Museums & Social Issues: A Research Synthesis of an Emerging Trend

February 10th, 2014 | RESEARCH

Museums are increasingly engaging with their communities in understanding and addressing the complex questions of our society. How is this effort manifested in museum practice, and what is the impact of this work? Our study attempted to explore the boundaries of these questions by reviewing and synthesizing reports on The work was part of the NSF-funded Building Informal Science Education project (BISE). We selected a small set of reports of projects that aligned with our definition of social issues as conditions that are harmful to society, complex and characterized by a lack of agreement. The review and synthesis of the selected studies suggests that museums are addressing a very limited number and scope of social problems; museums are ignoring social problems that are grounded in mathematical or economic knowledge. When museums do address social problems, it appears that the efforts are generally successful. Two promising trends and strategic opportunities revolve around the use of dialogue in museum programming and the design for collective impact across institutions and organizations. Synthesizing and aggregating what is known about this emerging area of practice is limited by a lack of shared vernacular or platforms where the conversations take place. Articulating and operationalizing a definition of social issues was the most difficult and perhaps the most useful part of the challenge.



Team Members

University of Washington Museology Program, Contributor
kris morrissey, Author, University of Washington Museology Program
Kaylan Petrie, Author, University of Washington Museology Program
Katharine Canning, Author, University of Washington Museology Program
Travis Windleharth, Author, University of Washington Museology Program
Patricia Montano, Author, University of Washington Museology Program


Funding Source: NSF

Related URLs

Building Informal Science Education: Supporting Evaluation of Exhibitions and Programs with an Research Network


Audience: Evaluators | Museum | ISE Professionals
Discipline: General STEM | Geoscience and geography | Health and medicine | Life science
Resource Type: Reference Materials | Report
Environment Type: Aquarium and Zoo Exhibits | Exhibitions | Museum and Science Center Exhibits | Parks | Outdoor | Garden Exhibits