The Political Museum Professional

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?

18 thoughts on “The Political Museum Professional

  1. Good post, Suse, thanks for sharing your thoughts from the conference.

    I infer that David was talking about politics in the public sense—local, national, international policy and governance. Am I correct? And Hanisch is certainly addressing a national political issue regarding legislation, and rights. But you segue to a discussion about internal politics (views about social relationships involving power and authority) which I think is a very different thing. I like both parts of the post (and agree with you that people who work in museums have agendas driven by their own personal preferences and ambitions) but had a hard time making the two parts hang together. Can you help me make the connection?

    Speaking from a US perspective, museums here very rarely tackle political issues in the local/national/governance meaning of the word. Maybe because issues are too fraught, and as publically supported organizations they hesitate to make themselves a target for people who disagree with the political stand they choose to take. Museums are vulnerable to becoming political footballs even when they take on issues that are not inherently political (climate change, gender identity) that have become political shibboleths

    1. Elizabeth, thank you for this comment and these questions. They are very challenging to me, because they pull out some nuances and issues that I hadn’t necessarily considered.

      You might be right. Maybe I have falsely conflated discussion of public politics and internal politics, and there is no relationship between them at all? It is definitely possible, because this post brings together a number of loose threads that have been tickling me in recent weeks.

      Having said that, I do think that internal politics and public politics can be related, and also related back to personal politics – although maybe in my final use of the term, I am actually thinking about values. If, for instance, I was a museum director, and I valued debate and getting in the fray a bit (not a difficult thing to imagine), then I think the things I would emphasise internally within the museum (from the internal culture of work to the approaches to exhibitions) would likely be influenced by these personal values. But I also think that my willingness to take on capital “P” politics as an institution would also draw on those personal values and willingness to tackle issues face-forward. Maybe not. Maybe I am overestimating both the power of the director, and underestimating the power of other forces here. It just seems to me that the personal, the institutional and public politics can and do relate to one another, although maybe in ways not always obvious or immediate.

      Another illustration would be if, as a curator, I valued internal peace-making and was uncomfortable with conflict. Would those personal values impact my approach to the creation of an exhibition and its Politics, or to my work in the institution? I imagine that they would impact both, but I’d like to know what you think. It’s possible that I am creating relationships where there are none.

      My notes from David’s talk are somewhat scrappy. I tend to take notes on the ideas that occur to me whilst listening, rather than scribing comments verbatim. One note I wrote down was about “presenting on what you’re invested in,” which to me seems to suggest a notion that individuals in an institution will have personal positions, positions that are meaningful on a personal level which will naturally infuse our work – whether we are open about them or not. But to give you more context on how David might have meant it, it’s worth looking at this webchat he was involved with for the Museums 2020 discussions with the Museums Association UK. He writes:

      “Hi Patrick – I can’t think of any museum exhibition about anything, anywhere, that hasn’t been influenced by someone! We all have our beliefs and prejudices (call these political if you like); it’s simply not possible for museums to attain some kind of neutrality. Ultimately, as a visitor I am receiving messages from the exhibition organisers, and it’s dishonest to pretend otherwise. The challenge for museums is to engage people’s brains and emotions, not to give the right answer.”

      Does this help make more sense of the post? It’s possible that I am linking things that shouldn’t be, or supposing too much. I’d love to get more of your thoughts on this.

    2. I think you made the connection yourself in the second half of your comment. Museums here rarely tackle political issues, or at least pretend they’re not addressing political issues. The internal politics we have to navigate here is our own culture of pretending to be objective sources of unbiased cultural perspective (like anyone can be be an objective observer of culture). I remember that I was pretty surprised to see the Walker publicly announce their support for same-sex marriage in the run-up to this November’s election. They not only announced their position, but they plastered signs all over their campus.

      It seemed like such a game-changer to see a museum take such an overt political stance on an issue that wasn’t directly related to their own operation. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that many of their exhibitions or works in their galleries have probably already addressed the issue of sexual identity head on in one way or another. This is a stance that they (and many other art museums) have probably implicitly taken many times. The difference now is that they were willing to make their position on this issue explicit.

      How many of our organizations are afraid to take explicit positions on issues for which we’ve already implicitly inferred our position many times over? How does a natural history museum in a place like Texas not get embroiled in local politics regarding evolution in schools (especially with those same schools taking tours through their museum)? How do we overcome our internal resistance to becoming more engaged in external politics? Or do we? Is that actually a good idea? Should we continue to send our political messages more covertly rather than overtly? I don’t think that’s settled yet, and there’s certainly not a universal answer that applies to all museums.

