Do museums have a responsibility to name and address issues of contemporary importance? 

In the past few months, I’ve visited the museum Eastern State Penitentiary twice. The museum is exemplary for its excellent audio tour (which you can hear parts of here) and the way it incorporates art into a historical site.  More strikingly, it is notable for drawing attention to a contemporary issue (largely, but not exclusively, through its Prisons Today exhibit) and challenging visitors to both think about their own role in our criminal justice system and take direct action. Visitors can write postcards to people who are currently in prison, hear from people who have been incarcerated, and pick up brochures about criminal justice reform organizations with opportunities to volunteer. Visiting the museum is a powerful experience – one that left me thinking about how things I have done as a White woman might have landed me in jail if I were a Black man, and with a better understanding of how our society got to this place and the pressing need to make change.

Eastern State Penitentiary. Photo by Alex Herz.


One of the spaces in “Prisons Today” that asks visitors to engage with the subject matter on a personal level. This station asks visitors to “tell us about a time you broke the law. Place your confession in the slot under the desk.” Photo by Alex Herz.

Museums and exhibits are not usually designed to encourage people to take action on an issue. I recently visited the Queens Museum to see the exhibit Crisis Makes a Book Club featuring work by Xaviera Simmons. I love the title of this exhibit, which suggests that in the face of crisis, our response is to read or listen and learn, but not to take action (or, in the art-history-speak of the museum, the exhibit “reflects on the stasis of reading groups, podcasts, listening sessions, and other non-active movements offered as a stand-in for true action in the presence of state-sanctioned violence and death.”). There were some beautiful moments in the exhibit – enormous fertility-goddess-like statues, enlarged colorful poloroids, video clips of landscapes. But nowhere did I see an issue to engage with, or a call to action.

Did this exhibit have a responsibility to name and address issues of contemporary importance? Do museums bear this responsibility?

Forothermore, the Guggenheim Museum’s current Nick Cave exhibit, features three galleries of Cave’s work. Cave’s soundsuits are his best-known pieces. These soundsuits are responses to violence and racism; the first soundsuit was created in response to the brutal police beating of Rodney King in 1991. Cave’s other work is also loaded with imagery and meaning around violence against and the experience of Black people in the United States. Arguably, the work itself is an invitation to viewers to think about violence and racism. And I suspect that the exhibit feels like an invitation to, and support for the experience of, many individuals who may feel excluded by or disinterested in other exhibits. I don’t want to discount the power of inclusion when I note that the exhibit does not explicitly ask the visitor to contemplate or address ongoing police violence. And perhaps that’s because Cave’s soundsuits are about “obscur[ing] race, gender, and class, allowing viewers to look without bias towards the wearer’s identity” — they create identity-free moments, rather than tackling how identity relates to one’s treatment in the world. Nick Cave himself doesn’t seem to be clamoring for action; his last few months of Facebook posts promote the Guggenheim exhibit and a collaboration with Knoll textiles and are devoid of political messaging. Still, the soundsuits offer an opportunity to talk about something bigger. They allow the museum to ask all visitors, of any identity, “What do YOU do every time a Black individual is killed by the police? What is the impact of YOUR identity when you walk down the street?” Cave’s work offers an opportunity for art to matter to people outside the art world. Isn’t that what museums claim to want?

Nick Cave soundsuits on view at the Guggenheim Museum, January 2023.

The exhibit A Movement in Every Direction: Legacies of the Great Migration recently closed at the Baltimore Museum of Art. I visited, and loved a few of the pieces – Mark Bradford’s 500, Theaster Gates’s The Double Wide, Carrie Mae Weems’s The North Star. The museum offered a space where visitors could record their own migrations, and shared stories recorded by visitors. This strikes me as pleasant, but insufficient. The exhibit addresses a moment in history when violence, discrimination, and economic injustice forced millions of people to leave their homes. And this violence, discrimination, and economic injustice is ongoing. What would it look like if the museum had asked us to think about these ongoing issues? Had invited us to take action? Had challenged us to think of the museum as a place that sparks change, rather than a place to ponder and reflect?

Do museums have a responsibility to name and address issues of contemporary importance? Society has not assigned museums this responsibility. But if museums want to matter to people, then this is a responsibility that they should opt into. Not through education or outreach programs, but as an integral part of exhibits and the experience people have when visiting.

4 thoughts on “Do museums have a responsibility to name and address issues of contemporary importance? 

  1. Hi, Rebecca, thanks for your post. I agree with your conclusions. I would add that, especially with matters of equity and inclusion, if the museum is not already looking at itself and assessing how it does in this area, its efforts in creating exhibitions or programs on the topic can end up being inauthenthic as they themselves haven’t done the work. This, of course, is the key focus of the Empathetic Museum project.

  2. Hello! Your thoughts are very interesting. I agree that museums have a responsibility to address issues related to contemporary problems, but I think there are different ways to do it. Nietzsche wrote that History (or knowledge in general) should not be used as a luxury object that scholars display in their libraries, but rather had to be at the service of life. I think that this should be the basic starting point in the work of museums.
    I often have in mind a quote from the Canadian museologist Heather Devine, who in a conference organized by ICOM said that “when you are not part of the solution, you are part of the problem”.
    I’m not sure that museums should always look like a documentary by Michael Moore (him or any documentarian of social denunciation), because we don’t always feel like watching social cinema, but I do believe that museums always have to propose exhibitions or useful activities for life.

  3. Thank you for this thought-provoking post! Additional questions that come up for me are, if museums DO have a responsibility to name and address issues of contemporary importance, who decides what those issues are? Who decides what the appropriate call to action should be in response to those issues? Are there right and wrong issues, or right and wrong actions? Does the museum have the moral or expert authority to decide?

    • These are great questions. Let me know if you have any thoughts about how museums should make these decisions – I’d love to continue to think about this topic.

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