A Commitment to art education and outreach: forming a Researcher-Practitioner Partnership to support diversity and inclusion at a university art museum


A Commitment to art education and outreach: forming a Researcher-Practitioner Partnership to support diversity and inclusion at a university art museum

Joanna K. Garner, PhD, Jutta-Annette Page, PhD, Alexandra Carver, and Amber Inwood

The Museum Review, Volume 4, Number 1 (2019)

Abstract This paper provides a multi-perspective conversation about the process of forming a researcher-practitioner partnership (RPP) between a new, free-admission art museum and an educational research center on the campus of a diverse, urban, minority-serving university. RPPs have been well studied in formal educational settings; their benefits include a platform for shared commitments and actions such as focusing on problems of practice and contributing new knowledge to the field. The conversation begins with the Director of the Art Museum and the Director of the Education Center at Old Dominion University, who describe the mission and values of each organization and consider what it means to form a partnership that is committed to diversity and inclusivity, but which also includes individuals with varying backgrounds, theoretical orientations, perspectives, and roles. It continues with a description of the first joint project, which was the design of an interactive Visitor Reflection Studio housed within one of the museum’s galleries. Education specialists for the museum and the educational research center then join the conversation and describe how ongoing conversations negotiated the goals of the space, and how the final product strives for inclusiveness by inviting all visitors to reflect on the collection and its connections to personal lived experiences as well as self-selected aspects of their own identities. The conversation concludes with voices coming together to reflect on lessons learned from early analyses of visitors’ responses.

Keywords Researcher-Practitioner Partnership; Visitor Engagement; Art Education; Outreach; Diversity.

About the Authors Joanna Garner is the Executive Director of The Center for Educational Partnerships at Old Dominion University. She holds a Ph.D. in Educational Psychology from The Pennsylvania State University, and master’s and bachelor’s degrees in Psychology from the University of Surrey, United Kingdom. 

Jutta-Annette Page is the Executive Director of the Barry Art Museum, at Old Dominion University. She holds a Ph.D. and MA in the history of art and architecture from Brown University, an MAE in jewelry, metalsmithing, and industrial design from the Rhode Island School of Design, and an MA and BA in art education from Georg-August-Universität Göttingen in Germany. 

Alexandra Carver is the Education Specialist for The Center for Educational Partnerships. She holds a bachelor’s degree in Sociology with a minor in Women’s and Gender Studies from James Madison University. 

Amber Inwood is the Museum Education Specialist for the Barry Art Museum. She holds an MS in Education, Free Choice Learning from Oregon State University, an MS in Geology from the University of Auckland in New Zealand and a BS in Hydrogeology and Geophysics from Flinders University in Australia.

Researcher-Practitioner Partnerships (RPPs) challenge researchers and practitioners to work together in service of new knowledge and innovative solutions. Although more typical between institutions of higher education and formal education providers, our partnership consists of an educational research center and a new art museum co-located on the urban campus of Old Dominion University — a mid-sized, public research university located in southeastern Virginia. The RPP between The Center for Educational Partnerships (TCEP) and the Barry Art Museum provides a context for developing a long term, mutually beneficial agenda that promotes organizational diversity and invites intellectual and social inclusiveness. The main mechanism by which the RPP proceeds is through an approximation of Design-Based Research (Reisman 2008) involving cycles of consensus building, data collection, and data interpretation.  

In this article, we describe the impetus for forming the RPP via a deliberately conversational style that gives voice to its members. After introducing the partner organizations, we present our first collaborative project, an interactive space within one of the museum galleries called the Visitor Reflection Studio. We share our journey to consensus about how to configure the space and how it embodies the shared commitments and inclusive values of the partners (American Alliance of Museums n.d.). We present examples of visitors’ responses and conclude with our own reflection on the ways the Studio has impacted the emerging RPP.  

