Fostering Critical Conversations with Our Communities

This fall (2021) Smithsonian Affiliations will introduce a new program in collaboration with the International Coalition of Sites of Conscience. This pilot initiative is designed to support select Affiliates in developing and implementing strategic community engagement initiatives that foster important, sometimes difficult or ignored, conversations in, with, and for their communities.

Affiliates will apply to participate and will be selected on a competitive basis. Each Affiliate will commit two staff members to the year-long pilot (November 2021-October 2022) and will come to the program with a challenge or project that centers on engaging a specific community in critical conversation. Projects might include developing new or updating existing exhibitions to more accurately reflect a community’s diversity, devising an educational program to explore difficult histories, creating resources with and in support of a community, beginning new collecting initiatives or other meaningful community engagement projects. Affiliates will each receive a stipend of $10,000 for their successful participation in the project.

Through this initiative, Affiliates will build capacity to engage their communities in essential conversations around challenging and critical issues of local and national significance. Over the course of the year, Affiliate participants will work on their challenge with guidance and support from Smithsonian and Coalition colleagues and the Affiliate cohort, and develop an implementation plan for engaging their community.

About the International Coalition of Sites of Conscience

The International Coalition of Sites of Conscience is the only global network dedicated to transforming places that preserve the past into spaces that promote civic action. With more than 300 museums, historic sites, memorials, and memory initiatives in 66 countries, the Coalition has collaborated with sites around the world on dialogue-based initiatives, exhibition design, community-based memorialization, and interpretive and strategic planning. They have trained over 15,000 museum and historic site professionals at their member sites and other public and private entities in dialogue, audience engagement, equity, and inclusion. They have equipped hundreds of organizations with the tools they need to remember and preserve a wide range of histories, as well as enable their visitors to make connections between the past and related contemporary human rights issues.

What We Mean By “Community”

We have intentionally developed this project as a community engagement initiative, rather than one centered on audience development. An audience is those we speak to. They visit our institutions and participate in our programs. Audiences are critical to the health of our organizations!

A community is those we talk with. Community members share a common sense of belonging or shared identity that our audiences may not. In a community, people are contributing, not just listening. We can think about community in different ways. For example:

  • Geography – those who live, work or play in a specific location
  • Identity – those who share a common gender, sexual orientation, racial or other identity
  • Affinity – those who share a common interest

As we have developed this project, we are thinking of ways we can work with Affiliates to deepen their relationships with a community, rather than grow their audiences (though certainly audiences may change and grow as a result of community work).

If you have questions about this project, please contact:

Tricia Edwards, Deputy Director, Smithsonian Affiliations

A group of people stand around a table where an instructor points at a document.

Image: A group of museum professionals attend a workshop in Puerto Rico. Image courtesy Smithsonian Affiliations.

Selected Affiliates:

Orange County Regional History Center (Orlando, Florida)

Southern Museum of Civil War & Locomotive History (Kennesaw, Georgia)

Shedd Aquarium (Chicago, Illinois)

Conner Prairie (Fishers, Indiana)

Michigan State University Museum (East Lansing, Michigan)

Greensboro History Museum (Greensboro, North Carolina)

Evergreen Aviation & Space Museum (McMinnville, Oregon)

Museum of History and Industry (Seattle, Washington)

Wisconsin Veterans Museum (Madison, Wisconsin)

Participation Requirements:

Selected Affiliates will participate in six, two-hour training sessions over the course of the year-long pilot project and up to 6 hours of coaching with Coalition staff. Affiliations also will participate in at least 6 of 8 monthly one-hour cohort meetups. Over the course of the year, Affiliate participants will work on their implementation plans outside of cohort activities, which may include meetings with internal and external stakeholders, events or programs with community members, and other community stewardship activities. Participants also will be expected to complete “homework” before and after each cohort meeting, and participate in pre- and post-evaluation surveys, focus groups, and/or other assessment activities.