How do museums help to create a better world?

Because we live in a culture in which we primarily receive information written and shared by those who think just like us, I have spent the last two weeks immersed in a flood of media that deepens my despair at the world this election has cast us in to. Some day, it will be the job of history museums to sort out how we got here, so that we can prevent this from happening again.

But in the meantime, many museum professionals are grappling with the only way we can address the situation: How do we, and our museums, help to create a better world? How do we protect people, and our democratic ideals, over the next four or more years?


Word wall from Museum of Australian Democracy at Eureka

First, I want to note that this is not traditionally the job of museums. Our job is to collect, protect, and interpret the material culture of the past. Our job is to engage people with these objects in ways that helps them understand the importance of our collections, and make personal connections to these objects so that these collections remain relevant.

That said, it is everybody’s job to create a better world. And right now we want to use all platforms available to us to do so. Are museums an effective platform from which to take a stand, or make change? I don’t know. But here are some thoughts on how we might start trying.

(1) Address bigotry by promoting tolerance

This election has brought hate out into the open, creating an atmosphere in which minorities feel (and are) threatened. In order to address this we need to reach the voters who are happy to promote intolerant viewpoints – even when they don’t see themselves are racist. Read, for example, these interviews with Trump voters from the New York Times.

How do museums change these people’s minds? For years museum professionals have been arguing that museums are particularly effective at engaging people in empathetic responses – see, for example, the recent book Fostering Empathy Through Museums, and Mike Murawski’s posts on empathy in Art Museum Teaching.

How do we reach people who are starting from a place of active intolerance? A recent study shows that it may be possible to change people’s minds by engaging them in frank conversations about a topic – for example, imagining themselves in the shoes of a transgender person. And museums have important objects and spaces that help them start these discussions. But, importantly, first we need to connect with these people.

In museum education we talk about motivation, or advance organizers – where we start a lesson in order for it to make sense to the learners, how we connect new ideas to their existing knowledge and beliefs. We need to find a way to connect with the large number of people who feel threatened by an anti-Trump agenda, in order to change their mind. The article in Vox about this study extends empathy to white rural poor Trump voters by imagining how these voters might feel:

While terms like “racist,” “white privilege,” and “implicit bias” intend to point out systemic biases in America, for white Americans they’re often seen as coded slurs. …Imagine, for example, a white man who lost a factory job due to globalization and saw his sister die from a drug overdose due to the opioid painkiller and heroin epidemic — situations that aren’t uncommon today. He tries to complain about his circumstances. But his concerns are downplayed by a politician or racial justice activist, who instead points out that at least he’s doing better than black and brown folks if you look at broad socioeconomic measures….This is how many white Americans, particularly in working-class and rural areas, view the world today. So when they hear politicians and journalists call them racist or remind them about their privilege, they feel like elites are trying to distract from the serious problems in their lives and grant advantages to other groups of people.

If our goal is to engage people in rethinking bigoted ideas, we will need to make an effort to understand where they are coming from, and move them from point A to point B, rather than just insisting that point B is the correct one.

This is easier to say than to do, and raises more questions than it answers. At the Peoria PlayHouse Children’s Museum we have a program called “Celebrate Peoria,” where we celebrate the diversity of Central Illinois. We celebrate Hindu festivals, Muslim and Jewish holidays, African American culture, Mexican culture. But in the past we have not celebrated Christian holidays. As I wrote in a previous post, when we celebrated celebrated the Muslim holiday of Eid-al-Fitr, a visitor approached the manager on duty that day, and asked her if we would be celebrating Christmas. When she told him that we do not have plans to do so, he let her know that he might be asking for a refund on his membership.

Jo Lakota 11-22-15

Celebrate Peoria at the PlayHouse

Do we have to celebrate Christmas in order to reach these visitors? Will celebrating Orthodox Easter, on our calendar for 2017, be sufficient? How could it possibly make sense to share Christmas traditions with a largely Christian population, in the name of celebrating diversity? But how does it make sense to leave out people who feel disenfranchised, and who we care deeply about reaching through this series?

