Museums & Youth Offenders

Most museums today have adopted mission statements that announce their commitment to being forces for positive change in their communities. What exactly this obligation towards the community entails changes from institution to institution, but some museums have decided to use their unique resources to benefit a very specific audience within their communities that often gets overlooked: youth offenders. While there are not many of these programs in existence yet, the numbers are growing. This is in part because of the growing popularity of alternative sentencing programs in the juvenile justice system and of using the arts as a rehabilitative tool in correctional facilities. The needs and challenges of youth offenders can be daunting obstacles for museums to hurdle, but museums have the potential to have significant positive impact on this audience which could have ripple effects throughout their communities.

Background Information about Youth Offenders in the U.S.

Each year more than a million youth—usually aged 10 to 17—are arrested for various offenses, from curfew violations to murder.[1] Of all the sentencing options available to juvenile court judges, they most often choose committing the offender to a correctional facility.[2] Three studies from 2007-2013 found juvenile incarceration increases likelihood of reoffending by up to 26%, demonstrating that juvenile incarceration, in its current setup, is ineffective at rehabilitating youth offenders.[3]

So, what are the other options? Judges can also decide to sentence the offender to probation, a fine, community service, or refer him/her to a community-based agency or treatment facility.[4] Community based rehabilitative initiatives and alternative sentencing, such as substance abuse treatment, community service, or counseling are favored in several recent studies.[5] These programs are more likely than incarceration to address the causes of the criminal behavior, thereby setting the offender on a path towards becoming a healthy and successful adult. Museums can be a part of those community-based intiatives.

There are many, interlacing factors that can lead a youth to illegal behavior. Family conditions have emerged as a reasonably good predictor of problem behaviors, much better than the usual demographic correlations.[6] Families have a strong influence on how young people express their emotions, and conditions such as economic distress or low parental involvement can lead to frustrations that are vented in an unhealthy manner. Cognitively, teens are still developing their abilities for abstract thinking and for making logical judgements. They are also in the process of figuring out their identities, and building and maintaining a healthy sense of self can be a delicate balancing act for teens. Although Erikson’s theory of development asserts that teens are in the process of individuating themselves, newer theories emphasize the importance of relationships in building teen identities.[7] If a teen’s social attachments to peers and family is interrupted, it can have serious consequences on their sense of self and make them more likely to act out.[8]

The Challenges of Working with Youth Offenders:

Working with this audience has its particular challenges, whether it’s in or out of a correctional facility. The audience is transient in nature because their participation is contingent on their individual sentences. They often represent a very wide range of backgrounds and abilities, making it difficult to develop an effective program. Perhaps most importantly, this audience is often steeped in a chaotic environment, particularly inside correctional facilities which experience frequent disruptions, but also possibly at home or in school. These environmental conditions can be distracting at best and derailing at worst.

Programs aimed at rehabilitating youth offenders—whether led by museums or by other organizations—should focus on the skills they need to learn and the relationships they need to repair in order to become healthy adults and contributing members of society. The skills they need to learn include integrity, caring, accountability, goal-setting, interpersonal competence, management of emotions, and peaceful conflict resolution. To help them develop these skills, it’s important for them to have positive adult role models and to repair their relationships with their families and communities.[9] It’s also important to tap into their creativity as a reinforcement for the skills they are learning and to validate their sense of self and purpose within their communities.

How Museums can work with Youth Offenders:

Museums have a set of unique resources that could make them an asset to the juvenile justice system and to the process of rehabilitating youth offenders. As cultural institutions, museums are natural providers of creative and reflective outlets. Museum education staff are experts in informal education which can more easily be tailored to the emotional needs of youth offenders than formal education, such as working out problems through self-expression and cultivating a sense of purpose and competency.

There are several examples of excellent programs developed by museums in partnerships with the juvenile justice system. The RAISE program at the Clark Art Institute brings at-risk youth and youth offenders into their museum for a chance to learn about art and self-reflection. The Young Women’s Art Program bridges the gap between young women in a juvenile detention center and their own communities through a public exhibit of the girls’ artwork. Each museum aims to help build up the participants’ practical, emotional, and cognitive skills while also developing a certain amount of museum literacy.

