A participatory museum sector? On discussion, debate and transparency.

Posted on May 29, 2013

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All right, fair warning. This is a long post.

The annual Museums Australia conference was held in Canberra in mid-May, and covered a range of topics under the broad banner How museums work: people, industry and nation. I had an interesting conference, in part because I was invited to be a speaker in a plenary session on Shaping the Future of Museums. In it, Dr Patrick Greene, David Arnold (NMA), and I all responded to a presentation from Dr Stefan Hajkowicz, Director CSIRO Futures, in which he spelled out six megatrends expected to change the way we live. The session framed much of the conference for me and opened up many conversations about the future of the sector.

For the remainder of the conference, I purposely sat in on sessions outside my usual comfort zone to get the broadest possible insight. There was lots of useful content (the sessions on the public value of museums, and the business of money were unmissable), with many of the discussions pivoting around common themes; about the importance of collaboration; about how we identify and solve the problems that actually matter; about how we enable career development and training right across the sector; and about the benefits that co-creation engenders for all participants.

As the conference went along, it became apparent to me just how much the questions facing the sector mimic those being played out in our institutions themselves, particularly around questions of participation and collaboration. How does the museum sector become more participatory and allow people right across the sector – regardless of their formal position – contribute to the solving of the problems facing the sector? How to come to terms with the tension between allowing new voices in, whilst simultaneously speaking with a singular voice in order to ensure clarity of communication and vision? How to transition from closed conversations to open ones?

Many of these tensions were readily apparent in an article on the price of climate control and environmental sustainability in Australian museums in The Australian, in which Michaela Boland notes that:

…the structure of the three-day conference — which featured keynote addresses from AGNSW director Michael Brand, West Kowloon Cultural District chief executive Michael Lynch and new Australian War Memorial director Brendan Nelson — did not lend itself to much actual debate. The overall impression was that Australia’s museum industry seems blithely unaware of its own significance and potential.

Not scheduled for discussion… were many issues concerning the industry, among them Australian museums acquiring items from dealers of questionable reputation, the propriety of museum curators writing catalogue notes for art auction houses and complaints by the auction houses that cultural-heritage rules are stymieing sales of Aboriginal art.

In the days before the conference got under way, meetings were held by the Council of Australasian Museum Directors, Museums Australia and the National Cultural Heritage Committee, where these topics were discussed behind closed doors.

One senior figure tells The Australian museum directors think it is unwise to discuss sensitive issues publicly; another says the institutions are scared to air their dirty laundry lest they fall foul of government funders.

Here a journalist writing for national paper picks apart the conference for being closed and failing to have space for debate, concluding that the sector was “blithely unaware of its own significance and potential” as a result. This rankled me a little, because I disagree that a lack of debate indicates a lack of awareness. Instead, I think it’s indicative of real tensions around the problems of if and how a sector can open up to become more participatory and inclusive, whilst still maintaining the capacity to speak to really important issues with a single voice – tensions I see replicated in discussions about institutional voice in an age of social media.

Social media has made it theoretically possible for everyone to have a public voice in any conversation, whether they have relevant knowledge or not. It makes publishing easy, which means that it is very much an “opt-in” activity. But does the reality that every voice can be heard mean that they all should be, or  are some voices and opinions worth more than others? Does every topic need to be open to debate, or are there some we should just trust to the experts?

Late last year, Matt Popke wrote an excellent comment about institutional voice that is valuable here:

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.

These ideas are picked up by Mairin Kerr in a discussion on digital protectionism in museums. In considering “Why are there gatekeepers?”, Kerr asks:

…do we really need an institutional voice? Or is this us holding onto the past – the single authoritative voice and idea that an institution must stand united for something. Why not show that there are divisions? Why do we need a strong message? Why can’t the message be diversity? Aren’t we supposed to be encouraging multiple voices and perspectives in the new age of museums?

These are important questions. But it’s also important to think about why the unidirectional and opaque “institutional voice” was dominant for so long. I don’t think it was just because that was what the technology enabled. There is real power in having a singular message that is communicated clearly. Consistency of message is critical in showing people what you stand for and enabling them to understand it. While experts can get into hugely nuanced discussions about a topic, based on a shared vocabulary and deep knowledge, most people won’t have the prior learning to engage with the ideas at such a level, and in those cases, clarity is important.

So how do we resolve this paradox? As an insider, I want more opportunities for discussion and debate. I want to be able to take ownership of these issues and make them my own; to feel like I can play a role in shaping the sector. But I also value the power that comes from clarity of vision. Is is possible to have both nuance and simplicity? What happens if the museum directors quoted above are right, and talking about these issues openly makes us vulnerable to political attack? Is that a price worth paying?

Maybe what we’re really looking for – both within our institutions and within the sector – is a kind of “cohesive multivocality” (thanks Ed Rodley!), which allows for multiple perspectives, but all with a shared mission and ultimate goals. And if that’s the case, what are the steps we need to take to enable such a thing to exist?

What do you think?