A Museum Manifesto for a More Equitable Future

Category: Center for the Future Of Museums Blog

The museum sector often thinks about equity in terms of access to exhibits and educational programs. There is also a robust and growing movement to make museums’ digital assets, including documentation and images of collections, open and accessible. But museums also control immensely powerful intangible assets: notably reputation, reach, and networks of influence. I’m developing a workshop to help museums figure out how to use their assets, tangible and intangible, to redress inequities in their communities. By sharing the rough outline of this work in this post I hope to solicit your input, and your help in identifying potential partners, hosts, funders, and participants in this work.

One of the biggest challenges facing the United States today is wealth inequality. One percent of the population now holds well over a third of the nation’s wealth, while the bottom 90% holds less than a quarter. This inequality in wealth is part of a pernicious feedback loop of inequity in education, housing, our legal system, job opportunities, health care, political power to name a few. In addition to being a social justice issue in and of itself, economists, historians and policy experts warn that escalating inequality can lead to social and economic instability and some feel it poses a significant threat to our democratic system. I believe there is a huge opportunity for museums to prove their value to society, and tap new sources of support, by taking that road.

To that end, I’ve been studying the work the Institute for the Future (IFTF) is doing around inequality, starting with their framework for Universal Basic Assets (UBA). IFTF has issued a call to action for organizations throughout society to collaboratively identify the key assets people will need today and in the future in order to lead sustainable livelihoods as individuals, households, and wider communities. I believe museums are prime candidates to respond to that call.

The premise of IFTF’s UBA manifesto is that asset inequality, broadly speaking, drives the inequality of financial wealth, and assets have historically been distributed in ways that privilege the privileged. It may not be immediately evident how museums can have a significant effect on income distribution, or even wealth distribution, but if we start looking at assets in a broader sense, I can see a way for us to be punch above our weight.

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Here’s a summary of IFTF’s UBA framework, with some thoughts on how it applies to museums.

The framework identifies three classes of assets:
• Private Assets—Belonging to individuals.
• Public assets—Infrastructure and services such as education, health, transportation, and public utilities. (As IFTF notes, this class is particularly important because social and economic mobility are strongly correlated to access to public assets.)
• Open assets—a growing category of mostly digital assets, often created communally, and open to everyone, such as Wikipedia and other open-source resources.

Museums themselves are clearly public assets (even if we not seen as essential public infrastructure as often as we would like), and we control a growing pool of open digital assets. But I believe museums can also help individuals build their private assets, and facilitate access to other public and open assets as well.

The framework groups assets into eight categories
1. Space (digital and physical): for learning, health, collective sustainability
2. Natural resources
3. Infrastructure: built environment for power, transportation, communication that supports:

a.Social exchange
b. Economic exchange
c. Physical, psychological, spiritual participation

4. Capital (in this case meaning financial capital)
5. Data: tools to acquire, share, interpret, verify. Privacy, balance of control and access
6. Know-how: skills and knowledge
7. Communities (including social capital)
8. Power: standing, economic, social, legal, voice, rights enforcement

Let me demonstrate with just a few examples of how museums are already facilitating asset equity in both the analog and digital realms:

Example 1: using museums’ public assets (space, knowledge, authority, reputation) to build individual assets through training and credentialing

We are entering an era of profound disruption to the educational system, and one of the trends we are seeing is towards disaggregation of educational experiences: from two or four years of college and a diploma, to smaller, distributed educational training and credentialing. Museums can help fill this educational landscape with accessible programs that offer immediate, practical value. For example, in 2017 the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, NY, partnered with the architectural non-profit space, Assembly House 150, to create SACRA—a training program that imparts fine carpentry skills to men and women in need of employment. Staff at the Albright-Knox helped to create a business plan, secure funding, develop relationships with government partners, community organizations, specialized trainers and employers, and also played a role in interviewing the trainees. Now they are helping this artist-led non-profit to build the infrastructure it will need to stand on its own.

Museums are already doing great work integrating training into the emerging ecology of digital credentialing as well. For example, the Cooper Hewitt Museum in NYC offers training and digital badging through Design Prep Academy. Through free programs, workshops, tours of design firms, college tours, free competitive scholarships, the program helps young people get the credentials and training they need to enter the fashion industry. This is also a nice example of creating networks of support for digital assets, as some of the Design Prep badges are accredited by the Council of Fashion Designers of America.

Example 2: using museums’ expertise and reputation to create an accessible infrastructure of economic exchange.