      But I think the fact that we have a traditional approach to external politics necessarily implies that we have to navigate both internal and external politics whenever our work touches on political issues.

      1. Matt, there are some big questions you’re asking there! The Walker example is an interesting one and brings with it some of its own nuance. What happens if some members of staff at the Walker are actually against gay marriage while the institution took a very public stand for it? Politically and personally, such staff members might have felt completely disempowered in that situation at work. Once again, there could be tension between the values/politics of an individual, and the values/politics of the institution.

        I had been thinking that in cases like this, always putting individual names to subjective things was an appropriate form of action. As Jasper puts it, every story is told by a real person. But maybe actually having individual identity subsumed by the institutional identity is powerful and important in truly political actions?

  2. I’d like to challenge the idea that “museums rarely tackle political issues.” I think the nature of museums is to make people and ideas visible to a wide audience. I think the nature of oppression is to suppress and hide people and ideas from each other. There are ties to personal, institutional and public politics in each of the things museums choose to share with their audience.

    When an art museum puts on a major exhibit of an of-color artist, even if the analysis of the work isn’t directly about racism, the act of making them visible is taking a stand against racism. When a science museum puts on an exhibit about modern energy science, they are taking a stand against the destruction of our environment. When a history museum puts on an exhibit featuring strong women, they are taking a stand against sexism.

    I think taking on political issues can look all sorts of ways, it doesn’t just have to be hanging banners that say “racism is bad.” I think the things we choose to show and how we show them take a stand in public politics, and reflect our organization’s institutional politics as a sum of each of our personal politics.

    1. Nikhil, do you think these organisational institutional politics are a sum of everyone’s personal politics, or only those who best understand how the internal and external power mechanisms work? I was just reading an article by Jocelyn Fritsch, on ‘Toward a Theory of Personal Politics‘, in which Fritsch writes:

      This theory… contends that individuals maximize their opportunities to achieve their goals within an organization because they understand how the forces of multiple actors on multiple levels of analysis shape (drive or constrain) actor political interactions. Specifically, it is the individuals’ awareness of their own political capabilities and behaviors as well as those of actors on both micro and macro levels that creates a basis from which to make informed choices regarding the selection of appropriate political strategies and behaviors to achieve personal success.

      So it’s not necessarily that institutional politics are linked to or driven by the sum of personal politics, but more that some individuals will have more success putting forward their personal/political positions, because they understand the mechanisms of power acting within and upon the institution.

      This relates to another idea that I want to develop further in a coming blog post, about the gap between management and non-management museum employees, and their use and understanding of strategic language and concerns. I think that sometimes otherwise great ideas get lost within an institution because their champion is not necessarily equipped with the language to connect them to strategic priorities – which is an idea I think we’re starting to get to here.

      1. You’re right, Suse. The voice of the organization doesn’t necessarily reflect that of the *all* the individuals. What is the impact on the institution when a museum presents work that not everyone is on board with? I’m sure it happens all the time!

        I’ve been thinking more about the questions that Matt proposes. Is it the role of museums to take on these issues more overtly? I think there’s power in a public space staying somewhat neutral on complicated issues. It would be unfortunate to alienate any folks who come through our doors. I do think museums offer an opportunity for people to connect with each other and share and learn each others views. I think it’s interesting when museums offer a space and facilitate conversations for folks to engage in dialogue about work. But how much is too much?

      2. It could be that we need to dramatically alter our institutional voice altogether. Instead of focusing on The Museum we could shift more attention to the individual members of the museum team. As more start blogging and otherwise directly engaging people through social media they’re going to become more visible within the organization anyway. As we pull back the curtain more on our internal processes, we’re going to expose more of those people who are individually making our organizational choices. As these people become more visible, their personalities and individual values will start to take the fore more and more in relation to our institutional identity.

        When that transition happens there won’t need to be an institutional position on political issues anymore, just the positions of the various individuals within the institution. It will be their choice how visible they want their opinions to be (to a point, it’s becoming less certain how much anybody gets to choose their degree of publicness anymore). The organization simply won’t have the same kind of monolithic “voice” anymore.

        I think the more we allow this process to take hold and be visible within our organizations, the easier it will be to draw the public into the discussion and convince them that they actually have some influence over what we do (and the more they actually will have some influence over what we do). We talk a lot about participatory engagement these days, but we have to change internally a lot before that participation will reach any kind of critical mass.

