Over the past several years, the Museum has expanded its commitment to community engagement and involvement. Recent programs, partnerships, and community advisory processes have pushed the Museum to be more than just a collection of objects and artwork, but also to be a place where conversations about the world around us take place.
Learn more about the role and evolution of education and public programs at the Museum from Director of Learning and Community Partnerships, Mike Murawski.
Why has the Department of Education and Public Programs been renamed the Department of Learning and Community Partnerships?
The Museum’s current Department of Education and Public Programs, along with my position, Director of Education and Public Programs, was actually created a little over ten years ago. My predecessor Christina Olsen entered this position at that time with the mandate of remaking the education department, and making education programs a driving force within the institution. New initiatives such as Object Stories and Shine a Light helped make the museum more open to the needs of a wider audience and began to form new relationships within Portland’s artist communities.
After arriving more than six years ago, my goal has been to bring the successes of these experimental initiatives into the “DNA” of the museum. We have learned a great deal about the value of building deeper relationships with artists and community partners as well as opening up the spaces of the museum to a diverse range of voices and perspectives. In recent years, we have expanded our work with teachers and schools, built a growing network of community partnerships, and made a commitment to advancing equity and inclusion through all of our work. It felt like a really good time to reflect on where we have been, where we are headed, and whether a change in the department name could more accurately reflect our core goals and values.
What drove the name change and shift in focus for the department?
Most immediately, I think the planning process for the proposed Rothko Pavilion expansion has been a catalyst for my own thinking around where we want to be headed as a museum. What can this large-scale physical transformation of our Museum mean for our institution’s role within our neighborhood, our city, and our broader community? We also received a major grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) to support an institution-wide effort around community engagement, which led to deeper thinking about how we might support this work more effectively. We have made some changes to staff and programs within the Education department to align with the Museum’s commitment to equity, accessibility, and community involvement—so it seemed like an appropriate moment to think about our department name and be more intentional about the words we use to guide our future direction.
For me, the word Learning embraces a more open, inclusive, and active process that everyone and anyone can be involved in. It reflects the way we are collaborating closely with teachers, artists, and community members to shape what learning looks like with our collections and exhibitions. The word Community helps us think more deeply about the role the Museum plays in bringing people together, creating a sense of belonging, and building connections with new audiences here in the Portland area. Finally, the word Partnerships draws attention to the important work of building and sustaining relationships in everything we do.
What does the change mean for visitors, teachers, students, and other Museum stakeholders?
For many visitors, teachers, and students, I think they have already seen some of these changes reflected in recent exhibitions and programs here at the Museum. For example, during the photography exhibition Common Ground: Photographs by Fazal Sheikh, 1989 – 2013, visitors experienced an entire gallery created with local non-profit Portland Meet Portland to recognize the experiences of immigrants and refugees living in Portland. Last summer, members of Portland’s indigenous communities gathered at the Museum for a memorable dance ceremony celebrating Chilkat and Ravenstail weaving. This past fall, we saw thousands of people attend our first-ever Día de Muertos celebration, planned in collaboration with local artists and community leaders. And we are getting ready to host our fourth annual HeART of Portland student arts showcase, working closely with Portland Public Schools and the Regional Arts and Culture Council on this celebration of this City’s Arts Tax and the incredible creativity of young artists across this region.
We are excited to see more of these types of programs and partnerships in the future as we open up more ways for our community to get involved here at the Museum. Visitors and teachers will also see further changes that reflect our commitment to equity and accessibility. The formation of a new Accessibility Advisory Committee combined with a new full-time staff position to support accessibility should bring noticeable changes in exhibition design, program offerings, and visitor amenities. The new focus also brings fresh thinking to visitors’ learning experience and the work of the passionate volunteer docents supporting that learning. Overall, I think visitors will see a museum that is listening and creating new experiences with our communities not just for them.
Can you talk about how this shift reflects an evolution in museums and cultural organizations across the country?
In recent years, we have definitely seen museums across the country respond more to the issues affecting their local communities and work toward making stronger connections with local residents. Just last year, we hosted a global conference on museum innovation called MuseumNext which brought together hundreds of museum leaders and activists from around the globe to talk more about social justice, human rights, and inclusion. The Museum has also been part of a nation-wide initiative called Museums as Sites of Social Action. This growing network of more than sixty museums is working to align museums with equitable and inclusive practices, and includes institutions such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Art Institute of Chicago, Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis Institute of Art, and the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry right here in Portland. So we’re definitely in good company as we think along with others about the role our institutions play as agents of positive change in our communities.
What excites you most about the work that your department is doing and has planned?
We have a lot of exciting things happening, but right now I think I’m especially proud of our close collaborations with the Museum’s curators. These unique collaborations transform the way our audiences connect with art on view in our galleries, and have the potential to bring in community voices and perspectives in meaningful ways. I am grateful for our shared passion for experimentation, critical reflection, and seeing museums as a powerful catalyst for empathy, connection, and human understanding.