My dangerous idea about museums 2013: the greatest threats to museums come from within

Around this time 2011, I wrote a post that asked for your dangerous idea about museums. As the new year looms large on the horizon (mere hours away), I thought I would revisit the question and include my own current dangerous thinking; this is a culmination of a year of thoughts and discussion.

The greatest threats to museums come from within.
I read a lot of literature on museums, from books to blogs and much in-between. Amongst the less nuanced discussions, two worrisome threads often emerge. The first follows a woe-is-me, the sky is falling in, line, in which the swift and immediate downfall of museums seems imminent (unless the museum is seriously “rethought”). The second paints a picture of the museum as an institution that can not only change the world, but save it from itself, as if without the museum we would all be doomed. Together, these threads create a kind of pessimistic Messiah complex that leaches both confidence and realism from the sector. And it is this lack of confidence, this lack of perspective, that I think is the biggest long-term threat to our sector, beyond funding cuts, or changing audience structures, or technology. (This is not to ignore the very real short-term threats, of course, that do threaten jobs and leave individual museums uncertain about their own immediate futures.)

When an individual lacks confidence, he or she can feel powerless, voiceless, unable to affect change. Such absence of power can ensure that an individual has “less access to material, social, and cultural resources and [is] more subject to social threats and punishments.” (Power, Approach, and Inhibition 269. See also Ed Rodley’s recent post). How reminiscent is this of our sector? How many people within our sector feel powerless and at the mercy of museum leaders whose own agendas may or may not match those of their employees; or at the mercy of funders whose priorities so often seem distant from the museum’s? How many great people are lost to disillusionment when their ideas and talents go wasted; when they have vision for the future, but only limited capacity to act upon that vision and make change?

In a 2008 speech you should read, on strategies for achieving change in museums, David Fleming spoke of the way in which a lack of confidence leads to “an inability to tackle the huge agenda necessary to bring about change. Outsiders – funding bodies, politicians, business – sense this lack of confidence and remain disengaged. And so the museum is isolated.” This is what I find to be one of the critical problems facing our sector. When we are not confident as a sector, when we do not project a vision for the future that promises bright things, it becomes harder to persuade outsiders that museums are a good or worthwhile investment. What reward do they get for investing in us? Why should they choose museums over any one of the many other competing and worthy causes in need of support? Much like in the stock or property markets, when confidence disappears, so too do the investors.

There is almost a self-fulfilling prophecy that comes with confidence and energy. Those people, those sectors that are energetic and optimistic bring with them other people similarly enthused who also invest their energy and passion until the whole sector is imbued with a life beyond just its work. It’s an energy I feel now at conferences like MCN. But to counter that, when a sector is lacklustre, the best and brightest will find it harder to settle down and stay within it. They leave for pastures where their energy and vision is greeted with reciprocal opportunity to make change; to use their talents and forge something wonderful.

It’s not just funders and politicians either. Our audiences feels it too. When a museum is confident in its vision, in its mission and values, then it defeats the institutional aimlessness that plague so many of our institutions. It isn’t just the staff that have a sense of enfranchisement then. Visitors, too, are attracted to the energy and want to be part of it. Success begets success. Confidence begets confidence. Audiences beget audiences.

So this is what I envision for the museum sector of my future; the sector where I want to work. I see a supple yet robust sector. A confident sector. An energetic sector. But also a sector with a realistic understanding of its place in society, and the ways in which museums really can make a difference and benefit society. It is a long term vision of course; and an idealistic one. It is not to ignore the short-term and real threats, those that do endanger jobs right now. But it is something that I hope we can achieve with time.

To achieve this, we need to work together. Our sector may be composed of individual institutions, each with different goals, aims, and capabilities. We may compete with one another, absolutely. But we are stronger as individual museums when we are strong as a sector. We have more power to achieve change as a sector than any single institution does alone. So we need to think and act as a sector. We need sector-wide strategies and vision, much like the Museums Association UK are striving for with their Museums 2020 exercise, and we need to invest in sector organisations like Museums Australia. But we cannot leave this up to sector organisations or museum directors (although of course they must be involved). It should be all of us. Because it is our sector. And if we do not take ownership of it together, no one else will.