        I don’t know. Some of that is clearly unrealistic pie-in-the-sky nonsense that won’t actually work in the real world. But I think the future lies somewhere in between where we are now and a loose Doctorow-esque adhocracy.

      3. Matt, this is interesting, particularly in light of Nikhil’s comments. I have long believed that museums should be putting individual names and attributions to things. But in the case of taking a real stand on something that might be controversial, that might not actually be a good thing. It gives people opportunities to be vitriolic to an individual in a way that they might not otherwise be. I suppose that’s always true when anyone takes a stand, but it (potentially) starts to change the personality/skill set of the individual you’d want as curator. Theoretically, I think the monolithic voice of the institution can protect those inside to do ‘dangerous’ work, if the internal culture of the museum allows it.

        Having said that, it’s never fun trying to have a conversation with an institution. So for facilitating discussion, then we need the voice of the individual to take precedence. Hmm.

      4. Suse, I totally agree with all of that. I’m just not sure we’re going to have that option moving forward. We’ve been following this thread for a while but if authority is somehow linked to transparency then how do we maintain our institutional voice while simultaneously exposing how the individuals within our institutions contribute to that voice? It seems like a new balance is going to be struck whether we like it or not.

        The question for us shouldn’t be, “How do we maintain that institutional veneer as much as possible?” because I don’t think we can. The question should be, “What advantages do we currently have because of that veneer? Which of those advantages are absolutely necessary for us to do our jobs? (hint: it can’t be all of them) How do we choose what we get to keep and what goes away? Will we have to rely on different institutional mechanisms and processes to achieve the desired outcome?”

        It’s similar, I think, to Shirky’s questions about journalism in the post-newspaper age. Instead of asking how to preserve newspapers we should be asking how to preserve journalism. Instead of asking how to preserve our institutional voice, maybe we should be asking what it is we like about that voice and how we can achieve those same results through other means.

        We’re starting to touch on larger issues than museums now, and I don’t want to derail this discussion too much. I just think that the institutional voice we’ve gotten used to today is going to have to change. The question now is how and how much?

      5. Maybe authority needs to be redefined. Instead of a one-way, monolithic voice, authority could mean serving as a mechanism where multiple opinions can be thoroughly heard and analyzed, in a more complicated way that other spaces can allow. I think the Internet has already grown communities of people who operate in this way, but even in those circles people are looking for opinions that are more full and more studied. I think museums could gain even more richness by adopting some of those models in our relationships with our audiences.

  3. While his positions are certainly his own, I do think that Canadian Bob Janes has done some interesting work around this subject. In the US, AAM’s Future of Museums has asked him to tape his thoughts recently (hat tip, Beth, who has made comment above): and his book Museums in a Troubled World: Renewal, Irrelevance or Collapse?:

  4. Political activism seemingly should flow from a museum’s mission. I was somewhat surprised during a student presentation last week when the presenter spoke of the role enabling activism on the part of the National Civil Rights Museum here in Memphis. Then I refreshed my memory by rereading the mission that states “The National Civil Rights Museum, located at the Lorraine Motel, the assassination site of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., chronicles key episodes of the American civil rights movement and the legacy of this movement to inspire participation in civil and human rights efforts globally, through our collections, exhibitions, and educational programs.” So the NCRM mission is inherently political.

    Speak Up for Museums ( from the American Alliance of Museums is political advocacy.

    At the C.H. Nash Museum here in Memphis, TN., we are located in a 95% African American community though we primarily interpret Native American cultures given our location on a prehistoric earthwork complex. At the same time we are stakeholders in our community and a social asset. To that end, we meet with political and community leaders to advocate for environmental concerns, host Black History Month celebrations, participate in a host of collaborative community projects, and so forth. Further, we are definitely advocates around the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act and speak out to defend this legislation.

    In this regard, the actions flow directly from our mission and position. I also distinguish being political from being partisan.

    1. Robert, I’m glad you brought that up. Last week, I had a really interesting email conversation with David Fleming on that same point. I was asking how personal positions play out in an institutional context, as per this discussion, and he came back with a similar response – that values and mission are what gives a museum its character. I guess that way, if an individual’s position doesn’t align with the political position of the museum, they can choose to leave. But they also know what they are signing on for as a staff member.

      This makes me start to wonder about what makes a strong institutional mission, but that might be another discussion altogether?

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