Community for Curiosity, a future vision for museums


“Welcome to your Community Museum of Arts and Ideas!”

Cheers erupt.  For some in the giddy crowd, this marks a logical step, a long time coming.  For others, there is a secret desire for something to go wrong, some foible to vindicate their criticisms along the way. For most, though, there is simply sense of something novel and fun, a feeling more akin to attending a parade than the ribbon cutting of a somewhat controversial and highly ambitious new civic initiative.  Across these camps, few fully understand the path that has brought their local art museum to this moment, even though many of them consulted (knowingly or unknowingly) along the way.

“What we unveil today is more than a reimagined art museum.  We unveil a provocation to think radically differently, in a community of creative questioning, inspired by incredible art.  It is a hub for transdisciplinary, life-long learning and creating.  By joining us, you are joining a collaborative and evolving investigation into ways of understanding, and becoming part of a physical and virtual network of inspiring people, places, and of course objects.  This is your town square for sparking and following your curiosity, for surprising yourselves, for wondering, for playing, for seeing and showing ideas that your new friends – all these friends surrounding you now – have never seen.”

Thousands are in attendance.  Even more are streaming in virtually, from offices, classrooms, libraries, community centers, retirement homes, hospitals, and correctional facilities.  The Team had gone to great lengths to ensure that anyone who wished could be present for this moment.  This especially included groups who had helped them think more deeply about their value, their values, and what an authentic community collaboration around creativity and the arts could look like.

300-200There are, though, conspicuous absences.  Along the way, the museum had shed some of its longest-standing funders, trustees, staff, and even visitors.  Some had left amicably, others kicking and screaming.  “Change involves loss,” The Team would often say to one another, though this was easier said than internalized. Questioning the assumptions and foundations underpinning a centuries-old institution was necessary, The Team felt, in order to engage the richness of a rapidly changing world.  Yet relationships and empathy formed the backbone of the museum’s “why,” and fueled its journey to this moment. Each departure felt like a break-up – even the mutual ones.

Today, though, envisioning the next era of true collaboration with these new friends eclipses any sadness.  Many of those assembled are well known to one another; others likely would never have crossed paths.  Some are familiar faces to the museum team; others proclaim that they have never before visited a museum (these are secretly the Team’s favorites.)

“The Community Museum of Arts and Ideas began with what may seem like a simple notion. That is, that artists are models of creative and critical thinking – critical and creative thinking themselves going hand-in-hand.  A belief that through the creative process, artists embody the thinking dispositions that characterize the world we want to live in.  Artists are models of close noticing and observation, of questioning norms, of perspective taking and empathy, of imagination, persistence, embracing the unknown, experimenting, being curiosity and prompting wonder.  Artists see things as if they could be different, and generate and enact ideas based on that vision – not to provide a simple answer, but to raise more and deeper questions.  An art museum has long been a place where one can come and connect with a sense of wonder, to explore the interior self, to see through others’ eyes. It can also be a forum for unearthing the aspects of a life worth living, the processes of imagination and creativity in a dynamic and interconnected world, the work of thinking like an artist.  As we had more conversations with more of you, as we dug deeper into the roots and implications of what mattered to us as a community, and what it would look like to imagine and realize the museum our community deserves, this notion snowballed.”

It is no surprise that education formed the core of most of these discussions.  From the infant learning experience, through traditional schooling, to “continuing education” and vibrant aging, the concerns from all corners of the community were, at their heart, questions of learning.  To the Team, all those in attendance are learners.  From the visitor experience to their hiring practice, everything is centered on a mindset of curiosity and life-long learning.

300-200Many of these learners are young, attending in student groups as part of a course of study.  For decades, disappointment and anger about the traditional school system has been fomenting.  Economists have long warned that only ideas are impossible to outsource, that creativity is the best and likely only path to global competitiveness and individual career readiness.  There is nothing new in the messages from the geopolitical world either.  Physical and virtual borders are more porous every year, and an ambiguous and interconnected world demands empathy-driven understanding and communication, listening to others, questioning assumptions, and rejecting the pursuit of a single answer.  The need for these dispositions is just as strong on the domestic front.  Each generation is more blended than the one that preceded it, and more vocal about inclusion in public life.  Yet neighborhoods continue to be hyper-segregated by class, and people persist in self-selecting into social groups that reinforce their own beliefs and values.

“You questioned us and prodded us to imagine what our community’s museum could look like, and how we might get there.  You pushed us toward radically different collecting and exhibiting practices, helping us begin to undo in small but necessary ways, a complicated past that narrowed the richness of our world’s museums, and of peoples’ lived experiences.  You have helped us to move beyond the limited stories that traditional museums have told – that outmoded models of the art world and society shaped – to create a contemporary canon, an evolving canon of the world’s community.”

