The Political Museum Professional

Posted on November 29, 2012

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Well, my 2012 world tour of museum conferences is over. After three conferences in three countries in four weeks, plus time at the Smithsonian and visiting plenty of museums, I have aeons of raw mental material for processing and synthesis. But as I begin doing so, I thought I’d start at the end rather than the beginning, with thoughts inspired by the excellent keynote that David Fleming, CEO National Museums of Liverpool, gave at INTERCOM 2012.

Titled The Political Museum, David’s speech considered museums and the myth of neutrality. One of the standout concepts was the idea that “all cultural activity is political, but some is overt and some is covert.” He argued that museums should be overt in their political positions, acknowledging the inherent politicality involved in museum work, and that they should actively take positions on and around issues.

Unsurprisingly, this was a talk I loved. It aligns with my own feelings about institutions. I want passionate museums that take strong positions on things. In fact, I’d love to see museums that riff off each other’s ideas and exhibitions fluidly, as bloggers do. Last year, when I was at the MCA Denver, they had an event called Mediocre Mud as part of their Black Sheep Fridays, which was positioned in direct reference to the Marvelous Mud exhibition on at the Denver Art Museum. What a great way to create interest within a cultural community: exhibition battles! I want museums that position themselves at the centre for debate and discussion, because that is an exceptionally interesting place to be (if, at times, risky).

But of course I respond to these ideas. I personally love discussion (it’s one reason I blog). I want rich intellectual fodder that gives me new angles through which to understand the world and the particular things that are fascinating at any moment. This is the stuff I value.

It’s not what everyone values. During the last month, I have sat in on a lot of conference sessions and meetings. I’ve had discussions with people within our sector, and external to it. I’ve heard people talk passionately, and fervently about all manner of topic. I’ve heard from lots and lots of people who want museums to change – but all in divergent directions. Those who care passionately for the environment want museums to be more politically overt in their messages and actions towards/about the environment. Those who value the object most want museums to acquire the incredible things they come across, and want to opportunity to work with those objects. Those who are progressive and naturally inclined towards innovation and agility want agile museums because such an environment will let them thrive. Those who value safety and stability at work or life want to avoid the uncertainty of change and hold onto existing practice. Those who want to be included value inclusive practices. Those who are natural peacemakers and uncomfortable with conflict try to make everyone happy, but may never take a strong stance on anything. Those for whom race or sexuality has played a definitive role in life will advocate for particular approaches to museum practice as it relates to their experiences and values. And on and on and on it goes.

This is what I’ve learned. Museum work is personal. We all have personal motivations that we bring to work; that inform our practices. At conferences, when we speak to a particular topic, we often try to move people closer to our own positions, arming them with reasons why they should shift from their place to one nearer to ours. We seek leaders and community members who value what we value, or who at least make it possible for us to pursue those values. We all want self-actualisation. We don’t all want it from work necessarily, but work is still where many of these questions come to the fore. So, museum work is always personal. And as Carol Hanisch’s 1969 feminist paper tells us, the personal is political.

With this in mind, I have a series of propositions to make:

1. All museum practice is political (although not necessarily consciously so), but some is overt and some covert.

2. Cultural change is both more possible and more achievable if you can identify individual motivations and values, and provide mechanisms to keep them in tact.
If, for instance, you are trying to get a new digital project up and running in your institution and finding yourself with little support from other staff, try to find out why; what the real cause of their concern or blockage is. Maybe it’s a fear of additional work. Maybe it’s a worry that flashy technologies in the space will overwhelm delicate works of art. Maybe an exhibition designer has a concern about that a mobile app will change visitor flows, and they don’t know how to plan for such things and therefore just need practical support or research about that. Looking to understand the personal motives/values that underlie actions can give insight into the political positions that people are taking, and can help you tackle the root of the problem. If someone is resisting change, it’s because you’ve given them no reason to change in a way that is meaningful to them. (Something we can also apply to museum visitors; if the people who you want to come to your museum aren’t, it’s because you haven’t provided them with a compelling reason to do so.)

3. Strategic concerns are often political concerns.
Museums are not just political entities in their cultural activity, but also in the way they run. Being conscious of how the political and personal intermingle is useful when seeking to convert something you personally value (like, say, digitising collections) into a strategic priority (because it will help support mission). It is all too easy for overt and covert political activity to blend in this space; being consciously aware of an institution’s (or director’s) strategic and political concerns and contexts is important in order to connect the things that you value personally to the things that are important to the institution politically.

The museum is political, as is museum practice. But it’s also personal. We fight for the things we want because they are personally valuable and meaningful to us. It’s both. When considering institutional change, or even just looking to recruit people for a project that you want to do, paying conscious attention to both the personal and political motives at stake is important.

Before I finish, I thought I’d include the final paragraph of Hanisch’s The Personal is Political here. Although it was written specific to another situation, there is still useful perspective that can be gleaned from reading.

One more thing: I think we must listen to what so-called apolitical women have to say – not so we can do a better job of organizing them but because together we are a mass movement. I think we who work full time in the movement tend to become very narrow. What is happening now is that when non-movement women disagree with us, we assume it’s because they are ‘apolitical,’ not because there might be something wrong with our thinking. Women have left the movement in droves. The obvious reasons are that we are tired of being sex slaves and doing shitwork for men whose hypocrisy is so blatant in their political stance of liberation for everybody (else). But there is really a lot more to it than that. I can’t quite articulate it yet. I think ‘apolitical’ women are not in the movement for very good reasons, and as long as we say “you have to think like us and live like us to join the charmed circle,” we will fail. What I am trying to say is that there are things in the consciousness of “apolitical” women (I find them very political) that are as valid as any political consciousness we think we have. We should figure out why many women don’t want to do action. Maybe there is something wrong with the action or something wrong with why we are doing the action or maybe the analysis of why the action is necessary is not clear in our minds.

What do you think?