In Fall Quarter 2019, the University of Washington Museology Graduate Program was pleased to offer our Community Engagement course for the second time, taught by Dr. Meena Selvakumar. Meena has a long history with community engagement. “The very first project that I led and for which I received a federal grant was to develop a community engagement model for our local science museum,” Meena said. “While I have gained expertise in other areas of museum work, community engagement is one that remains close to my heart.” The opportunity to bring her zeal for community engagement to the classroom came in 2018 when the program added six new courses to better reflect its mission and the future of museums. “Community engagement intersects with many field-wide movements, including decolonization, social justice, and new models of interpretation such as co-curation,” Meena pointed out, “Which means I have an excuse to keep learning. I find that energizing.”
First and foremost, the course aims to teach students what community engagement is. “Community engagement is relationship-based and requires building trust and sharing authority with partners,” Meena explained. “This type of engagement is defined by the museum’s location. It requires the museum to look at issues and opportunities that impact or reflect the local community and to work in partnership with others to address or highlight them. It also includes working with source communities to care for their belongings and co-developing exhibits and programs with partners.” Beyond simply learning what defines community engagement, students also learn about application. Using case studies and supported by academic research, they examine the tensions that come from sharing authority and integrating multiple perspectives, and they discuss various strategies and tactics used to engage communities. Meena was particularly excited about her class’s visit to the Wing Luke Museum of the Asian Pacific American Experience. “The museum is a pioneer of the community-based museum model,” she said, “And embodies community empowerment and ownership in almost every aspect of its work.” During their visit, students discussed the perspectives of visitors and staff alike on the community-based museum model.
The course builds to a final project in which students have the chance to put all they have learned into practice by designing their own community engagement plan for a museum of their choosing, presenting their plan to the class.
Student reactions to the course have been overwhelmingly positive. “It really solidified and expanded my vocabulary and knowledge set about how to engage with community partners in meaningful ways,” reported Ken Doutt (Class of 2021). Sarah Huckaby (Class of 2021) echoed this sentiment and praised Meena’s skill as a teacher, noting that, “without her guidance, I don’t think I could have developed my skills in community engagement to the extent that I need to.”
The skills learned in the community engagement course will serve our students well as they move forward in their careers. Many students talked about how community engagement related to their other coursework and experience working in museums, from education to exhibit development and administration, which Meena was thrilled to observe. “Cross-disciplinary connections are reflective of how museums operate and feels like one indicator of success for our program,” she said. Other students have taken an even broader view, like Victoria Bonebrake (Class of 2021), who credits the course with helping her “to better understand the future of museums and reimagine the role they can play in being agents of change.”