Researcher-Practitioner Partnerships

Traditionally, partnerships between researchers and practitioners tend to be characterized by short-lived projects that can be uneven in terms of which party initiates, engages, and benefits from it (Alpert 2010). A classic example is when museum or visitor studies originate from a researcher’s ongoing agenda that is otherwise separated from the context and needs of the practice-oriented partner. Alternatively, problems of practice may be identified by museum staff, but investigations into known issues may be hampered by a lack of institutional resources or familiarity with pertinent research methodologies (Silverman and Bradley 2013). One additional drawback, we propose, is that when the collaboration is uneven, it can also constrain the diversity of thought and may even lead to the exclusion of certain visitor groups, museum needs, or ideas. To redress the balance we evoke a new form of interaction—the Researcher-Practitioner Partnership. RPPs include deliberate “long term, mutualistic collaborations between practitioners and researchers that are intentionally organized to investigate problems of practice and solutions” in order to yield improved outcomes (Coburn, Penuel and Geil 2013, 2). Key components include:

●     Mutualism, whereby researchers and practitioners negotiate and jointly define the agenda of activities;

●     A commitment to long-term collaboration, whereby the partnership accumulates a substantive body of work;

●     Trusting relationships, so that initial communications and connections build into institutional ties.

Researchers and practitioners collaboratively design and test new innovations and strategies in order to generate solutions for various problems of practice.

Various forms of RPPs exist, from Research Alliances that focus on building a substantial body of evidence surrounding a particular question or policy issue, to Networked Improvement Communities, which seek to connect individual researchers and practitioners across multiple institutions. We characterize the emerging RPP between TCEP and The Barry Art Museum as a Design-Based Research partnership (DBR; The Design-Based Research Collective 2003). This is a specific type of RPP in which researchers and practitioners collaboratively design and test new innovations and strategies in order to generate solutions for various problems of practice. Design-based work seeks to create or refine educational environments but also study and learn from the impact of the implementation on various students or, in our case, visitors. In a design-based approach, theories are deliberately implemented, augmented, and refined on the basis of the impact of considering data and practice (Reisman 2008). In our case, each individual member of the RPP brings particular theoretical and experiential perspectives to bear on the initial problem of practice, which was the creation of a welcoming, inclusive space in which visitors could consider and respond to the art found within the galleries of the museum.

Context and partners

Old Dominion University (ODU) is a mid-sized, public research university in southeastern Virginia. It consists of three urban and suburban campus locations totaling 335 acres of land, with its Norfolk location being the largest. ODU offers 91 majors of study and enrolls a diverse body of 19,540 undergraduate and 4,623 graduate students. The student body is diverse: 30% of the students are African American, 25% of students are military affiliated with either active duty, ROTC, or veteran status, and 19% are first-generation college attendees (Old Dominion University n.d.). Surrounding ODU’s main campus is the historic city of Norfolk, which has 242,000 residents of whom 47% are White, 43% are African American, and 3% are Asian. Although part of a substantial regional economy that includes various federal defense, manufacturing, and tourism sectors, one third (34.4%) of the city’s children live at or below the federal poverty level (City of Norfolk n.d.).

The Barry Art Museum

Located on the Norfolk campus of Old Dominion University, the opening of the Barry Art Museum in November 2018 marked a unique opportunity for the University to increase its ongoing commitment in the support of informal and formal education in the Norfolk and Hampton Roads region. The mission of the Barry Art Museum is to serve Old Dominion University by advancing the understanding of art history in its many forms through collecting, display, interpretation, and research. It strives to communicate the results of these endeavors to the widest possible audience through publication, exhibition, educational programs, and collections stewardship. The museum is free of charge to all visitors, underscoring its mission of social inclusiveness and its desire to invite engagement with diverse communities (Coleman 2006).

As a collecting institution, the museum supports faculty, students and the surrounding diverse urban community in arts and humanities education. The University’s intent is for the Barry Art Museum to grow into an integral role in the college’s educational, research, and community outreach missions across multiple disciplines. Aside from those under the umbrella of the College of Arts and Letters, a traditional tie-in, these will include the social, earth- and natural sciences, business and entrepreneurial studies, and the engineering and health professions.

Figure 1. Exterior of the Barry Art Museum.
Figure 1. Exterior of the Barry Art Museum.

