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Community Engagement

How do we engage meaningfully with our communities in ways that continue to surprise, delight, and sometimes challenge, while meeting their needs and interests?

Community Engagement

How do we engage meaningfully with our communities in ways that continue to surprise, delight, and sometimes challenge, while meeting their needs and interests?

A group of people listen to a speaker in an art gallery.

At Smithsonian Affiliations, we work with Affiliates to develop experiences that reflect their communities and their values and offer opportunities to collaborate with their community members. We can develop and foster authentic engagement by identifying and deeply listening to those who make up our community.

Visualizing Community

We think of community not as a monolithic entity but as a collection of different groups of people, each with individual needs and interests. For example, you could serve a community of people who all live in the same geographic location, have a common identity such as race or gender, or share the same interests. 

We see the Affiliate network as a robust community of professionals who all share a commitment to education and public service. Which of these types of communities does your organization serve or want to serve? How can you use Smithsonian content, resources, and expertise to help you speak authentically to and reflect these different communities through programming, exhibitions, and other activities?

Innovative Programming

Building on the considerations of geography, identity, and affinity of community, how might you work with the Smithsonian to bring these unique voices closer to your programs and exhibitions and ensure that they are represented in your work? You can explore with Affiliations, your team, and even your community what it means to engage with integrity, intention, and authenticity. 

Authentic co-creation with your community on things like educational programing, exhibitions, and events is key to developing trust and mutual respect. Through stewardship of your community relationships, we can ensure that our work is driven by, includes, and reflects our community.

National to Local Stories

Smithsonian Affiliations collaborates with museums and educational and cultural organizations to bring the Smithsonian to your neighborhood. We support you in articulating your story within and alongside the larger narratives told by the Smithsonian. 

Here are some examples of how we have worked with Affiliates to support their work. How does this inspire you? We encourage you to include your ideas in the Statement of Purpose included in your Affiliate application.

Smithsonian Initiative
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AFFILIATE Initiative
Men of Change exhibition poster depicting three men and the words "Power. Triumph. Truth."

Men of Change: Taking it to the Streets

Men of Change: Taking it to the Streets presents a nation’s story through the profiles of revolutionary African American men and the cultural stories they illuminate. Originally slated to open at the Smithsonian Anacostia Community Museum, the exhibition was creatively reimagined for outdoor installation in Washington, D.C.’s Ward 7 Deanwood neighborhood to be accessible to the community during the COVID-19 pandemic. Men of Change: Taking it to the Streets is based on the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service’s exhibition, Men of Change: Power. Triumph. Truth.
A section of the Men of Change gallery featuring metal floor to ceiling rods on which hang different sized horizontal and vertical black-and-white photography panels of African American male storytellers.

Men of Change: Power. Triumph. Truth.

When the California African American Museum hosted Men of Change: Power. Triumph. Truth., they held a series of programs to engage their community in the lives, art, and experiences of the men featured in the exhibition. Through the Build the Mothership workshop, families and teens were introduced to jazz composer Sun Ra and Ryan Coogler, Director of the film Black Panther. Both express imagination and invention in their art by using technology and Afrofuturist philosophy. Workshop participants listened to Sun Ra Arkestra and the Black Panther soundtrack while using repurposed materials to build a three-dimensional aviation model, perfect for cosmic traveling.
Smithsonian Initiative
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AFFILIATE Initiative
In 2016, the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center introduced Culture Labs, a programming model that places communities first:
“We at the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center believe the soul of a museum lies not in its brick-and-mortar walls but in what happens inside those walls — the experiential friction between guests and hosts, history and future. We developed Culture Labs to bring artists, scholars, curators, and the public together in creative and ambitious ways – and to show that anyone can make a ‘museum without walls’ by curating collaborative, participatory, and socially responsible spaces where people can come as their true selves. A Culture Lab…can be big or small and take many forms as long as it’s centered on building and empowering its community through art, history, science and stories.”
A group of people holding fans perform on stage.
Tsongas Industrial History Center (Lowell, MA)

Centering Community

The Tsongas Industrial History Center, part of Lowell National Historical Park (LNHP), collaborated with the Smithsonian Center for Learning and Digital Access (now the Smithsonian Office of Educational Technology) to develop instructional materials highlighting Asian Pacific American (APA) experiences in history, art, and culture. LNHP and the Smithsonian trained local teachers on the Smithsonian Learning Lab and worked with them to create APA-focused Learning Lab collections. To center Lowell’s Asian American community, LNHP partnered with the University of Massachusetts Lowell Center for Asian American Studies and invited community organizations to share their community’s cultural heritage.

Community Engagement


This is a tool to reflect on your own organization’s work as you consider whether affiliating with the Smithsonian is right for your organization.

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