Institutional Vulnerability

I was delighted by Robert Janes’ invocation of vulnerability as a “prerequisite” for institutional change. However, his treatment of the term seems deeply under-developed in light of his critique.

Janes notes, rightly, that vulnerability “does not come easily” to institutions. (58) But the problem is not just that vulnerability is challenging or uncomfortable–the problem is that museums and other institutions are, by design, hostile to vulnerability. Janes draws out many of the reasons why in assessing anxieties about funding, professional clout, political controversy, visitors, and organization. In order to be durable long-term, museums must rely on financial sponsorship, maintain some sort of recognizable brand, and furnish a set of deliberative and logistical patterns that can be consistently communicated to a rotating staff. All of these encourage museums to project coherence and institutional self-confidence. Questioning the museum requires critique and revision, and therefore, the willingness to admit imperfection.

While Janes’ explanation does track the relationship between the institutional culture of museums and their aversion to self-criticism, he drops the concept of vulnerability at its first mention. Instead, Janes continues in the usual language of museum bureaucracy, critiquing the structure and hierarchy of museums. I think this misses Janes’ biggest insight (and one we’ve encountered before): the disconnect between the technocratic function of museums and their higher ideals of learning and cultural exchange.

For me, framing this challenge in terms of vulnerability opens up the possibility for a museum to think of itself less like an apparatus and more like a human (flawed, self-doubting, always changing). Asking museums to imagine themselves in human terms might encourage them to worry less about external validation, and more about internal coherence, self-awareness, and most importantly, to focus on human interactions over data-points.


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