The Barry Art Museum’s permanent collection features contemporary sculpture in glass, modernist paintings by nationally and internationally recognized artists, and is home to a “boutique collection” of European historic dolls and automata. The glass sculpture collection, in particular, enables the University to contribute substantially to the region’s growing reputation as a glass-art center. The art museum caps the University’s efforts to create an arts village on the eastern side of its campus, thus enhancing Norfolk’s efforts to make this diverse, coastal city a cultural destination.

The Center for Educational Partnerships

The Center for Educational Partnerships (TCEP) at Old Dominion University serves the university and the regional community by developing, coordinating, implementing and evaluating high-quality educational programs. In service of its mission, TCEP faculty and staff conduct basic and applied educational research, and collaborate with a variety of formal and informal education providers through the creation of sustainable partnerships. TCEP works across the university’s various colleges to create projects that have a direct benefit for teachers and students. This often takes the form of the development and provision of professional learning experiences or innovative educational programs.

Apply principles of educational psychology and visitor studies to the design of visitor-centered experiences in informal or free choice learning settings. 

Prior to the opening of the Barry Art Museum on the university’s campus in late 2018, TCEP faculty and staff were engaged in an initiative to apply principles of educational psychology and visitor studies to the design of visitor-centered experiences in informal or free choice learning settings (Garner, Kaplan, and Pugh 2016; Carver, Garner, Kaplan, and Pugh 2018). This avenue of research led to conversations between TCEP’s Executive Director and the Executive Director of the Barry Art Museum about ways in which theory and practice could be brought together such that one could inform the other. The formation of the RPP allows TCEP to remain engaged in and learn from community practices while providing opportunities to share expertise in the design and execution of research on visitor engagement (Tseng, Easton, and Supplee 2017).

An emerging focal point

Jutta Page, Barry Art Museum:

The tasks of creating the new museum included assessing the nature and range of the donors’ art collection, identifying and filling noticeable gaps, and creating flexible gallery installations that allowed visitors to view and enjoy the individual works in a calming environment. The resulting interior displays were based on the premises of the “slow art movement:” people looking slowly at a piece of art make their own discoveries, without the need of an expert (or expertise); that this individual discovery unlocks passion and creativity and helps to create more art lovers.

Figure 2. Foyer of the Barry Art Museum.
Figure 2. Foyer of the Barry Art Museum.

The museum management recognized the reality that many of those walking through its doors had never set foot in an art museum. An encounter with art, not only aimed at art world outsiders, was emphasized by placing a large art installation immediately next to its entrance, and sight lines towards sculptural works beckoned further approach. Visual distractions traditionally found near museum entrances, such as a reception desk cluttered with brochures, a gift shop, and restaurant were omitted. Instead, a large working fountain sculpture and comfortable seating invites visitors to linger and relax. In the galleries, works of art are not arranged chronologically but in strong visual relationships. Contemporary works in glass are placed next to paintings decades older, encouraging visitors to compare, contrast, engage and, if desired, read label copy to drill deeper for factual knowledge. The focus throughout the museum is on the art and the art of seeing.

Eight months prior to opening, the museum formed an academic partnership with TCEP with the goal of generating an in-depth understanding regarding the nature of its visitors’ learning and engagement through front end, formative, and summative exhibit and programming development and implementation. Guided by the founding principles of collection accessibility, visitor voice, and visitors’ sense of belonging, the Barry Art Museum hopes the partnership will result in the ability to become an evolving life long, life wide and life deep learning laboratory that serves the academic and civic sectors of the wider Tidewater community.  

