This week’s readings brought me back to a question I’ve been pondering throughout the course: Why do we assume museums have some innate radical (or even social) mission they have yet to unleash?
Silverman, Janes, the House Museum “Anarchists” and others we’ve read seem to take for granted the notion that social engagement extends from the museum idea. We talk about universities in a similar way. I understand that these writers are calling on museums to take up a more progressive mission than they generally pursue, but the basic premise is that museums and social change fit together naturally.
That seems to contradict what we’ve learned about museums. The histories we’ve encountered in class suggest that museums, in origin and actuality, are fundamentally elite and elitist. The more established and influential the museum, the more likely that is to be true (i.e., The Smithsonian). They rely on corporate and foundation money–both elite sources. They hire people with elite educations. And as we learned from the museum mission statement last week, they are largely organized around elite property: “the things of the world.”
I entirely agree that museums have social and political potential. Like universities, they house resources and knowledge that add value to social justice projects. But it seems to me that it is very difficult for a museum to do much of anything useful politically without acknowledging that disrupting social structures represents a conflict of interest for all elite institutions. For instance, if a museum’s goal is “knowledge sharing,” it must recognize its historical reliance on the monopolization of knowledge production. This is the first step toward considering how those histories linger (for example, in the practice of regularly hiring students from schools like Brown).
I like Emily’s concrete recommendation that museums simply open up more space for self-organized publics. But what this does is actually absent the museum apparatus so that other community work can take place.
This seems like a useful metaphor for how elite institutions can do radical work more generally: by sharing their resources and stepping out of the way.
Instead of asking museums to change, should we be building alternatives to museums entirely? By attaching the high-minded ideals of social learning and historical dialogue to the museum form, don’t we risk reinforcing elite authority (per Mullen)? When is the social good museums can do worth that risk?