Museums as opportunity makers

The past couple of months have been extremely busy for me. I’ve definitely neglected the blog. But despite this, I’ve managed to keep up a fairly regular schedule of cultural activities and museum visits. My ongoing “museum anthropology” work feels really important, not just for professional development purposes, but because it’s an investment in my personal development, including my mental health and wellbeing.


I took this photograph during a recent visit to The Phillips Collection. The prompt was something like “What are you doing to invest in yourself?

Back in early March, I was so fortunate to have the chance to attend the Vital Voices Global Leadership Awards honoring phenomenally courageous women taking great risks to address urgent contemporary issues. Later the same month, I attended a much more low key but equally thought-provoking and inspiring panel discussion at the Alexandria Black History Museum on the subject of integrating art into historic sites. And last week, I attended a tour of the mysterious and amazing Dupont Underground with the Emerging Arts Leaders DC group.

Being surrounding by these opportunities in Washington, D.C. and feeling comfortable and welcome enough to take advantage of them is an incredible gift – and the realization has me thinking about how important it is for museums to understand their role as “opportunity makers” for their communities, and the immense responsibility this entails.

Museum visits really are like investments – both in you, the visitor, and in the institution, which provides something of value in exchange for your time, openness, and collaboration. All members of the community, even those who have never visited, should be considered stakeholders—potential partners with something to offer.

Social equity and access are fundamental mandates for community institutions such as parks and libraries. Museums, in theory, are held to the same standards, but frequently fall short, often choosing to focus on their narrow subject specializations and to prioritize collections over people. In theory, all museums want to provide great opportunities—experiences involving beauty, growth, healing, and intellectual engagement—for all members of their community. However, many seem content to simply attract and retain their “default” audiences, visitors who easily see value for themselves in the museum’s offerings.

According to Gretchen Jennings’ concept of an “empathetic museum,” museums that want to be genuinely visitor-centered, responsive, and connected to all aspects of community must develop a culture of empathy—a strong foundation of empathetic and inclusive practice where all community members see clear personal relevance and feel esteem within the museum (see this post on Museum Commons).

To this end, museums as opportunity makers should actively seek to create diverse opportunities for their communities that are perceived as deeply valuable, welcoming, and accessible. All museums, no matter their subject matter, mission, or collection, can work towards this.

As I’ve suggested before, museums, institutionally, have a special asset that traditional social service institutions do not. Museums don’t have to treat their users solely as clients (a unidirectional service relationship). They can actually work in partnership with users, with both parties bettering the other. This has been one of the great joys of my career change from human services to cultural services. And I think this distinction has enormous potential for transformative museum practice that offers genuinely valuable opportunities for all.

My journey to museums (and this blog)

Welcome to my recently created blog, Museums with impact.

(How I arrived at museums)

I have always loved museums, but only realized two years ago that museum work was an ideal career for me. In college, I studied psychology and social policy. At the time, I wanted to be a counselor or social worker as I’ve always considered it a privilege to understand a person’s unique experience and offer empathy and support.

However, a few years into my human services career, I started thinking about the possibilities for combining my interests in social work with an emerging interest in arts and cultural services. I began to think about the essential nature of the arts in all of our lives. Despite the fact that I had no art background, I found myself doing a lot of work in the art program at the day service where I assisted adults with physical disabilities. I enjoyed devising ways to assist my clients’ to realize their incredible visions and talents through their work.

I also began thinking about the intrinsically therapeutic qualities of cultural activities and in particular, the restorative and inspiring qualities of the museum. As I began to research museums and museum studies, I was thrilled to discover an existing discourse on the relevance of social work, wellbeing, and therapeutic programs to the museum field as well as numerous museums implementing programs and exhibitions aimed at achieving these ends. Experimentally, I enrolled in a museum studies certificate program and began volunteering at a regional art gallery. After finishing the certificate, I did some further volunteer work for an art exhibition touring program.

These experiences strengthened my curiosity so I returned to my museum studies program to finish my masters (while concurrently taking on a truly wonderful job as a nanny). For my thesis, I looked at the approaches and practice implications of therapeutic museum programs for older adults. During my research, I was inspired by the fact that all of my case study museums, despite having diverse missions and collections, were able to develop their programs in a way that made sense for their institutions. While social service work might not make sense for all museums, it is in the realm of possibility for many. And despite the practical challenges, viable solutions do exist.

(A little about me and my travels)

I’m originally from Queensland, Australia (and grew up there), but was lucky enough to have the opportunity to attend college in the US. After graduating, my American then-boyfriend (now-fiancé) bravely volunteered to come back to Australia with me where we spent four years working and studying, meeting lovely people, and rock climbing as much as we could. About one month ago, we moved back to the US and are currently trying to refrain from eating all the foods we missed as we have a wedding to look good for in less than one month (!).

A part of me is pretty surprised to be starting a blog. I’m generally a pretty quiet and private person. But somehow, being new in town without a job or formal schedule, and bursting with recent-grad enthusiasm, I can think of no better way to spend my time right now. I aspire to become more open about my ideas and experiences, and this blog seems like a good opportunity for me to develop these skills while also acting as a facilitator for others with more experience and expertise.

(An intro to the blog)

The more I develop my ideas for this blog, the more excited I feel about the possibility of working towards the mission and vision that I describe in my About page . I think that collaboration is so critical to the success of any interdisciplinary venture. My hope is that the blog will become a valuable resource where occupationally diverse, but like-minded professionals and students can connect and share. I feel so fortunate to have access to the culturally rich DC area, and look forward to exploring the numerous exhibitions and public programs on offer—and then sharing these experiences with you.

My original title for the blog was Leaving different: Museums with impact. Words like ‘therapeutic’ and ‘wellbeing’ are helpful for understanding these new and exciting directions in museums, but what I really want to propose is the idea that museums have the power to leave their visitors a little different than when they came in, whether it’s a little more uplifted, comforted, included, refreshed, edified, unburdened, or armed with new knowledge. That is the impact I am hoping to learn more about through this project.

Stay tuned.