Programs & Outreach

Educational programming and outreach are both important means for achieving a museum’s mission. Programs and various forms of outreach help to develop a positive, reciprocal relationship between both the community and the museum, which is a goal that all small museums should pursue. This page contains information and resources about programming and outreach methods which a museum can use to foster its relationship with the surrounding community.


When designing a program, it is important to keep variety and inclusivity in mind. A museum should cater to a wide range of audiences, from those who seek the traditional guided tour to those who desire an interactive and hands-on learning experience within a museum environment. It would prove beneficial for any museum to study its surrounding community in order to identify the different audiences and interests to which it should cater. A museum does not have to plan new programs or events on its own; survey the public and see what types of activities and events (within the confines of the museum’s mission) would attract them to the museum more than once. Knowledge about the community’s demographics and different audiences, social issues, most common reasons for visiting a museum or NOT visiting a museum, and interests will allow any museum to develop programs tailored to their respective communities.

The Marshall Steam Museum at Auburn Heights Preserve provides this sample Educational Program Guide as another model for describing and marketing programs. Also included in their packet of education program materials that is sent to schools and teachers is their document on Things To Know When Booking a Marshall Steam Museum School Tour. Within this particular program guide, take note of the guide’s emphasis on the individual’s pre-visit experience. When marketing a guide, make an effort to anticipate and answer possible questions. Front-loading information within marketing materials will reduce visitor anxiety and give potential visitors greater confidence that a program suits their needs.

The following article by the Tronvig Group, Museum Marketing for Non-Marketers, provides eleven marketing principles and ideas that can aid a small museum in both creating attractive programs and expanding its audience. Although this is not a comprehensive list, it contains useful recommendations that should be kept in mind.

The History Hunters Youth Reporter Program, a subsidized field trip program for the Philadelphia School District, is a useful example of a program that is designed to directly meet the criteria and needs of its intended audience. It emphasizes reading and writing skills that are essential to Pennsylvania’s state curriculum and the Common Core curriculum. The program’s student workbook, found here, can be used a model for future program materials oriented toward schools and students.

What makes a successful museum program for millennials? Patrick Wittwer’s article explains the formula for attracting young adults with the promise of free snacks, adult beverages, and an adults-only museum environment. This study by the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum of Art offers suggestions about how museums can effectively engage millennials. A study conducted by the Australian Museum in Sydney assesses how museums can use after-hours programming to serve younger demographics.

In a well-detailed eight-page PDF, Catherine Hughes, Brian Mancuso, and Allison Cosbey provide an excellent example of best practices of Integrating Science at a History Museum. As more schools are pushing for STEM focused education, this piece is timely to help history museums include science related exhibitions.

Service Learning

The provision of service learning opportunities to students in surrounding schools not only is core to the educational mission of many museums, but it is a useful tool for fostering trust between a community and an institution. Investing resources and energy into service learning opportunities for the community will result in the community investing its energy and resources into sustaining the museum. This webpage on Service Learning created by Chicago Public Schools provides details on what service learning is, as well as what schools and teachers require from service learning opportunities. 

The Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles, California, provides an example of how a museum can meet the needs of teachers and curricula when providing students with opportunities to develop a connection to their community through the resources that a museum can offer. Many small museums may not be able to offer this type of program to the same degree as this particular museum, but this page is a model guideline for what service learning should look like and what its objectives and focuses should be.

This innovative service learning project, Get in the Scrap!, created by the National WWII Museum in New Orleans, is an example of how a museum can create a long-term project that teachers can use on an annual basis. Teachers are always looking for ways to promote civic engagement among their students; try to identify the unique resources or programs your museum can offer teachers and schools that can garner their continuous, long-term support instead of their one-time support.

The National Park Service website offers a multitude of ideas for using historic places as a means to enhance and enrich learning through cooperation and collaboration among teachers, historians, and museum professionals. Especially helpful are these pre-made lesson plans for service learning projects.


In an era of declining field trip funding, traveling trunks are a good way to get your message out to the schools.

