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).
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.