Breaking the Silos: A Holistic Approach to Youth Engagement

By Sarah Bloom and Regan Pro

One of the issues that we often encounter when talking with colleagues about audiences is how often museum education departments silo their youth and family visitors between in-school and out-of-school time. This can often seem like the most efficient approach to meeting different needs at different times, but also seems to be more focused on what is best for the program staff versus what is best for program participants.

In this post we explore, how to approach programing from the participants’ perspectives. How can we as educators create more collaborative and integrated opportunities to activate youth learning across program areas?

At the Seattle Art Museum (SAM), we have been asking this question for quite a while. Many of us are aware that museums often count K-12 student participation on a program-by-program basis, rather than looking at a visitor’s participation from a more holistic perspective across all areas. For example, a teen may attend the museum on a school tour, and then return for a family program with his or her guardians. We often treat those encounters as isolated experiences. We have tried in select programs to move towards a more visitor-centered approach to program planning, outreach, assessment and evaluation. This allows the visitors’ experience and specifically a student’s development to take center stage, inherently making the learning more personal, and the museum experience more impactful.

But getting to that point wasn’t easy, and continues to be challenging. To set out identifying some of those challenges, we decided to better understand the advantages and disadvantages of using audience silos to design most of the programs we implement. In no particular order, here are some of the advantages of why we often stay within our silos:

  • Streamlined program content
  • Synchronized system of statistics and metrics
  • Clarified workflow
  • Staffing & budget structures
  • Consistent messaging
  • Standards and curriculum

Along the same lines, we started to think about the disadvantages of silos, and where the work makes most sense to undo divisions and work collaboratively and cross departmentally. So here are a few we’ve come up with:

  • Program quality across divisions
  • Meeting K-12 needs outside of the school day
  • Budgets and cost saving measures
  • Duration of messaging
  • Cross promotional opportunities
  • More staffing flexibility

With the list of pros and cons, we are presenting two different case studies of how we’ve tried to break the silos and work collaboratively to address our audience needs. Both represent creative ways that innovate student learning through the arts with an approach that’s student-centric rather than museum-centric.


Case Study #1: Exhibition Outreach & Promotion

In Fall 2015, SAM hosted the special exhibition Peru: Land of the Sun and the Moon. This was a major exhibition for SAM that included sculptures, paintings, metalwork and textiles spanning over 3000 years. Our education staff anticipated this exhibition to be very popular with teachers and specifically high school teachers. At the same time, other parts of the education department were ramping up offerings for Teen Programs, including Teen Workshops, a Teen Advisory Group as well as a large Teen Night Out at the museum. Given this alignment of a key audience: teens; this was a great opportunity for both in and out-of-school staff to collaborate ensuring that each of their constituencies knew what SAM’s full offerings of programs were for teens and educators. The result of the collaboration was a new marketing brochure, both physical and electronic, that was designed to appeal to both educators as well as teens. Education staff worked closely with our copywriter to set the right tone for both audiences through this promotional piece. The mailer went out to high school teachers, community centers and youth program managers. Additionally, it was posted electronically through various social media channels for teens to see what SAM has on offer for them in the fall. In addition to extending the number of constituents we were contacting for programs and exhibitions, the piece also provided a longer shelf life for a marketing campaign, which usually ends after a specific program or event concludes. We saw many teachers directing their students to our after-school programs, and many teens who spoke to their teachers about coming to visit the exhibition.


Case Study #2: In-depth School Partnership

For the past four years, SAM has had an in and out-of-school partnership with Arts and Academics Academy (AAA), an arts-focused high school in South Seattle. Working with school staff, SAM developed a multi-year art integration partnership designed to support and train teachers to teach in and through the arts. As part of this multivalent model of partnership, Seattle Art Museum decided to partner with AAA on an out-of-school program called Design Your NeighborHood. This multi-session, intensive workshop focuses on the visual arts, design and community change. Working with the school’s principal and language arts teacher over the summer, SAM staff redesigned the program’s curriculum to meet the needs of the school. Students were able to take the program as part of their summer school and receive an arts or language arts credit. The students’ culminating project was to redesign the school’s computer lab. Previous offerings had the students redesigning their school’s hallway. They completed the project over five weeks between July and August 2014. Some of the results can be seen here:


Hopefully these case studies can help you reflect on your own programming. So as you think about places within your department where silos no longer make sense, here’s a few tips to help you and your colleagues take steps to break down some divisions:

  • List audiences and groups you currently work with
  • Identify areas of overlap: i.e. parents and teachers, teachers and teens
  • Brainstorm one programing adjustment that could be made that could be made to address these overlaps: i.e. including family programing at teachers nights

Sarah Bloom has been working closely with youth and teens at Seattle Art Museum as the Manager of Multigenerational Learning, Teen, Family and Community Programs; providing both direct instruction and coordination of programs as well as strategically thinking and planning of ways to serve that audience in a more comprehensive and holistic fashion throughout different offerings of the museum.


Regan Pro’s work has been primarily centered on managing the School and Educator Programs at Seattle Art Museum as the Associate Director of Education and Public Programs. She manages the docent program, teacher and school workshops as well as all K-12 visits to the museum, both guided and self-guided, as well as off-site school visits and workshops.



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