Monday, April 6, 2015

Building Social Capital One Cup at a Time

I’ve been thinking about social capital a great deal lately.  Students in my online Museums and Community Engagement course for Johns Hopkins have been reading and puzzling about how museums, institutions, can build social capital and at the same time, I’m midway through a month in L’viv, Ukraine as a Fulbright Specialist, working with the museum studies program at L'viv Polytechnical University.

It’s funny, the word networking has sort of slightly sleazy air, like you’re always on the make for the next connection and are about acquiring connections for the sake of connections.  But social capital recognizes that those networks, and a culture of reciprocity from those networks has distinct value.  My time here in L’viv is definitely proving that.  L’viv is in western Ukraine, and was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire at one point, so a strong coffee and cake culture persists.  And that’s how my social capital is built here, over coffee, over cake,  over a beer, over dinner.   Ukraine is a country that doesn’t have much capital at the moment, but I’m finding social capital in abundance.
In addition to my time at L’viv Polytechnic thinking about the museum studies program and getting to know my colleagues there, I have:
  • Attended an informational meeting about a new proposed Museum of Terror; and from that made connections with the cultural department at City Hall; the Center for Urban History; those working on the museum itself, and an oral history organization; all followed up with separate conversations, with of course, coffee or tea.
  • Caught up with a young Crimean Tatar friend, moved here to finish dental school after the occupation of Crimea by Russia; brainstormed an exhibit idea together, connected him with a museum colleague; and begun to move the idea forward with more meetings.
  • Spoken at another university and relied upon that new connection to help me find a translator for some of my lectures and also began to think about finding arts management experts in the US who might be interested in working with them as a Fulbright Specialist.
What are the takeaways here?  For me it is that you always need to be open to that next new connection. You need to find the time to continue building that social capital.  And you need to think about new connections in non-hierarchal ways.  As Rainey and I wrote about in Creativity in Museum Practice, looking widely is one tool in building more creative museums.  And although many L’viv museums have a long way to go in building social capital with their audiences, I can see that the events of the past year in Ukraine have demonstrated for many, the necessity of social capital in building civic society. 

And a special shout-out in this post to two colleagues here:   to my longtime friend and colleague Eugene Chervony:  museum thinker, translator of complicated meetings for me, beer drinking partner, and social capital builder;  and Polina Verbytska, head of the museum studies department at L’viv Polytechnic, whose vision and enthusiasm for her program brought me here to think about how to train a future generation of Ukrainian museum professionals.


Ginny MacKenzie Magan said...

Social Capital -- what an interesting concept. I am a somewhat introverted historian and museum curator (my husband claims I like dead people better than live ones, and in a way he's right) and networking is the very hardest part of my job. I avoid it when I can. Your post has inspired me to try to appreciate it more and -- maybe -- try to stop avoidance. Thank you!

Linda Norris said...

Ginny--what a nice, honest comment. Give it a try--but don't think of it as networking!