In Santa Fe, the International Museum of Folk Art used its knowledge, reputation, and networks of influence to help found the International Folk Art Alliance, which envisions “a world that values the dignity and humanity of the handmade, honors timeless cultural traditions, and supports the work of folk artists serving as entrepreneurs and catalysts for positive social change.” The Alliance operates the International Folk Art Market, which takes place annually in Santa Fe and in Arlington, Texas. The Market meticulously tracks its social and economic impact. Since it launched in 2004 it has hosted nearly 1,000 master folk artists from 98 countries; generated $28 million from artist sales (90% of which goes home with first-time artists); affected 1.1 million lives worldwide; and drawn 233,000 Market attendees—with an estimated economic impact of $142 million.

A number of museums are creating digital makerspaces and marketplaces. The Rijksmuseum, in Amsterdam, and the Statens Museum for Kunst (National Gallery of Denmark) in Copenhagen nurture creative entrepreneurs and small business by making digital collections data open and accessible, and by sharing their reputational heft with people using these assets. For example, SMK recently partnered with the 3D printing company Shapeways on the Collection Jewelry Design Competition. SMK provided raw materials, in the form of digital files on six collections objects, and reputational validation by having their curators select and display some of the entries in the museum. One winner and four runners up were displayed in the SMK and sold in the SMK-Shapeways online shop. (Other entries were eligible to be offered in the store as well).

Example 3: using museums’ knowledge, space, reputation, and authority to equalize access to political and regulatory power. This is a particularly important category of work because whoever has access to power gets to write the rules that control everything else.

Museums are tackling this challenge in both the physical and digital realms. In the physical world, the Jane Addams Hull-House created a platform for the un- or dis-enfranchised to voice their opinions during the last presidential election by hosting Aram Han Sifuentes’ Official Unofficial Voting Stations. The project launched in Chicago leading up to the 2016 presidential election, and extended its reach via 15 collaborating institutions, leading to diverse installations and interactive voting in Baltimore, Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, Ithaca, Detroit, Mexico City, Acapulco, and Tijuana.

In April, 2017, in order to democratize political power for marginalized groups, NEW INC organized Create and Advocate, a weekend-long creative digital hack-a-thon at A/D/O in Brooklyn, partnering local social justice organizations with artists, designers, and technologists from the NEW INC community to develop creative solutions to key civic issues. The civic collaborators included the Center for Constitutional Rights, the Vera Institute of Justice, the People’s Climate March, University Settlement, Just Leadership USA, the Sadie Nash Leadership Project, the Black Movement Law Project, and El Puente. Some of the resulting projects addressed prison reform, gentrification, environmental justice, and tracking and reporting hate speech and abuse.

What’s next? The workshop I’m developing would help museums address inequality in their communities by applying the UBA framework to their work. Working together, staff from an individual museum or from multiple museums serving shared communities would:

1) Map the assets they control or influence onto the UBA framework, and align this map with social and economic inequities in their communities.

2) Choosing one or more categories of assets from the UBA manifesto, develop their own goal statements and design inequality interventions based on facilitating access to UBAs.

3) Use a variety of design strategies to brainstorm ways to achieve these goals

4) Create metrics that document the impact of their UBA work

Would you be interesting in hosting such a workshop, or partnering with me on the design? Can you help me identify funders who might help make such training accessible and affordable for museums of all types and sizes? Please weigh in using the comment section below, find me at the Alliance Resource Center in MuseumExpo at #AAM2018 next week, or email me at emerritt (at) aam-us.org.

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3 Comments

  1. Dear Elizabeth,
    I am thrilled to see this work! I have focused my research on inclusion & exclusion in American museums. I would love to partner with you, in any capacity, as you move forward with these projects. Please feel free to reach out to me via email, my website, or visit the AAM Bookstore on Tuesday 3PM – I’m signing my new book Understanding & Implementing Inclusion in Museums – I would love to see you there, and I would relish the opportunity to learn more about your work!
    All the Best,
    Laura-Edythe Coleman

  2. Dear Elizabeth,
    I am deeply invested and interested in this work and would very much like to contribute and partner with you on this initiative. I am the Associate Director of Education, Diversity and Inclusion at Madison Children’s Museum. Please contact me at sbonnici@madisonchildrensmuseum.org

  3. Hi Elizabeth. I just read this and unfortunately I couldn’t make it to Phoenix this year; it would have been great to know more about your project first hand.
    Like in all the world, there’s a lot to do for inclusion and equality in Mexican museums, and I do believe there’s the potential to achieve great things.
    One of the best examples I’ve seen lately, is an exhibition curated by the homeless people of Cardiff at their National Museum. It’s called ‘Who decides?’.
    I would love to help develop ideas to take this project to it’s next step. Count me in!

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