Written by Patti Wood Finkle, Collections Manager, Pennsylvania State University, based on a presentation with Valerie Innella Maiers, Ph.D., Professor of Museum Studies, Casper College at the joint SPNHC & NatSCA conference in Edinburgh, Scotland, June 2022.
“Year of the Student” focuses on how college and university museum staff can attract students to their museums by employing a variety of programs and collaborations. Like many campuses natural history museums, the Werner Wildlife Museum had difficulty attracting college students who either had no idea it was there, or only remembered it as a dark and dusty place with a towering, menacing polar bear. After attending a few New Student Orientation events (there are several each semester) to chat with incoming freshmen, we realized that we needed to show them that the museum was inviting and relevant. After brainstorming, several ideas came to the forefront. One was to work with the museum studies program, which the museum had done successfully in the past, and another was to develop programs and partnerships that would bring new groups to the museum.
The museum studies class was an engaging group to work with. In collaboration with staff, the most recent group curated both an art show that featured works from the Casper College permanent collection and juried a community art show. The students researched artists, and artwork, designed and produced the exhibition pamphlet, took professional photographs for curation records, and installed both shows. They also planned and executed an opening reception in the museum space. The program attracted the attention of their fellow art students, faculty, and engaged the public who attended the opening.
Another program that engaged both current students and the public were creative writing workshops that were offered in the evenings in collaboration with the English faculty. These programs were created to engage a new audience and to utilize the museum in a less traditional (at least to us) manner. Several of the faculty members are published authors who enjoy delving into their preferred writing style and were encouraged to do so in these workshops. Using the specimens in the museum as inspiration during the cold winter nights, participants were able to tap into experiences and creativity that surprised even the most seasoned writers. From poetry to reductive writing, to traditional storytelling, each participant produced works that were gathered and published in house. This publication was the first time some of the students had shared their work with a wider audience.
Other outreach efforts centred around visiting the students where they gathered. We attended more orientation events and developed an on campus “passport” that brought students to the campus museums, the art gallery, the archive, the greenhouse, and other overlooked destinations. Staff started bringing touch specimens to the dorms one evening each month. By the third month, we had a few regulars who would stop by to see what new objects we had brought with us. Work-study students assisted at these events, giving them the opportunity to engage with their peers, which can be less intimidating for the students on both sides of the table.
These engagement strategies worked well and both campus museums saw an increase in student visitation. The takeaway lesson museum staff learned was that talking to the students one on one, through courses, or in small groups; demystifying the visitor experience through peer-to-peer engagement; and outreach to student dominated areas (dorms, welcome fairs) increased awareness and interest in the institutions. Student engagement is an ongoing process that should be adaptative, interesting, and educational while supporting the museums and the students they serve.