The Alliance has announced that the theme of our 2015 Annual Meeting will be The Social Value of Museums: Inspiring Change. Believing, as I do that Museums Can Change the World (CFM’s motto), I look forward to the year leading up to the meeting in Atlanta as a time to delve into a variety of issues related to social value and social justice. I am pleased that Robert R. Janes, Editor-in-Chief of Museum Management and Curatorship, accepted my invitation to kick off this extended discussion by sharing some thoughts he recently aired at his Fellows Lecture to the Canadian Museums Association in April, 2014.
The purpose of this post is to challenge museums to become activists in addressing the social and environmental threats to our individual and collective well-being. In order to embrace this challenge, museums require both visionary leadership and a profound commitment to true public engagement. Contrary to conventional wisdom, public engagement goes far beyond increasing audiences and earned revenues. I believe that museums, as highly trusted organizations in civil society, are key intellectual and civic resources in a time of profound socio-environmental change. There is a danger, however that museums will remain focused on their internal agendas and traditional practices – immune to critical reflection and courageous action.
Problems and Uncertainties
The time has come for museums to become active participants and problem solvers in the current Age of Disruption. The problems and uncertainties are unprecedented, yet the possibilities and opportunities for change and renewal have never been greater. Our highly technological, interconnected, global civilization is now threatened with collapse by an array of environmental problems, including the accelerating extinction of animal and plant populations essential for human survival; the spread of toxic compounds, and the unnecessary use of environmentally-damaging technologies such as “fracking” for oil and gas. Climate disruption is the most obvious issue and it is the focus of the new video I filmed for CFM (below).Skip over related stories to continue reading article
In addition to these environmental problems, there are many uncertainties:
- Will we run out of essential resources?
- Can the earth sustain 9 billion people by 2050?
- Will everyone have employment that meets basic needs considering the prediction that two billion jobs will disappear by 2030 as a result of robotics and digital technology?
- Will we be able to avoid the severe social disruption caused by increasing financial inequality? What about the lack of effective global institutions and global law to address these issues?
We cannot, as museum practitioners, simply dismiss these issues as someone else’s problems, as they are about our individual and collective well-being. For museums to claim intellectual neutrality for fear of espousing values is nonsense. To sit on the sidelines is to embrace the status quo, and the status quo is obviously perilous.
What Can Museums Do?
I certainly agree that museums may not be able to contribute to the resolution of many of our global problems, but museums are in a position to invent a new future for themselves and their communities. Museums could at least help create an image of a desirable future – the essential first step in its realization. I cannot emphasize enough that the sustainability of museums cannot be separated from the sustainability of the biosphere. This is the harbinger of a new future for museums, as museums are untapped and untested sources of ideas and knowledge, and ideally placed to foster individual and community participation in the quest for greater awareness and workable solutions to our global problems.
In considering what museums might actually do to become agents of change, there are at least five defining characteristics of museums which make them ideally suited for taking action. What form this action takes is up to each museum. I am hoping that these suggestions will help expand conventional museum practice and contribute to a greater museum presence in the world.
The first characteristic of museums is that their collections are a time capsule of material diversity and this record has a value akin to biodiversity, as destructive industrial technology is replaced with more adaptive solutions.
Second, museums embody diversity. Globalization is creating a stultifying degree of sameness throughout the world that is undoing the diversity that underlies the resilience of our species. The 55,000 unique museums in the world make them a significant antidote to global homogenization.
Third, museums are keepers of locality. Local communities are the key to intelligent adaptation and Wendell Berry, the American poet/farmer, noted that “the real work of planet-saving will be small, humble and humbling”, and that problem solving will require individuals, families and communities.
Fourth, museums are the bridge between the so-called two cultures – the sciences and the humanities. Museums are one of few institutions equipped to bridge the divide between these two ways of looking at the world – a divide that continues to befuddle our understanding of human presence on the earth.
The fifth characteristic of museums is that they are some of the most free work environments on the planet. There are very few other workplaces which offer more opportunities for thinking and acting in ways that can blend personal satisfaction and growth with organizational goals. Museum workers must now cultivate their personal agency—meaning their capacity to take action in the world. Act on your values and beliefs; rock the boat; fly under the radar—do what you need to do to if you feel that something is important and needs to be addressed.
