Skip to content

Managing Holistically—Lessons from Ecosystem Management

Category: Center for the Future Of Museums Blog

This is a second guest blog post from Robert Janes, editor-in-chief of Museum Management and Curatorship, Chair of the Biosphere Institute of the Bow Valley and former president and CEO of the Glenbow Museum in Calgary, Canada. Read his first post here. These posts are adapted from Janes’ recently published book Museums in a Troubled World in which he explores the meaning and role of museums as key intellectual and civic resources in a time of profound social and environmental change. You can also hear Janes’ thoughts on the future of museums in his Voices of the Future interview on CFM’s nonprofit YouTube channel.

One of the constant themes throughout this book is the seeming failure of most museums to truly gauge their role and responsibilities in the larger scheme of things. A medley of hesitation, introversion and self-doubt supports the museum’s isolation from mainstream issues and aspirations, with the notable exception of participation in the marketplace. With the exception of those museums that are in search of resilience, the profile of many museums is now being achieved through the notoriety that accrues to consumption—sensational shows, vanity architecture, large private donations and so forth—you’ve heard it all before. This is not dissimilar to the situation confronting environmental scientists and resource managers in the recent past, only they have taken it upon themselves to define a new future for their work with a view to societal values, needs and participation. Museums can learn from this pioneering work and, in so doing, ‘rotate their consciousness’ in a more thoughtful direction.

Resource management is apparently undergoing a fundamental change in the United State, with traditional sustained yield approaches being replaced by what is called ecosystem management. The primary goal of ecosystem management is long-term ecological sustainability, with the recognition that socio-political context is essential, but has been largely ignored. To achieve a more holistic and integrated perspective, ecosystem management emphasizes socially-defined goals and objectives, integrated and holistic science, collaborative decision making and adaptable institutions. This recognition of the need for holistic management highlights the current failure of museums to effectively manage their broader potential as social institutions.

I had the opportunity to attend a presentation by one of the architects of ecosystem management, Hannah Cortner, and what follows is a distillation of a couple of her key observations—which are strikingly relevant for museums.

Skip over related stories to continue reading article

Ecosystem management attempts to bring the “citizen’s chorus” to the table, answering the question of how specialists will interact with citizens and imbue that performance with wisdom, courage and vision. The challenge is the same for museums, and persists as a result of their inability or reluctance to share authority with outsiders. This deficiency is related directly to the politics of expertise, where the role of the citizen is eclipsed and replaced by experts who have their own values and aspirations. This is certainly a formidable challenge, and ecosystem management employs various principles to address them, beginning with socially defined goals and objectives, coupled with collaborative decision-making. The intention here is to make room for both experts and the public to share in a decision-making process that crosses many boundaries, be they social, cultural or economic.

Cortner and her colleagues believe it is the duty of scientists and scholars to also promote the ideals of democracy and citizenship, a commitment like that of the Field Museum’s Center for Cultural Understanding and Change. The CCUC describes it’s commitment to public involvement and urban research in its own city and region as follows:

“To use problem-solving anthropological research to identify and catalyze strengths and assets of communities in Chicago and beyond. In doing so, CCUC helps communities identify new solutions to critical challenges such as education, housing, health care, environmental conservation, and leadership development. Through research, programs and access to collections, CCUC reveals the power of cultural difference to transform social life and promote social change.” <

Ecosystem management also places great value on integrated and interdisciplinary science, a perennial need in museums, as well as on the importance of adaptable institutions. The latter are flexible, allow decentralized decision-making, and are comfortable with what is called active adaptive management. The purpose of active adaptive management is to learn by experimentation in order to determine the best management, while also involving active stakeholder collaboration.

Ecosystem management is really the attempt to nurture interconnectedness, increase knowledge and thereby evolve professional practice. The broader museum community is in dire need of all these things, although there are admittedly impressive obstacles to developing a new management paradigm. These are various and include the current predilection to look to the marketplace for solving museum issues; the resulting short-term economic thinking; the notion that risk-taking and failure are not acceptable; and the woeful lack of inter-institutional cooperation and collaboration. All of these challenges are the artifacts of convention and comfort, and can be replaced with a rotation of consciousness in the direction of ecosystem management.

AAM Member-Only Content

AAM Members get exclusive access to premium digital content including:

  • Featured articles from Museum magazine
  • Access to more than 1,500 resource listings from the Resource Center
  • Tools, reports, and templates for equipping your work in museums
Log In

We're Sorry

Your current membership level does not allow you to access this content.

Upgrade Your Membership


1 Comment

  1. "Museums in the service of Society" has been a common refrain of many professional museum organization in the western developed world, the International Council of Museums for instance. In reality it has been all but ignored. But not so in much of the developing world; Africa for instance or the smaller island states of the South Pacific. One group that has adopted values-based museum practice as its raisonne d'etre, and framed an ongoing discussion about it is the Commonwealth Assocation of Museums. See the CAM International On-line Journal: And for more about CAM in general
    President, CAM.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Subscribe to Field Notes!

Packed with stories and insights for museum people, Field Notes is delivered to your inbox every Monday. Once you've completed the form below, confirm your subscription in the email sent to you.

If you are a current AAM member, please sign-up using the email address associated with your account.

Are you a museum professional?

Are you a current AAM member?

Success! Now check your email to confirm your subscription, and please add to your safe sender list.