KEY STEPS TO BUILDING RELATIONSHIPS WITH COMMUNITIES

If there is one lesson that can be learned from the experience of the CDM, it is the importance of building strong relationships with communities of nondominant groups. The museum accomplished this goal by forming an advisory committee at the beginning of the project, and its assistance proved essential to the program. But even with the committee’s guidance, subtle differences within the community, such as differences in attitudes between first and subsequent generations, were not recognized until after important decisions had already been made.

Other institutions have also begun their work with different cultural groups by starting at the community level. At the Exploratorium, for example, museum staff recognized how little they knew about both the Latino and Asian communities that visited the museum or could potentially visit. As a result, they set out to learn more about these communities before doing any program planning.

In 2004, the Exploratorium began the learning process by going out into both communities to conduct informational interviews and recruit members for their advisory committee. Through collaboration with these leaders, the Exploratorium discovered that overcoming the language barrier is essential, along with developing a program that has some cultural significance. As the first step in reaching out to these two communities, the Exploratorium developed a series of public programs.

The first of the three, Ancient Observatories: Chichen Itza, used a compelling science topic as its starting point. The program was enriched through the addition of cultural activities and interpretation. It was conducted in two languages—English and Spanish. The next effort, Science of Dragon Boats, began with a cultural topic that was enhanced through the addition of science activities and demonstrations. The third program, Magnitude X: Preparing for the Big One, emphasized the relevance of a science topic to daily life and added activities and demonstrations to make this point. This program was conducted in three languages staggered over the course of the day. There was an English session, a Chinese one, and a Spanish one. “This was not easy to pull off,” notes Garibay, who worked with the Exploratorium on its front-end evaluation. “It was an indication that museum staff took this work very seriously.”

The experiences of both CDM and the Exploratorium point to several strategies that could be applied to other informal science environments. These strategies are summarized below.

  • Draw on cultural practices of the learners. The language, practices, and experiences of visitors clearly affect their experience. By becoming aware of some of these practices, professionals in informal science can incorporate them into their settings. CDM had success with this strategy by incorporating cultural icons, such as the round boat, into its exhibition.

  • Develop bi- or multicultural labels. Not only can labels translated in different languages provide specific content to diverse audiences, but also they can spark conversation and meaning-making, especially among intergenerational groups with varying language abilities. Garibay notes that bilingual labels allow adult visitors who were less proficient in English to read the labels and then discuss the content with their children, directing their attention to important features of the exhibit.

  • Build relationships with the community. Working with community-based representatives from nondominant cultures is an essential part of the process. CDM’s Jenni Martin notes the role that the Vietnamese community played throughout the initiative: “Working with the community is part of our mission as a children’s museum,” she says. “Leveraging trust with our partners, which include a community advisory group and the Vietnamese language media, has been critical to the success of our initiative.” Community leaders also can demystify museums (or other informal learning settings) for members of their community and help them understand the full range of available programs and activities.



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