Bourdieu was right. The activist possibilities of most museums are limited by the essential function of the museum, which is to store objects; the historical origins of the institution; and the feeling of exclusivity that permeates through many museums, which limits who they can help. Of course, this isn’t to say that museums can’t affect social change or that museums wouldn’t benefit from addressing the social inequalities that get reproduced within their walls; the latter is a particularly critical issue for museums to address. If cultural institutions such as museums remain places in which POC do not see themselves reflected in exhibits, programming, and staffing, both society and museums lose.
Rather than retreading Bourdieu’s intellectual territory further, for the purpose of this blog post, I will add a final thought on the pitfalls of thinking too much about the possibilities and limitations of activist work done by museums: Privilege distorts perception. As Public Humanities graduate students, we believe in the importance of accessible culture. However, we don’t always question the ways in which the cultural capital of attending a prestigious university to study an esoteric interdisciplinary subject precludes us from fully understanding the nature and depth of some problems, as well as precisely how they affect others, in the first place. The words activism, social justice, and repairing mean something different to everyone. I think the operative idea for us to remember when we attempt to facilitate change around these issues was best phrased by Steve in his “Seven Rules for Public Humanists” post: “Start not by looking at what you, your discipline, or the university needs and wants, but by what individuals and communities outside the university need and want. It’s not, ‘we’re from the university, and we’re here to help,’ but, ‘What are you doing already, and how can we participate? How can we be useful?’”
Lubar, Steve. “Seven Rules for Public Humanists.” Public Humanities & More, 5 June 2014, http://stevenlubar.net/public-humanities/seven-rules-for-public-humanists/. Accessed 12 May 2017.
At Thursday’s lunch talk Public Humanities alumna Kaitlynne Ward spoke about her work in the state archives and how public humanities and public sector work intersect. Ever the public human, she demonstrated how difficult it is to define both publics. However, in her time in the public sector, she’s learned that both spheres are similar in terms of how work constantly evolves with time. She framed her talk around the four skills she learned from this program and that she’s honed in her career: collaboration, relatability, accountability, and adaptability. When she talked about her work, and the many, many, many moving pieces she manages, I immediately thought about the Kurin readings. Perhaps the greatest takeaway from the readings (and her lunch talk) is that public humanities work involves managing many parties, with differing goals and metrics of success. Listening, flexibility, and compromise are the keys to a successful project.
However, I think the most interesting piece of wisdom she passed on was the importance of “leveraging momentum to make things work.” Hearing this and thinking about our recent class conversations and readings about how the current political climate affects our work, made me a little more optimistic about the days ahead. The one good thing about the threat of cutting the NEA and NEH is that people are more invested in these organizations work than ever. People and the media are tuning into organizations dependent on NEA and NEH funds that support communities. Recently CBS Sunday Morning ran a story on my favorite public humanities organization, Appalshop. For 48 years Appalshop has challenged Appalachian stereotypes and diversified Whitesburg’s historically coal economy into a modern creative economy. They depend on federal money to run the programs that make them a beacon for creative expression in eastern Kentucky. Riding on momentum regarding larger national conversations about rural v urban, red state v blue state, white collar v blue collar bubbles, Appalshop is subverting the stereotypes. Admittedly not every museum can get national news coverage, but now’s the time leverage the threat of budget cuts into a conversation about an organization’s worth. What marketing strategies can organizations use now to assert their community value? How can organizations ride the momentum of this years threatened budget cuts into next year without getting stale?