Understanding this moment: The tension between professionalism and participation

Posted on October 23, 2016


For more than a decade, there has been an increasing push towards participatory practices in museums, in part with the eye to democratizing the museum. It is proposed that participatory practices can make our institutions more open to diverse visitors; that through their use we can invite in more voices who might not otherwise have the opportunity to speak in or shape the institution. As such, whether they are contributory, collaborative, or co-creative in nature, participatory practices are often framed within rhetorics of empowerment and involvement, diversity and democracy. They are, as Henry Jenkins, Mizuko Ito, danah boyd (p184) propose, “defined in opposition to structures of institutionalized power.”

At the same time as this press toward participation has been gaining momentum, there have been increasingly vocal conversations about institutional diversity, equity, and work practices within the sector. This is not surprising given the asymmetry in museum staffing profiles, which sees only 28% of art museum staff in the USA as coming from minority backgrounds, with most in security, facilities, finance, and human resources. Only 4% of curators, educators, conservators, and directors are African American and 3% are Hispanic. There are ongoing questions about who has the right and capacity to speak in and for institutions, both to and for the public, and within internal conversations.

It’s not just the racial disparities found in staff representations that are the source of angst, however. As Laura Crossley noted in a recent #museumhour Tweet up, “Museums sector has one of the most overqualified underpaid workforces.” One factor impacting this might be the growing professionalisation of the sector, beginning in the 1970s and 1980s, which has brought greater complexity and specialisation of roles (p.417) to positions and training. This also relates to the question of unpaid internships. Rightly or wrongly, there are certain paths to museum jobs that are considered more legitimate than others. This is often observed as a preventative factor for diversification, by narrowing the pathways into museum jobs, and into leadership roles. As AAM notes on, “a growing number of advocates is calling for changes to ensure that all candidates, not just those of ample means, can have access to jobs in our field.” These are issues that groups such as The Incluseum,  #MuseumWorkersSpeak, The Empathetic Museum, and Museum Hue have been addressing, alongside AAM and other professional organisations.

While these concurrent trends within the sector might seem unrelated, I’m wondering whether they are connected. The movement towards participatory practices within museums–practices that invite co-creation and non-expert voices–seems to act as a kind of counterpoint to the limited diversity within the sector. If this is the case, could this push towards participatory practices actually help sustain a closed sector, whereby limited but public participation acts as a band-aid solution to a deeper and more complex problem? In other words, does an embrace of participation seem to allow museums off the hook for changing their board and staff profiles in more meaningful and ongoing ways?

Participatory practices can also drive questions about exploitation and unpaid labor, which further complicates the questions about museums and volunteer labor (see also Alli Hartley’s insightful comment about this issue). And all of this brings up questions about institutional legitimacy, and again ask museums to address the question of who has the right to speak, and when, and in what circumstances. Last week, I read Seth C. Lewis’ 2012 paper, The Tension Between Professional Control and Open Participation, which addresses the kinds of boundary work that journalists do in response to new media and online participatory practices. He writes:

If professions, by definition, have jurisdiction to govern a body of knowledge and the practice of that expertise, with a normative interest in doing ‘good work’ for society that transcends a corporate imperative – then threats to the profession are primarily struggles over boundaries: about the rhetorical and material delimitations of insiders and outsiders, of what counts as ethical practice, and so on. These are questions, ultimately, of control, and of professions’ capacity for flexing and legitimizing that control to fulfill their normative functions.

His piece prompted me to think further about the boundary work that takes place within the museum profession, and how normative institutional structures are maintained or challenged.** Institutions frequently operate in ways that negate the threats to their normal and normative functioning. They co-opt and incorporate outside perspectives and bring them into the institutional fold in order to prevent external threats–but they don’t necessarily change or alter their core practices, values, and professional habits in response. Is that what is also happening within our institutions? And if that is the case, can we as a sector work to ensure that participatory practices are not merely a stop-gap solution to diversity, but actually drive more fundamental change within our institutions?

I’d love to hear your thoughts about this topic. Do you think there is a relationship between the embrace of participatory practices, and the bigger questions of diverse representation within museums? If so, how does that impact our institutions?

**This is something nikhil trivedi and I have been trying to make sense of in the latest CODE|WORDS experiment, which deals with structural change in museums.

Posted in: Ideas