Guest Blog Post by Professor Neville Vakharia of Drexel University: Reimagining a Museum – The Mutual Benefits of Experiential Learning

Hello friends,

As many of you know, CultureSpots came to be, in large part, because of the expert guidance we received from, and long-time friendship we’ve had with Professor Neville Vakharia at Drexel University.  We continue to stay in very close contact, and occasionally ask Neville to contribute here as a guest blogger, especially when we find out about one of his (MANY!) projects that we believe will especially resonate with our museum audience.  And this is certainly one of those occasions, as Neville has graciously agreed to share his story about the intense strategic planning collaboration he and a group of his grad students recently finished up with a notable local museum.  Lots of inspiration, aspirations and important principles to glean here!  Enjoy 🙂


By Neville K. Vakharia

Assistant Professor and Research Director, Arts Administration

Drexel University

The idea of “learning by doing” has been around since the middle ages. Apprentices learned their craft from master craftspeople, creating a new generation of practitioners. This tradition continues today and is a key part of workforce development worldwide. In higher education, we take a similar approach by incorporating experiential learning into the classroom. Experiential learning is more than just “hands-on” learning; it also requires reflection on what has been learned. Often, experiential learning approaches are critical for those who teach concepts that are either very theoretical or that require a practitioner’s perspective.

This was the case when teaching my graduate course in strategic planning for arts administration and museum leadership students at Drexel University in Philadelphia, PA. Strategic planning is a complex, messy, and non-linear process. It’s something that can’t be taught simply through a textbook and theoretical examples. It needs to be lived, experienced, and reflected upon.

Fortunately, Drexel University had recently launched its Center for Cultural Partnerships, which seeks to develop mutually beneficial experiential learning opportunities for students through partnerships with regional cultural organizations. Through this new center, my strategic planning course was paired up with the African American Museum in Philadelphia (AAMP), an institution at a critical juncture in its existence and in need of strategic guidance. This created the perfect opportunity to integrate experiential learning into my course.

AAMP was founded in 1976, as part of Philadelphia’s celebration of the nation’s bicentennial. It is the first institution funded and built by a major municipality to preserve, interpret and exhibit the heritage of African Americans. Now in its 40th year, the museum faced a range of critical issues that required new approaches, solid research, and strategic thinking – exactly what we wanted to instill in my students.

Working Together: Commitment and Process

To create a true collaboration that would ensure mutual benefit to both AAMP and the students, a memorandum of understanding was created to outline the roles and responsibilities of the students and the museum’s leadership. Each party had to be fully committed to the process, accessible to each other, and willing to share in order for this collaboration to succeed.

Prior to the start of the course, students knew in advance that they would be engaging in this experiential process with AAMP, and specifically opted into the course. The museum provided a wealth of documentation and financial data up front so that students did not need to spend time tracking down critical information. Our first class session was held at the museum, where the museum’s President & CEO provided an extensive history of the museum, an overview of the role of culturally-specific organizations, and AAMP’s current challenges and opportunities. This provided a solid foundation for students to initiate their work. A subsequent session with a small group of AAMP board members provided additional insights into AAMP’s governance and board dynamics. These honest and open conversations provided students with a level of access that could never be achieved in a traditional classroom setting.

Students were split into four teams, each addressing a key strategic area of the museum: (1) Operations and Finance; (2) Programming, Exhibitions, and Communications; (3) Education & Community Outreach; and (4) Physical Space & Facility Design. Outside of class, each team conducted field research on peer and competitor museums through interviews with key leaders, compiled and analyzed a range of data, and conducted in-depth conversations with AAMP staff and board members. Students also made multiple visits to AAMP to observe the visitor experience and view the range of programming offered. Each course session included both traditional, pedagogical learning of strategic planning fundamentals as well as time for groups to develop their strategies and goals for their respective areas of focus. Each team also had time to reflect on their efforts and engage other teams in a dialog on their process and learnings. This demonstrated in a very real way the differences between theory and practice.

The final session of the course was a presentation by each student team to the leadership and board of AAMP. Each team shared their key research findings, strategies, and recommendations in their area of focus. The combined presentations provided the leadership and board with a vision of a truly reimagined museum, combining both short-term, practical approaches and longer-term strategies.

The Results: A Strategic Path Forward

Feedback on the students’ work was extremely positive. The AAMP board and leadership were impressed by the scope and depth of the work done by the students. They acknowledged that this level of effort would not have been possible without this collaboration.

Student evaluations at the completion of the course demonstrated the clear value of this experiential learning opportunity. Students acknowledged the heavy workload and the challenge of combining traditional learning with experiential learning, but all were extremely satisfied with the outcome of the course. Several students wished to stay involved with AAMP in some capacity, feeling a real bond with the institution and its future.

While a strategic planning process alone cannot guarantee success, we believe we have given AAMP the tools they need to become a relevant, sustainable, and engaging museum. This intensive, mutually beneficial collaboration helped an important institution reimagine its future while providing an experiential learning opportunity for a new generation of arts and cultural leaders. I’m looking forward to our next experience.

Click through to learn more about Neville Vakharia and Drexel’s graduate Arts Administration and Museum Leadership programs.

Photo Credits:

Student Photos = Julie Hawkins

Museum Photo = GFDL


Thanks for reading – we’re sending positive vibes your way 🙂

Enjoy your journey,

Cliff Stevens

Founder, President/CEO of CultureSpots