The question facing our field is this – can museums finally subordinate themselves to concerns that are larger than their own? If they do, museums will, of necessity, become more “reality-based”, and by this I mean becoming more involved in the broader world, embracing a sense of urgency, and seeing things as they really are in terms of the challenges to our well-being. This is the work that really needs to be done.
 M. Marien, “12 Mega-Uncertainties for the Decades Ahead”, January 16, 2013 Revised and expanded version for GlobalForesightBooks Update (initial draft, 6/4/12).p.1. Available online: http://www.globalforesightbooks.org/gfb-updates.html
 Janes, Museums in a Troubled World: Renewal, Irrelevance or Collapse? London and New York; Routledge, pp.178-182.
 C.P. Snow, The Two Cultures: And a Second Look, New York: Cambridge University Press, 1959 and 1963.
 J. H. Kunstler, The Long Emergency: Surviving the End of Oil, Climate Change, and Other Converging Catastrophes of the Twenty-First Century, New York: Grove Press, 2005, p. 324.
11 thoughts on “Museums in a Dangerous Time”
Give me a break–you state that museums should "subordinate themselves to concerns which are larger than their own"–?? Why should museums be appropriated by social activists? This is a good way to destroy museums–it will dilute their resources and prevent them from addressing "their own concerns" effectively. Museums are compelling because they are MUSEUMS–organized, scholarly repositories, not soap boxes for outsiders. Activists need to find their OWN venue and leave museums alone.
Agreed that "museums as mall" is a dead-end –but using museums as propaganda machines for any particular point of view is problematic, in my view. Museums should be as objective as possible. Their role should be to present the material in an orderly way so that viewers can efficiently synthesize it and draw their own conclusions.
I would wish that museums could remain one of the few liminal places on earth. The museums I knew as a child were blessedly hushed; one felt reverence for the museum collections and special shows. There was always a sense of time standing still. One could day dream a bit, meditate on specific items and ideas, and leave with enchanting memories to enrich the weeks to come. Such a sense of suspension still obtains in many museums I visit. However museums appear to be insatiably hungry for more and more "visitations." If crowded and noisy museums become just one more venue for ranting and manipulation, museums as we need them to be will disappear in the vortex of miserable daily routine.
I run the historic ARK in Berea, Ohio and we are solid because we make history as well as record it. That puts us in a special venue as museums go:
A.R.K. stands for – Architektur Recycled Kulturstall.
The historic A.R.K. in Berea is the first structure in Cuyahoga County, Ohio to incorporate sustainable building concepts from the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992. Hand built in 1994 as a work of art by Environmental Artists David and Renate Jakupca. It is a practical design study for the 'Theory of Iceality in Environmental Arts' for future buildings and for the global headquarters of the International Center for Environmental Arts (ICEA) and Cleveland’s Eco Village. It is also a pioneer structure for the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Certification developed by the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) in 1998.
The A.R.K. is hybrid structure utilizing cob, straw bales, aluminum cans, used tires, and recycled construction materials, It helped to address the environmental problems through 'iceality' of large urban areas and the trend of remodeling rather than demolishing and rebuilding existing structures. The ARK in Berea is used as an eco-museum, community center, and art studio of American Cultural Ambassadors David and Renate Jakupca. It is recognized as the 'Birthplace of the sustainable Environmental Art Movement and is registered with the Berea Historical Society, Western Reserve Historical Society and the Ohio Historical Society.
Thank you, Robert Janes. I don't think it's totally fair to say there's been "no discussion or outcry" about climate change, but our voices have been depressingly ineffective, for sure. I totally agree that it is a museum's job to help people think about what it means to be human, and this is the scariest issue we face as a species. I was moved and impressed by the Whatcom Museum's recent show Vanishing Ice — now on view in El Paso, I believe:
As the new CEO of the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center and formerly the COO of a major international development organization, I find this conversation fascinating. I think museums should preserve and challenge. They should ask questions and provide visions of what is yet to be realized. I look forward to helping forge the way for museums to be relevant in the civil conversations about the most important topics of the day by blending our history of the human story with contemporary expressions of current reality and the unknown future.
