Navigating Power & The Current Political Climate And Doing Socially Engaged Work

Socially engaged work is crucial to keeping museums relevant. I’ve been thinking a lot about Bryn’s presentation on the SMART Museum and their engaged scholar’s program. Particularly on the importance of using the word “engaged” over the more traditional museum choice “outreach”. As Bryn pointed out, engaged points to an exchange of ideas and a dialogue. Whereas “outreach” is one sided (you can imagine a museum patting themselves on the back). I’m interested in how museums can be more socially engaged within their communities while also being aware of the power dynamics at play. Sandell writes museums, “are undeniably implicated in the dynamics of (in)equality and the power relations between different groups through their role in constructing and disseminating dominant social narratives.” Particularly considering the history of museums as elitist institutions there needs to be a careful understanding of power dynamics in the community before taking on socially engaged work.  How can museums be cognizant of this and still be active, eager participants in their communities?

If doing socially engaged work makes museums relevant, what is their role in the post-Trump era? I can’t help but wonder how the vocal minority in the post-Trump age will affect museums doing socially engaged work.  Sandell addresses the role of objects in recognizing and understanding prejudice but that’s only work we can do if people choose to walk through the door. Janes writes, “at their very best, museums present the richness and diversity of life, and keep reflection and dialogue alive for their visitors.” The New York Historical Society is embracing that by offering programs designed around the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services naturalization test, to aid people in becoming citizens. This is relevant, engaged, important work but I wonder if smaller museums in more conservative places could take on a similar program without the risk of losing community support. Additionally, at a moment when distrust of institutions is at an all-time high and skepticism to facts permeates the news, how do we do foster dialogue on polarizing contemporary issues? What strategies can we use to engage with those who claim that museums offer strictly “politically correct” ideas? Is it a battle even worth fighting?

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