The Museum as Forum – Does It Exist?

1599px-Raphael_School_of_AthensAs 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

, ,
7 comments on “The Museum as Forum – Does It Exist?
  1. Readers interested in museums as forums should look at the Newport Historical Society’s Spectacle of Toleration project: http://www.spectacleoftoleration.org/. It was a state-wide, collaborative venture, including the Rhode Island Historical Society, Brown University, Salve Regina University, and otherpartners. A Conference held in the fall of 2013 worked very hard to connect the general public with cutting edge research and scholarship. The range of programs was inclusive and varied and the blog postings, including a few of mine, addressed a wide range of challenging issues, present and historical, directly and in depth. It could be a model.

    On a personal note, I have addressed this subject in several essays available at Academia.edu, especially “Fred Wilson, PTSD, and Me. . . ,” “Examining the Social Responsibility of Museums. . . ,” and “Concerning the Telling of Painful Tales. . . .”

    Finally, Cameron’s dichotomy is helpful only up to a point. My sense is that temples can be and always have been places where people argue about important stuff and forums in which difficult subjects are poorly framed don’t add much value to public discourse.

  2. Here in predominantly conservative Northwest Montana, avoiding the forum has to do with staying neutral and balanced to avoid jeopardizing our status as a non-profit. We distinguish between programs the Museum directly sponsors (lecture series, film and book clubs, etc) and rental events over which the Museum has no input or control. For example, we attempt to present a balance of topics in our Museum sponsored lecture series, from climate change, historic racism, and environmental concerns, to mining & oil exploration, historic labor-violence, vigilantes, and prostitution. Our rental events, on the other hand, because our museum is housed in a public building belonging to the City of Kalispell, cannot discriminate based on ideological perspective, so we’ve rented to Republican and Democrat gatherings, conservation organizations and timber industry groups, secular humanists and Holocaust deniers alike. The last two on that list prompted considerable public outcry, and we had to explain we have no choice as a public facility. As we understand it, the only groups we could legally deny would be any advocating the violent overthrow of the government.

  3. I’d like to take up Ken’s final point about the usefulness of Cameron’s dichotomy. I wonder whether it is more useful to think about museums being both temple and forum and examine instead the balance between these roles? Perhaps the role of temple is not only about housing treasures and promoting ritualistic behaviours in relation to these, but about the trust (faith even?) that communities invest in museums? I would argue that it is the extraordinary trust that people have in museums that allow them to be effective forums – the ‘safe places for dangerous ideas’ adage. What is disappointing is that more museums don’t use this trust as the basis for operating as forums in the way Janes and others advocate – taking on vital contemporary issues and providing spaces and stimulus for really dynamic public discussions. Here in Brisbane, Australia, our city museum took on such a role around issues such as mental health, LGBT histories & others via temporary exhibitions. The community response was very positive. The temporary bit is important – how does this kind of risk-taking (the forum role?) become more embedded so that museums are both temple and forum?

  4. I believe that the idea of museums as forums is not only a good one, but as a museum professional, I feel it is my responsibility. It is the reason I care so much about what I do. The past informs us, but connecting it to the present, making it relevant to people today – that is essential. Relevancy. The “so what?” Bringing people together and illuminating the common threads is at the core of what we do at the Harriet Beecher Stowe Center with the Salons at Stowe program. We take issues that Stowe advocated for, which still persist today, and bring people together to identify actions they can take to create positive change today. The idea that one person can make a difference, as Stowe did when she took up her pen and wrote Uncle Tom’s Cabin, is at the core of the Stowe Center’s mission. Her story serves as the inspiration for us today. It is the call to action that reminds us that we all have a responsibility to be civically engaged and work to improve our world.
    The Salons at Stowe programs are a forum to connect the challenging issues (race, gender and class) that impelled Stowe to write and act with the contemporary face of those same issues. The Salon format is based on community and audience participation, with the explicit goal of promoting civic engagement. Check out our blog http://salonsatstowe.blogspot.com/ and see how the Stowe Center embraces the role of museums as forums to inspire social justice and positive change.

  5. I believe that the idea of museums as forums is not only a good one, but as a museum professional, I feel it is my responsibility. It is the reason I care so much about what I do. The past informs us, but connecting it to the present, making it relevant to people today – that is essential. Relevancy. The “so what?” Bringing people together and illuminating the common threads is at the core of what we do at the Harriet Beecher Stowe Center with the Salons at Stowe program. We take issues that Stowe advocated for, which still persist today, and bring people together to identify actions they can take to create positive change today. The idea that one person can make a difference, as Stowe did when she took up her pen and wrote Uncle Tom’s Cabin, is at the core of the Stowe Center’s mission. Her story serves as the inspiration for us today. It is the call to action that reminds us that we all have a responsibility to be civically engaged and work to improve our world.

    The Salons at Stowe programs are a forum to connect the challenging issues (race, gender and class) that impelled Stowe to write and act with the contemporary face of those same issues. The Salon format is based on community and audience participation, with the explicit goal of promoting civic engagement. Check out our blog http://salonsatstowe.blogspot.com/ and see how the Stowe Center embraces the role of museums as forums to inspire social justice and positive change.

  6. Many thanks for the thoughtful comments. Gil, it was great to hear from you. As you know I know a bit about the community in which you are located and I can see that you must walk a fine line. But it seems to me you are providing a forum in the topics that you address in your programs. I don’t think the concept of forum means taking a side as much as providing a space for discussion (and as you said even that can be contentious).

    Ken and Jo, one of the things that struck me in Cameron’s original essay is that he did NOT set up a dichotomy in the sense that he was not advocating for a museum being either a temple or a forum. He was advocating the forum exist alongside the temple rather than replace it. I think it is later readers and interpreters who have created the dichotomy. It isn’t the terms themselves so much as the concepts they embody that is important.

    One of the reasons I wrote the post is that I see the word “forum” used in a kind of offhanded way in lists of roles for a “21st century museum.” But what does this mean? How many museums really do provide space either online or onsite for engagement with current issues, especially where their collections have a direct relationship to the issue. The Stowe Salons, by the way, sound so interesting. Thanks again for all your comments. Gretchen

  7. Thanks Gretchen. I was fortunate to spend a week with Duncan, just before he left us, on the outskirts of Gaborone and then again take him across the Tswaing Crater outside Pretoria. Duncan would have agreed with you totally. The binary is an interpretation as you rightly point out.
    BTW,’Museums in Human Development’ by Conrad Gershevitch is an interdisciplinary endeavour to analyse and provide perspectives on the role of cultural institutions in addressing challenges posed by contemporary modernity. The author looks ‘in from outside’, especially with his extensive experience in human rights. In this way it complements the seminal book by Robert Janes, ‘Museums in a Troubled World: Renewal, Irrelevance or Collapse?’ that presents perspectives from within the museum sector. The former is an outsider and the latter an insider. Together they provide the backdrop for the transformation of contemporary museums based on the fundamental principle of relevance. It is available at: http://onmuseums.cgpublisher.com/

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Follow

Get every new post on this blog delivered to your Inbox.

Join other followers: