their goals and the ways in which they are enabled to or prevented from achieving them.

Some aspects of an ecosystem will always be specific to a single museum, but there are trends that occur across similar organizations. The question is not how to make small museum ecosystems more closely resemble the practices of large institutions; the question is: how can we make this ecosystem scalable at every size?

Black art incubator and the National Museum of Women in the Arts are perfect examples of what we think the ideal small museum ecosystem can look like.

The Black Art Incubator was a project created by four black women––Kim Drew (Black Contemporary Art Tumblr blog) , Jessica Lynne and Taylor Aldridge (creators of and art historian and writer, Jessica Bell Brown  that took place over the course of the summer of 2016.

The Black Art Incubator so beautifully exemplified the boundless opportunities for collaboration when we tap into a multitude of resources toward a holistic goal and aim to be accessible. They took advantage of an intimate approach to create a community that could interact on an individual level toward a goal: to improve the arts and culture ecosystem for underrepresented and marginalized folks.

So what if we all were an active intervention in our spaces?

The National Museum for Women in the Art is such an example of an intervention being made by a museum. The museum launched a program, Women, Arts, and Social Change.

Through a host of panel and audience curated dialogue, the museum acts as a catalyst for their community of women on gender parity. Similarly, this project brings the community in but the planning of this program highlights the importance of each member of the museum working towards bettering the ecosystem.

One part of what makes the small museum ecosystem so able to be community-focused is the physical location of these institutions. Small museums are often located very close to, if not located within, the neighborhoods that make up their major audiences. Proximity is a powerful tool for organizations that seek to serve a local community rather than a national audience. Instead of representing global culture in a local location, small museums have the opportunity to represent their local communities and demonstrate their global significance.

Spatial proximity is a huge advantage when it comes to earning the trust of local communities, who may have never felt like a museum, large or small, can belong to them. After all, threshold fear, as Nina Simon calls it, is easier to overcome when it involves your neighbor’s door.

Workshops we put on at the Fralin Museum of Art at the University of Virginia, and the community engagement of the Anacostia Community Museum demonstrate the power of this kind of local access.

We recently had an opportunity to work with the Fralin Museum of Art at the University of Virginia, in conducting workshops with the museum’s visitors. Read about that full experience here

This particular workshop had spurred participants into a conversation about their own awareness of others in their communities that extended beyond their day-to-day, and were part of a larger geography. Here is where small museums can be empowered! You play a large role as an entryway for a new population into the rich history and culture of your communities and while also uplifting the narratives of those local to your areas.

The Smithsonian Anacostia Community Museum does this well––being a direct line to their community and bridging those stories for the masses. They are also the inspiration for the context for us being here today. It was during the American Alliance for Museums Conference, on a panel titled around “Community Museums,” and we couldn’t help but think but aren’t all museums community museums?

The museum remains closely identified with its community through exhibition and programming initiatives to address the concerns of their changing neighborhoods, and being a direct line for opportunities for students and young adults.

The specificity of small museums is a direct result of their close proximity to the communities they serve, but on the national and international scale, these local stories often seem like niche interests.

This specificity is often talked about as a limitation, something for smaller organizations to overcome so that they too can play on the same international stage — but what needs to change in this framework is not the reach of the museums, but rather the way that we understand specificity. The mission of small museums is to demonstrate that specificity can be generative rather than limiting.

Rather than feeling the need to broadly represent history, art, or culture within their walls, these organizations can instead hone in on the unique details of materials in their collections, and exhibit them in their local neighborhoods.

Crosslines, put on by the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center, did just that.

The Asian Pacific American Center is another entity within the umbrella of the Smithsonian Institution, and like the Anacostia Community Museum specificity to their neighborhood, they have their own specific cultural mission. Additionally, the center does not actually have a physical location. However, they experiment a lot in ways to let specificity be generative rather than limiting––by including and creating new archives.

CrossLines demonstrated that specific viewpoints do not need to be discarded, but can instead showcase the fact that every identity has unique aspects that must be encouraged to be shared. By understanding and empathizing with the performance of specific ways of being in the world, environments, atmospheres, geographies, and even institutions can become safer places for people with unique experiences of their own. By being interested in and supportive of the full depth of viewpoints outside of the merely visual display of diversity, intersectionality is prioritized over inclusion.


Small museums have many advantages when it comes to representing public arts, history, culture, and the sciences. Their ecosystems, geographic proximity, and ability to delve into specifics put them in the prime position to be the future of museum work — community-focused, employee proving grounds that don’t sacrifice their unique positions in the attempt to appeal to all possible audiences and points of view.

It is not that small museums have an equally small reach, impact, or scope — it is that these organizations have become the test-labs for the new direction of the field as a whole. The work being done by these institutions proves that small museums do big work, and this framework must be extended to all museums, of all sizes.

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