Joanna Garner, The Center for Educational Partnerships:

As the museum’s physical building was under construction, we began to hold regular meetings to design our first joint product. A collaborative space was tentatively identified within one of the museum’s four galleries, and an agreement was reached on the concept of explicit attention on the visitor and their perceived roles and experiences in relation to art. The vision was that the space, ultimately named the Visitor Reflection Studio, would invite all visitors to reflect on the collection and its connections to personal lived experiences and self-selected aspects of their individual identities. The space would embody contemporary theoretical perspectives on visitor engagement, and in particular one called Visitor Identification and Engagement with STEM (VINES) that my colleagues and I had developed and tested (Garner, Kaplan, and Pugh 2016; Carver, Garner, Kaplan, and Pugh 2018). Although initially developed for the context of science museums, the VINES model can be generalized to other contexts. It posits the existence of a fluid continuum between object and self-focused engagement as a means of promoting the transfer of ideas to and from the museum to everyday life, as well as providing a platform for (re)considering one’s social and personal roles in relation to exhibit content. Our discussions were grounded in the idea of the continuum being manifest according to visitors’ self-directed choices in the space, such that visitors could decide for themselves whether to consider and respond to an object or art piece, to an idea originating from a piece, or to the idea of becoming an artist themselves.

The missions of both TCEP and the art museum support diversity, inclusion, and equitable access to high quality educational experiences.

Since the missions of both TCEP and the art museum support diversity, inclusion, and equitable access to high quality educational experiences, it was natural for us to incorporate diversity and inclusion as a central component of the first jointly determined problem of practice or jointly identified focus within the design of the Studio space (National Network of Education Research-Practitioner Partnerships n.d.). We came to a consensus around our shared value of inclusiveness—the space needed to appeal to a diverse audience including first-time museum visitors, children, college students, and art enthusiasts. We wanted to prompt engagement with ideas in a welcoming and non-evaluative environment that would appeal regardless of the visitor’s familiarity with art, artists, or even museums in general. Moreover, since faculty at TCEP emphasize theoretically-informed programming in applied settings, one of our goals became to challenge models of visitor engagement to ensure their relevance in practice. In other words, a focus on diversity and inclusion offered one important parameter for consideration, but theoretical guidance could provide a foundation for design, decision making, data collection, and sense-making.

A framework for inviting visitor engagement

Amber Inwood, Barry Art Museum:

From a museum studies perspective, visitors are not passive recipients of a museum’s content and messaging; they are simultaneously individuals and members of social groups actively pursuing their own personal agendas, trying to meet their own needs, and ultimately constructing meanings about themselves (Rounds 1999; Falk and Dierking 2018). When visitors make their own personal meanings or narratives from the communications they receive, they are constructing an experience that is likely to be both meaningful and memorable. Such rewards in museum settings commonly include self-affirmation, pleasure, and in the case of art museums, a unique opportunity to be within a restorative environment that provides respite from the stresses of life, renews cognitive capacity, and contributes to wellbeing and satisfaction (Csikszentmihalyi and Hermanson 1995; Falk and Dierking 2002; Packer and Bond 2010; Falk and Dierking 2018). In fact, introspective experiences are often the best predictor of restorative outcomes for visitors in a museum setting. Restorative experiences can be enhanced even further when visitors are given the opportunity to think about what they are seeing, to make personal connections with exhibits, and to exercise their imaginations (Packer and Bond 2010).

Alexandra Carver, The Center for Educational Partnerships:

From an educational perspective, interactive exhibits in museums can support meaningful learning by providing opportunities for visitors to communicate, engage in hands-on activities, and apply content to everyday life (Falk, Scott, Dierking, Rennie, and Jones 2004; Andre, Volman, and Durksen 2017). Fostering connections between the content and the visitor, however, often requires intervention strategies that go beyond presenting information in stimulating ways. For example, targeting content and presenting it as a broader idea or metaphor highlights specific concepts to which visitors can connect. Similarly, utilizing artifacts and content to focus on the social role(s) of the visitor can prompt them to reflect on their current and possible self. A visitor may inhabit a variety of social roles including parent, docent, student, or museum member which may impact their reasons for attending (Garner, Kaplan, and Pugh 2016). Through this process of thinking about content in relation to the self, visitors may shift the focus of their visit away from being solely educational or experience driven, towards a more introspective experience with the potential for personal change. Using these strategies to re-frame the visitor’s purpose for attending can be the first step to promote the expansion of perception and perceived self-relevance. We integrated these strategies into our exhibit designs in order to create a setting where visitors could examine their experiences and share their stories.

