Where to Look: Finding Your Community’s Doers, Makers, Thinkers, Creators

Inviting Community In

The best way to signal your sincerity is to invite community in from the project’s outset to give people an overview of your goals, and mostly to listen and find out what they think is important to the community about the subject, approach and content. You’ll want to ask about unmet community needs and how your museum could best leverage its resources to help meet those needs.  You’ll want to find out more about what is already happening in the community that might influence or support your project. You’ll also want to find out who has complimentary interests that might create synergy in collaboration.

At MCM, we conducted community listening sessions for each of the core areas of the museum’s public program focuses. This was an opportunity to invite people with particular expertise in to share their ideas about community need, potential resources, ideas for focus, and potential partnerships. This broad perspective helped identify possible directions, collaborations and resources that we might not have otherwise considered, and helped us paint a rich picture of how and why the community needed the Children’s Museum to fill the gaps.

Hobby & Service Clubs

Tapping into existing local volunteer networks could help your organization access community resources, save money and bring in needed talent. Numerous service organizations and hobby clubs have particular skills you may need. If you need someone with expertise in building models, consider talking to a hobby railroaders club. A Boy Scout troop may be looking for Eagle Scout projects. Volunteers from a sewing guild, knitting club, photography association, computer club or woodworking group offer skills for both direct exhibits production and also educational programming.

At MCM, we have routinely tapped into existing community hobby and service club networks to provide general museum help, from woodworking to filing. These include networks of retired volunteers to local service or hobby clubs. For our new building, a local model train club made up of retired men called the Train Guys worked for four months to design and install a garden-scale train layout that encircles our Community Concourse. They became part of the museum family and are still ready to help us whenever we call. Likewise, the photos for the train installation's background were donated by members of a local photography club and skillfully interwoven to create a seamless Wisconsin landscape.

Art Networks

Since people are really the heart of any local project, getting to know the interesting people in your community who are doers, makers, creators and creative thinkers is paramount. Start with your local artist networks, university art departments, art student groups, local arts commissions, technical colleges and galleries if you’re looking for people to help fabricate or design exhibit components. Attend graduate art student shows and studio open houses, and consider it window-shopping. Events centered on the arts can offer a great deal of opportunities for finding local talent. Get an idea of what you want for your space, and see who is doing interesting work to fit with your vision. Talk to the people you know who are well-connected to creative people—people in theater, music, the arts. Ask them who is doing interesting work and how you can contact them. Make sure to talk to people in all of your area’s diverse cultural communities. Then start digging in, meeting people, doing local research and developing a data bank of local resources.

In addition to university departments, university extension programs give access to local universities’ resources, and can offer a wealth of information and connections to get you started.  The University of New Hampshire has compiled university extension websites into one easy-to-use web page.

The U.S. Regional Arts Organization website is a good place to start when looking for arts programs and agencies; it offers a directory of state arts agencies to get you started. Looking for something more specific?  Many city arts organizations can be found with a simple internet search similar to the one listed above.  Type the name of your city or one nearby and “arts” to locate an agency close to home. Still not sure where to start?  Try visiting Americans for the Arts. This organization can connect you with arts and business alliance chapters, local arts advocacy networks, and a wide variety of resources to jumpstart your project and point you in the right direction.

In Madison, with more than 120 artists creating pieces for the museum, we relied on personal and professional connections with the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Art Department, the Madison Arts Commission and the Dane County Cultural Affairs Commission; a local artist listserv; and word of mouth to find people to help with a variety of exhibit and design projects. We attended graduate open houses and thesis shows, and partnered with the woodworking class to produce the museum’s art benches. We kept our eyes and ears open, and we kept an open mind about what could be.

Architects, Contractors

Children’s museums don’t have to have iconic architecture designed by world-famous architects or exhibits created by large exhibit design companies to be competitive or successful. By working locally with both architects and contractors, you could gain a closer and perhaps more responsive relationship than you would get with someone who is not in proximity to your project development. You’ll save a lot of money and also build long-lasting relationships that won’t die after your project is complete. Talk with your local chapter of The American Institute of Architects (AIA) to get leads on local architects who might fit your vision or sensibility. For leads on local contractors, talk to other local museum professionals, as well as woodworking and metalworking shops, stone yards and deconstruction companies. One good rule of thumb is to take note when you have heard the same person’s name from at least three sources as someone who does well-crafted, creative, and honest work.

At MCM, one of the smartest choices we made was working with local architects, The Kubala Washatko Architects, located about 90 minutes away in Cedarburg, Wisconsin. Quite simply, the firm “got us” through and through, were responsive to our needs, and looked out for materials, resources, and expertise that we needed for our green exhibit development approach but were outside of its contract with the museum. Our architects found our reclaimed gym floor and bleachers, helped identify a scrap yard in Oshkosh with assorted cars and objects we acquired, and connected us with local vendors for concrete countertops.  They were 100 percent accommodating with all of our special requests and were able to get to the museum quickly when we needed them for changes.

