Can what museums choose to exhibit or promote define the character of their cities?

Lately, I have been thinking about the relationship between museums and cities, and how museums support or impact their cities. As part of this exploration, I picked up Gail Lord and Ngaire Blankenberg’s recent book, Cities, Museums, and Soft Power. This book explores questions of cultural capital, and the ways in which museums wield power. The book makes a compelling argument that museums are indeed powerful institutions.


But the museums discussed in Cities, Museums, and Soft Power are large museums in major cities, often gaining power from significant collections and striking architecture. So I am left wondering whether small museums impact cities, and the relationship between small museums and small cities. And I put down the book doubtful that a small museum can have much of an impact, at least in the frameworks presented by Lord and Blankenberg.

Here are four compelling ideas put forth by Cities, Museums, and Soft Power:

  1. Museums serve an ambassadorial function, attracting new residents as well as tourists.
  2. Museums can network with each other and similar cultural institutions to create and share a larger vision for a neighborhood or city.
  3. Museums send powerful messages about the role of citizens, and the relationship between citizens and the elite, through choices such as labor practices, visitor role, and social media use.
  4. Museums help define the character of a place, in part through what they choose to promote: its international ties or its local culture; its elite or the diversity of its residents.

As I tried to organize my ideas, I found that there is too much for one blog post, so this may be just a start of a response to this book. And in this post, I am responding to the final idea in this list, and the question, can what museums choose to exhibit or promote define the character of their cities?

I should add that I want to distinguish the exhibition and collection program from education and outreach, and city from community. I am confident that museums of all sizes can and do impact communities with which they work. But sometimes these programs have little to do with the museum-ness of the museum; they could as easily be offered by another type of organization, and have little to do with collections. And impacting a community (for example, students at a partner school, or English Language Learners in a nearby neighborhood) is different than impacting a city – not less important, just different.

So, back to the idea put forth above, that museums help define the character of a place through what they choose to promote. I want to think about this idea generally, before turning to small museums.

As articulated in Cities, Museums, and Soft Power, this is essentially an argument that museums can play an anti-elitist function by placing value on the local and the non-elite. While I fervently wish that museums were in the business of doing this – of promoting the working class even at the expense of the elite – there are two reasons I think this is unrealistic in our current environment:

  1. Objects exist in a hierarchy of value. Most “world class” museums gain their status by collecting and exhibiting objects equated with power – Dutch Golden Age art, for example. A collection of local art does not confer the same status. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Tate, the various Guggenheims around the world are promoted and supported by elite funders because they share the rare and valuable, rather than creating value from the local, or creating connections with local communities.
  2. Museums are run by the elite. The introduction to Cities, Museums and Soft Power notes the rapid growth of the non-profit sector, and argues that non-profit museums support plurality. But power has not changed hands. (I am reminded of all of the Communist government officials who were democratically elected to office in the early 1990s.) In order to create a system in which museums can empower the working class, we (at least in the United States) need to rethink the structure of the non-profit board, and fundraising. Until then, the only way a powerful museum will turn to promoting the local and working class values is if it is in some way advantageous for those elite board members.

While I understand and agree with the argument that museums wield power, I am suspicious of the claim that museums are in a position to support anything but the interests of the elite. But for the sake of argument, let’s imagine that the Museum of Modern Art is playing an anti-elitist function through its recent exhibit of Jacob Lawrence’s Great Migration series, or that through the exhibit People of the Earth and Sky, the Metropolitan Museum of Art challenged not the status quo of the art world’s approach to Native American objects, but of the status of Native Americans themselves.

Most museums are not the Met or MoMA. While a small number of museums wield enormous power, the preponderance of museums are comparatively powerless. The Museum of Modern Art can promote an artist by giving him or her (but usually him) a solo exhibition, transforming his reputation and elevating the value of his work. But this is only true with elite museums, in large cities – the types of museums discussed in Cities, Museums and Soft Power. The book notes that “museums directly contribute $21 billion to the US economy each year and support 400,000 jobs.” But this includes a very large number of small museums with collections of negligible importance. Just as Springfield’s Illinois State Museum or Champaign-Urbana’s Spurlock Museum are unlikely to transform an artist’s career through a solo exhibit, it is unlikely that these smaller museums have the power to change the way city residents, or visitors, think about local culture.

Illinois State Museum


With this in mind, can small museums impact the character and values of the cities in which they belong? If so, what are examples of this happening? And what must be in place in order to have this impact?

If museums cannot impact cities in this way, in what way DO small museums impact cities?

I look forward to hearing from readers who fervently disagree that museums are tools of the elite, or that small museums do not have the power needed to impact local values, as well as from readers with new ideas to share.


2 thoughts on “Can what museums choose to exhibit or promote define the character of their cities?

  1. Dear Rebecca- thanks so much for your considered response to our book. Your questions are extremely pertinent. To clarify-we absolutely believe that small museums can have a powerful impact on small cities AND on big cities. In reality this is where we may see the greatest shift when it comes to the soft power of museums. In our experience, it is often the smallest museums who not only want to but are compelled to consider their value to their surrounding communities as a matter of survival. Without the ‘significant collections and striking architecture’ (although often these are not enough even for the ‘big museums’)- their very existence is a constant negociation with their local authorities, their constituents, their stakeholders, their volunteers. Their value (in our conception of 21st century soft power which is premised on transparency and engagement) is in the ways in which they are relevant to this community. You’ll notice in our final chapter – 32 ways to activate soft power- that only 7 of the strategies to activate soft power have to do with the ‘outward’ facing components of museums (exhibitions and public programs). The other 25 strategies speak to institutional change within museum’s operations, governance, collections, research etc. For small museums to impact their cities- we would argue that they need to understand themselves as part of civil society (not just for the benefit of their communities but BELONGING to their communities- which implies a major power shift), they need to consider WHO is on their board and who they represent; their strategy with volunteers and interns; their networks, their opening hours and admissions policy, the way they document and categorize their collections (perpetuating or disrupting the ‘hierarchy of value’), their public engagement with big and small issues affecting their communities, who they give voice to and who they do not. These decisions have a major impact on the way in which museums continue to understand and wield their power- as much with big museums as with the smaller ones.

  2. Your article is very interesting and offers much food for thought. I am the national coordinator of the association of Italian small museums. We believe that small museums have the power to create positive change for their surrounding communities. Small museums are 90% of Italian museum institutions; they are so widely spread in our country that their cultural and social action is useful to strengthen the sense of local identity and, simultaneously, of national identity. They are undervalued by the institutions: this is the sticking point. The rules are tailored to the great museums. Instead, the smaller museums would need standards that enhance their specificity.

Please add your thoughts to the discussion!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s