Indeed, we are the only ones who can do this. We cannot rely on funders, politicians or audiences to invest in us unless we give them good reason to do so. So we need to be enthusiastic. We need to talk about our success, and share our passions.

We need to talk about the great work that other people in the sector are doing too. It cannot simply be an act of self-promotion. If there is someone doing better stuff than you are, tell the world. Make it public. Send your visitors over to their institution or their website. Get the word out! There is something in the air that positively crackles when you’re around people who are so passionate about something that they cannot keep quiet about it, so every single museum that crackles with energy is another museum that strengthens the sector.

We all win when we work together to build a strong sector. We win when we do good work that excites us, individually and as institutions; so excited that we cannot stop talking about it. We win when we get other people talking too. When we make them take notice and feel that they need to be part of the groundswell; as if the sector has so much potential that if they aren’t part of it, they are sure to miss out.

This is what I believe. We, as a sector, are in a hugely opportune place right now. We are incredibly well connected to one another, and to ideas from within and external to our own profession. A real energy has started emanating at many of the conferences I’ve attended. We drink about museums together, we talk, we share, and we work. Social media, conferences, and the generosity of the people who work within the sector make it ever easier to forge strong relationships beyond the walls of our institutions, and hopefully also within them, and to share knowledge and vision with one another. Indeed, they also ensure that there are more ways than ever to speak to our audiences and communities, to invite them to be a part of our vision too. And this all gives us a strong position to build from.

By any criteria, I am still just an emerging professional. I also don’t work for a single institution, and so when I look forward to my career, I can only think at a “sector” level, rather than an institutional one. No doubt with time my optimism may be blunted, as has happened to so many before me. But I know in my heart that the health of the sector is as much my responsibility as any director’s. And that is my dangerous idea.

Welcome to 2013. I hope to see you there.

What do you think? Do you have your own dangerous ideas, or thoughts about how my own might come to fruition? How can we strengthen the sector, and build confidence both within and external to it? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

21 thoughts on “My dangerous idea about museums 2013: the greatest threats to museums come from within

  1. Thanks for a positive start to 2013. I’d like to expand on why being confident is ‘natural’. Museums have always been challenged to overcome difficulties and historically have succeeded because their missions are “meaningful to many”. So we have a history of success. Museums have historically been early adaptors of technology and we continue to be so. Again a history of success. Museums are focussed on ethics and — whether fully successful or not — a focus on ethics is especially meaningful amidst rapid change.

  2. Great post, and some good stuff to think about as we enter a new year. Through my experiences thus far, I have found that having the confidence to take risks and prototype (or simply trying things out in a process-based way) is central to the institutions that have the energy you mention. And, of course, taking these risks means failing sometimes, and being OK with that. I know that this has been a big theme in the museum sector recently, and I think it deserves more attention as we enter 2013. Let’s be confident, take risks, feel free to fail, and celebrate everyone who is pushing the field forward is exciting ways!

    1. Mike, that’s an interesting point. I hadn’t even considered that risk-taking and confidence were linked, but intuitively, that sounds right. In fact, it brings to mind one of my favorite posts by Nina Simon, on empowering staff to take creative risks. The opening line of the post is “What kind of support do you need to be confident about taking a risk in your work?” which pretty clearly articulates an immediate relationship between the two concepts.

  3. This is an invaluable post, Suse, and one that I’m thrilled to have a millisecond to comment on (for once!)

    To avoid muddling what you’ve already stated so coherently, I’ll just throw a +1 into the mix. There’s just one point that I want to further validate, and that’s the notion that museums need to work together collectively to build confidence within the sector. There are a great many examples of this already being done well, but we’re only at the beginning of this sort of cohesiveness and I agree that it needs to be further strengthened.

    I think what you’re describing is an environment of increased charitability and transparency between institutions; an environment in which we brag on one another’s successes more and act like competitive silos less. This isn’t a new thought, per se, but I was struck by the thought that these characteristics of charitability and transparency are at the core of what has become best practice in social media. Likewise, they’re also key characteristics of Gen Y, and the generational frame of reference that will become more pervasive in the coming years. (Channeling my inner Colleen Dilenschneider here.) To put it another way, those institutions whose presence on social media include the sharing of relevant, valuable content from other institutions (likely competitors), and who do it IN GOOD FAITH (and not as a sneaky marketing ploy), are the ones who gain more respect and are seen as having more confidence by the public. With each passing day, it’s seeming more imprudent to be that institution who only promotes their own events, work, and exhibits. People like a selfless institution. And it’s helpful both to individual institutions and to the health of the sector as a whole for us to be more selfless in the content that we’re dispersing. It’s a win, win, win. So why aren’t we doing more of it?

