Melanie Adams, Managing Director of Community Education and Events at the Missouri History Museum, ended her excellent guest post on the equally excellent Museum Commons blog yesterday with what I felt was not just a question, but a much-needed challenge for museums. She wrote: “This time it was Ferguson, Missouri. Next time it could be your community. How will your museum respond?”
Certainly in the UK, but also in my native Germany, museums needn’t wait for a ‘next time’. Stuff is happening here as well: I’ve already blogged about my unease with the current anti-immigration rhetoric in the UK. In Germany, there are mounting anti-Islam protests (and, thankfully, an equally strong counter-movement). These events and developments may not – yet – be as dramatic as what happens in the US, but they already challenge our museums and heritage sites, and us as people working in the field, to think deeply and honestly about what our role in this is, and how we could, and should respond.
If you’ve not already read it, I want to flag up to you the joint statement posted by various US bloggers in response to Ferguson. They make some very good points. I find them best summarized in this sentence from the statement: “As mediators of culture, all museums should commit to identifying how they can connect to relevant contemporary issues irrespective of collection, focus, or mission.”
Yes! All too often, I find that museum professionals (more so than those working more widely in heritage) are narrowly focused on things. Collections continue to be seen as the backbone and apparent raison d’être for museums and their work. The focus is on exhibitions and activities that ‘bring collections closer to the community’. I say, forget about collections. Museums must be so much more than that. They are perfectly placed to be spaces where our communities explore and express what it means to be a member of that community. They capture and reflect the spirit of that community. They are the place to go to if you want to connect with that community as an outsider, or connect with each other if you are a member. Yes, some of that can happen in the public square or the local community centre as well. But this is where museums can draw on their knowledge of the community’s past, as well as the material culture they have collected, to put them at the service of the community’s dialogue with each other, and how they shape their present and future.
Museums are places for the community. They do not exist separate from that community. We must stop doing community engagement work from a position that seeks benefit for the museum from this – as someone in a workshop I recently facilitated has suggested. Community engagement is not an add-on to the ‘core purposes’ of museums. It is the core purpose of a museum. Laudable position papers such as the UK Museum Associations’ Museums Change Lives must not lure us into a false sense of achievement: the sector is very far indeed from actually embracing the radical shift away from a collection focus and toward community power. Community projects may abound, but serious evaluation still reveals a disturbing lack of diversity, impact, and organisational change.
The latter is a point that cannot be overemphasized, especially as organisations continue to use the idea of collections as the core purpose of museums as justification for their structures and activities. In times of dwindling resources, conservation and collections management, including access, are still prioritised. Community engagement is often seen as woolly and less profitable – especially if judged by (low) participation numbers. Investment into community engagement is regularly cut short long before its full potential can be realised. In addition, there is a culture of consensus and self-promotion that inhibits debate and self-critique. This is due to a variety of factors, not the least of which is securing the museum’s survival: if you are seen to challenge your funders’ priorities, take risks, open up for debate your own practices, then you might just run into the danger of losing funding or political goodwill. But that is exactly what’s needed: we need leaders that don’t merely talk the talk, but who go out there and stand by their communities, warts and all, and say: we’re not sacred. We’re here because of you. What do you need? What do you want to talk about? Some ugly and painful stuff may come out of this, but that’s all part of progress. This is what relevance means.