Museums & Sustainable Communities – Six Things Our Working Group Learned

Today’s Guest Post is by Catherine Dumouchel, retired museum educator, and Douglas Worts, a culture & sustainability specialist with WorldViews Consulting, in Toronto, Canada

As museum professionals today consider how to play a more meaningful role in our society’s cultural transformation it may be useful to review some of the past efforts undertaken within the field. At the very least, it is good to know that others who have headed down this path have been encouraged by what they have experienced, despite encountering many obstacles. In this short blog entry, you will be introduced to the Canadian Working Group on Museums and Sustainable Communities (WGMSC) – a group that operated between 2000 and 2007.

Our Back Story

In 2000, Environment Canada (now Environment and Climate Change Canada) was planning and preparing for the World Summit on Sustainable Development, set for 2002 in Johannesburg, South Africa. This event aimed to review global progress made, ten years after the watershed “Earth Summit” meeting, held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. The 1992 Earth Summit provided the first global commitment to addressing the challenges and opportunities laid out in Our Common Future (aka the Brundtland Report – the World Commission on Environment and Development), published in 1987. This important United Nations report signaled that environmental degradation, which had been occurring for decades, was intimately tied to all other aspects of ‘development’ in the world. So when Environment Canada engaged 130 organizations to develop a Framework for Environmental Learning and Sustainability, it called for all sectors to get involved and the Canadian Museum of Nature responded to this call by rallying interest across the museum community.

In order for Canadians to act competently to build a sustainable future for humans and ecosystems, the Framework sought to promote greater awareness, capacity, engagement and action on the part of all Canadians, at the personal, family, community or corporate levels.

How could museums help to create a coherent culture of sustainability (including environmental learning as well as social and economic equity), which touched Canadians of all ages, ethnicities, geographic settings and socioeconomic backgrounds?

Addressing this question became the focus of the Working Group on Museums and Sustainable Communities (WGMSC).

The Working Group benefited from representation from across the country, including:

What were we trying to do?

Using a blend of electronic and face-to-face meeting strategies, the Working Group hammered out a statement of purpose, as follows:

  • To provide opportunities for capacity-building in the museum community, regarding the role of museums in the development of sustainable communities;

  • To develop resources and tools for use by museums for planning, implementing and evaluating initiatives related to the development of sustainable communities;

  • To carry out or participate in formal research on topics related to museums and sustainable communities;

  • To develop and maintain networks within and outside the museum community that encourage museums to take action in contributing to the development of sustainable communities.

It was an ambitious vision for this small group of committed individuals!

How did we hope to accomplish it?

We moved quickly to develop strategies for building interest and capacity within the museum field. At the top of our list was using the annual Canadian Museums Association (CMA) conferences as a venue for dialogue and skill-development workshops. Here we could count on access to museum professionals from across the country – people who had an interest in expanding their view of the roles that museums could play in fostering a ‘culture of sustainability’.  In addition to planning workshops at CMA conferences, we learned that many of the provincial museum associations were also interested in this type of professional development offering. And it wasn’t just museums that expressed a desire for our workshops – there were science centres and botanic gardens too.

Central to our work was the development of key resources that could be introduced in workshops, but also form the basis of a toolkit that would help motivated museum professionals to develop new skills as they shared their enthusiasm with colleagues.

The Critical Assessment Framework

One of the central resources was the “Critical Assessment Framework” (CAF). This tool was designed to help museum professionals anticipate and plan public programs that could have impacts at a variety of levels (e.g. individual, community, organizational and global).

Download free here

It became clear to us that much of museum programming is designed around the idea of an ‘output’ – simply conveying something that the museum wanted to express. This was very different from planning programming that would have ‘outcomes’ within the larger public realm. Planning for outcomes (or community-based impacts), is a much more challenging task than planning for institutional outputs. In order for museum programs to have meaningful and positive public outcomes, we needed to consider the myriad ways of generating public engagement with museums.

By stretching ourselves to think beyond the traditional activities of museums, we could help optimize the impacts of museum activities as we build more substantial relationships with communities.

There were other important aspects of our capacity-building efforts, including:

  • writing up case studies to act as inspiration for interested museum professionals;
  • creating and sharing facilitation tools that our colleagues could use to help them engage with their colleagues;
  • developing the Greenburg Scenario and Role-Playing exercise to help imagine a museum that was stretching itself well beyond traditional museum activities, but with clear cultural outcomes in mind; and
  • publishing of materials related to the Working Group, which primarily took the form of journal articles by some members of the Group.[1]

Most of these materials are still available for free download online – click here.

What did we learn?

Over the course of the WGMSC’s seven years of activity, we learned 6 key things.

Theory to Practice

glenn-carstens-peters-203007 Theory

1. Although our workshops were well attended and much appreciated, turning the theory into practice proved difficult. There is a great deal of inertia in the status quo of museum operations – and therefore not a great appetite or comfort for the notion of experimentation with public programming and impact assessment.

