Understanding this moment: The tension between professionalism and participation

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.

8 thoughts on “Understanding this moment: The tension between professionalism and participation

  1. Great points Suse – I think you are right that these two things are connected. Last year my museum hired an outside consulting firm to host a “diversity” workshop for staff. Their model was based on the borderlands theory proposed by Gloria Anzaldua. One of the points they guided us to realize is that our very organizational structure prohibits diversity, and that in order to embrace true diversity we have to change our organizations at their core. The aspects of traditional organizational culture (not just in museums) that prohibit diversity include things like the lack of value in collaboration (i.e. democratic participation), a culture of secrecy, siloed departments, and micromanagement and hierarchical structures. These structures are designed to keep the powerful insiders in control, and to devalue the contributions of the outsiders.

    I love the move towards participatory culture in museums, but also have seen that too often it happens out ‘on the floor’ for the visitors only, and the same practices are not applied to the staff in our organizations. Band-aid indeed. But at least now the door is open! And we are noticing. I see my organization trying, but I think it will be a long road ahead to true transformation.

    1. Susan, it’s interesting to hear about those aspects of traditional organisational cultures that inhibit change and prohibit diversity. One of the big issues I’ve been thinking about is the interlinking of institutions, and how changing the internal culture of a single institution still won’t necessarily change things overall, because of the ways institutions work together. The art market, for instance, greatly impacts and influences museum collections, but is in some ways outside the direct control of museums to change (although we can influence it). But there are internal cultures that we can change and influence, and doing to can improve things.

      It is encouraging to think that participatory practices can open the door to more meaningful participation, rather than taking my more pessimistic stance that it serves to stymie more significant change. The reality is probably closer to both at once.

      Oh – and thanks for the comment about Gloria Anzaldua’s Borderlands work. I hadn’t encountered it before, but it looks great and I’ll look into it.

  2. Yes, I agree that participatory practices can drive questions about labor. The majority of #MuseumWorkersSpeak activists are or have been (I imagine) museum educators. For me, the ideology of participatory museum education influenced how I understood my own working conditions and motivated me to speak up. I imagine that’s true for many other #MuseumWorkersSpeak activists as well.

  3. Interesting conversation, Suse & co. Imagine there’s no single answer–is there ever?–when the issues are at the very core of museum life. I believe, er, want to believe, in the power of participation to change museum culture, and by extension the museum workforce. When participation is a tactic alone and not a strategy, when it is a delivery method alone and not embraced as a core value, it (generally) will not have a deep, long term impact. A museum–if not the field, however far-fetched that notion–must first articulate its belief participation as a guiding principle, core value and then profess it, live it. (Apologies if this sounds elementary.) A classic piece of consultant’s advice comes to mind: change your mindset first, then your actions. Easier said than done at a single institution, much less the field. Thinking of the effort involved from someone like Nina Simon, for instance. In the 1980s-90s, my museum (now-closed Balto City Life Museums) embraced a visitor-centered vision and took baby steps toward the participatory strategy we see today. My experience developing exhibits, tours, and programs on topics/themes within ‘living memory’ taught me that my audience knew more than I did about certain things, and that our job was to include their voices, involve them, give them a forum. I was hardly alone among my colleagues in understanding (and embracing) the museum as communal venue, shared space. Think I had a another point here–sorry. Oh yeah, as our institutional mindset changed, so did the culture, the expectations, the rewards, and the people hired — and if not fired, those who were increasingly out of their element. Hmm, come to think of it, that new philosophy spelled the end of our traditional docent corps in favor of paid museum teachers. (Now, even as we were transforming our museum, carving out our niche, we still needed a business model to support our efforts. ) Not sure if, and by how much, I’ve veered from your original thread, Suse. Let’s all hope a participatory strategy is more than just a fad.

  4. How many times have you met someone in the museum sector who has a personal story of some special museum moment in their past (frequently their childhood) that drove them to pursue a career in museums? How many of our colleagues wouldn’t be in this sector today were it not for that moment? How many members of currently underserved communities are having those experiences themselves in our museums today? Can participatory programs inspire them to join us as colleagues?

    I think our participatory programs could very well be a band-aid solution if we let them be. But they could also be that life-changing experience for someone who otherwise might never think of a museum as a place for them. If we’re ever going to move the needle on our hiring disparities we don’t just need new organizational structures and hiring mangers willing to take a different approach (though we definitely need that, and much more). We also need applicants for those positions who are eager to work in our sector, and right now our applicants are overwhelmingly white, middle-to-upper class.

    Are participatory programs and other forms of outreach a solution to all of our problems? Hardly. But they’re a step in the right direction.

    I like the question, though. It’s questions like this that help prevent us from becoming complacent, and we should keep asking ourselves that question every once in a while, just to make sure we’re on the right track.

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