This article originally appeared in Museum magazine’s May/June 2023 issue, a benefit of AAM membership.
Why and how the perspective and purpose of museums should be widened.
20/20, a common reference to clear hindsight and normal vision, took an ironic twist as 2020 began. Planning was underway to commemorate the 50th Earth Day—a half century since the world marveled at the first view of Earth from the Moon—just as news organizations began frequent use of the word “existential,” which Dictionary.com presciently chose as its 2019 word of the year. It conveys “a sense of grappling with the survival—literally and figuratively—of our planet, our loved ones, our ways of life,” Dictionary.com said in announcing its choice.
These are not new challenges to the museum profession. At an AAM Annual Meeting during World War II, Albert Parr, Director of the American Museum of Natural History, spoke about “the painful anxiety and uncertainty with which we search for our proper function in the national struggle for a better future.” Looking back at the Depression, Marjorie Schwarzer, author of the 2020 book Riches, Rivals, & Radicals: A History of Museums in the United States, noted in a 2009 Museum article that “when funds began to flow again … an opportunity [for museums] to be societal role models for the wisest possible use of resources and talent was lost.
Arguably, this situation has reoccurred in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, and in the continuing aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic.
A geologist before a museologist, I have a big-picture perspective, and my interest in the museum profession intensified as the scope of the geosciences expanded. Geology used to be about the pre-human Earth. In the 1980s, spurred by exploration from orbiting spacecraft, the field’s attention began to shift toward the Earth System—the interconnection of its outer shells of air, water, ice, and life.
Only recently has a more holistically minded geoscience profession included a spotlight on human disruption of natural processes. Climate change has become one of many needed contexts for bringing attention to the fact that we, Homo sapiens, are a geologically recent survivor from multiple Homo species. Other enlightening contexts for current museum discussions about diversity are that the Earth’s biodiversity comprises almost nine million species of which only about 6,000 are other mammals, human health depends on environmental health, and a mass extinction of non-human life continues.
My earliest museum experiences were journeys to other places and about other people in the past. Today, museums are striving to relate not only to their current visitors’ lives and times but also to those audiences they aspire to attract. This shift is profoundly commendable, but gaps between museums’ content and society’s needs remain conspicuous. Museums must also become more holistically minded.
Experiences inspiring reflection are ideal catalysts to societal progress. However, much of the museum sector—arguably the field best suited to this lifelong service—lacks aligned approaches. Institutions often describe themselves as relevant but are seldom pertinent to truly consequential matters. Culture and nature are consciously and inadvertently disconnected. The sciences and humanities are virtual solitudes. Each museum type functions like a silo with art dominating the popular sense of culture. Operational tactics are often confused with directional strategies. Leadership and staff tensions often boil over into the news.
At the Smithsonian’s 150th anniversary symposium in 1996, Harold Skramstad Jr., Director of Henry Ford Museum, suggested that a mission statement “to collect, preserve and interpret fill-in-the-blank will no longer do” because it does not “answer the vital question of ‘so what?’” In the same vein, the top-rated 2009 TED Talk by Simon Sinek clarified that the success of an organization hinges on clarity about its why, how, and what—in this order. Why specifies its value-driven purpose. How specifies its approaches. What specifies its outcomes. Most people are drawn to an organization because of the why.
The planning language of vision, mission, and strategy was memorably exemplified in the oratory of President John F. Kennedy. On September 12, 1962, he said, “We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.” This was the why, his vision. NASA’s planning defined the how, the strategy. Astronauts enabled the what, the operations.
Urgency and Complexity
In an interview in Museum magazine ahead of his keynote speech at the 2011 AAM Annual Meeting, astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson anticipated that “if in 2050 we were delivering the same messages, either we’ve failed at affecting change in society and still needed to give those messages, or we just got left behind and we were no longer on the frontier of what mattered in society.”
A recent Danish survey of 41 exhibitions, all temporary, about the new Human Age of the Anthropocene—a concept introduced in 2000—concluded that most “appear to deliberately exclude significant controversies … and the predicament of the world from their arenas for reflection.” Echoing her concerned generation, Greta Thunberg has issued this clarion call: “We are alive at the most decisive time in the history of humanity. Together, we can do the seemingly impossible. But it has to be us, and it has to be now.”
The Resistance Museum in Amsterdam, which details the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands during World War II, embraces the nuance and complexity of history to let the public draw its own conclusions. In a January 25 New York Times article about the museum, Director Liesbeth van der Horst stressed the need to portray “the lives of victims and perpetrators, bystanders and resisters.” This caught my eye because when composing an article about relevance for Museum News in 2006, I chose this excerpt from a book by Lois Silverman and Mark O’Neill: “Perhaps the single most difficult task for the field in the 21st century is … to find the courage to embrace complexity in museums.”
Elizabeth Merritt of AAM’s Center for the Future of Museums describes strategic foresight as three actions: “mitigating damage, amplifying good things, and preparing for the next disruption.” I foresee museums also needing to be intentional about their role in the Earth-Human System, being more about issues than objects, confronting ethical dilemmas including decolonization and repatriation matters, exploring intersectionality, and encouraging adoption of the good ancestor and seven-generation traditions of the Indigenous Dakota and Iroquois peoples.
To be both relevant and sustainable, museums—from board meetings to frontline chats—need to cultivate both their usefulness and popularity with approaches that inspire reflection.
Food for Thought
Gail Anderson (ed.), Reinventing the Museum: Relevance, Inclusion and Global Responsibilities, 2023
Avi Y. Decter, Marsha L. Semmel, and Ken Yellis (eds.), Change Is Required: Preparing for the Post-Pandemic Museum, 2022
Elif Gökçiğdem (ed.), Designing for Empathy: Perspectives on the Museum Experience, 2019
Lotte Isager, Line Vestergaard Knudsen, and Ida Theilade, “A New Keyword in the Museum: Exhibiting the Anthropocene,” Museum & Society, vol. 19, no. 1, 2021
Randi Korn, Intentional Practice for Museums: A Guide for Maximizing Impact, 2018
Elizabeth Wood, Rainey Tisdale, and Trevor Jones (eds.), Active Collections, 2018