We relied on engagement frameworks that position the visitor as the subject of exploration.

To inform our design process, we relied on engagement frameworks that position the visitor as the subject of exploration. The Visitor Identification and Engagement with STEM model (VINES; Garner, Kaplan, and Pugh 2016) shaped our understanding of the various processes for creating meaning that can occur during a visit. We can use this model to think about  visitor engagement as existing on a continuum in which visitor exploration of an art object is on the far left, exploration of the self is on the far right, and the merging of the two for the benefit of ‘re-seeing’ or reconceiving the world lies in the middle. In an art museum, signage often provides descriptions of works of art and highlights important content that can be utilized to promote object-focused engagement.  Sometimes visitors will apply this content in more meaningful ways, but often this content does not create space for self-reflection or a deeper connection to the work in the context of the viewer’s life experiences. The Teaching for Transformative Experiences in Science model was integrated into the VINES model and defines transformative experiences as learning episodes in which content is applied to better understand or see the world differently (Pugh 2011). Visitors creating connections between works of art can result in an expansion of perception, a central characteristic of transformative experiences, in which someone re-sees their environment. This process shifts visitors’ attention towards the center of the VINES engagement continuum.

To move along the continuum to where visitors might process information in relation to themselves, we drew from literature that views identity as a concept fashioned by the owner’s perceptions and personal experiences, with the capacity to change over time. Identity exploration occurs when someone reflects on their identity in relation to presented content or information and can involve focusing on one’s values, perceptions, attitudes, social roles, and goals (Falk 2009; Bond and Falk 2013; Kaplan, Sinai, and Flum 2014; Falk and Dierking 2018). Someone may question aspects of their identity that developed over time or seek out new information about themselves to expand their understanding of self. Perceived self-relevance is the first step towards identity exploration in which reflection occurs and content is seen as personally relevant (Kaplan, Sinai, and Flum 2014). Exhibit topics, stories, and activities that are relatable to visitors may prompt engagement that not only allows visitors to learn about a topic, but creates opportunities for them to learn about themselves as well. We attempted to integrate these frameworks into our gallery designs to determine if prompting strategies typically studied in formal education environments can produce similar positive outcomes in our informal, free-choice learning space.

Designing the visitor reflection studio

Alexandra Carver, The Center for Educational Partnerships:

The development of the collaborative gallery space emerged through iterative cycles of negotiation between the partners. As each new gallery design was developed, we were able to better identify what each partner wanted visitors to experience and merge these ideas to formulate a collective vision. For example, our initial gallery concept included an interactive space for children and young adults that would allow them to view, create, and display works of art. In the space, visitors would take on the role of a viewer, artist, and curator as they participated in a variety of hands-on activities positioned throughout the gallery. We planned to incorporate creative materials, artwork for inspiration, and signage to transition visitors into each of these roles. Upon discussion among the partners, however, it became apparent that the open, busy nature of the space had the potential to clash with the soothing atmosphere the museum hoped to maintain.

After having the opportunity to view the newly constructed space in person, we decided to utilize dividing walls to isolate an area at the center of the gallery. This new plan would display framed mirrors alongside artwork and would offer drawing materials to encourage visitors of all ages to create. Portraits of people and ships were chosen to be displayed throughout the gallery to highlight people’s lived experiences and innovation throughout history. Relating to the new gallery theme, our isolated space came to focus on visitors as subjects of art, and we decided to utilize prompts to encourage visitors to connect to the works of art through big ideas or metaphors. For example, visitors might be encouraged to relate to a maritime portrait by asking, “Although we have explored and traveled the ocean for many years, there is still much about it that we don’t know. How can the concept of uncertainty be applied to your own life?”

Figure 3. Plan for the inset style of the Visitor Reflection Studio.
Figure 3. Plan for the inset style of the Visitor Reflection Studio.