    1. The question of why we aren’t doing more is an interesting one. A few times during recent months, I’ve come across people who quietly mention things like the politics of tourism support (not all institutions are supported equally), or who discuss fears of supporting their “competition” too publicly for fear that it will negatively impact their own funding or support, because that same competition will get a bigger slice of pie. (This is something I’ve discussed with Robert Connolly on his blog, and his answer is informative).

      What’s interesting to me is that these conversations are always quiet ones. They aren’t the ones we have out loud as a sector very often because they are political, so maybe there are factors at play that I don’t really understand myself. If so, I wonder whether we can find someone who is willing to write about them openly?

  4. I like that you focus on long-term vs. short-term solutions. I am completely bored with folks scurrying around for the next great short-term fix. I like very much your comment that “We cannot rely on funders, politicians or audiences to invest in us unless we give them good reason to do so.” I have taken to require students in my classes to write an essay basically justifying their profession. Here is one of the best from this year –

    Perhaps my most instructive takeaway from 2012 is moving from being a museum professional who cogitates, commiserates, and processes concepts on how to develop better long-term engagement strategies with the “public” to being a museum professional who directly engages the public in thinking through those processes. I rely on Robert Janes’ query in his book Museums in a Troubled World – “if museums did not exist, would we reinvent them and what would they look like? Further, if the museum were to be reinvented, what would be the public’s role in the reinvented institution” (p. 14).

    Happy 2013!

    1. Yes, Robert, I think that the short-term vs. long-term discussion is critical within this space. I wonder whether it is possible (or desirable) to create cohesive national sector-wide strategies for development. I know that AAM did this a few years ago with The Spark document. I wonder what the impact of that has been on the sector, or what it will be in the coming years?

      I’m interested that you’ve had such a shift in perspective regarding your own role as a museum professional in the current context. What most prompted this change in thinking (was it James’ book?)? Was there something specific, or has it simply been an evolution in your thoughts?

      Your idea about thinking directly through processes with the people whom you want involved in your museum resonates with me in my thinking about the sector too. I wonder if this isn’t also why I feel like sector change is something that should be the responsibility of everyone who works in the sector. That it isn’t something that should just come from above, from directors and sector organisations (although they can often lead these processes). Hmm.

      Happy 2013 to you too!

      1. The impact on my shifting perspectives come in large part from my increased involvement in community service learning, museums, and operating as what I perceive to be an applied anthropologist/archaeologist/museum professional. I often times think that reading books such as Museums in a Troubled World are less directing but more illuminating or articulating as to what seems to be ephemerally swirling about in our heads based on experiences.

        Specifically for myself, the experiences include a six-year process of engaging with the community that surrounds our museum. As part of the University of Memphis here in Tennessee, US, our museum had a reputation of being an elitist self-serving institution without a real interest in the community. Our initial overtures toward community engagement were viewed with considerable suspicion by area residents. Our most successful engagements were when we moved from a position of “here is what we are going to do for the community” to asking “how does the community wish to be engaged in the museum.”

        Here is an example. Last year we conducted numerous focus groups to prepare for our Native American exhibit hall redesign. One of the focus groups was with community residents. The punch line of their comments went something like ‘well we are really not terribly interested in this project, but we are very interested in having a space to grow traditional foods in an urban garden but there is not a safe public place in our community to do so.’ But the C.H. Nash Museum is located on some 40 acres of land and we have several cleared areas that are ideal for an urban garden. The community members agreed that they would develop programming on the traditional foods as well. Within weeks of the focus group, the urban garden was planted and completely maintained by the community with the first harvest completed this past November. Next year, we plan for a bigger and more diverse garden. All of the above fits within our Mission Statement.

        Too often when we consider community engagement, museum staff discuss and then propose to the community. By doing so, we immediately restrict the possibilities. When we engage with the community at the very initial stages of the planning process, I believe that we are better able to live into our missions that generally include the perfunctory statements about public education, presentation, and preservation of cultural heritage/arts etc. etc.