Longer-Term Impact

martin-cehelsky-2452 Impact

2. We needed a mechanism to determine longer-term impact of our workshops or resources on individuals, institutions or communities.

Tools Abide


3. Some of the tools we developed, such as the CAF, have continued to be relevant well after the dissolution of the Working Group. The CAF has been updated numerous times over the years, primarily by Group members who have continued to publish on the use of this tool.

Museum as Lab

chuttersnap-146799 Lab

4. The work of the Group may have been more useful if we had managed to create a laboratory for devising and testing novel public program ideas designed for museums to play a leadership role in fostering the development of sustainable communities. We talked about this idea, but it required more resources, vision within our home organizations and novel partnerships to pull off something like this. This option of using museums as labs for experimental program development remains one of the best opportunities for museums to venture into this realm of creating sustainable communities. Part of this initiative requires a vehicle for results/insight sharing across museum networks.

Metrics of Success

mitchel-boot-70005 metrics

5. We became acutely aware of how current metrics of ‘success’ within museums (especially attendance, revenue, acquisitions, exhibits generated, and so on) actually keep museums focused on institutional, status quo approaches, rather than encouraging the development of cultural performance indicators that are oriented to the living culture within communities.

Who is a Museum Visitor?

seth-doyle-78491 Visitor

6. The traditional concept of the museum visitor needs to be shaken up for museums to develop deeper and more dynamic relationships with their communities, which are required to advance the emergence of a sustainable future.

So… what lies ahead?

It seems clear that the challenges of the world in 2017 are even more pressing than they were in 2000.

And yet collective action towards a fair, caring and sustainable society remains hindered by a culture of individualism and materialism. Being well established in the public realm, museums are in a privileged position to contribute to the development of sustainable communities.

Museums can create ‘spaces’ where individuals, families, organizations, community groups and others can come together for reflection, dialogue, cultural interactions, community visioning, collective action and more.

Museums also have the ability to seek opportunities for values-aligned partnerships that would expand efforts to foster a ‘culture of sustainability’ in all walks of life. Extending beyond leisure-time as their primary context for operating may well make many within the field feel uncomfortable, however the opportunities that open up in this process are immense.

Venturing into this territory will be made easier by embracing the idea of ‘action research’ as a way to test these new directions, without enormous investments of time and money. Scaling of initiatives can occur once ideas have been thoroughly tested. This type of work will necessarily open up museums to new professional skillsets as they weave new forms of research and innovation into the evolving culture of museums.

In a world that seems increasingly fraught, the potential for museums to adapt to the changing reality of our time continues to expand.

Featured Resources

[1] Dumouchel, Catherine and Thèrése Baribeau, “Au croisement des musèes et des communautès viables”(available free), L’ere des Musèes, (2003), pp 4-5.

Logan, Rosemary and Glenn Sutter, “Sustainability and Museum Education: What Future are we Educating for?”(pay to download), International Journal of the Inclusive Museum, Vol 4, #3, Common Ground Publishing, (2012).

Sutter, Glenn and Douglas Worts, “Negotiating a Sustainable Path: Museums and Societal Therapy” (pre-publication version), in Looking Reality in the Eye: Museums and Social Responsibility, R. Janes and G. C. Contay (editors), University of Calgary Press, 2005.

Worts, Douglas, “Measuring Museum Meanings: A Critical Assessment Framework” (Penultimate version – pre-publication), Journal of Museum Education, Vol 31, #1, (2006), pp 41-48.

______, “Culture and Museums in the Winds of Change: The Need for Cultural Indicators” (Free download), Journal of Culture and Local Governance, vol 3, #1-2, (2011) pp 117-132. (Reprinted in Gail Anderson’s book, Reinventing the Museum: The Evolving Conversation on the Paradigm Shift, AltaMira Press (2012).

Catherine PicCatherine Dumouchel writes “Starting in 1982, I worked across the country in the field of museum education, heritage interpretation, environmental education and protected areas policy. From the Manitoba Children’s Museum to the Canadian Museum of Nature, Stonewall Quarry Park to Parks Canada, I have learned side by side with colleagues, partners and the people who experienced these amazing places. Now that I’m retired, I continue to pursue these interests through volunteer work.”


Douglas Worts is a culture & sustainability specialist with WorldViews Consulting, in Toronto, Canada. Douglas approaches culture broadly, as ‘how we live our lives’, seeing museums as potential facilitators in forging an emerging ‘culture of sustainability’. His professional work combines a 35+-year career in museums with over two decades exploring how culture shapes and directs the prospects for global human sustainability. Within Douglas’ museum career, experimental exhibits and audience research, coupled with organizational design and change management, have been of central importance. Systems-thinking is fundamental within his work. Douglas has published, taught and lectured widely on his work.

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