The RAISE Program at the Clark Institute of Art:

In 2006, the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Massachusetts started a program in collaboration with the Berkshire County Juvenile Courts (BCJC) to intervene with at-risk youth and to rehabilitate youth offenders.[10] The program, called RAISE (Responding to Art Involves Self Expression), uses the Clark’s art collection as an impetus for self expression through drawing, writing, and sharing responses to the art. The participants are boys and girls aged 11-17 who have been recommended or mandated by BCJC to enroll in the program. They meet at the Clark once a week for two hours for five consecutive weeks, where museum staff show them around the galleries, teach them about the artwork, and lead workshops and discussion groups. The program culminates in the participants guiding their families and their juvenile courts officers through the museum on a tour that they have each developed. The goals of the program include not just learning how to look, think, and talk about art, but also to realize that their views matter and to expand their knowledge of the human experience and their own roles in the world.[11] Additionally, the program seeks to demonstrate to these youth and their families that an art museum is a space for them as much as it is for anyone else. The BCJC praises the program as “one of the most effective and uplifting programs offered…” and report that recidivism rates for the program’s participants is next to nothing.[12]

“The Young Women’s Project”

In 2000, an unidentified “major regional art museum” in the Western United States partnered with a local county juvenile detention center to create the Young Women’s Art Project.[13] Their goal was to reduce participants’ violent behavior in the short-term by helping them acquire pro-social skills and experience personal success, and in the long-term by re-connecting them to their community support system through a dialogue initiated by the exhibit of their work.[14] A professional artist comes to the detention center three times a week for three hours during the school year to engage them in the production of individual and collaborative works, including paintings, murals, sculptures, and poems.[15] At the end of the program, their works are displayed in the art museum, and their communities (and the public) are invited to view the exhibit and engage in a dialogue. The idea of the exhibit is to shed light on the girls, their stories, and on the juvenile justice system.[16] The program indirectly teaches the girls communication, organization, and problem-solving skills.[17] Evaluations of the program show that it has a powerful impact on the participants and their sense of purpose and identity. One participant who was interviewed said “I am something in this world, not just a juvenile delinquent. When people look at the projects, it touches them in a certain way. We’re people too, not just criminals.”[18]

Factors for Successful Programs with Youth Offenders:

From reading about the handful of museum programs that reach out to youth offenders, a list of factors that lead to a successful program emerged. Having long-term engagement with participants seems to be one key point because it allows for skills and relationships to really take root and grow. Developing positive relationships with adults—including community members, mentors, family, and museum staff—gives youth offenders role models to emulate. Another important factor is the disposition of the participants; each of them must be willing to engage with the program and want to change their behavior. Where possible, museums should keep the program hands-on and focused on developing relevent skills. It should come as no surprise that youth offenders are rarely interested in lectures. It also helps tremendously to consult with people and organizations that already engage with this audience, such as social workers and juvenile justice officers. They can give advice about what youth offenders need and to what they respond best. Finally, the most important factor is to develop a curriculum that is centered on empowering the audience as a valued member of their community.

Resources to Check Out:




  • Blake, M., M. Liddell, and S. Singh. “Artifacts, Identity, and Youth: A Cultural Intervention with Pacific Islander Young People Who Offend in Western Sydney, Australia.” Curator: The Museum Journal3 (2015): 313-33. Print.
  • Lazzari, Marceline M (07/01/2005). “We Are More Than Jailbirds”: An Arts Program for Incarcerated Young Women. Affilia, 20 (2), p. 169-185. (ISSN: 0886-1099)
  • Osterreich, H.A. and S.McNie Flores. “Learning to C: Visual Arts as Strengths Based Practice in Juvenile Correctional Facilities.” Journal of Correctional Education2 (2009): 146-162. Print.
  • Payne, Brian K. “You’Re so Vain You Probably Think this Keynote is about You: Expanding Art and Music in Criminal Justice.”American Journal of Criminal Justice : AJCJ3 (2012): 291-305. ProQuest. Web. 24 Nov. 2015.
  • Sirhall, Elizabeth E., “Museum Activism and Social Responsibility: Building Museum Education Programs for Juvenile Offenders” (2015). Seton Hall University Dissertations and Theses (ETDs). Paper 2094.
  • “Status Offenses and the JJDPA Fact Sheet.” Act4 Juvenile Justice, 1 Aug. 2014. Web. 22 Nov. 2015. <;.
  • “The RAISE Program.” Clark Institute of Art. Web. 20 Nov. 2015. <;.






