Masters Thesis

Participatory planning in community organizations : a study of best practices

The role of the museum throughout its history has been to serve its community, through the education and entertainment of the public (Starn, 2005; Skramstad, 1999). An institution, where education intersects with entertainment, creates a space where people are drawn together and in which community flourishes (Association of Children’s Museums 2005; Gates 2003, Kreps 2009). The museum builds community by strengthening relationships through shared experience and interests. Many museums identify community-building as a goal in their mission statements. Unfortunately, some organizations fall short of that mission because they fail to effectively reflect and respond to their communities. With each exhibit installment and program design, with every newly developing museum organization, museums have the opportunity to share the power of decision-making with their audience, young or old. Some museum organizations have trouble relinquishing their “expert authority” while others fail at their feeble attempts of token public participation. Successful integration of the public does occur when museum leaders are diligent in their efforts and willing to commit to public participation at the institutional level. Participatory planning provides stakeholders, including community members, with a voice in the changes that will affect them, making the planning and design process a collaborative, grassroots production. With this method, the public is no longer just the audience, but an active participant in the museum design. For children’s museums, the child is the targeted visitor and the participation of children should be sought after. Enlisting children to participate holds real value, but that value is often overlooked. Children who are given the opportunity to participate and have their voice heard will more likely continue to seek out other opportunities to contribute to their community in meaningful ways. When today’s youth are encouraged to contribute to society, it fosters a culture of civic-mindedness, leading to a more engaged community tomorrow. This project identifies strategies for successfully enacting participatory planning in the context of museum development, highlighting the voice of the child in children’s museums. This was accomplished using multiple methods including key-informant interviews and participant observation. Content analysis of interviews was used to identify patterns of methods used by museums to successfully integrate the voice and actions of the surrounding and visiting community into a development project. Results and conclusions were synthesized into a best practices guide, which may serve as a reference for leaders in museum organizations. The guide’s purpose is to outline strategies to effectively incorporate communities into the planning and development process of a new museum project, such as an exhibit, a renovated museum component, or an entirely new museum building. By creating and distributing an easy-to-use guide which demonstrates past successes in participatory organizational planning, this project may benefit and aid in the advancement of the museum community as well as other similar organizations genuinely interested in the perspective and participation of the communities they serve.