Spotlight On...

...Community Engagement

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Taken from May 2022 RHS Newsletter | Written by Howard Menaker

 

Those of us who support Riversdale, contribute to fund our important collection, or volunteer as docents, Kitchen Guild members, garden docents, Museum Shop volunteers and in other capacities have always found the interactions with our visitors to be the most rewarding element of our participation. But there are always ways to improve our engagement with our community and our neighbors.

 

To that end, the Riversdale Historical Society and M-NCPPC Riversdale staff have worked for the past year to improve our understanding of, and engagement with, of our local communities: the Town of Riverdale Park, Prince George’s County, and the State of Maryland. We have met regularly as a part of the American Alliance of Museum’s Museum Assessment Program (MAP). MAP is a confidential national voluntary program which helps museums strengthen operations, plan for the future and meet standards through self-study and a consultative visit from an expert peer reviewer. Since 1981, over 5,000 museums have participated in over 6,500 assessments.

 

We worked for months completing an in-depth self-assessment led by Assistant Museum Director Samantha Ferris, discussing our strengths and weaknesses, our challenges and opportunities, and the make-up of the communities we serve.

 

Then, on October 18 and 19, 2021, our reviewer, George McDaniel, Executive Director Emeritus of Drayton Hall, a historic site of the National Trust for Historic Preservation in Charleston, SC, visited with us to further our exploration of how we can reach out more effectively. While at Riversdale, Dr. McDaniel met with Samantha Ferris, Director Maya Davis, Curator of Collections Jennifer Flood, Volunteer Coordinator and Museum Assistant Brenna Spray, Gardener Laura Sweeney, Museum Assistant Gina Lewis and RHS officers Patrick Gossett, Howard Menaker, Anne Turkos and Michelle Kretsch. Dr. McDaniel also met with M-NCPPC Assistant Natural and Historic Resources Division Chief Omar Eaton-Martinez, and with M-NCPPC Public Affairs and Community Outreach and Engagement staff. Reaching out to organizations who relate to the Museum, he also met with Meg Baco, Director Maryland Milestones and Town of Riverdale Park Mayor Alan Thompson and Council Member Dave Lingua.

 

Guided by our overall objective to improve our community and audience engagement, we began with the recognition that the audience of visitors we seek and the community we serve can be two different things, and we need to serve both.

 

Other objectives included:

  • To learn what audiences are missing, how we can better engage underserved groups, and gain a better understanding of perceptions of Riversdale

  • To become, and be viewed as, a more active participant in the community

  • To examine how Riversdale might work toward creating connections between younger generations of descendants and identify ways to remain relevant and meaningful to them.

Among the key recommendations coming out of the MAP process were:

  • Commit to a series of strategic planning endeavors over the next few years. Produce a plan, implement it, evaluate, and use those evaluations to plan again.

  • Examine the mission and vision of the museum to include more effective engagement with today’s audiences and communities.

  • Devise ways to identify more sources and methods of fundraising.

  • Devise ways to increase staff.

  • Look for ways to improve existing programs, such as open-hearth cooking and school programs, in order to engage contemporary communities.

  • Reach out to communities for help in making the site more welcoming for its audiences and communities.

  • Create a marketing plan that includes cross marketing within M-NCPPC and with other historic sites, including improved signage, brochures, social media and Riversdale and RHS websites.

  • Maintain staff enthusiasm for the site and nurture consistently a sense of belonging to a team.

  • Cultivate more diversity in M-NCPPC staff and RHS in terms of race, age, expertise and occupation.

  • Cultivate more diversity in programs – don’t just do the same events over and over.

  • Keep moving Riversdale history forward. Cover more of the 20th and 21st centuries

 

One of McDaniel’s concepts which has already entered into our planning is his “hit triples, not singles” strategy. He suggested we design every program, every exhibit, and every activity to achieve more than one goal (fundraising, education, community outreach, community service, positive media, increased visits, etc.) and then evaluate each to see if it was successful.

 

Assistant Museum Director Samantha Ferris said, “The MAP process was long and hard, but we all came away with a better understanding of how we can be a key part of the communities around us.” Museum Director Maya Davis added, “As I dig more deeply into the history of Riversdale, I am amazed by the many ways we relate to the lives of our visitors and neighbors and look forward to continuing to work with RHS on even more dynamic engagement of the community.”

 

With the MAP report in hand, RHS and Riversdale staff will begin to create new and exciting ways to interact with the community. Watch for new programs and activities as we continue to reach out and engage our visitors, local civic organizations, the Town of Riverdale Park, and many others.