[1] Sirhall, Elizabeth E., “Museum Activism and Social Responsibility: Building Museum Education Programs for Juvenile Offenders”(2015). Seton Hall University Dissertations and Theses (ETDs). Paper 2094. P. 15

[2] Ibid. p. 18

[3] Ibid. p. 22

[4] Ibid. p. 41

[5] Ibid. p. 23

[6] Ibid. p. 34

[7] Lazzari, Marceline M (07/01/2005). “We Are More Than Jailbirds”: An Arts Program for Incarcerated Young Women. Affilia, 20 (2), p. 169. (ISSN: 0886-1099) p. 173

[8] Sirhall, p. 28

[9] Sirhall, p. 38 and in Blake, M., M. Liddell, and S. Singh. “Artifacts, Identity, and Youth: A Cultural Intervention with Pacific Islander Young People Who Offend in Western Sydney, Australia.” Curator: The Museum Journal 58.3 (2015): 313-33. Print. p. 316

[10] Description of the program can be found both in Sirhall, p. 50-58 and on the Clark Art Institute website, at

[11] “The RAISE Program.” Clark Institute of Art. Web. 20 Nov. 2015. <;.

[12] Sirhall, p. 57

[13] Lazzari, p. 171

[14] Ibid. p. 172

[15] Ibid. p. 171

[16] Ibid. p. 179

[17] Ibid. p. 172

[18] Ibid. p. 179

4 thoughts on “Museums & Youth Offenders

  1. Allison Van Gilst

    Youth offenders are one of those groups that many people do not think of when considering which museum audience they should cater a program towards. I think that one of the most interesting things about the programs explained in this post are that both of them allow for the youth to take ownership of their projects – either through taking people on the tour they develop or displaying their art in the museum. These also allow them to connect with other people potentially outside of their typical circle. One thing I think that would be interesting is if museums besides art museums would begin to look at ways to create these types of programs. I think a lot could be done at history and science museums which could also help the youth find perhaps some new passions. This is one of the most forgotten groups I think museums can reach, and reaching them I think can help change society for the better.


  2. Rachel Q

    I can’t imagine a more challenging audience to work with– youth offenders have likely never felt comfortable in a museum, they often have learning disabilities, mental illnesses, come from minority backgrounds (often impoverished)– it’s about 8 different challenges all at once. I am struck with all the audiences at how much it would help if the audiences saw themselves reflected in the leadership at museums or other educational institutions. I wonder sometimes how effective it is for juveniles to participate in programs led by plucky white women (speaking as one…), though I would love to think that a good educator is a good educator no matter what. But I think reformed offender-turned-mentor relationships are an important piece here.

    Programs like RAISE and Artistic Noise should definitely include teachers who know what it’s like to be behind bars, and can talk about what got them out and turned around. And as with so many audiences, I think there should be opportunities right away for youth who are interested to lead or teach– even if it starts out small, like being the one to report out from a group activity, or being a participant in a demonstration. I’m more and more convinced that nothing is more healing than the feeling of helping others, and that feeling would help erase the stigma for these kids of only being the ones who need the help.


    1. abbyk23 Post author

      The reason why I think Artistic Noise is such a great organization is that it does exactly what your last paragraph is recommending! They train the participants so that they can become the teachers, mentors, and leaders of the organization (so it also includes employment opportunities). If you follow the link I included for them, you’ll get more detail on that. I didn’t go into detail about Artistic Noise because it wasn’t museum related, but I was excited to discover that they exist.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s