(2) Help those with resources understand the danger presented by Trump

Recently, Elizabeth Merritt wrote a post called  “Healing the Partisan Divide” in the Center for the Future of Museums blog. Merritt addresses the concern that museums operate in a bubble. She looks at statistics about which political party museum staff belong to, and notes that “data support my general impression, from years of working in and around museums, that our field leans largely liberal & Democratic.”

What this doesn’t take into account are our boards and funders. An article in the Guardian notes, “Of the one in three Americans who earn less than $50,000 a year, a majority voted for Clinton. A majority of those who earn more backed Trump.” I was unable to find statistics for the very rich. But it is clear that while some Trump voters are rural, poor whites, a large contingent of Trump voters are suburban wealthy, many of whom sit on our boards and work closely with museum professionals.

I don’t know if museum staff are prevented from furthering a politically liberal agenda by board members or funders who disagree with that agenda. I suspect that the answer is yes – if not because museum staff are actually prevented from taking action, then because of their fear of losing funding.

But more to Merritt’s point, we do in fact have access to Trump supporters, to both understand them and try to convince them. While both of these interest me, ultimately I want these resourced stakeholders to understand the danger inherent in an authoritarian, bigoted administration. So many people who could speak out against Trump and his key advisers are refusing to do so. Can we – liberal museum staff who have the ear of the very rich, who may themselves live in a bubble – change minds? I think we need to try.

Of course, this feels dangerous because we depend on the support of the wealthy to survive. But it is more dangerous to have an administration staffed with people who suggest that a national registry of Muslims is a good idea, and a man whose recent history is one of promoting racism and sexism masquerading as news:



One needs only see Trump’s tweets in response to the Hamilton cast’s speech to Pence to feel that the arts, like the media, will soon be under attack.

There is at least one PlayHouse supporter who I know voted for Trump (because he told me), and who I am contemplating talking to. It will take me a few weeks to find the best way to frame the conversation, and prepare my arguments. My husband suggests reading about Turkey under Erdogan and Hungary under Orban. Maybe museum staff need a primer with information supporting arguments that will connect with the wealthy and powerful.

(3) Promote facts and truth

This election was won in large part through lies and fake news. The Trump team showed no consideration for the truth, and a huge number of people accepted everything they were told. As noted in my last post, museums can and should be places where visitors not only learn facts, but work to understand how they know what they know, and the relationship of new information to known. It is not enough to ask, “What do you see that makes you say that?” We must also ask, “How do you know what you know?”


(4) Stand up for what you believe in

The Thursday after the election PlayHouse staff members went for “drinks for our country” to commiserate with each other. I asked staff to think about what they felt we could and should do to stand up for what we believe in, for the things that now feel under attack. The list included:

  • Continue to focus on “Celebrate Peoria,” bringing attention to diverse cultures.
  • Find a way to help the Syrian refugees, and let visitors know that we are doing this – perhaps through a donation box or collecting things needed. A friend of the PlayHouse is looking into existing programs we can participate in.
  • Stand up for the rights of women, and in particular survivors of abuse. I have a meeting in a few weeks with someone from the Center for Prevention of Abuse.
  • Put an “all are welcome here” sign in the window, and make a banner from the billboard, below, created by our local interfaith alliance, to hang on the museum’s porch rail.


It doesn’t seem like enough, but at least it is something. Most importantly, perhaps, is the active engagement of staff in considering and promoting tolerance and social justice.

What else can we do? How can museums play a positive role in today’s environment? How can we support each other in doing so?

14 thoughts on “How do museums help to create a better world?

  1. Thanks for the post and links to useful resources. I might suggest that instead of celebrating specific religious holidays and rituals it would be possible to focus on what seasonal holidays have in common, e.g., special foods, lights, gift exchange. That way all the holidays would be celebrated together and Christmas would be included.

    • Depends on the goal, right? If to show commonality than absolutely program around food, lights, etc. If goal is to illuminate a culture in more depth than food alone (or gifts, lights, etc) won’t work. I would add also that things like gift exchange assume that all cultural traditions have those commonalities.