Kubala Washatko Architects

For any local project you take on, you’ll need to find a group of teachers who are equally committed to place- and project-based learning, open to new ways of working, and who love the idea of collaborating with a children’s museum. Some communities have teacher networks for science educators, art teachers, or other specialty areas. Ask around for names of top-notch teachers, and have them make recommendations. Ask your school district to give you names of the top teachers in your district. You’ll want to connect with teachers who go above and beyond their responsibilities. You could also check with your school district’s area coordinators to do projects with a particular kind of teacher (art, science, math, etc.). Once you’ve found great teachers, provide them with an overview of your project, offer opportunities for feedback and ask them to brainstorm about their potential involvement.

Also, consider looking up resources on place-based education, so you and the teachers you have selected have a common vocabulary to move the project forward. For more resources on place-based education, use your web browser to look up David Sobel and Greg Smith, or check out the Center for Eco-Literacy.

You could also read and use MCM’s kid’s and teacher’s guides to local culture, which give both practical ways to incorporate culture into education settings and a broad overview of how to look at and start studying local culture.  A Teacher’s Guide to Local Culture (PDF) and A Kid’s Guide to Local Culture (PDF) might help both you and your partners better understand what local culture is, where to find it, and what it looks, feels, and smells like.

Children from local classrooms have been working collaboratively with MCM on local project development for nearly two decades on project- and place-based education. This has required finding amazing teachers who use an inquiry-based approach to teaching, and have a deep understanding of the benefits of collaboration with our museum. It has also required a deep openness on our part to honor and incorporate kids’ ideas, insight, and research into our process. While our Hmong at Heart project was not part of our new museum’s Only Local initiative, it was a precursor for our commitment to collaborative efforts with schools. Here is a link to the Hmong Cultural Tour, undertaken by MCM, a local classroom, the University of Wisconsin’s Center for the Study of Upper Midwestern Cultures and local folklorists, all of whom were collaborating partners in our project development. The website documents children’s explorations of Hmong community life in Wisconsin and their ideas about exhibit development.  The research that children conducted was the backbone of our exhibit Hmong at Heart, which traveled nationally as part of the Association of Children’s Museums’ Asian Exhibits Initiative.

Buy Local Networks

There are a number of online resources that can lead you to local businesses and buy local networks.  Buy local networks are made up of local business of all sizes that care about keeping their business local, and will help connect you with people who you need to meet. The Business Alliance for Local Living Environment (BALLE) offers a listing of buy local programs by state and by map.  The Chamber of Commerce website features a nationwide directory of branches in your area for more standard business practices. Becoming a member can point you to local businesses, and often directs you to discounts and special opportunities specific to your area and your needs. For a greener and more sustainable model (with high recommendation from MCM), visit your state or region’s sustainable business network, which can be as easy as typing your state or region and “sustainable business network” (you can substitute network with “council” or “coalition” in further inquiries to maximize your search).

At MCM we partnered with the University of Wisconsin-Madison Art Department woodworking program, and worked collaboratively with the woodworking students, who created benches throughout the museum.  It was a win-win for everyone.  We got amazing hand-made benches, and the students got first-hand, guided experience with a public art commission.

Local Businesses

Local businesses will want to help in any way that they can once they understand the benefits of your local project. It’s a wonderful tribute to the community to have an entire institution that has been lovingly built by the people who live there. Local businesses could help with monetary contributions but may be interested in helping in other ways, too. This could come in the form of expertise, donated objects or artifacts, use of equipment, or donated labor. The partnerships you develop during your local project will give you more flexibility for future projects as developing strong relationships broadens your scope of influence and opportunity.

Our project included businesses large and small, from the one-person artist studio to the 10-person construction shop. All the museum’s cabinets were crafted by a local Amish carpenter, all concrete countertops were made by a small concrete shop out of Milwaukee, and our Wildernest exhibit was made by nearly a dozen small woodworking, stone, natural building, metal or small artisan shops in the area.

Word of Mouth and Social Media

Perhaps one of the easiest ways to find local talent is through word-of-mouth and social media networks. Let everyone you know in on who and what you’re looking for. Is you need a group of people to participate in a painting project, or you need to find particular talent quickly, start with the people you know and are already connected to and ask them to spread the word.  Click here to find the ways in which social media can be used to meet your project’s goals.

Our project gained significant momentum through word of mouth contacts as we moved forward. We used social media to let people know about our process as we went along, showing prototypes, experiments or progress photos on our Facebook page and You Tube, which helped us gain more interest in the project from would-be participants, and connected us to several people who quickly became allies and collaborators.