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Evolving with Time, Museums from Community Anchors to Community Catalysts

February 22, 2016 ET

February 22, 2016

Editor's Note: Paula Gangopadhyay became Deputy Director for the Office of Museum Services last month.

By Paula Gangopadhyay

Museums in America have been woven into the cultural DNA of our country -- inspiring, convening, mobilizing and revitalizing local, regional and national communities in many ways. The traditional role of museums has dramatically changed in the last few decades, primarily as the need for relevance has come to the forefront. Rapidly evolving advances in 21st Century technology and communication are changing how we operate and serve our communities at both the micro and macro levels. Today, museums are adapting by being more cognizant, proactive, nimble and opportunistic, emerging as a force to reckon with. Every day we learn about museums who are going many steps beyond just being a resource or offering a space for a community gathering. There are exemplary museums who are leading sustainable economic and community revitalization in their challenged communities with deep institutional commitment, while others are revamping their public programs and staff training to incorporate relevant educational elements such as Making, Tinkering and Digital Literacy. There are some museums who are taking their own initiative to welcome, orient and strengthen immigrant families, and yet others who are committed to helping shape tomorrow’s generation of innovators, entrepreneurs, artists and STEM practitioners, at the same time addressing needs of special audiences.

It is a very exciting time for us to harness our collective power as a sector, go beyond our comfort zones and redefine boundaries. It is time for us to steer our direction from being Community Anchors to becoming Community Catalysts. This synergetic role can be accomplished in a relative manner by small, medium and large institutions, and museums of all types. A few areas where I envision great opportunities for growth and vitality for museums as catalysts are:

  • Harnessing the power of digital technology and providing not just access to collections and content, but meaningful contextual engagement to communities

  • Rethinking how to service the community by being more of a facilitator and offering programs "with" the community rather than "for" the community.

  • Emerging as a thought-leader by seeking and forging cross-sector collaborations on national priorities, so that the community at large invites museums as an integral voice at the table on related topics of debate and dialogue.

  • Forging greater collaboration with libraries, especially in the areas of community capacity-building.

  • Embracing the power of data, research and evaluation and seeking continuous improvements that are informed by data.

  • Empowering the incoming generation of museum professionals by being open to changing organizational culture with fresh ideas.

I feel very fortunate to be joining IMLS at this juncture as the new Deputy Director of Museums. I take very seriously the task of keeping our museums at the forefront of the national agenda. Please feel free to contact me with ideas and questions at pgangopadhyay@imls.gov. We can make our museums and their surrounding communities far stronger if we continue to work together.

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