The museum social media networks have been buzzing lately with discussions about the nature and role of museums in the 21st century. Inspired by tweets and posts by Nina Simon and Robert Stein among others, museum folks on social media have been contributing to substantive conversations about the key questions museums should be asking and the significant challenges they face. Meanwhile an international group of museum and library thought leaders met at the Salzburg Global Seminar to discuss some of these same issues in a conference entitled Libraries and Museums in an Era of Participatory Culture. Stein attended, as well as blogging and tweeting about the conference. All of this conversation is exciting and stimulating, and has clearly galvanized the online museum community.
The ideals highlighted in these exchanges all address various aspects of museums’ responsibility to the public dimension:
· listening to visitors, inviting their increased participation in our work,
· making museums more accessible both physically and intellectually,
· interacting with and influencing local communities, contributing to their quality of life,
· creating spaces where citizens can both learn about and shape their world,
· sharing authority with the public in developing exhibitions and programs,
· utilizing social media to involve and attract the public.
I have been trying to remember when I last experienced the feeling of excitement and anticipation about the role of museums and their future that I find in all of this public sharing. I think it may have been after the publication of Excellence and Equity: Education and the Public Dimension of Museums in 1992, almost 20 years ago now. The role of education and the public dimension in museums was given a tremendous boost with this report, and with its incorporation into requirements for AAM accreditation. It was an exciting time to be in museum education.
Less Heady and More Hesitant
Yet as I sift through the current discussions, my own thoughts and feelings are less heady and more hesitant. Yes, education and the public dimension are everywhere in museum discourse; they appear in countless mission statements; museum educators and visitor researchers sit on exhibition committees; museums are on Facebook and Twitter. But after 20 years (and really, much longer than that) educators, visitor researchers, and staff who are expert in the arena of the public dimension are still not as influential as they should be in the overall scheme of things. My sense is that in most museums with curators, it is the curators who still make major decisions about the content and format of exhibitions and about the overall vision of the museum. And in science museums, the exhibits department is the most influential in shaping the overall direction of the museum.
The Status of Public Dimension Advocates
Thus it is important to acknowledge the persistent secondary status of public dimension advocates–museum educators, visitor researchers, and social media/technology staff in most museums. Granted there are some exceptions, but in most museums people with these types of expertise are heads of their own departments, not necessarily part of top management. They have input, sometimes considerable input, but do not ultimately control the direction of the museum. How many have final control over museum resources – funding, staff, space, and time? How many make the final decisions about the distribution and use of these resources? How many have a major impact on Board decisions? On the direction of new fundraising? I don’t mean to belittle the successes that my fellow museum educators have achieved in advocating for the public dimension over the years. But, as one colleague put it when I discussed this blog with her – “[museum educators] have changed the identity of museums, but perhaps have not gained power.” Without this power, in my view, advocates of the public dimension have had and will continue to have great difficulty in fundamentally transforming their institutions. And most of our museums, exhibitions and programs will continue to look and operate pretty much the same as they always have.
As our colleagues discuss museum roles for the 21st century, particularly in this era of social media and participation, I believe we need a frank discussion of whether educators and other advocates of the public dimension actually have the institutional authority and clout to profoundly affect exhibitions, long range planning, and institutional vision. Here are a few thoughts and questions; perhaps you will have others to add:
· Fundamental institutional change is painfully slow; will the lightening speed with which social media operate speed up or just bypass still-needed structural change in museums?
· Fundamental personal change is painfully slow; can public dimension advocates literally change the minds and work of curatorial and design colleagues who take pride in and have been rewarded in many ways for their approaches, skills, and accomplishments?
· Public dimension advocates need to change also. Too much of the energy of museum educators has been directed at the formal education community. (See Confessions of a Formal Education Enabler.) While not abandoning this constituency, can museum educators redirect more of their expertise toward shaping exhibitions and programs that encourage family learning and reflect current understandings of how people learn/engage in informal environments? And most important, can they be given the support of the power structure of the museum to effect this redirection?
· All of us, educators, administrators, and curators alike, have become used to the widely accepted authority of the museum voice; is this is an area of common ground that can be used as a basis for cross departmental discussions about our future roles?
· There are some museums where education, visitor research, social media, and other aspects of the public dimension have been structurally integrated with the research, curatorial, and exhibition design/development functions: their exhibitions, programs, and media initiatives look like the future; how can we highlight these institutions as models for the field?