How Community Input Can Shape a Mission: The Proposed William Eggleston Museum
Positioning Your Museum as a Critical Community Asset: A Practical Guide, November 2016. Edited by Robert P. Connolly and Elizabeth A. Bollwerk.
“Learn what aid the community needs: fit the museum to those needs.”
– John Cotton Dana, Director, New Jersey State Museum, 1917
Incorporating Multiple Community Perspectives
When employing Dana’s mandate, museum professionals may ask themselves, “Who is the community? How do I engage with the community? How can the community voice be incorporated into the museum?” For a small museum to survive, community input is increasingly necessary. Such input was sought to develop the mission and strategic plan for the proposed William Eggleston Museum.
Planning and Initial Steps
William Eggleston is a preeminent American photographer born in Memphis, Tennessee and currently residing in the city. He is credited with elevating color photography to a legitimate artistic form. A group of Memphis civic backers who recognized the importance of Eggleston’s body of work founded a nonprofit organization, not associated with the Eggleston family, to pursue a museum dedicated to Eggleston’s photography. As part of this process, I was contracted by a board member from the nonprofit to conduct a market survey and target audience study to identify programming goals, priorities, and interests of the Memphis public concerning a proposed Eggleston Museum, along with a proposal for next steps in the development process.
The original survey scope was only intended to incorporate input from local photographers and members of the museum community. I suggested adding another layer to the report—the community located in geographic proximity to the proposed museum’s location.. My goal was to create a final document that effectively wove the story of multiple community voices to influence the future identity of the Eggleston Museum.
The Eggleston Museum’s current proposed site is located along the eastern edge of Overton Park, a prominent urban green space in Memphis, TN. Within Overton Park are multiple civic and cultural heritage institutions. Each of these institutional voices is vying for ownership of the proposed Museum’s location or potential collection objects for use in their own venue. These institutional communities create a dynamic voice with the potential to deafen other community voices.
Adjacent to the proposed Museum site is the residential Binghamton neighborhood, a target area for the expanded marketing survey to incorporate the community voice. Binghamton’s physical boundaries include approximately 3 square miles and a population of 13,000 residents. The following data illustrate Binghamton’s basic demographics :
• Race: African-American, 63%; White, 27%; Other, 10%
• Language: English as a first language, 77%
• Income: $25,000 or less, 50%; $25,000-$45,000, 21%; $45,000-$100,000, 21%; $100,000 and above, 8%
• Education: High School, GED, or less, 61%; Bachelor’s or Associates degree, or some college, 29%; Master’s, Professional or Doctoral degree, 10%
• Housing: Rent, 57%; Own home, 43%
• Access to a Vehicle: No, 24%, Yes, 76%
Following Dana’s directive, the Binghamton community input should be a source for establishing the Eggleston Museum’s mission and strategic planning efforts, including educational programs and exhibits.
The nonprofit board member and I started by reviewing a report assessing the practicality of researching precedents, discussing the board’s vision, and creating the proposed Museum. After the initial background research, the majority of my work focused on completing the market survey objectives. Rather than making guesses about the goals, priorities, and interests of the Memphis public concerning an Eggleston Museum, we created a survey that directly solicited their response. This process took 150 hours over a three-month period.
Initially the board member viewed the project as a top-down initiative and that the interviews should focus on museum professionals. Given my training and professional experiences, I countered the board member’s interests and suggested a wider community-based approach. I proposed we follow the words of John Cotton Dana by expanding the list of potential stakeholders and interview community residents and business owners located within the vicinity of the proposed Eggleston Museum site. This expanded approach proved to be a worthwhile exercise. The board member was eventually convinced to follow a community-based approach based on our conversations as well as the board member’s own independent research.
We used a word-of-mouth approach to create a list of candidates for community interviews. The board member wrote the initial questions and I revised the wording with the goal of talking with the community rather than at them for the interviews. Questions were phrased in order to gauge items such as the Binghamton community’s knowledge of William Eggleston, the community’s current level of engagement with Overton Park, and how the future Museum could fulfill the needs of Binghamton’s community.
Prior to beginning this stage of the project, the proposed interview questions were submitted to the University of Memphis’ Institutional Review Board (IRB). The purpose of the IRB process is to ensure the rights and welfare of individuals participating in a research project are protected. All information gathered during the interviews was anonymous. Interviews were conducted in two separate rounds. Each interview was recorded and then transcribed for analysis. Hand-written notes were also taken during this process in case the recordings were lost. The first round included twelve semi-structured interviews with community members who worked or lived within Binghamton’s boundaries, along with local photographers familiar with William Eggleston’s work.
After analyzing the transcripts from the first round of community interviews, I conducted a second set of seven unstructured interviews with local professionals. This round of questions had a different focus. We asked museum professionals to explain how they conduct visitor engagement, to describe examples of successes and failures of engagement, and to define the community served by their specific museum. The interviews indicated different understandings or interpretations of the term ‘community engagement’ by each of the two groups. The interviews also provided insights into the differences held by the two groups for expectations of the role of a museum within a community.
