Why Museums?

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?

2 thoughts on “Why Museums?”

  1. I’ve been thinking about this as well–whether museums or other institutions of knowledge can recognize their legacies without completely destabilizing the structures that they are built on. I saw this tension in Sandell, when he writes, “Museums have provided an enabling, creative, perhaps less threatening forum through which community members can gain the skills and confidence required to take control and play an active, self-determining role in their community’s future” (7) and then later goes on to say, “What role might museums play in tackling inequality through their ubiquitous and long-established functions of collection and display?” (8). In the first quote, museums’ role in supporting community members seems to be a given, an inherent part of museums, but in the latter quote, this role feels questioned when Sandell acknowledges museums’ tendency to “exclude, stereotype, and silence difference.” How can these tendencies exist side by side?

  2. Yes! That’s a good example of that switch–claim the community function of museums is obvious, and then raise this contradiction.

    This might just be semantics, but I wonder if it helps to flip these around: start from the fact that museums and other institutions are inherently compromised and imbricated in historical structures of inequality, then ask what they can do to help reallocate their resources and knowledge.

    Allow the contradiction to live (which might even encourage some structural changes to funding and other operations) but continually look for opportunities to undo patterns of injustice. So maybe museums can’t be “radical,” but they can still be social assets to their communities (and maybe even enable radical work).

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