Building Community to Engage Community: The College Museum as a Site of Civic Engagement

Sunday, January 9, 2011: 8:50 AM
Room 101 (Hynes Convention Center)
Susan Shifrin , Ursinus College, Collegeville, PA
In 2008, Ursinus College received a grant from Project Pericles to support a course that would “investigate the theoretical underpinnings for the notion of the museum as a site of civic engagement through varied readings, classroom discussion, and group work … [and then] put these theories into action in a series of community-based projects.”  As I designed this course, I hoped that it would allow students to learn how they and the museum might work from community needs and priorities while benefitting from community insights, skills, and input: in other words, how they might go about establishing the common ground of their own strengths with those of their community partners.

Museology has only recently begun to encompass such notions as partnership and collaboration.  Historically, the museum – from its inception in the private “cabinets” of the elite during the early-modern period through its development into a more publically-oriented space in the early twentieth century – emerged as a bastion of “top-down” enlightenment.  The course would introduce the students to the exclusive and excluding history of the field even as I began to punctuate accounts of that history with counter-narratives of inclusion and engagement that would reshape the field in the late twentieth century.  That “reshaping” would take place in our classroom too, as we moved from historical and theoretical readings to community-based projects that implemented the kinds of changes about which we had been reading.

I want to consider the ways in which building community in the classroom through various pedagogical means provided the scaffolding for what would become a broader-based engagement on the part of the students with the wider, regional community; that is, the ways in which we would gradually achieve the goal of “establishing the common ground of their own strengths with those of their community partners.”