My dangerous idea about museums 2013: the greatest threats to museums come from within

Posted on December 31, 2012


Around this time 2011, I wrote a post that asked for your dangerous idea about museums. As the new year looms large on the horizon (mere hours away), I thought I would revisit the question and include my own current dangerous thinking; this is a culmination of a year of thoughts and discussion.

The greatest threats to museums come from within.
I read a lot of literature on museums, from books to blogs and much in-between. Amongst the less nuanced discussions, two worrisome threads often emerge. The first follows a woe-is-me, the sky is falling in, line, in which the swift and immediate downfall of museums seems imminent (unless the museum is seriously “rethought”). The second paints a picture of the museum as an institution that can not only change the world, but save it from itself, as if without the museum we would all be doomed. Together, these threads create a kind of pessimistic Messiah complex that leaches both confidence and realism from the sector. And it is this lack of confidence, this lack of perspective, that I think is the biggest long-term threat to our sector, beyond funding cuts, or changing audience structures, or technology. (This is not to ignore the very real short-term threats, of course, that do threaten jobs and leave individual museums uncertain about their own immediate futures.)

When an individual lacks confidence, he or she can feel powerless, voiceless, unable to affect change. Such absence of power can ensure that an individual has “less access to material, social, and cultural resources and [is] more subject to social threats and punishments.” (Power, Approach, and Inhibition 269. See also Ed Rodley’s recent post). How reminiscent is this of our sector? How many people within our sector feel powerless and at the mercy of museum leaders whose own agendas may or may not match those of their employees; or at the mercy of funders whose priorities so often seem distant from the museum’s? How many great people are lost to disillusionment when their ideas and talents go wasted; when they have vision for the future, but only limited capacity to act upon that vision and make change?

In a 2008 speech you should read, on strategies for achieving change in museums, David Fleming spoke of the way in which a lack of confidence leads to “an inability to tackle the huge agenda necessary to bring about change. Outsiders – funding bodies, politicians, business – sense this lack of confidence and remain disengaged. And so the museum is isolated.” This is what I find to be one of the critical problems facing our sector. When we are not confident as a sector, when we do not project a vision for the future that promises bright things, it becomes harder to persuade outsiders that museums are a good or worthwhile investment. What reward do they get for investing in us? Why should they choose museums over any one of the many other competing and worthy causes in need of support? Much like in the stock or property markets, when confidence disappears, so too do the investors.

There is almost a self-fulfilling prophecy that comes with confidence and energy. Those people, those sectors that are energetic and optimistic bring with them other people similarly enthused who also invest their energy and passion until the whole sector is imbued with a life beyond just its work. It’s an energy I feel now at conferences like MCN. But to counter that, when a sector is lacklustre, the best and brightest will find it harder to settle down and stay within it. They leave for pastures where their energy and vision is greeted with reciprocal opportunity to make change; to use their talents and forge something wonderful.

It’s not just funders and politicians either. Our audiences feels it too. When a museum is confident in its vision, in its mission and values, then it defeats the institutional aimlessness that plague so many of our institutions. It isn’t just the staff that have a sense of enfranchisement then. Visitors, too, are attracted to the energy and want to be part of it. Success begets success. Confidence begets confidence. Audiences beget audiences.

So this is what I envision for the museum sector of my future; the sector where I want to work. I see a supple yet robust sector. A confident sector. An energetic sector. But also a sector with a realistic understanding of its place in society, and the ways in which museums really can make a difference and benefit society. It is a long term vision of course; and an idealistic one. It is not to ignore the short-term and real threats, those that do endanger jobs right now. But it is something that I hope we can achieve with time.

To achieve this, we need to work together. Our sector may be composed of individual institutions, each with different goals, aims, and capabilities. We may compete with one another, absolutely. But we are stronger as individual museums when we are strong as a sector. We have more power to achieve change as a sector than any single institution does alone. So we need to think and act as a sector. We need sector-wide strategies and vision, much like the Museums Association UK are striving for with their Museums 2020 exercise, and we need to invest in sector organisations like Museums Australia. But we cannot leave this up to sector organisations or museum directors (although of course they must be involved). It should be all of us. Because it is our sector. And if we do not take ownership of it together, no one else will.

Indeed, we are the only ones who can do this. We cannot rely on funders, politicians or audiences to invest in us unless we give them good reason to do so. So we need to be enthusiastic. We need to talk about our success, and share our passions.

We need to talk about the great work that other people in the sector are doing too. It cannot simply be an act of self-promotion. If there is someone doing better stuff than you are, tell the world. Make it public. Send your visitors over to their institution or their website. Get the word out! There is something in the air that positively crackles when you’re around people who are so passionate about something that they cannot keep quiet about it, so every single museum that crackles with energy is another museum that strengthens the sector.

We all win when we work together to build a strong sector. We win when we do good work that excites us, individually and as institutions; so excited that we cannot stop talking about it. We win when we get other people talking too. When we make them take notice and feel that they need to be part of the groundswell; as if the sector has so much potential that if they aren’t part of it, they are sure to miss out.

This is what I believe. We, as a sector, are in a hugely opportune place right now. We are incredibly well connected to one another, and to ideas from within and external to our own profession. A real energy has started emanating at many of the conferences I’ve attended. We drink about museums together, we talk, we share, and we work. Social media, conferences, and the generosity of the people who work within the sector make it ever easier to forge strong relationships beyond the walls of our institutions, and hopefully also within them, and to share knowledge and vision with one another. Indeed, they also ensure that there are more ways than ever to speak to our audiences and communities, to invite them to be a part of our vision too. And this all gives us a strong position to build from.

By any criteria, I am still just an emerging professional. I also don’t work for a single institution, and so when I look forward to my career, I can only think at a “sector” level, rather than an institutional one. No doubt with time my optimism may be blunted, as has happened to so many before me. But I know in my heart that the health of the sector is as much my responsibility as any director’s. And that is my dangerous idea.

Welcome to 2013. I hope to see you there.

What do you think? Do you have your own dangerous ideas, or thoughts about how my own might come to fruition? How can we strengthen the sector, and build confidence both within and external to it? I’d love to hear your thoughts.