The National World War II Museum in New Orleans has a traveling footlocker program for schools that includes a variety of real artifacts from the 1940s. This manual for the program offers lots of good ideas for the kinds of artifacts that you might assemble for a similar project, and the questions about the artifacts that students are meant to answer are thoughtful and can adapted to other kinds of collections.

The Center for History and New Media created eight free activities for classroom teachers using primary sources including a document, a painted portrait, a map, a photograph, and even a television commercial. The lessons can be downloaded as PDFs. You can use these as templates for developing your own lessons for school children. Think about adapting these for use with adult visitors, too.

These examples of an Outreach Program Booking Invoice and an Outreach Program Confirmation Form from the Marshall Steam Museum at Auburn Heights Preserve will help you as you consider your record keeping practices.

When developing and marketing outreach programs to schools and institutions, there are a number of questions that should be considered and addressed:

  • What are the state and local curriculum standards and requirements that teachers and schools must meet? Make sure your outreach programs and lessons align with these standards and requirements. If your museum offers services to areas with multiple curriculum standards, make sure your programs and lessons are flexible and can accommodate these differences without compromising the quality of the program. Most states have adopted the Common Core curriculum, so use this website to become familiar with the standards of learning associated with Common Core.
  • Does this outreach program/lesson motivate and engage students? When teachers and schools bring in museum professionals, they are looking for the experience to excite students and engage them in high-order thinking. Hands-on activities and the use of “authentic assessments” (activities that require students to wrestle with real-world problems and attempt to solve these problems) are possible routes to take in order to promote engagement. The incorporation of friendly competition within an activity also motivates a large number of students. The lesson and subsequent activities must also accommodate students’ various strengths and weaknesses; an activity that requires a student to primarily use a weak skill without offering a form of support will not yield participation or engagement from this student. Vanderbilt University’s Center for Teaching provides information on student motivation, as well as a multitude of other teaching guides that may prove useful to museum professionals involved in outreach programs.
  • Are the lessons and activities associated with the outreach programs differentiated? Students are diverse and have a wide array of strengths and weaknesses, so high-quality programs and activities should allow students to demonstrate their learning through these strengths. The activities and lessons should be flexible in order to accommodate struggling or special needs students. One way to ensure that your outreach programs are inclusive and flexible is to rely on the Universal Design for Learning standards. Refer to the National Center on Universal Design for Learning to familiarize yourself with what can be done to give every student a chance to learn and demonstrate their knowledge during your outreach programs.
  • Does your program provide students with a way to demonstrate their learning in a measurable way? Teachers need to be able to provide evidence of student learning and growth, especially if their school is providing the teacher funds to bring in museum professionals. Make sure your programs incorporate a form of assessment, even if it is an informal assessment, to prove to schools that your programs are effective and a worthwhile investment.

Community Involvement

Museums can strengthen their connections to their communities by offering services and community-driven experiences. Programs and services centered on community involvement are additional tools for fostering a mutually beneficial relationship between a museum and the community on which it depends and to whom it caters.

After-school programs are popular ways of bringing the resources and skills of museum professionals to schools and students. This article by, …Create Museum Programs, provides several examples of museums directly engaging with at-risk students in order to both inculcate an appreciation for museums and learning and to contribute to the public good by addressing community issues. These examples demonstrate the ability of any museum to actively demonstrate its value to its community.

The creation of community-driven museum experiences are another method to encourage community involvement and engagement with a museum. Nora Grant’s article, Pop Up Museums: Participant-Created Ephemeral Exhibitions, provides an example of a museum offering the community the ability to create their own exhibits and directly contribute to the development of a community narrative. The Museum Experience Revisited by John Falk and Lynn Dierking can be used as another resource on the subject of community-driven experiences.

Learn more about the Smithsonian Institution’s Traveling Exhibition Service , which develops exhibitions and lends them to small museums across the United States.

The American Association for State and Local History (AASLH) blog post University Museum Studies Programs and Small Museums, a Win-Win Collaboration discusses how students who need hands-on experience and small museums can help each other.

Interested in using digital media collaboratively? Check out this video from the California Exhibition Resource Alliance that stresses building collaborations with schools.

If you are looking to reach out to the members of the military in your community, you might want to watch this webinar on Blue Star Museums.