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This post echoes over the past decade and is intended once again to apprise museums of their uncertain future, as well as to note various issues, particularly climate change, that are certain to have consequences for all museums. Our interest lies with intention, rather than with hoping that the challenges will resolve themselves. William James, the American philosopher and psychologist, wrote about the morally significant life and noted that such a life ‘is organized around a self-imposed, heroic ideal and is pursued through endurance, courage, fidelity and struggle’.
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Is it not possible, and desirable, for museums to adopt a perspective similar to that of the ‘morally significant life,’ in their quest to provide substantive and meaningful service above and beyond education and entertainment? Cannot museums also be ‘for all seasons,’ in the manner in which Sir Thomas More, the sixteenth-century Chancellor of England, was described. He was known as the ultimate man of conscience who ‘remained true to himself and his beliefs while adapting to all circumstances and times…’
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Museums, with their distinctive and immutable capacity for stewardship, are possessed of qualities and resources that can provide insight and direction in these turbulent times. Museums have existed for centuries, unlike the vast majority of corporations – equipped as they are with some sort of ‘adaptive intuition’ to reinvent and transform themselves, however slowly and unconsciously. Museums have evolved through time, from the elite collections of imperial dominance, to educational institutions for the public, and now to the museum as ‘mall’ and appendage of consumer society. A new ‘season’ is now upon us, and it requires no less than a commitment to the durability and well-being of individuals, communities, and the natural world.
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Although there is unabated talk of shortage in the museum world – be it money, staff, or public support – I struggle to understand this pervasive concept of limited good. As discussed earlier, everything that is needed is here, now. Museums already have a boundless capacity to act with intelligence and sensitivity – money is not required to do this. Museum workers also know intuitively that money is not the measure of worth, irrespective of our collective enslavement to materialism. When will museums recognize that they are a privileged caste, whose purpose is their meaning? If this special advantage is not readily apparent to museum practitioners and academics, then it can be revealed through experimentation of all kinds – not in self-fulfilling prophecies about the need to remain neutral and refusing to ‘take sides’ on societal issues. If museums as agents of civil society do not assume responsibility, who will do so with any less bias – the politicians, the corporatist, or the ideologues of all persuasions? The answer is self-evident.
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Happily, the slumbering museum giant is awakening to its role and responsibilities and this is cause for optimism. The following examples demonstrate the ability of museums to link nature and culture in their work, whether or not they are natural history or science museums. These museums are concerned with critical scientific and cultural issues that are relevant to the public’s daily lives and civic responsibilities. Society is crying out for this sort of leadership from its public institutions.
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Another example is The Natural History Museum – a new museum that offers exhibitions, expeditions, educational workshops, and public programming. Unlike traditional natural history museums, however, it highlights the social and political forces that shape nature. This museum is a new and ongoing project of the arts collective ‘Not an Alternative,’ and includes artists, museum anthropologists, scientists, and climate activists. It opened at the Queens Museum (New York, USA) in September of 2014 to coincide with the People’s Climate March. Clearly, important and innovative initiatives are afoot – there are simply too few of them considering the more than 55,000 museums worldwide.
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The question is no longer if museums can retain their historical privilege of authoritative neutrality, but whether they will concede that society and its institutions have now collectively entered a dangerous time and that museums are organizations that can make a difference. I submit that a competent museum can, and must, provide their communities with the means of intellectual self-defense against the corrosive dominance of corporations, government complicity, and the consequences of the consumer society. Museums have the opportunity and obligation to both resist the status quo and question the way in which society is governed.
Museums will prosper to the extent that they are self-critical and create the new knowledge, learning, and action required to address the complexities of contemporary life. Sitting on the sidelines is no longer an option for any competent museum. All those engaged in the museum enterprise, be they scholars, students, practitioners, or consultants, are essential to this task, as are journals such as MMC.
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Resource: Museum Management and Curatorship / Volume 20, issue 5