Towards a More Community-Centered Museum

Mike Murawski
14 min readAug 12, 2019

A couple years ago, back in 2017, I made my first-ever visit to the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History (MAH) — a long overdue pilgrimage to this institution led by author and change agent Nina Simon. She had invited me to be a ‘camp counselor’ for their summer MuseumCamp, and I could not turn down a chance to visit the MAH, see what makes it tick, and be a part of this community of changemakers that gather each summer for the MuseumCamp experience. Not only have I known Nina for several years and been a dedicated reader of her Museum 2.0 blog and her books on museums, but the MAH had just officially opened Abbott Square, an adjacent public plaza that the museum converted to a bustling community gathering place and food market. For me, the Santa Cruz museum is fundamentally one of the exemplars in turning an institution toward a focus on its local community. Since arriving in 2011, Nina has worked with her team to tirelessly transform the MAH into a thriving museum and community center for Santa Cruz.

I was fortunate to visit during their exhibition Lost Childhoods, an issue-driven exhibition that the MAH staff created with their community. Showcasing the stories, struggles, and triumphs of youth who are aging out of foster care, this powerful exhibition was co-created with the Foster Youth Museum and a group of over one hundred local foster youth, artists, and youth advocates. This community was at the core of the exhibition, and there was even a large wall text that boldly declared “We made this with our community.” Through years of getting to know its local community and becoming intertwined in its people, the MAH team has embodied a shift from being a museum ‘for’ its community to being a museum ‘of’ and ‘by’ its community. And in 2018 they launched the global OF/BY/FOR ALL movement to bring these community-centered practices to institutions everywhere.

Amidst all the workshops, small group discussions, beach trips, and conversations with over a hundred passionate changemakers during my first MuseumCamp experience back in 2017, one moment still resonates with me more than any other — perhaps because of how simple and straightforward it was. Portland-based writer, game critic, and creative entrepreneur Josh Boykin stepped up to the microphone during a series of fast-paced lightning talks. Josh works outside of museums yet…

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Mike Murawski

consultant, educator, & change leader. Author of “Museums as Agents of Change” (2021); writes “Agents of Change” Substack; Co-Producer #MuseumsAreNotNeutral