4 Steps for Successful Museum Social Work

For over a year, Zac Stocks has been researching social work and the different contexts in which it is practiced by museums. This research was the basis of his recently completed thesis at the University of Washington’s School of Museology.  Before completing his Master’s Degree at UW Zac worked at museums for a number of years and continues to do so in Seattle.  When we heard about the subject matter of his thesis research we were really excited to learn more about his findings and what his research indicated about how museums can support their local communities.  We also wanted to mention that Zac also recently advised the Incluseum on our first Digital Exhibition, The Power of Labeling, and helped us reflect on our intentions for the exhibit and possible futures for Incluseum exhibits.  The following post is Zac’s reflection on how museums seeking to engage in social work can be effective in their efforts.  We hope that after you read the post you respond to Zac’s call for dialogue so that our shared knowledge about museum social work can continue to grow.

* * * *

Museums have the power to create meaningful change through social work, but there are no field-wide best practices for museums to follow. While every initiative is different, successful museum social work efforts share some key similarities. The following are some examples of these strategies, which help illustrate how museums of all sizes can create lasting social impacts in their local communities.

1. It Must Be Relevant

The first step for any museums’ social change actions is to identify the needs to be addressed and develop solutions which are relevant and desired by local residents. Working directly with community members –through civic forums, advisory boards, or volunteer networks—museums can learn about the problems the local community wants to address. Together, they can come up with solutions which are realistic and valuable. If making the museum accessible to low-income families is the need identified, a direct action should be developed with those families in mind.

Generic service won’t do; efforts must be specific in order to create lasting social impacts. The issue to be addressed must be one that is actually present in the museum’s community, and should demonstrate the museum’s commitment to the community’s long-term health. For example, a “Free Thursday” event, which allows free museum visitation on the first Thursday of every month, is a poor solution for the problem of low-income museum accessibility. The social benefits are implemented unilaterally, meaning visitors who can already afford the cost of admission enjoy a free museum visit that day, while those who cannot otherwise afford to visit are allowed the opportunity to visit once a month. Approaches like this do not combat social problems, they only push them aside.

Instead, museums can develop actions which take on specific challenges for specific groups of people. The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis’ Access Pass allows local families which qualify for food stamps or income assistance to visit for only $1 per person. This initiative is valuable in that it responds directly to the need identified, and only has in mind those groups which qualify. Those who take advantage of this program are treated as real museum patrons, not a “special” group of visitors with limited access.

A family participates in museum activities through the Access Membership Program at the Children's Museum of Indianapolis.  Photo Credit: Children's Museum of Indianapolis.

A family participates in museum activities through the Access Membership Program at the Children’s Museum of Indianapolis. Photo Credit: Children’s Museum of Indianapolis.

2. It Must Be Collaborative

The success of a museum social work program is dependent on the relationships the museum has with people and other institutions. Individual action by a museum may not be representative of the actual social service desires of community members. Instead, collective action between museums, local residents, local governments, other non-profits, and even businesses has the greatest chance for success. By harnessing the resources each group has to offer, solutions to complex problems become more attainable.

Consider a polluted lake which is unsafe for fishing. Alone, a museum can respond to this problem in several ways; it could institute local pollution awareness programs, sponsor cleanup days, or more. However these efforts have little lasting impact on their own unless supported by other agents. Partnerships with environmental non-profits could help reverse the lake’s degradation, rather than merely halting it. Local legislators can increase environmental education in public schools. Nearby businesses can evaluate their environmental impacts and make adjustments, preventing run off. As well, area residents can self-regulate the lake’s ecological stability by keeping the shores clean and free from litter.

Clearly this is a more complete approach to resolving a social issue. Museums alone do not have the tools to see that a project of this size can be undertaken, but they can begin the process of change by establishing relationships with those it shares the community with.

3. It Must Be Self-Sustaining

The issues addressed in a social work initiative may quickly become a responsibility for citizens to oversee themselves. The museum can be an instrumental partner in creating solutions to local problems, but the ultimate success of its programs is dependent on its continuation through the active leadership of community members and stakeholders. A transition from a supervisory role to a support role allows social programs to adapt with the changing needs of the community.

One great example comes from the Harrison Center for the Arts in Indianapolis. This museum understood that their success as an institution is dependent on local art patronage. Recognizing that quality education is a factor in art appreciation, the Harrison Center founded a public charter high school as a way of cultivating a new generation of skilled and intelligent city residents. In 2006, Herron High School opened in the basement of the Harrison Center’s main building. 50% of enrolled students were students of color, and most came from low-income households. Today, the school is a separate non-profit, and is ranked in the top 5% of the nation’s public schools.

Herron High School, a charter school founded by the director of the Harrison Center for the Arts as a separate non-profit. Photo Credit.  Photo Credit Herron High School.

Herron High School, a charter school founded by the director of the Harrison Center for the Arts as a separate non-profit. Photo Credit. Photo Credit Herron High School.

Outside of the hands of the museum, this self-sustaining effort will continue to improve the opportunities available to Indianapolis residents in the future. There is no guarantee that the success of Herron High School will result in a larger or more supportive audience for the Harrison Center, but the creation of the school nonetheless is an intentional investment in the health of the local community which can be impactful, independent of the museum.