        Here is a blog post of mine from late last year that rambles on some more about all of this:

        So yes, I think we might consider this dangerous as you note. But I think the danger is an essential ingredient in making our museums relevant today and for future generations. I think that Nina Simon articulates much of this very well in her discussion of Co-creative and Hosting events in the Participatory Museum.

  5. Nice post Suse. Another problem is that I think we’ve lost sight of who we’re doing it for – we seem to be less visitor-focused and more focused on things that we think are important (money, visitor figures, the next big shiny thing) yet which don’t make a difference to anyone in particular. The one thing I always wondered was if a museum were to close it’s doors tomorrow who would care??

  6. I think it boils to down to fear. It’s scary to cede control, whether it’s to partners, co-workers, visitors, funders, or any of the gazillion (like my official term there?) other stakeholders in and out of the sector. This fear drives us (collectively, as those who work in museums) to circle the wagons, distrust offers of collaboration, clap with glee when our efforts are praised while others’ are snubbed, and turn up our noses at museums’ efforts to engage community by branding them “populist” and “pandering.”

    So my dangerous idea? Let go of fear and accept that it’s okay to fail. The writer Samuel Beckett said, “Go on failing. Go on. Only next time, try to fail better.” That’s my guiding principle this year.

  7. Hi Suse
    I am loving the discussions around change and collaboration at the moment. I work with a group of community museums and am currently trying to get one to take on the concept of change, but fear (previously mentioned) is stopping them from taking very simple steps. Robert C, I love the project that emerged from discussions with the wider community and dream of a day when my museums will feel confident enough to consider such ideas. At the moment they ask me how they can get more visitors and change and collaboration are most definitely part of the answer. However, these are the two things they fear the most.

    I shall keep my hopes high for these museums in 2013, but have also pondered Lynda Kelly’s musing as to whether anyone would care if they closed?


    1. I think Lynda’s musing is where the action is at. If museums did close, and no one did notice, in very large part at least, we would only have ourselves to blame. I have come to believe that a good bit of our job is educating/engaging with the “public” on why what we curate, preserve and present of their cultural heritage is so critically important. When we have done that, the “public” will make the same demands on their governments to fund museums in the same way as other services (e.g., schools, libraries, police, firefighters) are funded. I realize this can come off as very utopian, but regardless, a clear direction in which we need to move.

      1. Robert, Rebecca – I agree that Lynda asks a pertinent question, and am very much on board with the idea that educating people about what museums do and why should be a significant and regular undertaking. There are a few reasons for this. The first is because people are fascinated by process. People love knowing how, for instance, a painting is conserved or even made in the first place. That’s why I think the Dallas Museum of Art’s coming conservation studio sounds great, and why I’m going to drive five hours in the next couple of weeks to see the National Museum of Australia’s museum workshop.

        When I visited the National Archives in the US last year, there was a whole section dedicated to “what is an archive” and “why do we do what we do?”. It was great, and actually more interesting than some of their other exhibits. But it also told their story; the story of why the Archives matters, and I think that’s important.

  8. Hi Suse, thank you for posting this. Last year I quit my job in the property sector and made the leap into what I’ve always wanted to do, work in museums. Currently I’m doing my MA at Kingston, London(ish) which is very hands on with lots of museum based practice, which I love. So far we’ve experienced some great people, but some very negative energy, there seems to be a lack of cohesion and direction. For me it seems like a very exciting time, changes need to be made for the better and I agree with everything Robert has said.

    When I read in the Museums Association January Journal yesterday, their director was asked ‘Will 2013 be a good year for museums?’ and he answered ‘No, it will not.’ How depressing, how uninspiring, he should be taking things forward. The sector needs new found energy. I’m planning to start a pop-up museum over the summer to hopefully create a buzz and plan to design it in a participatory way. From what I’ve seen museums need to be run more like social enterprises, they may never be profit making but perhaps they would be more dynamic and efficient if they better understand their audience and rely less on funding. Its kind of like the principle that if you’re physically fit you’ll feel better about yourself and exude confidence…

    Like you, I’ve not been at one institution for years so haven’t had chance to become wholly disconcerted, I’d like to think I never will. Viva la Museum!!!

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