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Museums and Libraries Are Promising Venues For Behavior Change

March 23, 2012

By Chris Beakey,
Vice President, Ogilvy Public Relations

Cross-posted from Social Marketing exChange News and Views

While many of us in social marketing are constantly on the look-out for fresh approaches for engaging target audiences, we do some of our best work when we leverage existing channels as opposed to creating entirely new ones. From partnerships with grassroots organizations, to weaving messages into the packaging of popular consumer products, to tapping individuals with unique powers as “influencers,” we have multiple opportunities to reach people through sources that already have a meaningful impact on their lives. Last week I discovered an approach that utilizes the power of place to engage kids in particular, but was then reminded that it’s been an evolving option for years.

The “discovery” came from a New York Times article that described several museums that focus on the social needs of children and their families and highlighted an experiential exhibit at the Children’s Museum of Manhattan. Incorporating messaging and program support from the National Heart Lung and Blood Institute’s (NHLBI) We Can! initiative, the exhibit leverages the Museum’s deep understanding of early childhood learning and expertise in engaging children and families to promote the importance of nutrition and physical activity in obesity prevention and well-being. It’s a great idea – kids get to act like kids by jumping, pedaling and bouncing to experience the benefits of exercise, and crawl through a facsimile of a giant digestive system to learn about healthy eating. It’s also a great way to utilize a community resource and natural gathering place as a venue for engaging target audiences.

EatSleepPlay exhibit at the Children's Museum of Manhattan

The article reminded me of some of the work I’ve done to raise visibility for the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS), which is the primary Federal source of support for the nation’s libraries and museums. IMLS has always utilized its grants and programmatic support to help these institutions inspire lifelong learning and civic engagement, but in recent years has gotten behind initiatives to promote healthy behaviors as well. The organization is currently working in partnership with First Lady Michelle Obama on a national initiative to encourage libraries and public gardens to promote nutrition and physical activity in collaboration with the Let’s Move! campaign, and with 300 museums to encourage kids and families to make healthy nutritional choices.

The Institute also supports numerous museums and libraries that promote positive practices in environmental conservation and energy use, media literacy and the development of 21st Century skills. Through the last two decades in particular, IMLS has been a key driver in the national movement to transform museums from quiet places emphasizing more passive activities such as viewing exhibits to active, experiential learning places and community centers. And when it comes to health, the organization has clearly stated that libraries and museums should be viewed not only as places for the dissemination of health information but for experiences that support healthy lifestyles as well.

Programming at both libraries and museums tends to be shaped with the needs of local residents in mind, presenting yet another venue for engaging audiences by location and demographic.  Working in partnership with them presents a realm of opportunities for social marketers and educators looking for innovative ways to reach people in places that are already appealing and accessible. Most are supported by foundations that may share our interests in promoting public health initiatives, and opportunities to involve them in campaigns that are fostered by Federal agencies should be explored as well.  At a minimum, they can be sites for the dissemination of information, but their ultimate potential for social marketers will be realized through activities that – like those at the Manhattan Children’s Museum – actively engage target audiences in the behaviors we want to promote.