Low Income and Homeless Populations
To be inclusive places that welcome diverse audiences, many museums have attempted to remove the barriers that prevent low income and homeless populations from accessing the benefits their institutions offer. The outlined case studies illuminate some ways museum practitioners have attempted to welcome these underserved audiences.
Imagine It! Children’s Museum of Atlanta
In 2005, the museum launched a subsidized admissions program so that no child is turned away simply because of the inability to pay the price of admission. In 2007, they began offering free transportation from underserved neighborhoods to the museum. More recently, the museum introduced “Connected Learning, Connected Communities,” a program that forms customized alliances with entire neighborhoods. With adult involvement, community participation and access in mind, the museum works with four low-income neighborhoods in metro Atlanta year round to bring educational programming to their children. Funded by a foundation, the program not only brings children to the museum, but also provides resources for teachers and educational trunks for permanent use in classrooms in the neighborhoods. “Connected Learning, Connected Communities” also engages parents by encouraging them to participate in focus groups to assist the museum in understanding their needs, and in follow up programs after museum visits. As more resources become available, the museum hopes to expand the program to additional neighborhoods.
This initiative recognizes that there are barriers that prevent low-income populations from visiting the museum besides economic. It repositions the museum by defining it not as just a location, but as a valuable resource that acknowledges and understands the communities’ needs. It is designed to put power and resources in the hands of the community members, allowing them both access to museum and empowerment.
Miami Museum of Science
The museum’s IMPACT Upward Bound program assists low-income, first-generation college-bound students prepare for postsecondary study with a bachelor’s degree in science, math, and technology related fields. The variety of programs fits a wide range of students’ interests and schedules. In the academic year program, students can engage in enriching “electives” such as web design and video editing, photography, and gallery interpretation. Other programs include a six-week summer marine science program, college preparation seminars and campus visits, and a daily after school program in which the students have access to the museum’s state of the art computer lab and free tutoring provided by the University of Miami’s work-study program.
Students typically enter as freshmen, stay all four years of high school, and are followed for six years after high school graduation. 100% of students stay active in the program all four years of high school. The project has sent 95% of its participants to postsecondary school, compared to the only 25% of their peers from local target high schools.
Upward Bound is a Federal TRIO Program, which is a government-funded educational outreach program designed to motivate and support students from disadvantaged backgrounds. The program was created to assist students in recognizing and developing their potential to excel in math and science and to encourage them to pursue postsecondary degrees in these fields.
The IMPACT Upward Bound Program creates significant change in the students’ lives. The students receive free support, academic training, and exposure to careers in math and science that they might not have known about before the program. The astounding college admittance rate of the students speaks to the success of the program. After participating in the program, most of the participants are the first in their family to go to college. The museum acknowledges that these low-income teenagers may have no other academic support and presents an opportunity for them to have a life and career they might have never imagined possible.
A.C. Gilbert’s Discovery Village
The children’s museum in Salem, Oregon’s ACCESS program gives low-income families access to a safe, quality learning environment. ACCESS builds partnerships with Title 1 schools and nonprofit organizations that serve at risk children and families. The components of the program address barriers such as cost, transportation and community awareness.
A Community Cooperation Membership is offered to the non-profits and schools involved, which consists of a one year shared membership pass to be checked out and used by any families/clients, a free night at the museum for all families/clients, and a 30% discount on educational programming.
The Community Partners in Education component of ACCESS allows partner organizations and schools to choose up to 12 classes to be conducted at their site or the museum, offered at half-price.
Furthermore, the Shelter Outreach Program delivers a series of six classes to families living at two transitional homeless shelters. The classes are appropriate for children ages 2-12, but can also be designed to engage parents and older siblings.
The Transportation Station provides a low-cost transportation option to ACCESS partner organizations for use during group trips to the museum.
A.C.’s Apples and Art Program brings free art activities to children receiving free lunch at eleven sites in the area during their Spring Break.
ACCESS is supported by community foundations and individual sponsors.
The program works closely with schools and nonprofit organizations that serve low-income and homeless families, offering their services at reduced or no cost. This allows many families to visit the museum who could not otherwise, due to economic or transportation barriers. The museum also reaches out to homeless populations by bringing family-oriented classes and projects to the shelters. These projects allow the families to engage with the museum’s educational offerings without having to worry about travelling to the site. Furthermore, the fact that the programs are catered to their individual needs sends a message to the families that the museum acknowledges and cares about their unique situations. The museum hopes that by allowing these underserved families access to the museum’s learning experiences and classes, they will instill in them a lifelong love of learning.
Lauren Rogers Museum of Art
The Laurel, Mississippi art museum hosts a program in which educators and volunteers create art with children from the local housing authority. The programs are conducted during lunchtime, as the students come to the center to eat a free lunch. The program began during the summer months, but the museum maintains an ongoing relationship with these students, who experience the joy of creating prints, watercolor paintings, and drawings in after-school activities.
All of the museum’s outreach programs are funded by the Institute of Museum and Library Services.
In this case, the museum staff and volunteers come to the students at the housing authority, rather than inviting the children and their families to the museum. They also conduct the program at lunchtime, when the children are already at the central building where the program takes place. This is convenient for the kids and their families, so they do not have to worry about transportation. Additionally, it is a safe environment for the children, since it is one with which they are familiar. Their comfort in the setting enables them to better engage with the activities. The program introduces the children and their families to the museum and its staff. Additionally, they not only learn about the museum’s offerings, but might leave with a feeling that the art museum welcomes them. The program attempts to break down the cultural and emotional barriers that prevent the low-income habitants of the housing authority from both engaging with art and from visiting the museum.
Many museums provide reduced or free admission to low-income populations to serve demographics underrepresented as museum visitors. Other museums, such as the Imagine It! Children’s Museum and the Miami Museum of Science go further by engaging low-income visitors for longer periods of time than a single museum visit. These institutions recognize that many people in these communities need social and cultural barriers addressed, as well economic, to visit their museums. These museums hope to bring about real change in the lives of their audiences by offering them ownership and empowerment. The teenage participants of IMPACT Upward Bound receive support and encouragement to attend college, which they most likely would not receive outside of the program. These students are the first in their family to enroll in postsecondary institutions and will live a more empowered life because of the museum’s program.
My findings suggest that children’s museums are more likely to offer programs for low-income populations than other types of museums. This is most likely due to the fact that many children do not have access to safe or quality learning and play environments. However, art museums like the Lauren Rogers Museum have also reached out to low-income families and their children.
Furthermore, most of the programs already implemented are created for children. More museum professionals should realize that low-income adults could also benefit from museum-run educational programs.
Museums of all types need to do more to remove the barriers that prevent this population from visiting their museums and engaging with their offerings. Museums have the potential to make a difference in the lives of visitors, and people of all ages, races, cultures, abilities and incomes should have access to their offerings.