Today’s session of “Introduction to Museology” gave us the chance to have a candid Q&A with three local museum professionals. As I’m still trying to decide whether or not museums are the place for me – and if so, which aspect of museums I’m drawn to most – this session was informative and encouraging.
We discussed a variety of issues, but what I found most inspiring were the panelists’ final remarks on the future of museums. When asked to speak to current museum trends, all three identified an increased awareness of museums’ social responsibility. (If you thought “Museums of the Future” was going to be a blog post about tech and museums, you’d be wrong. But not to worry – I’ll write about that later.)
As an aspiring public historian, “social responsibility” are just the words I love to hear. I believe scholars in all positions should feel a sense of accountability towards the public. After all, the work of most researchers is funded in large part by public dollars. One of the biggest reasons I have an aversion to becoming a full-time academic historian is the disconnect I often see between “the ivory tower” and “the real world,” and the devaluing of public outreach ventures by some academics.
Museums have long acknowledged their obligation to public service. But the professionals at tonight’s Q&A noted that it is one thing to talk about serving a community, and another thing altogether to put it into practice.
Museums are now being encouraged to ask the hard-hitting questions of their buildings, their collections, their exhibits, their policies, and their programming: “What are we actually doing to change people’s lives? How are we contributing to the community? How are we partnering with community groups to share authority? Do our collections reflect the community we want to serve? How can we better represent marginalized groups? How can we be more environmentally sustainable? How do our messages impact people – and not just in terms of museum attendance?” Grants seem to be geared towards these questions as well, and many of them now require evidence of museums’ direct collaboration with community partners. Perhaps the future of museums will be more in line with Robert Janes’ idea of “The Mindful Museum” – a museum that is aware of the world it is in the midst of, and aware of the public it serves.
If our three panelists do have their fingers on the pulse of the museum community, then the world of museums will be in for some significant changes. During the discussion, we mentioned changes that might occur to collection policies, programming, and funding structures; and Janes draws attention to the need for established sustainability measures. I also recently read a fascinating article on the repatriation of illicitly acquired items, including antiquities and artworks stolen during military occupations – a thorny issue for sure, but something that needs to be explicitly addressed if museums are going to become truly “mindful.”
It will definitely be interesting to see how museums continue to develop, whether or not I eventually establish a career in one. This panel has encouraged me to pay more attention to outreach opportunities in general. And as I’ve pointed out in a previous post, there are plenty of such opportunities for the historians in academia, too. Is there an individual, a museum, or a cultural heritage center that you think is making sustainability, professional ethics, and social responsibility a priority? What inspires you to be more accountable for your work? Do you think the trend towards community partnerships is a benefit or a threat to museums?