Developing a theme for this gallery was a vital step in our development process, as it allowed us to derive shared concepts from the works of art that could be translated into displayed prompts to which visitors could respond. Having a theme also allowed the viewer to become immersed in the content by creating a sense of rhythm and continuity among the various pieces. After further discussion, we settled on the idea of utilizing mirrors to focus on literal and metaphorical representations of self-reflection to foster re-seeing of the collection, the world, and the self. We also agreed that the utilization of questioning through signage, the integration of artwork into the space, and the capacity for visitors to write and share their experiences were all components that would add to the visitor experience.

Amber Inwood, Barry Art Museum:

At completion, the museum boasts four main galleries with each gallery defining different avenues by which the donors focused their passion for both collecting and supporting the arts community. These include Gallery One, entitled A Passion for Color and Form; Gallery Two, entitled A Passion for Nature, Science and History; Gallery Three, entitled A Passion for Education; and Gallery Four, entitled A Passion for Dolls as Art. Located in Gallery Three is the Visitor Reflection Studio, which in its final form presents the opportunity for visitors to stop and reflect on their journey through the museum, regardless of the order in which the visitor experiences the galleries.  

Figure 4. Visitors examine the prompt art forms and questions within the Visitor Reflection Studio.
Figure 4. Visitors examine the prompt art forms and questions within the Visitor Reflection Studio.

The final version of the Studio features an installation where a local artist has created mirror-themed pieces inspired by the Museum collection (Figure 4). The development of these original works of art transformed the atmosphere of our space. It encourages visitors to feel comfortable walking up to the works of art, touching them, or taking ‘selfies’ with them. Each piece features interpretive paneling pointing visitors to the collection piece that inspired the work as well as question prompts to help engage them in further contemplation on what they have observed (Figure 5). From there, visitors are encouraged to engage in a hands-on opportunity by which they can create and hang their own artwork using clipboards and paper provided (Figure 6).

Figure 5. An example prompt art form and question in the Visitor Reflection Studio.
Figure 5. An example prompt art form and question in the Visitor Reflection Studio.
Figure 6. A welcome statement and call to action above palette-shaped clip boards.
Figure 6. A welcome statement and call to action above palette-shaped clip boards.

Instructional signage emphasizes inclusivity stating that art comes in many forms as represented in the Barry Art Museum collection and that we are all artists in our own way with art often being an expression of our lives and the world around us. Whereas developing questions that frame the artwork into big ideas and metaphors may prompt for transformative experiences, we prompted for identity exploration by treating visitors as artists and encouraging them to create their own, personalized responses.

Visitors’ responses and reflections

Amber Inwood, Barry Art Museum:

At the time of writing, data from the first quarter after opening showed that the museum saw a visitorship of 3,593 individuals, of which nearly half (45%) were from the general public and one fourth (24%) were university students or faculty members. A little under one third (31%) of visitors attended the museum for a specialized event, tour, or program. Only 3% of the visitors were children. The Visitor Reflection Studio opened at the same time as the museum and in the first quarter after opening generated over 800 display board responses. Each week, an average of twenty to thirty percent of the museum’s visitors placed a response on the board. This rate is particularly high given visitors only have access to 10 clipboards and pencils at any one time, and suggests that the reflection activity is perceived as being accessible and inclusive by many of the Museum’s visitors.

Common visitor responses have included: written forms such as poetry, general feedback, and reflections; drawing forms including portraits of self or others in their visiting group, drawings of specific collection pieces, with boats and cats being the most popular, doodling and drawings of other objects, places, or moments in their lives outside of the museum; and 3D forms by way of folding the paper into shapes (Figures 7 and 8). Many responses have included visitors leaving their social media usernames or tags, or otherwise responding to other visitors’ ideas already present on the board. Responses have hinted at the restorative function of the Studio and the museum as a location. For example, one written response in Figure 8 reads, “For me it was a breath of fresh air. An escape from the city around. Somewhere to clear your mind…be free.”

Figure 7. Boards where visitors may leave their reflections.
Figure 7. Boards where visitors may leave their reflections.
Figure 8. Example visitor reflections left during the first month after opening.
Figure 8. Example visitor reflections left during the first month after opening.

