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.