Is your museum an innie? If you are not sure what I mean by that then you haven’t read the recent blog posting by Elizabeth E Merritt, founding director of the American Association of Museum’s Center for the Future of Museums. In her post How can Museums Empower Communities https://www.aam-us.org/2018/11/20/how-can-museums-empower-communities-taca-perforum/ Merritt describes museums as belly buttons or rather “innies” and “outies.” An analogy that effectively describes two types of mindsets which can be found amongst museums and universities today. “Innies” are museums that start with the collection from which grows a desire to share that collection with the world. The “outies” are those museums that largely emerge from the community often in response to a societal need or problem. This raises the question if one can be both and if so, how might museums set out to move beyond the collection? W. Richard West, Director of the National Museum of the American Indian stated,
Only by deconstructing many of the existing boundaries that define our thinking
as museum professionals, and by involving, systematically and consistently, those
who sit outside of museums but within the communities that we serve and of which
we are a part, can we begin, truly and effectively, to contemplate, dream about,
envision, and formulate the 21st-century possibilities regarding museums and
Williams, a museum columnist, states that museums are not something people normally think about as being identified as a charity organization. Williams states, “there are actually 1,118 independent museums in the U.K. which are actually registered as charities." Great Britain has explicitly charged its national museums with serving as agents of social change. As stated in Britain’s policy document Centres for Social Change: Museums, Galleries, and Archives with the DCMS, or the Department of Culture, Media, and Sport, it states, “The cultural sector is an important source of informal learning; learning can be a powerful agent in combating social exclusion; more social inclusion will result in better educational achievement, increased employment prospects, improved health and reduced crime.” It appears the U.K. is ahead of the U.S. by way of putting this mindset into action and into policy.
A museum focused on transforming itself to being a more “social museum” will inevitably challenge current ideologies and present new best practices related to outreach. The “outie” or indie/outie hybrid will want to ask, “what adaptations or changes can we make today that will promote meaning or give voice to those who may not normally visit our museum?” This does not imply that the museum should as part of their outreach agenda feed the hungry and end global poverty, but rather a simple shift of awareness as to who is in your community would be a good start. What change might your museum make that would support a need, solve a problem, or promote accessibility?
In April 2010, participants from cultural and educational institutions in 11 countries met at Rockefeller Foundation’s Bellagio Center to discuss the museum’s potential role as related to design and creating social change. In this report it was stated, “If you want to be an agent of social change, don’t go down the path of collecting.” Paul Thompson argued that, “the act of acquiring objects burns through resources that may be better spent in a museum’s education department.” An interesting perspective I think, yet collections are central to what makes a museum a museum. The goal of a “social museum” is to achieve a balance—to reach that proverbial gray area between the institution and the community.
Wenger states in his book Communities of Practice, “Communities of practice cannot be considered in isolation from the rest of the world. . .we can participate in multiple communities of practice at once.” To accomplish this goal in connecting the community with the institution there will need to be collaboration and the need to cross boundaries. Many programs may serve the vulnerable adult learner, but how can one create buy-in from a museum to implement strategies that will address these needs?
Creating change within the confines of an institution can mean facing multiple barriers. These barriers can arise from differences in mindsets, lack of time and people, lack of space, lack of accessibility to collections, and lastly a general mindset that outreach is not a priority for funding. As a practicing community educator, program developer, and researcher I have repeatedly found myself sitting on the perimeters between the institution and the community. It is a rather lonely place to be but is perhaps where the greatest work is needed. It is perhaps the exact place one needs to be in the building of a community of practice that will cross societal boundaries that we all too frequently fail to acknowledge. As Wenger proposes, that intersection is where communities of practice are born.
The challenge for the museum is to commit not only to the care of one’s own institution, but also to the good of the public. Museums in order to be a sustainable institution needs to foster creativity, promote diversity, and be able to adapt to a constantly changing environment that will also serve their community.
Merritt’s call to museums for action in this regard I believe promotes awareness and hope that museums will find new ways to connect with community, to diversify, and to take steps towards creating a new identity for the social museum of the future.
Wenger, Etienne, 1952-. Communities Of Practice : Learning, Meaning, and Identity. Cambridge, U.K. ; New York, N.Y. :Cambridge University Press, 1998.