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Museums' new mantra: Connect with community

Relevance, responsiveness, interactivity is the new road map to success.

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When the Oakland Museum of California reopens in 2010 after a $56 million renovation, it will feature many participatory elements such as interactive journals, in which visitors can converse with each other and the museum curators. In an early demonstration, museum education curator Barbara Henry says these journals were "wildly popular." The team drew on lessons from an earlier show, "Cool Remixed," which tapped local at-risk youth to create exhibits based on their own experiences. Ms. Henry points out that reaching out to nontraditional audiences is vital. "If we don't cultivate these connections, we will be a dying institution of older white people," she says, noting that soon the US will be a country of majority minority populations.

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As budgets have tightened throughout the ranks, museums are looking to maximize their resources, says New York Institute of Technology professor Stan Silverman. He works with museums from the Met to the smallest local institutions to give them the latest tools, such as Elluminate VCS, a new desktop videoconferencing program that allows real-time field trips for schools for not much more than the price of a USB cord. "If we can't help the next generation tap into the kind of deep learning that they need, we will lose them," he says.

Even within museum walls, technology is "teaching," enabling crowds to make connections for themselves. In Nicole Cohen's "Please Be Seated," a recent exhibit at the Getty Center in Los Angeles, the artist placed white chairs in a room with monitors. Commissioned by the Getty to expand understanding of its antique furniture collections, software "placed" visitors who sat in the chairs among digital recreations of the historical milieus in which the ornate furniture collection would have existed. People could sit in the chairs and watch themselves on screen.

"It's empowering," says Ms. Cohen, by phone from Germany where she is based, "because the real chairs are too fragile to touch, but this way people can feel and see themselves in these exotic worlds where the furniture actually functioned."

Across the country, Pittsburgh's Carnegie Museum of Natural History is in the midst of a long-range strategic plan. Director Samuel Taylor says this generation will not get involved if it can't participate. "One of our most important recommendations will include inviting local graduate students to plan exhibitions and contribute to the curatorial process," he adds.

In one of the most extreme examples, the 40-year-old Fuller Art Museum in Brockton, Mass., closed and then, phoenixlike, reappeared as the Fuller Craft Museum, now one of the premier craft museums in the nation based on collections with established connections to a constituency. Roger Sametz, of Sametz Blackstone Associates, a marketing firm, advised on the transformation. People want a personal, relevant connection, he says, whether through technology such as Twitter or Facebook or physical participation. "It's all about making personal, meaningful connections with a community, now."