By Robert R. Janes – Preview of Museums in a Troubled World: Renewal, Irrelevance or Collapse (London: Routledge, May, 2009)
I submit that the majority of museums, as social institutions, have largely eschewed, on both moral and practical grounds, a broader commitment to the world in which they operate. Instead, they have allowed themselves to be held increasingly captive by the economic imperatives of the marketplace and their own internally-driven agendas. Whether or not they have done this unwittingly or knowingly is immaterial, as the consequences are the same. It is time for museums to examine their core assumptions.
In making this sweeping assessment, I am, of course, generalizing, and I accept this liability as the starting point for reconsidering the underlying purpose, meaning and value of museums. These questions are rarely, if ever, truthfully examined in the museum literature or thoughtfully discussed at museum conferences. On the contrary, museum practitioners and academics are seemingly preoccupied with method and process – getting better and better at what they are already doing well.
Nonetheless, there are some essential questions worth considering, such as:
Question – If museums did not exist, would we reinvent them and what would they look like?
Question – Further, if the museum were to be reinvented, what would be the public’s role in the reinvented institution?
It has been noted that ‘the great challenge to our time is to harness research, invention and professional practice to deliberately embraced human values.’ The fateful questions, according to scientist William Lowrance, are ‘how the specialists will interact with citizens, and whether the performance can be imbued with wisdom, courage and vision.’ My main motivation in writing this book arises from the belief that none of these questions have been articulated by the majority of museums, much less addressed by them, despite there being no more important questions than these for both museums and society at large.
In exploring the best and worst of contemporary museum practice, I have no intention of judging the conduct or commitment of individual museum workers. I ask you to recognize that there is an underlying paradox at work here, and resist the urge to dismiss many of my observations as judgemental. The paradox I am referring to is the widespread disconnection between individuals who work in a museum and the manner in which the museum functions as an organization. Individual staff members can be insightful and innovative, yet these qualities may never be translated into institutional reality.
Museums have inadvertently arrived at a metaphorical watershed where it is now imperative to ask broader questions about why museums do what they do, to confront a variety of admittedly unruly issues, and to forge some new choices. This metaphorical watershed is not unlike Peter Drucker’s concept of a ‘divide.’ In his words, ‘Within a few short decades society rearranges itself – its worldview; its basic values; its social and political structure; its arts; its key institutions. Fifty years later, there is a new world.’
Question – Can we not expect more deliberate reflection from museums about their societal role – as organizations that pride themselves on their historical acuity and their objective frame of reference?
In short, the collective perspective of the museum community is dangerously narrow at this point in history, and many of these limitations are self-imposed and forestall or inhibit active engagement beyond conventional museum practices. One example of this is the rise of marketplace ideology and museum corporatism, whose uncritical acceptance by museum practitioners has created a Frankensteinian phenomenon that is unravelling or enfeebling otherwise competent museums, most notably in North America.
The museum enterprise has an inordinate amount of rethinking to do that will require exploration, experimentation and innovation – rare commodities in mainstream museums.
Museums have predicated their survival on being both dependent (for all forms of sustenance) and independent, as exemplified by commonplace comments such as ‘give us the money; we know what to do’ or ‘how dare you measure our performance.’ In the process of overlooking the meaning of interdependence, museums have contributed greatly to their own marginalization. It is time to forge an ecology of museums that recognizes that a broad web of societal relationships is the bedrock of successful adaptation in a complex, and increasingly severe, world.
As some of the most conservative institutions in contemporary society, many museums will be unwilling or unable to grasp the import and necessity of rethinking their current successes and failures. This is not a bad thing, for the disappearance of myopic museums may well be beneficial, as the public and private resources allocated to museums diminish. There may, in fact, be too many museums, even now. However, this is not about the survival of the fittest, but about choosing renewal over decline.
With the growing complexity in biospheric affairs, and the reluctance of the museum community to muster the innovation and ingenuity to address those issues and challenges that relate directly to them (especially considering the unique knowledge and resources that they possess), the fundamental question is – what social institutions exist to address these challenges, recognizing the growing ineffectiveness of government bureaucracies and the wreckage of the corporate profit agenda? Even universities are becoming the handmaidens of corporatists, with science in the interests of consumerism driving many university research budgets. Museums, it is argued here, are one of the few social institutions with vast potential for proactive and effective community engagement.
The world is in dire need of intellectual self-defence, as an antidote to the mindless work of marketers, corporate balance sheets, and money as the measure of worth. Museums, as public institutions, are morally and intellectually obliged to question, challenge, or ignore the status quo and officialdom, whenever necessary. With the exception of museums, there are few, if any, social institutions with the trust and credibility to fulfil this role.
All of this is best summed up by museum consultant, Adrian Ellis, who wrote in a recent article that ‘We have too many museums with big bodies and small brains, whereas what a museum really needs is a big brain.’ Is that clear enough?