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It’s Debatable

Category: Center for the Future Of Museums Blog
Nicole and I just got back from Atlanta, where we attended our first Association of Professional Futuristsmeeting. (In what we felt like was a fair cultural exchange, we led a bunch of the attendees over to the High Museum of Art on Friday night to enjoy live music and a “Drawing in the Galleries” drop-in activity. It was great.)
I’m a huge fan of sharing the learning that comes out of conferences, and try to make sure at least 10 people benefit from something I bring back—a fact, connection, technique, an opportunity.
In this case, I am eager to share two brilliant tools conference organizers used to help us explore the future of education in the US. I’m convinced that these tools—formal debate and forecasting decks—can be useful in any organization’s planning. While I can’t teach you everything about how to use them, I hope to plant the idea in your head that they are worth trying, point you to some resources, and encourage you to follow up. (And I will try them out inside AAM—stay tuned!)
First up: debate.
I’ve always been somewhat uneasy about formal, competitive, debate. Even though I know it is far more respectable than the so-called debates that embellish our presidential campaigns, I had the impression it was reductive (for or against! No shades of grey), antagonistic (and therefore divisive), and inherently insincere (since it teaches you to make a persuasive argument even for a position you feel to be wrong.)
Well, count me a convert. Melissa Wade, principal founder of the Atlanta Urban Debate League demolished all my assumptions, and showed us how debate can help teams:
  • Explore the nuances of positions by learning from and responding to counterarguments
  • Build trust and improve communications
  • Foster mutual understanding of and respect for conflicting positions
Perhaps most importantly, debate teaches critical listening—closely attending to and evaluating the content of what is being said. (A valuable skill all too often lacking in the workplace.)
Some of Melissa’s top students and coaches staged a formal (if abbreviated) debate for and against the proposition that there should be a major restructuring of education. Then it was our turn: she divided attendees up into two teams, and assigned us to argue for against the forecast that: “By 2040, all learning will be individualized and distributed.” The iterative process of making an argument, responding to questions, listening to the counter argument, asking questions and formulating a summation was an extremely effective method of exploring a complex question. Considering how well it worked in an extremely compressed format, I imagine it would be that much more effective when given more time and instruction.
I can think of all sorts of contentious issues that routinely arise in museums that could benefit from this approach: should we allow food (or balloons, or plants) in the galleries during events; is it ethical for board members to lend art for an exhibit, or have their own art in an exhibit, or borrow art for a party (I’m notmaking that one up…). The particular strength of this approach being that you may have to embrace (or at least thoroughly understand and articulate) a position you disagree with. A curator, for example, would have to live inside the head of a registrar for a while, while the registrar walks a mile in the archaeologist’s field boots.
Where this method could really shine, I believe, is in strategic planning. Imagine assigning your board and staff to teams to create briefs and argue for or against the statements that:

  • By 2020, the museum should and will have universal free admission
  • We should divest ourselves of half our historic properties, and help them transition into private ownership as residences or businesses
  • The museum should launch a major touring exhibit program
  • The museum should stop (fill in the blank with the thing your organization never can seem to stop doing, though the financial and mission-related ROI is contentious: renting the garden out for weddings; relying on block-buster exhibits; holding an annual gala)
I suspect you would find that, post-debate, the group would be much better positioned to have a civil and productive discussion and come to a good decision.
And if you don’t believe me, here’s Thinkr’s argument for the central role debate plays in shaping our decisions, in a thrifty 5 minute argument. 

I hate the title of the video, though—the point of debate in the real world, rather than competition, isn’t winning, it’s the quest for mutual understanding. As one of the interviewees say, “now when I meet a person, and they have a point of view that I would have thought…’wow, this person is completely out of their mind,” now I say ‘well, I’ve had to defend that position, so I know where they are coming from.”
CFM dabbled with a debate format, loosely speaking, in the Ethics Smackdown at the 2013 annual meeting: we recruited James Bradburne and John Simmons, respectively, to argue forand againstloosening the restrictions on the use of funds from deaccessioning. However, now that I appreciate the power of formal debate preparation and format, I’m jotting down a list of other contentious field wide issues that could be tackled with a more rigorous approach. Perhaps at a future annual meeting we could recruit teams from a local college to take sides on the proposition that:
Unpaid museum internships are unethical and should be abolished, or
All museums should divest themselves of investments in fossil fuels, or
To qualify for government funding, museum staff should have to reflect local demographics
Perhaps you were a crack debater in high school or college, or maybe your son or daughter is treading that path. If not, you can draw on the extensive online resources at Debate Central or the International Debate Education Association.  And if you prefer video, Melissa’s organization has a great YouTube channel on debate training as well.
How about it? What would be on your list for a rousing, civil argument in your museum or in the field? I’d like to know. And in a future post, I’ll share some thoughts on the second tool we used at the conference–forecasting decks. 
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  1. How about? "Resolved: Museums shall deaccession any object they have not used in the last five years." We could discuss the practice of weeding the collection (like many libraries do) and then try to figure out how we can streamline the disposal process so we're not taking 500 objects for every one we get rid of!

  2. Love this concept! It seems like a useful corollary to creative ideation – a process we often use where I work to generate ideas based on research assignments that take us far beyond the museum world to see what developments and activities in other fields are applicable to our work. That's useful in defining a big field and drawing new ideas into our work from there – but this seems useful, as you say, in surfacing powerful arguments and considerations and working through them for the strongest "mutual understanding" of the issues at stake.

  3. Speaking for the negative regarding the question of deaccesioning, the trend today seems to be one of the short view. Companies get rid of R and D departments, customer service is talked about more than practiced, and product quality is sacrificed, all for short term profits/savings. The short term view is ubiquitous and dangerous, particularly for museums, if they want to take their caretaking status seriously. "Not used in the last five years"? I just reviewed a list of potential exhbit topics I created eight years ago and realized I'd like to do one in 2018. That's ten years and if some of the items I was thinking of using were disposed of five years ago I'm screwed. But they weren't. And how many of us have plumbed the depths of our catalog, looking for artifacts that haven't been exhibited in a number of years, either to answer a research question or add to an exhibit. Think of the Jefferson Bible, which was finally exhibited several years ago after being in storage for years. And there are so many other cultural treasures which have been in storage for years, either because they were forgotten, they weren't in good condition (like the Jefferson Bible) or they had not yet been recognized for their significance. And streamlining the disposal process? That's just as shortsighted.

  4. Resolved, by 2020, all museums should and will have free admission. People value something more when they invest something in it. In our culture that investment usually involves money. Once that investment has been made, they have every right to expect a return. In the case of museums that return is an interesting and educational experience that equals their investment of time and money. We charge admisson and our visitation grows every year. Perhaps museums that need to provide free admission to attract visitors should look at the other reasons folks choose not to visit them.

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