Posted on behalf of blog author Robert Janes :
My thanks to all of you for sharing your thoughts and concerns. I’m afraid that my thinking is too far apart from the comments of N.A., as I simply cannot accept that climate change, global poverty, corporatism, social injustice, etc are “propaganda” – to use N.A.’s words. If this is social activism, then so be it. Museums are social institutions in civil society, with many receiving public money. Why are they exempt from social responsibility? The notion of “objectivity” is more fuzzy thinking, as to do nothing and remain “objective” is to embrace the status quo, which is as value laden as any other position on an issue.
Museums are also liminal spaces as Jean Hess points out, and this characteristic is critically important. It’s essential to realize that being socially responsible is not an either/or proposition. Museums relevance can and must be achieved using the unique qualities of museums.
Thank you very much, Renate Jakupca, for your overview of ARK – I can only say that you are leading the way and I urge you to share your story far and wide. You are clearly not sleepwalking into the future and I sense that we all have much to learn from your initiative.
And thanks to Mikala Woodward and David Dahlin for their words of encouragement and their commitment to the collective good. I hope that Mikala will push the climate change agenda in her work, and that David can bring his international development expertise to bear on redefining the role of the museum for the 21st century. My thanks again to all of you.
While I basically agree with your "five defining characteristics" I disagree with virtually every other word in your post.
One of the things I despised about art school was the same presupposition that you make here, which is that all artists and museums agree with your assessment and position on societal "problems". Most of which end up sounding like political lobbying for only one side of the issues. And I must say that I do not agree lock step with your conclusions as to what those issues are, that they are important, or that they must be solved in only one manner.
I was told by a professor once that it wasn't her job to present issues and let me develop my own opinions about them but to indoctrinate me into the proper positions. This is ludicrous.
As an artist I definitely feel it is my responsibility to present my perspective on life, society, and art. As a museum professional it is my responsibility to present other artists' views on the same, but not to show one side or to even take a side.
I ask questions and encourage thought, but I never try to lead a patron or visitor anywhere, except into a greater appreciation of the value of art. I value far more an intelligent and well thought position, even if it is contrary to mine, than someone railroaded with the latest global/societal fad.
To sum up, I am not an activist. I don't want to be an activist and I don't want my museum to be an activist.
The difference I sense in this blog post and these comments is between the concepts of Museums as forum vs soapbox. Robert James, responding to comments, says, "Museums are social institutions in civil society, with many receiving public money. Why are they exempt from social responsibility?" I'd like to point out that for many museums, public money and non-profit status require us, by law, to avoid taking sides on public issues, and we can actually lose our non-profit status, or public money support, if we take public stands on issues. However, as public forums, we can, and do, offer programs that help to shed light on contemporary issues. Here in Northwest Montana our Museum has an annual speaker series that in 12 years and 48 presentations has covered everything from climate change to mining and oil explorations, watersheds, labor violence, vigilantes, bear research, black homesteader struggles, wolves, beer brewing, auto culture, prostitutes, and scores of other topics of Montana history and culture. And since we're a public gathering place, we rent our meeting rooms to groups of all stripes and beliefs–in fact by law we cannot discriminate on who we rent to based on ideology–so we've had events put on by holocaust deniers and white supremacists, secular humanists/atheists, Republicans & Democrats, environmentalists and logging companies. One Christmas season we booked the Montana Logging Association next door to the Montana Wilderness Association on the same evening. They both wanted a bar, so we set it up in the hallway between the two rental rooms and the two groups shared–turns out many of them had never talked to one another before, and over drinks, some of the former adversaries became fast friends. That's where I think Museums can serve their communities–not by taking sides on issues, but by presenting a variety of viewpoints and providing a public space where people with differing viewpoints can come together to talk and maybe gain some understanding. If we, as respected neutral providers of information, start stridently advocating for a particular position on issues of the day, we stand a very good chance of alienating half of our audience who otherwise might come to us and learn something new and broaden their perspectives. Surely we all have the right (and even obligation) to stand up for what we believe in our lives apart from our museum work, and likewise, in our work, make an effort to cover information relevant to current issues to help our audiences understand and make decisions. . . but take sides? Not so much.