In general, the interviews indicated a disjunction between outsider perceptions of community needs and those expressed by the residents of the Binghamton community. The process uncovered the fact that the Binghamton community is informally divided between Binghamton (without a p) and Binghampton (with a p), a fact unknown to many of the museum professionals. This divide occurs along a pair of north-south running railroad tracks, located approximately at the center of the neighborhood’s geographic area. The overall demographics of the communities are similar in terms of income, level of education, access to a car, and home ownership. When broken into two separate communities, however, there is a noticeable difference in racial diversity: Binghamton is 40% African-American, 46% White, and 14% Other; Binghampton is 72% African-American, 20% White, and 8% Other. As one community leader noted, the two Bingham(p)ton communities “don’t do a good job of bridging those two [races].” Ongoing revitalization efforts are taking place along the commercial strip of Binghamton, known as the Broad Avenue Arts District. Broad Avenue attracts people from surrounding neighborhoods, but not those from within Binghampton. A local artist observed, “Binghamton is Broad Avenue versus everything else,” widening the divide within the geographic area.
Interview responses also revealed the Bingham(p)ton community has little knowledge of William Eggleston’s accomplishments as an artist, or that he is a Memphian. During the interviews, community members and museum professionals listed obstacles that museums need to overcome to engage with their surrounding communities, including: traditional museums carry a stigma of being exclusive; some residents feel they need to be personally invited into a museum; the architectural forms of museums are not always welcoming; and museums are intimidating if one has never been previously exposed to similar cultural institutions.
A qualitative analysis of the interviews resulted in a list of recommendations and next steps that influenced the proposed Eggleston Museum’s mission statement and strategic plan. The recommendations included:
Establish a Museum Identity Relevant to the Community
Museums cannot manufacture relevance within a community, but they can openly assess how to appropriately serve community needs. The community input provided insights on what the Museum should and should not be. Key themes from the interviews included: focus exhibit themes on inclusivity rather than exclusivity; educate visitors on differences and commonalities between digital and analog photography; and extend the Museum’s indoor exhibits to outdoor environments in the immediate vicinity of the proposed Museum and Binghamton.
Provide Effective Leadership, Educate Staff, and Reward Volunteers
Effective leadership will invite a community perspective. The Bingham(p)ton community urged the Museum to have a ‘face’ within their community. Museum professionals underscored the importance of volunteers as a way to reach the community because of the effectiveness of word-of-mouth awareness.
Write a Mission Statement and Strategic Plan
Mission statements provide clarity of purpose and show how the proposed Eggleston Museum will make a difference for the Bingham(p)ton community. Throughout the interviews, local museum professionals spoke to the importance of aligning museum programs with a museum’s mission and putting the strategic plan into action. Rather than the standard five-year strategic plan, museum professionals commented that a shorter two-year strategic plan could be more useful.
Create Public Awareness
Museum marketing efforts need to be strategic and mirror the organization’s beliefs and values as stated in the mission statement. Otherwise, museums often rely on a ‘throw it against the kitchen wall and see if it sticks’ mentality. As illustrated by the interviews with museum professionals, many floundered when asked to explain their marketing strategies. Some museums lacked general knowledge about the culture in areas where the museum puts forth marketing efforts, or lacked information about current visitors.
Community needs do align with those of museums. When interviewees conceptualized the Eggleston space as a museum, many described hands on and interactive exhibits. Another emphasis was the potential to connect museumgoers with the outdoor landscape. This potential indoor-outdoor connection was given more importance than displaying William Eggleston’s work. Responses from interviewees also emphasized the role the Museum could play in the community—for example, as a photography-based museum, one potential service could include providing school portrait services at a reduced cost.
Cultivate Relationships with Community and Institutional Partners
Think geographically. Consider establishing an advisory council composed of members of the different communities. Discovering a leadership role for the community at the proposed Eggleston Museum is just as important as the Museum becoming active in the community. Interviews with the Bingham(p)ton community identified essential characteristics of community engagement such as being proactive and making a long-term commitment.
Next Steps in the Process
The work conducted on behalf of the nonprofit for the proposed Eggleston Museum expanded beyond the boundaries of the Museum’s site and engaged with the larger geographic community known as Bingham(p)ton. This community appreciated being involved in the process to articulate their needs, however, many were skeptical that their input will be included in the final vision for the Museum. As one interviewee noted, the proposed Eggleston Museum has the potential to “cross the boundary of…artistic photography and authentically enter a community.” Based on insights gathered from the interviews, the nonprofit board gained an understanding of how the proposed Eggleston Museum will best fit not only in the fine arts community who have a specific interest in his work, but also the community adjacent to the site. The board did not consider the importance of understanding the latter component prior to the market survey. Of particular interest in these findings was that there had been no consideration of how the Museum would be an attraction to the local geographic community. As discussions move forward on furthering the proposal for the William Eggleston Museum, all parties are now equipped with the results of a marketing survey that can lead to a cultural venue that will be contextually more attuned to the needs of all potential users.
1. John Cotton Dana, The New Museum (Woodstock: Elm Tree Press, 1917), 38.
2. All supporting quotes taken from Hennie, Allison. The Proposed William Eggleston Museum. Unpublished report.