In 2022, the International Council of Museums (ICOM), a membership association that creates ethical standards for museums, adopted a definition for museums that such institutions should “operat[e] ethically, professionally and with the participation of communities,” hewing closely to a concept French historian Hugues de Varine, a former ICOM director, proposed decades ago: that at the center of a museum lies “not things, but people.”

A year later, mainstream museums are still grappling with this shift, as they have indeed historically prioritized the study, display, and preservation of objects in their care, and not the communities that surround them. Exceptions to these are community museums, which arose from a desire for museums to put people and local communities first, which can take the form of building collections or organizing exhibitions together.

In the US, the foundations of these museums date back to the late 1960s, when three now prominent community museums—the Anacostia Community Museum in Washington, D.C., (in 1967), the Wing Luke Museum in Seattle (1967), and El Museo del Barrio in New York (1969)—were founded as dedicated spaces for communities marginalized by mainstream institutions in their respective cities. 

“You had all these social movements from the Civil Rights and Black Power movements to the antiwar movement, to the Women’s movement, really challenging all kinds of American institutions, and museums were no exception to that,” Samir Meghelli, the Anacostia’s chief curator, said in 2019.

Below, a look at how these three community museums, as well as the ever-thriving National Museum of Mexican Art in Chicago (founded 1987) and the recently reopened Buffalo AKG Art Museum (the sole mainstream institution discussed here), are continuing to move on the needle on the how museums can create community-centered, hyper-local programs.