Though only in the preliminary data collection stage, informal visitor interview results have indicated that the majority of visitors wish to be engaged in some form of introspective experience at Barry Art Museum. Visitors seem particularly drawn to the opportunity to “be an artist” while in a space also displaying the world of “art masters.” Many visitors have also expressed appreciation for a simple, kinesthetic avenue for expression that anyone can do anonymously such as drawing with pencil and paper, which allows for quiet self-reflection without the pressure of creating a ‘masterpiece.’ In addition, responses indicate a multitude of influences on visitors’ experiences beyond the collection pieces and mirror installation. For example, visitors have depicted aspects of their social roles and identities, such as through a portrait of themselves in the role of a mother or father at the museum, or external influences of relevance such as a university sporting event or romance-themed holiday.  

Maintaining a shared commitment to art education and outreach

Joanna Garner, The Center for Educational Partnerships:

The mission of universities and museums often includes the shared value of increasing the public’s access to learning opportunities. A partnership between universities and museums could be viewed as an opportunity to combine complementary strengths (Payne, deProphetis, Ellis, Derenne, Zenner, and Crone 2005). University faculty bring research skills, program evaluation resources, experience with funding agencies, and access to content area experts. Museum staff bring strong content knowledge, familiarity with museum governance and best practices, access to and experience with a variety of audiences, and strategies for generating and evoking excitement about their collections. For collaborations and partnerships to be effective, however, it is important that each organization is willing to take on the role of the learner as well as that of the expert (Silverman and Bartley 2013). In our case, we continue to learn from one another as we consider ways in which the Studio can be improved to foster meaningful experiences for visitors.

One concrete next step is to develop and implement visitor questionnaires and longer-term evaluations that will delve deeper into visitors’ experiences. These will provide data to guide us towards ways we can engage visitors during other interactions including tours and school field trips. It will also provide a picture of the degree to which we have been successful in welcoming diverse visitors to the museum and the Visitor Reflection Studio. We continue to meet on a regular basis and strive to fulfill best practices in terms of designing for visitor engagement (King, Ma, Armendariz, and Yu 2018) through principles of design-based research.

In their article, Research-Practice Partnerships: Building Two-Way Streets for Engagement, Tseng, Easton, and Supplee (2017) identify several critical steps to building a successful RPP. These include the development of shared commitments, attempts to structure the partnership through the creation and clarification of roles, the production and use of research, strategic attempts to build capacity and secure funding, and the formation of a unique partnership identity. Tseng et al note that these features are rarely all present in explicit form at the outset of the partnership, and instead tend to evolve over time. We would echo this idea, but also add that the various elements also emerge at different rates and can operate in a somewhat independent fashion. In our case, for example, the shared commitment to the Studio emerged quickly, but efforts towards original research remains at an early phase, and plans to secure additional funding remain contingent on the production of pilot data.  


The museum visitors and their responses have become another important voice within our partnership. 

In this article, we introduced an emerging researcher-practitioner partnership between an on-campus museum and an educational research center. We described the development and initial responses to the partnership’s first joint project, the Visitor Reflection Studio. In retrospect, it is of note that the creation of a forum for visitors to freely create their own responses and draw from their own diverse perspectives led to a dialogue emerging between them. This was paralleled by the formation of the RPP that also encouraged dialogue and diverse perspectives around topics such as visitors’ meaningful engagement, the context and nature of the museum, and iterative cycles of design. The museum visitors and their responses have become another important voice within our partnership. Through ongoing analysis of visitors’ responses, as well as interviews and surveys, we will solicit and respect their voices. We will also continue to seek out opportunities to understand any potential barriers to museum attendance that may be experienced by various members of our community.

As with any partnership, consensus emerged through iterative discussion among all partners. With each new design we learned something new about what each partner wanted the space, and the partnership, to accomplish. Importantly, the process of working together to select the prompts and ideas to highlight in the Studio afforded opportunities for dialogue around issues of socio-cultural diversity and inclusion within the collection itself, and how the museum collection can be situated within the geographic and social context of our urban campus setting.


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