  2. we desperately need to get outside of our self-congratulatory bubbles of preaching to the choir. One quarter of the eligible adults voted for Trump. The activist component got snowed. I believe we need to also engage that other 75% and perhaps the larger portion of the 25% of Trump voters who simply wanted “change” for the sake of change without being very thoughtful about what they were getting. Here is some of my thinking on this:

  3. You wrote “How could it possibly make sense to share Christmas traditions with a largely Christian population, in the name of celebrating diversity? But how does it make sense to leave out people who feel disenfranchised, and who we care deeply about reaching through this series?”

    I’m not Christian, but I simply do not understand this thought process. Diversity is to include diverse groups, not leave any out. When ‘Hamilton’ chose to NOT include whites, that’s not merely discrimination, it is a choice to steer away from diversity. Diversity by definition demands inclusion. And if you are going to celebrate Jewish and Muslim holidays, for sure you should celebrate Christian (not only because they are the majority where you are but because that it part of diversity itself) just like ‘Hamilton’ to celebrate diversity should include some white cast members.

    • The comparison to Hamilton is interesting. So many performances are done with all white casts, and they are, individually, rarely accused of discrimination – it’s by looking at the whole that one sees the discrimination. Similarly, when one looks at the celebrations happening in December in Peoria, there are literally dozens celebrating Christmas. So is it discriminatory not to add one more?

      • I don’t think it’s discriminatory-but it may be a bit exclusionary? I think we’ve come into a place where if you are going to include anything you immediately get accused of excluding something else, if that makes sense. It’s the concept of black lives matter vs. all lives matter. Black Lives Matter is a name that excludes by its nature-but that doesn’t mean that the movement or the ideas they represent are exclusionary. Intriguingly this rule of inclusion only seems to be important when you are representing minority/non-white/western view points

      • i hear.

        Corrine, you’re right: if I made an white lives matter id be called racist and a lot of other names. Not sure why though? If I created an investment group that only would invest in males (whether for film or business) I’d also be called chauvinistic.
        But then to me the reverse is not exclusionary, it would be predjudiced.

        Rebecca, they have all white casts still these days??!

      • All white casts? You betcha. Even more so see the concept of Whitewashing, like Leonardo DiCaprio playing the Muslim mystic Rumi. ( Sorry, but I am a 64 year old white straight male, and I know that I live a life of privilege based on my birth. If a museum is highlighting different cultural festivities but not my caucasian festival – whatever that might be – as they are as likely to feature St. Patrick’s day or a German Octoberfest – but otherwise, I can readily go to just about any other place in the city to experience my Christian whiteness, abundantly.

        Even the Christian deal. When I lived in northeast Louisiana, a cultural venue featured a “Christian” activity. I asked why the no Catholic clergy were present and was politely informed it was for “Christians” only.

        If one chooses to look at individual instances such as Hamilton, or the counter, if I argued that it was discriminatory to make a movie about neo-Nazi skinheads and not have a black actors prominently positioned, one can make debaters points. However, when it comes to having my Christian white culture of birth represented, in any genre or type of institution, by folks I agree with and not – my culture is abundantly represented.

  4. A while ago I completed a free online course with FutureLearn from the University of Leicester called “Behind the scenes in the 21st Century Museum” which discussed the very issues that you raised in your post. It discussed the role of museums and the importance of keeping audiences engaged – not just with didactic text labels about their collections but by engaging them emotionally through the collection using well designed and curated museum spaces and narratives. It will be critical to connect to the local community/frequent visitors who visit often, as well as “one off” tourists, and to ensure that the vision of each museum includes a response on how museums can play a role in the pursuit of social justice, human rights, health and wellbeing within the context of the collection and the target audience.

    • I second the vote on the FutureLearn “Behind the Scenes . . . ” course. Without question, some of the best thinking I have encountered on museums in a very long time. I believe the course is being repeated in the near future, and the content is likely curated online for access.

  5. Having read the “Healing the Partisan Divide” post and all the comments it generated, I really appreciate your remarks on the political leanings of board and funders. This had not occurred to me, but now that you mention it, it does seem like an important piece that was not discussed at all in the CFM post.

  6. Pingback: Museums and political thought: A follow-up | Museum Questions

  7. Pingback: Escenarios de empoderamiento. Autoridad compartida entre museo y comunidad – NodoCultura

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