How do we reinvent museums?

Over the past few months, while struggling with the devastating economic impact of coronavirus on museums, some of the most interesting and useful conversations I have had have been about reinvention. How do we use this moment to identify ways we can be better? How do we emerge from this situation with a clearer vision of what we want to be and do for our communities, and a more effective work environment to help us get there?

In the wake of George Floyd’s murder, our attention was refocused – or doubly focused – on systemic and individual racism. We have had this conversation before, after other brutal murders, and I worry that we will let this moment go without making any real change. We can’t afford to do that.

Obviously coronavirus and systemic racism require different responses from individuals and museums. The former suggests we shut our doors for now; the latter that we become a place of refuge. During coronavirus museums have opened virtual doors to a baffling array of digital resources, both existing and new; in the wake of Floyd’s murder, many of us have paused other activities to focus our energies on anti-racism efforts.

But in other ways, the challenges we are facing today both require and allow for sometime similar: radical reinvention.

Defining Reinvention

What does radical reinvention look like?

First, it requires a clear vision for what we want to be and do for our comunities, and how we need to act and communicate to get there. What is the truly necessary and important work each museum does? As museum directors and development officers worry about funds drying up in the next few years for non-COVID-related causes, we need to think not only about how to ‘pitch’ what we do as important, but how to make sure it truly is. What does “important” look like in the 21st century? Where do we need to redefine and reinvent what we do? Some museums started this work years ago; others have not yet begun. 

Often museums have ideas regarding importance, and we layer this on to the work we already do. For example, some museums are adding art therapy to their repertoir; children’s museums do work around helping parents understand the role of play developmentally in children. But these efforts are generally layered onto our existing model, which places collections and exhibits at the center. What would it look like to start with the impact and importance we want to have in our community, and work backwards from there? How would it change the work we do?

Second, it requires new ways of working, including extraordinary flexibility and the willingness to experiment in our own practice. Museums have suddenly added video editing, digital outreach, and virtual events to staff efforts. We need to become as flexible in our organizational structure and business model  as many museums have become in their programming. For example, we talk about boards being more diverse, but we need to think more deeply about the role of our boards and the requirements of board members. If we truly think of board members as sources for community and professional insight, rather than funding, how does this change who is on our boards, and what we ask of them? We may need to rethink staffing as our museums lose staff and dream about building back up in months or years to come. What positions or roles are really important to do the work we want to do? And while rethinking staff roles, can we rethinkg hierarchy and communication, to make sure that all voices are heard? And of course, along with rethinking boards and staff, we have all learned we need to rethink our revenue models. Among other problems, our current models for contributed income clearly contribute to elitism, and often promote donors who make their money at the expense of others. How can we become leaders in the effort to change this model?

Third, radical reinvention will require us to gather new expertise, likely from outside our field. What can community organizers tell us about institutional support of anti-racism efforts? What can digital experts tell us about communicating without a shared office space or reaching an audience virtually? Who do we need to learn from right now, and how do we do this with open minds?

Finally, radical reinvention allows and calls for radical collaboration. Nearly every museum spends untold hours recreating what other museums already offer. We all have our areas of expertise, and our passions, and our audiences which may differ in a variety of ways. Over the past few months museums have seen unprecedented generosity in resource sharing. Are there more radical forms of co-creation and collaborative programming? Can museums align and collaborate in fundamental ways to save ourselves from duplicating each other’s work? Could five smaller museums share a marketing position, leading to interesting discussions about the role of marketing in the work we do, as well as possible cross-promotion? Could museums engage shared educators to do off-site work, representing mutliple institutions as they work with audiences?

Next Steps

Over the past month I have spoken to an expert in online education and an expert in digital strategy. I will share these posts soon. In the meantime, I am looking for others, primarily from outside our field, who can help museum professionals think in new ways, and expand our toolkit to address critical issues and change the work we do. Who are the people who can help us leverage this moment  in a way that leads to meaningful reinvention? Are there strategic planners who think about reinvention as it applies to systemic racism, or who are thinking about this right now? Are there activists who think about reinvention on an institutional level, in a way that would be helpful to leaders of those institutions? If you are one of these people, or have ideas for those who are, please let me know.

After I wrote this post I read the AAM Virtual Conference presentation by Dr. Johnnetta B. Cole, Secretary Lonnie G. Bunch III, and Lori Fogarty; it is a powerful call to reimagine mueums, and I encourage everyone to read or view it here


One thought on “How do we reinvent museums?

  1. Reblogged this on UNMINDFUL OF THE ROSES and commented:
    The pandemic is forcing us in the sector to radically reconsider our way of working: the ‘stage it and they will come’ is unsustainable in this climate. Every museum should be a hub of social change and an essential placemaker in their area.

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