As well, self-sufficiency allows social work efforts to evolve beyond the limitations of museums’ missions. Projects can take on entirely new directions, continuously addressing community issues as they arise. This demonstrates that the museum’s support of the community is genuine, recognizing that community members are equally capable at working towards solutions to complex social problems.

4. It Must Be Measurable

Effective museum social work requires clear and measurable outcomes by which the program can be evaluated. Often, this comes down to proper planning. Before a museum begins a social work program, the staff and participants should identify what the desired impact of the program will be. Knowing what the program is striving for before it is implemented is critical for determining the ultimate accomplishments of the program.

Museums’ social work programs should not be expected to totally resolve the issues they address, but setting markers for success help museums evaluate their programs’ ultimate impacts. The right goals will vary by initiative and by museum, but it is best to have a conversation about these goals early on in order to track improvements.

Also, museums help themselves when they can demonstrate their social impacts with data. Having measurable outcomes for their social work programs helps justify a museum’s cause for financial support. Donors and granting agencies want to see that their investments produce results. Whatever the metrics for success are for the program, examples of achievement make the program more attractive to potential funders.

Lastly, setting aside time for reflection strengthens future initiatives. No social work effort should be complete without opportunities for feedback from staff and community members, and conversations about possible improvements.

This list is by no means a complete set of requirements for effective museum social work; the exact steps a museum takes to confront social issues will vary depending on the nature of the issue and the desires of community members. Instead, this list is simply meant to illustrate several steps which can be found across museums engaged in social work.

If you feel something is left out, share it. If you disagree with any of these suggestions, challenge it. Whatever strategies a museum uses to make lasting improvements towards local social problems is worth discussing, as the field can benefit from this new knowledge. Museums of all sizes can look to the example of successful museum social work to discover how their institutions can create social change in their own communities.

* * * *

Zac Stocks is a Seattle-based museum thinker with a passion for community-driven interactive experiences and self-representation of people of color. When not writing about museums, he can be found rock climbing with his partner, Ginger. You can contact him at zastocks@gmail.com.


  1. Hi Zac, thanks for your post. I’m intrigued about point #3 (programs being self-sustaining). Just wondering – do you think it’s important for all museum social work to ultimately become self-sustaining? It seems to me that in some cases, the particular resources of the museum (collections, staff, location) are really integral to the success of the program (in addition to the very capable contributions of the community)? I may be a little confused on this point, but I am definitely interested to learn more about this particular strategy and how it has been applied. Is your thesis available online?

  2. Hi Jessica! Unfortunately my thesis is still backlogged somewhere, but should hopefully be available soon. You are right that a museum’s funding and staffing support is critical to the success of a social work program. Like any good experiment though, social work programs must be able to be replicated, and because a museum may eventually change directions and decide to direct its resources elsewhere, it is critical that these programs are set up for long-term success in the museum’s absence. I believe the most genuine way to do this is to allow participants the opportunity to lead, and for the program to respond to changing needs regardless of the museum’s initial interests. Eventually the museum gives up control, but it continues to provide a safe space to meet, networking opportunities, and programming advice related to the issues at hand. It may not work for every museum, but it is a way for small museums in particular, which lack the funding to create permanent social initiatives, to demonstrate their commitment to resolving local social issues.

  3. Thanks for the extended explanation. This is something I haven’t thought much about, but now I definitely will – thanks. The more I think about it, I agree it is important, especially since funding for certain programs does unfortunately run out sometimes. It might take a bit of creativity to make this possible for some specialized, service-based, or therapeutic-type programs, but this is another good reason to collaborate and build community.

  4. Really awesome niche for social workers. I think museums are great places (along with libraries) that have a built in sense of community. These can be given an injection by social work.

  5. Thank you Zac for this excellent reflection on this interdisciplinary field of museum work. There are very important and useful points such as localised approaches or social changes to benefit local communities that museums can envision and deliver respectively. Please forgive me for raising only one disagreement with one of your comments about the good experiments and the necessity of social work programs to be replicated. In my view, ‘replication’ might not be the right thing to happen in this type of museum work when actually methods and resources have to be adapted to the needs of target groups or specific problems. In my view, one more strategy has to be added on this thinking and this strategy is related to ethics of social work interventions. As long as these programmes and initiatives undertaken to address specific needs of specific communities or groups in need, respect to people’s voices and the moral limits of these interventions have to be two clear priorities in order to provide safe and meaningful change and promote a values-driven strategic vision in and through the museums. A small contribution by a committed social worker with a passion for museum and heritage-based social work interventions who look forward to reading your thesis as Jessica does too. Many thanks for sharing your views on line.

  6. […] is a returning contributor to The Incluseum; you can read his previous blogpost here. Thank you, Zachary for sharing your work and reflections with The Incluseum […]

  7. […] is a returning contributor to The Incluseum; you can read his previous blogpost here. Thank you, Zachary for sharing your work and reflections with The Incluseum […]

  8. […] is a returning contributor to The Incluseum; you can read his previous blogpost here. Thank you, Zachary for sharing your work and reflections with The […]

  9. […] is a returning contributor to The Incluseum; you can read his previous blogpost here. Thank you, Zachary for sharing your work and reflections with The […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: