USF's Museum Blog

Museum as an active agent for civic engagement

by Shabnam Shermatova (MA, 2016)

The Museum Studies Program at the University of San Francisco and my internships at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts (YBCA) and The Contemporary Jewish Museum (The CJM) have given me an opportunity to explore museums as sites for civic engagement and come up with a personal moniker for such a museum: ‘Commuseum’. Over the past year, I have learned about legal and ethical concerns of being an engaging institution. I have examined how to balance accessibility and preservation requirements. I have studied different theoretical aspects of building constituent empathy and trust. In summary, I have been well prepared to experience the everyday world of the museum as an academic institution, as a field of study, and as a community resource.

OpeningNight_ Take This Hammer_Tortias Conspiracy Performance_byTommyLau_2

Opening Night: Take This Hammer Tortias Conspiracy Performance by Tommy Lau

I looked at my internship as an opportunity and a neutral space that would let me take a refreshing look at things that museums do within their walls and beyond. I wanted to find an institution that allowed me to explore museums as sites for civic engagement, as reflected my community museum moniker ‘Commuseum.’ The meaning of a ‘community museum’ reveals a wide range of relations: from ‘by the community’ to ‘for the community.’

My two internship sites, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts (YBCA) and The Contemporary Jewish Museum (The CJM), both embrace the wide range of interests of the Bay Area’s diverse population in their programming, strategy, and mission. As well, they are located directly across the street from each other, creating opportunities for societal communion, to promote cultural exchange, and support the civic life of the city. Both institutions reveal their strengths in their programming, staff, and relationships with the community. Without a doubt, these are the essential features of an engaging civic institution.

My phone_public program_Live Practice Event_Georgia Carbone_performance_

Live Practice Event: Georgia Carbone performance at YBCA. Photo credit: Shabnam Shermatova

YBCA positions itself as an institution that “… spurs and supports societal movement.” The public programs offer a great deal of engagement with the content spanning discussions, readings, singing, and public performances. All the programs of YBCA involve the voices of the local communities and invite local activists, leaders, curators to collaborate. This civic feature reflects how an art center actively communicates with the outside audiences and partners. Since February, I have been helping with preparing public programs and have taken part in the Open Engagement conference where I met extraordinary talented and passionate people and learned about their own work in their communities.

In addition to external audiences, another exciting component of my YBCA internship is engagement with their non-traditional gallery guide program. This program gives visitors a chance to discuss the importance of knowing, for instance, the facts on eviction issues, a currently huge challenge, in San Francisco. This true civic engagement is a great way to ignite solidarity around social issues in the Bay Area.

My phone_Museum with Pride copy

CJM participates in Pride. Photo credit: Shabnam Shermatova

The CJM’s exhibitions and programs build a creative and open dialogue about Jewish contemporary life and culture, making them relevant to a wide range of audiences. By shaping and celebrating cultural identity The CJM opens up interesting topics of community engagement and promotes an interdisciplinary approach to a variety of visitors. The CJM also positions itself as a “teaching institution” and believes that by bringing in new people (interns, volunteers, and docents) they building trust and sustainable relationships with wider audiences. Teaching to The CJM means also being committed to learning from and about the experiences of their visitors. The CJM approaches teaching and learning in a creative and engaging manner. For example, “What Makes Me”, is an interactive yarn map and a playful survey, through which visitors naturally share information about their reactions, preferences, and ambitions. This survey helped me look at the evaluation and visitor survey process more creatively and find creative ways to study both individuals and the overall museum audience.


Gary Sexton Photography.


In terms of cross community collaboration between the two institutions, a great sense of solidarity, a recognition of common concerns and interests, and desire to collaborate for the benefit of the greater community was inspired by The CJM’s and YBCA’s participation in the 2016 Pride Parade, under the slogan “Museums with PRIDE.” Being part of this parade, with my family, made me feel a part of a larger family – community, who stands for the same values.


All these features show that the art and cultural institutions’ involvement ‘for’ and ‘by’ the communities is impressive and is emergent. A more radical/utopic level of civic involvement I believe is still to come. If we continue to engage in open communication and share authority, we will create trust, and there will be no need for invitations to collaborate, as the ‘Commuseum’ will be not a feature, but a constant state.


For more information on the University of San Francisco’s Museum Studies program click here.

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