The challenges that gave rise to the new CMAI are not new.

They were once referred to as “21st century skills,” though then they resonated clearly with educational and developmental research of the early 20th century, as well as the underpinnings of global social movements of that period and beyond.  The need for communication, collaboration, critical thinking, creativity, global competence, and empathy only intensified as the world changed.  Schools have changed, somewhat. The learners for who the CMAI experience is only one part of their curricular experience spend the rest of their “school” time focused on acquiring test-taking skills and some lingering rote memorization to satisfy outdated gatekeepers.  The lucky ones also experience rotating apprenticeships and service and inquiry-based learning.  This is the exception, and in response to the emergence of such practices, fiscal-political interests have doubled down on preserving the status quo.  Parents and teachers who grew up in the most perverse era of testing, labeling, and undermining healthy and inclusive society are creating work-arounds for those they care about.  Entrenched interests may mean the tests aren’t going away, but guardians and teachers are using the museum to ensure that education is something more.

“We also know that a museum visit is so much more than remarkable works of art – it is about how we engage with them.  How they push us to think differently in our interior lives, and in the public sphere. This does not happen accidentally.  Every aspect of your visitor experience is the result of intensive collaboration and experimentation.  Moreover, it is designed to evolve in response to the way you engage, and the way the museum engages you.”

Everyone in the museum is a learner – one of the Team’s early mantras.  Many adult learners come as part of an independent or group cognitive regimen, designed to foster mental agility and spiritual health moving into later adulthood.  For others, the museum is a more intentional and intensive version of what it has long been – a place to go alone or with friends, to seek personal fulfillment and novel experience, to learn something.


For all these learners, the CMAI is a place where they will cultivate thinking dispositions and foster different ways of understanding, in a diverse learning group.  Galleries are designed by teams with content-area expertise and pedagogical skills.  The physical space and provocations engage and validate specific behaviors of creative and critical thinking.  Galleries showcase artists’ creations and processes, exploring and cultivating play, curiosity, imagination, perspective taking, transdisciplinary exploration, curiosity, and more.  Part curiosity cabinet, part multi-sensory experience, part artist sketchbook, the galleries would have raised eyebrows amongst museum-goers of the past.  Volunteer docents have been replaced with paid, highly transdisciplinary, highly curious teaching artists of all manner of media.  These professionals facilitate deeper engagement by closely following the actions and interests of the learners, and nudging in ways that help them go deeper and explore further.  This also allows for demonstrations of understanding that can lead to credential points, and inform further explorations in galleries.  A similar model of facilitated exploration drives the Studio – a space for experimenting and going deep with materials, technology, and ideas.  The Studio experience is more intentionally and explicitly designed for creative thinking than a typical makerspace of the past, and mentors seem more like critical friends than teachers.  The CMAI Team believes that one of the most important things an educator can do to cultivate creativity amongst students is to practice and model creativity herself; therefore, classroom teachers and group counselors engage in these spaces as learners as well.  Everyone in the space is a learner; the casual drop-in visitor engages in much the same way as the “student,” right down to the ability to accumulate points toward credentials.  Indeed, intergenerational collaboration is encouraged across initiatives, and separate credential points are granted for such bridging.

“The evolved and evolving learning that we will do together will not just happen in this building we stand before, and not only through the streaming channels many of you join us through today, but at the libraries and community centers just down the street from you.  In these satellites, you will find gallery spaces and learning labs that use the same approaches as the spaces you will see today.  Each CMAI-affiliated site, including this main CMAI branch, provides wraparound services for learning and life, including the Open School, a place where people can come and teach what they know.  Each component of this remarkable network is unique – displaying different artworks, in different ways, with different educators, and different programming.  Visit them all.  Use them all.  They all exist for all of you.”

It’s hard for The Team to identify when exactly they realized that for the impact they wanted, they would need not only the consultation of libraries and other community-based centers, but also a presence and relationships in their physical spaces.  Moreover, that for their vision of a more beautiful public life, there must be creative and compelling reasons for people to go into neighborhoods they might never see otherwise, to meet people they might never meet otherwise, and to experience perspectives they might never experience otherwise.  Attracting visitors had been the challenge of previous generations of museum professionals.  For The Team, which includes community-based organizations across the city, that challenge takes on new and welcomed complexities.

“We’ve waited years for this moment, worked hard for it, and it only truly arrives when I stop talking and we all activate the museum.  So, without further ado, I will close by thanking all of you.  We are here today because you believed with us that the arts can, perhaps uniquely of all human pursuits, connect us to those things that matter most…but that it doesn’t happen by accident.  We are here because you believed with us that museums can try something radical, and bring us closer together in a spirit of curiosity, collaboration, and community, and in so doing, bring us closer to the world we want to live in.  Together, let’s take the next step toward that world now.”


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