As I looked at the mission statement for the Museums and Politics project, as well as at a list of the possible topics that might be covered, the phrase “museum as forum” leapt to mind. The whole idea of a project on museums’ links with politics and power seems to me to be predicated on the cluster of ideas that has emerged around the idea of “museum as forum.” Canadian museologist Duncan Cameron’s article, “The Museum, a Temple or the Forum?” launched this concept into the museum world in 1971, and a quick Google search illustrates how seminal this work has been. While Cameron proposed that museums create “the forum,” for experimentation, innovation, and a more open approach to the public, he saw this as a dimension existing alongside museums’ traditional role as temples of learning and culture. Over the years his idea has inspired a vision of the museum that downplays or entirely eliminates the “temple” role, redefining museums (at least in theory) as places of open or shared authority, increased collaboration with audiences, greater responsiveness to their communities, generators of public value, and centers for civic dialogue. See for example the two books edited by Karp, Kreamer, and Levine, Exhibiting Cultures and Museums and Communities. The qualities mentioned above are discussed in the works to which I’ve provided links, as well as in countless other books, conferences, journal articles, and blogs published since the later years of the 20th century.
Removed from the Public Sphere
Yet when I look for examples of museums that are truly engaged with the current social, political, economic, or environmental concerns of their communities, I come up short. And I am in good company, it seems. Following are a couple of other museum commentators on this topic:
- Robert Janes, in his book Museums in a Troubled World (2009) discusses research by a number of authorities on the world’s most pressing problems – from economic stress due to the inequality between rich and poor throughout the world, to environmental concerns to global violence, especially against women and children (28-30). In surveying mission statements from an array of prominent Canadian museums, both national and provincial, he is disappointed to find that few include any such concerns, even that most universal one – environmental sustainability—in their vision for their role in their communities. He concludes that museums have “retreated to the temple.” Janes goes on to say “…one must conclude that [many of these world problems] are beyond the mandates and capabilities of museums as we know them. There is no doubt, however, that museums are capable of raising awareness about these issues…it is tempting to dismiss all of these problems as irrelevant or immune to the museums’s Weltanschauung….This temptation has proven to be irresistible, as the majority of museums have apparently elected to remain remote from the disorder and demands of daily life on this planet….I attribute this aloofness to an unexamined or unwitting adherence to the museum as ‘temple, not forum’—that misunderstood duality first articulated in a seminal paper by the late Duncan Cameron…. 30-31.
- In a December 2013 interview with Carol Bossert on her radio show Museum Life Mary Ellen Munley responded to Carol’s question about recent statements by public figures who have challenged the social value of museums. Mary Ellen responded that we should listen carefully and avoid defensive responses to observations from people like Bill Gates, who questioned the morality of giving to a new museum wing versus giving to cure blindness, or Robert Reich, who asked whether museums should be eligible for tax breaks as charities in the same way that a homeless shelter would be. Munley went on to say that such observations are not necessarily made out of ignorance or misinformation: museums themselves have contributed to peoples’ perceptions of them by “removing themselves from the public sphere.” While many founders of the great world museums were interested in making collections and culture more available and accessible to the public, museums as a whole are not necessarily speaking to and serving their communities well. What these observations tell us is that, while there are notable exceptions–museums that are closely aligned with their communities—“the financial structures, the boards, the program content doesn’t necessarily speak to the broader community.”
Among the exceptions to the lack of community alignment decried by Janes and Munley are museums and memorials that are part of the International Coalition of Sites of Conscience. I’ve observed that these institutions not only sponsor discussions about how current issues relate to their specific site (for example, the ‘kitchen table discussions’ that New York City’s Lower Eastside Tenement Museum holds with visitors about their attitudes toward immigration). These institutions go further in calling attention, through their social media outlets and programs, to wider global issues, e.g. The US Holocaust Museum’s continuing and unrelenting focus on examples of genocide throughout the world. The Museum provides accurate information and opportunities for learning and discussion on issues that are not part of their collections but that are part of their larger mission to the world.
But what about the majority of museums and cultural organizations that are not sites of conscience – art, history, science museums or aquaria and zoos? The Coalition of Sites of Conscience did not even exist when Cameron began talking about the forum: he was advocating that museums of all kinds create a more civically engaged dimension. What has happened to that vision?
I’m hoping that such museums are out there. I’ll just give one example from a very well known institution. A few years ago during the financial crisis, the Metropolitan Museum of Art hosted a seminar on the economy with some of the best minds of the day – George Soros, Paul Krugman, Joseph Stiglitz, and others. What does the Met have to do with the economy? Well, as the Director explained in introducing the discussion: buying, collecting, and selling art has been part of the upper echelons of western economies for centuries. It could be seen as a bit of a stretch. But from my point of view the Met was right to use its public assets: clout in attracting a top-notch panel; a large, well-equipped auditorium in the heart of the US financial capital; press contacts with networks like CSPAN, to host an examination of something on the minds of the whole country. This is the true spirit of “museum as forum.”
If you work at or know of a museum that is truly engaged and involved in the civic life of its community, that utilizes its collection and resources to raise public awareness and help people understand and grapple with current issues – send a tweet to me @gretchjenn using #museumasforum (I looked – it doesn’t exist yet). Let’s create awareness among all museums of those that are great examples of the museum as forum.
By Gretchen Jennings
Gretchen Jennings blogs at Museum Commons and has published and spoken widely on topics that include cultural diversity, museums and aging, exhibition development, project management for traveling exhibitions, and the creation of appropriate museum spaces for young children. For the past several years she has taught a course on museum education for the National Council of Science Museums in Kolkata, India. Since May 2007 she has served as Editor of the Exhibitionist, the journal of the National Association of Museum Exhibition (NAME).
Image: Raphael’s School of Athens