Tag Archives: museums in a troubled world

On Activism & Authority

Where does activism fit in the museum? With the museum curators and staff, with the public, or some combination between the two?

Robert James and Pablo Helguera seem to provide a nice balance in this regard. James tells us what museums should be doing and how they should be structured to best contribute to civil society – “that space between the individual and the government” (James 123). James doesn’t delve deep into how we might actually achieve this, but Helguera provides one example. Helguera is speaking specifically of socially engaged art, but I think (hope) practices of collaboration/engagement/conversation between artists and the public are possible in other types of museums.

Specifically, museum professionals seem to be moving away from a pretend neutrality towards open activism. This shift still allows the museum to remain the top authority without input from public or communities that a museum serves. I was impressed with the socio-environmental programs James mentioned, but wonder what each actually looks like on the ground. How were these exhibits or programs accessible to and received by the public?

I find myself engaged with new climate change networks in Canada and the UK (the US does not have a defined network). In each, professionals from multiple museums have come together to consider how museum collections, education, structures can address climate change. What should a new activist network take into consideration regarding shared authority and engagement?

Sustainability & Resilience & Futurists

This week’s readings reminded me of our review of Nina Simon’s job application, and the choice to relegate “sustainability” of community engagement efforts as least important. At the time, I chose to do so out of clarity – shouldn’t sustainability be addressed in the bridging and engaging activities, and so this would be an afterthought?

Reading through the chapters of Janes’s Museums in a Troubled World, I found the increasing references to sustainability and resilience to be along this same theme. However,  Janes sees these issues of sustainability for the museum as overarching themes rather than project-based ones. Make the changes on the inside – in the hiring processes, in reports and assessments, in thought leadership – and it will find its way into the larger work of the individual museum.

I found myself most interested in the MA’s draft of sustainability principles, of which Janes includes five:

  • Manage collections well, so that they will be a valued asset for future generations, not a burden.
  • Make the best use of energy and other natural resources and minimize waste, setting targets and monitoring progress towards them.
  • Contribute responsibly to the social, cultural and economic vitality of the local area and wider world.
  • Resppond to changing political, social, environmental and economic contexts and have a clear long-term purpose that reflects society’s expectations of museums.
  • Join with other museums, and other organisations, in partnerships and mergers, where it is the best way of meeting their purpose in the long term.

Thinking of these principles in the context of resilience, it’s asking a lot. I certainly think museums should hold themselves to these standards – to place their mission and work in context with broader society. But it also changes the game in some way. There are greater issues at hand than just a museum being resilient – both Janes and the MA ask for the museum to fundamentally shift their role from knowledge production to knowledge sharing. These are the museums for public humans – people interested in the visitor-centric models, responding to changing contexts, and building partnerships with a community.

Tying this sustainability checklist and James’s idea of resilience, I’m also reminded of Nicole Ivy‘s work at the Center for Future of Museums. As a Futurist, Ivy works to identify the issues museums will have to wrestle with in the coming years. Where does the United States stand on these issues now? Where will be in the future? How can museums of all types – art, history, science, culture, etc. – contribute to a world embraced by (or devoid of) this trend?

I kinda see public humans (and public humanities as a field) taking on this role of futurists in museum/cultural organization culture. For us, engagement and bridging tend to come first – traditional museum work, like collections, seems to come second. We’re much more interested how the museum engages with larger trends and social issues (or perhaps how they don’t) and how the institution can right its previous wrongs. And finally, I think we’re more interested in building historians – as mentioned in Letting Go? – than taking on the traditional role of historians ourselves.