Some great comments. Gil Jordon sees the museum as "forum" as opposed to "soap-box".
For me, there is also a division here–between the museum's content/collections/specific field of scholarship–and the museum's functioning as an institution/body of staff/physical site.
The mission of the museum where I work is to carefully study, curate, and tell the stories of a particular genre of American paintings and to preserve a particular historic site in Connecticut. Our primary source objects and site are the resources that we preserve and share in service of public education. Part of our mission is also to continue the history of art-making at our site, providing a sanctuary for painters and art education.
Of course, a current and exciting museum–dependent on size, content, and capacity–curates so as to relate content to contemporary culture and happenings. Because climate change is currently a major issue in public life, it makes sense that this could be a fitting topic of engagement. However, I see this as a choice–perhaps a likely, timely, and appropriate one in the case of many museums–but I do not see it as a directive "responsibility" in terms of programming content.
However, when it comes to institutional structure and functioning, I believe museums and their staff hold a similar "responsibility" to other institutions and groups of people in civil society–that is, to be responsive and attentive to social and environmental issues in the way they do their work. I hope that museums, as I would hope for any kind of institution, will exercise reflection, innovation and intentionality in their functioning as they improve, grow, and seek to bring benefit to themselves and others. It is in this realm–rather than in the realm of museum content–where I hope museums will be attentive and conscientiously working toward energy efficiency, ethical investment, extending resource to diverse groups in service of public education, offering spaces for public forum, experimenting with new technology, etc.
As an individual, apart from my museum affiliation, I definitely feel personal responsibility of this kind. Much of my time spent outside of work is devoted to social activism. I work with education and organizing projects which are specifically devoted to issues of climate change, racial justice, and democracy. This is who I am, and I certainly bring my personal experience and opinions with me to work as I engage with the rest of the staff to co-create our institution. That said, our collection is our collection, and our museum's content focus is separate from the politics of the staff and has its own relevant and informative story to tell. I'm all about "soap-boxing" and the right of people to speak out be socially engaged–as such a person, I am grateful to be able to support myself by being a part of a beautiful and worthy museum that preserves paintings and history, contributing positively to public life.
Thanks to all who have contributed to this conversation.
Florence Griswold Museum, Old Lyme, CT
[Posted on behalf of blog author Robert Janes]:
I’ m glad to learn that jncarlos and I at least agree on some of the defining characteristics of museums. Other than this, we must live on different planets. The effects of climate change and disruption are not “political problems”. They may require political solutions but this global issue and others are a direct threat to individuals, their communities and our civilization. Any thinking person does not have to be “indoctrinated,” as jncarlos suggests – the consequences of ignoring these issues are patently obvious. How one is able to separate one’s art from life is beyond me – climate change is not a “global/societal fad”.
Gil Jordan provides a wonderful example of the museum’s ability to facilitate disparate perspectives – loggers and tree huggers sharing the same bar. Museums have unlimited potential to nurture discussion and dialogue around a host of complex issues. But to maintain that museums are authoritatively neutral is nonsense. I am not writing about strident lobbying; it’s about museums waking up to the complexities of the world around them and adding value, resources and intelligence on behalf of individual and community well-being. The science is conclusive about the consequences of climate change – this isn’t about taking sides; it’s about being responsible.
Robin Woerner could not have said it any better – “I hope that museums, as I would hope for any kind of institution, will exercise reflection, innovation and intentionality in their functioning as they improve, grow, and seek to bring benefit to themselves and others.” I would add that being socially responsible does not preclude working with one’s collections or other museum content. These, in fact, are resources to be used in that pursuit, as is the personal agency (the capacity to take action in the world) of every single museum worker.
Addressing the complex issues, aspirations and interests of one’s community is not “soap boxing”, as some of the Commentators would like to believe. It is actually exercising one’s democratic responsibilities as members of a privileged social organization – the museum/gallery. My sincere thanks to each of you for your time and effort in sharing your thoughts.