A few weeks ago, I have been invited by the Global Network of Cultural Districts (GCDN) to react on 2020 affected the museum field and changed its future shape. The session was moderated by András Szántó (author of the recently published excellent book “The Future of the Museum”). My colleagues on this panel discussion were Marcus Davey, Chief Executive and Artistic Director of the Roundhouse and Stephanie Fortunato, Director of Providence’s Department of Art, Culture + Tourism (find here the recording of the panel discussion). Here is a summary of what I have shared and more thoughts which came from it.
Trauma as a trigger for change
Unfortunately, trauma has been what we have been experiencing globally. Museum professionals have experienced stress, anxiety and even depression. Losing faith in their vision and mission. Others took this opportunity to started to collect trauma and crisis. And the rest find ways to shift their practices and programmes in order to stay relevant and support local communities, as well as learning how to bounce back at the same time.
During one of the meetups organised on the online community of We Are Museums, Julie Rokkjær Birch, director of KØN — The Woman’s Museum in Denmark, explained that during the spring lockdown, her team started to collect stories of people — but not any kind of stories. For instance, they started to collect stories of women experiencing domestic violence during the lockdown. She told us how it was crucial for them to start collecting the ‘Now’, the moment, the present, in order to make sense of everything in the future. Her team collected stories of gender-based violence during the lockdown. I heard that the Gender Museum in Ukraine has done the same.
Her team also decided to go meet people in their own environment as the museum was closed (check the “Museum Takeaway”). So you could find the museum director or curators giving lectures in private or public gardens, malls and other places within the city.
To my mind, these are fabulous examples of a museum able to embody resilience by staying close to its audience. We could list other similar heart-warming examples, but what has been the most common behaviour was to go online or just do nothing.
Even if some museum professionals have been lobbying massively to consider museums as places for society’s well-being and cohesion, this was not enough. We saw clearly which museums had it in their blood and those that do not.
This systemic fracture can’t be ignored anymore
So when I saw how easily the system pushed museums away from people’s lives, it became manifest that the social responsibility and social value of museums were not understood and integrated into policy decisions.
Of course, it was not simple for museum workers to adapt and start working so differently. Of course, it was terrible to see vital positions such as educators and curators losing their jobs. Of course, it was tough to have to work in so much uncertainty. But it hasn’t been difficult for museums globally to close their doors. From one day to another, these huge doors that we tried to maintain as open as possible were closing abruptly.
Then, with the movement Black Lives Matter, we saw museums being globally and loudly criticized for their infrastructural and ethical governance — and rightly for most of them.
When the system pushes museums away so easily for one year, creating a strong trauma and when their structural and ethical fragilities are revealed, it becomes clear that the museum field as a whole is not ready yet to take on this key role of agents of change. it is becoming increasingly clear that the museum sector is not strong and cohesive, that it does not have a voice and a place in the strategic decisions of the system. Today, in times of crisis and inequality, we need free spaces for transformation and evolution.
Today, I am questioning the voice of the museum sector at a policy level and a global level. Of course, we see the impact of museums on individuals and communities, on well-being and social cohesion. But I saw no museum leader or museum network raising their voice loud enough to change the global status quo saying that museums were not essential and dangerous in time of pandemics. Museums joined forces in Lithuania for instance, but in vain. Celebrities from the art world have done the same, but only good press coverage came from it.
2020 has highlighted a colossal fracture within the museum landscape. A division showing the museums which will continue to find their place and their role in the world of tomorrow, and those which will not move.
For museums to become agents of change, they have to change themselves, as an institution and as a system.
Togetherness as a tool for systemic change
For the past decades, we have seen the role of museums shifting towards agents of change, supporting people and communities to shape better futures. I have witnessed fabulous and rapid transformations in museums lately, not in every museum, of course, but what I have seen have been these signals of change that I was looking for. The way in which some museums today collect, open up, discuss and evolve towards a more inclusive and ethical world, respectful of communities and cultures, of nature and the planet, is just breathtaking. We see more and more museums creating a transdisciplinary team dedicated to the ecological transition or to the green transformation of museums. We see museums working hand to hand with bi-cultural young audiences and finding ways to become more equal and ethical. We see museums shifting totally from a collection-driven strategy to a community-driven vision. We see museums being part of a neighbourhood and not trying to be at the centre of it anymore.
At We Are Museums, we have always been working hard to empower museum practitioners. We foster cultural courage and help them develop soft skills for social change. But we were mostly focusing on individual change, not on the museum ecosystem itself. This is now changing.
Last March, we launched an open platform for museum professionals to support each other and share ideas and practices; There, more than 1400 museum professionals are discussing daily their concerns and inspiration, and shouting loud their need for change and togetherness. In Nature, being able to understand one ecosystem and its biodiversity is all about the capacity to adapt to changing conditions and staying locally attuned. But this can’t be done alone, in silos, in departments or within sectors.
In the same online meetup, Julie Rokkjær Birch explained that she sees her museum as an organism and not as an organisation, where each employee evolves as a cell working on different projects and making things happen, together.
Cooperation, mutual benefit and symbiosis are key in Nature. And this is exactly what was crucially missing in the museum field, and what we are starting to learn. Only togetherness and purpose could foster positive change in museums today.
Loneliness is the main inhibitor of change
So when András Szántó asked me “what is the main inhibitor of change?”, I replied: loneliness.
Most of the time, the journey towards change starts with one step, one individual willing to do something and pushing for it. But at one point, time is winning as it is the heavier thing to carry on one’s back. If you start to gather more people, even if it is more people from other museums and start to understand that you are not alone in this fight, your energy is getting amplified.
We need to feel that we are together if we want to pursue change at a scale bigger than our own. At one point, all the coalitions, communities, and collective actions are having a strong impact.
When we talked to museums about their climate journey, we realised that it always starts from the impulsion of one person. This precious feeling one can have that one cause is bigger than the rest, that climate justice goes beyond your own job, that equity should be seen as a new language and not a new programme, that the future is our goal, not the past. Within your museum, this individual person is your super-hero and will inspire your museum towards better futures.
We started to see the obvious need to empower more museum professionals to make change happen. But also, at the same time, the urge for more spaces to co-create, collaborate and solve challenges together. Instead of giving space for experts to share their visions and best practices, we saw the value of collective intelligence to find solutions and make gigantic steps.
Of course, we are only at the beginning of a journey but it is today that the right values, mindsets and connection should be build so the foundations of our next actions will be as resilient and benevolent, open and diverse, impactful and meaningful as possible.