Understanding—and adapting to—the needs of rural science museums

Museum of Western Virginia

Photo courtesy of the Science Museum of Western Virginia.

Museums come in all shapes and sizes and have needs as unique as the communities that surround them. While larger institutions have the luxury of large staff sizes, steady funding, and immense infrastructure, smaller museums often collaborate with outside partners to support them and fill gaps in programming or staff knowledge. In an effort to support these smaller museums, which are often located in rural parts of the country where there is less exposure to climate change and evolution content, NCSE’s Breaking Down Barriers program launched the Museum Collaborative in 2019—an initiative to provide predominantly rural museums with free activity kits focused on evolution and climate change. The initiative marries NCSE’s content expertise with the work of institutions that are already a trusted part of the fabric of their local communities in places where evolution and climate change may be socially controversial. We connected with museums, zoos, and educational centers in Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, Arkansas, and California and have sent our partners five kits since the initiative’s inception.

While we have been excited to hear how NCSE’s kits engage young people in rural areas across the country, we also want to work with our collaborative partners to design curricula that meet their diverse needs. Therefore, we’ve embarked on a research project to discover how best to support rural museums and provide them with the resources they’re seeking. To do this, we’ll be exploring best practices of small museum-academic institution partnerships. The research project is a part of an entire suite of research projects by our Graduate Student Outreach Fellows (including research by Catherine Henry and Zachary Compton).

Each of us took on a focused project—I concentrated my efforts on researching partnerships pertaining to rural museums and the support that they provide to each organization involved. I began by researching rural museums, historic houses, and educational centers, and developed a database of those that met our criteria: small staff size, location in a rural area of the country, and need for an increase in science curriculum support. I conducted interviews with entities that indicated interest in being a part of our study. I transcribed the interviews, and created a series of SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats) charts to analyze the results. As someone with an art background, I gravitated towards using a visual aid to categorize the data. By using this type of chart instead of traditional tools to analyze quantitative data, the information from these interviews could be analyzed quickly and shared easily with colleagues. These conversations shed light on the day-to-day actions of each entity, but they also alluded to their varying needs, limitations, and greatest assets.

Through this process, I learned that museum-academic institutional partnerships are far more complex than meets the eye. From varying grant requirements and other funding issues to differences in staff knowledge and availability, there are many aspects at play in partnership compatibility.

While every museum, zoo, and historic house is different, I was able to decipher a few emerging themes from my work. These organizations are seen as trusted centers of their communities, and provide a unique educational experience. However, their effectiveness is constrained by small staff sizes, mostly volunteer-run departments, and a heavy dependency on government funding and grants. Working with other organizations would help fill gaps not only in resources but also interpretive content and programming, particularly in the areas of evolution and climate change. Such partnerships can also provide a community space for sharing knowledge and resources, such as material libraries or access to archives.

We plan to share our findings and publish our research at the end of summer 2020.

Child with mask

Photo courtesy of the Science Museum of Western Virginia.

We know that supporting museums is more important than ever—especially with the changing museum landscape due to COVID-19. According to a recent survey by the American Association of Museums, conducted by Dynamic Benchmarking, “one-third (33%) of museum directors surveyed confirmed there was a ‘significant risk’ of closing permanently by next fall, or they ‘didn’t know’ if they would survive.” Additionally, “Two-thirds (64%) of directors predicted cuts in education, programming, or other public services due to significant budget cuts.”

As informal science outreach and engagement shift during the pandemic, NCSE is committed to being responsive to the unique needs of rural museums and science centers as they adapt to the changing landscape. Leveraging data culled from our research, we will better help each partner support its community’s unique needs, develop flexible programming that doesn’t require prior training, and expand science access into areas that are in need of more support. We will also expand scientific curriculum into non-traditional interpretive content and continue to pursue small grants and connect with partners outside the walls of museums.

Ultimately, we hope our research helps us better connect to rural museums and their communities by providing the most locally relevant, hands-on, and engaging climate change and evolution content. To learn more about our research or the Museum Collaborative Program, please send an email to doctors@ncse.ngo. I’ll answer any questions and also add you to our biweekly Science Outreach Collaborative newsletter.

NCSE Program Coordinator Emma Doctors
Short Bio

Emma Doctors is Program Coordinator at NCSE.