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A Museum Bestiary

As Museum professionals, we have an existential choice to make about who and what we want to be. In today’s climate of social activism, one thing is for sure, not taking a stand is taking a stand. Remaining silent is no longer an option for culturally influential institutions like museums.

Today the rallying cry is about the Black Lives Matter Movement. We have an opportunity to use our influence to help make change. To do this we need to evaluate our own institutions. Who are we? I believe there are six kinds of institutions:

Mules

Whatever the emergency or call to action, the response of these institutions is to be vocally and adamantly against change of any kind. You dig in your heels and double down on your reputation and your traditional exhibits.

This may appeal to a certain loyal audience, often older people who are nostalgic for the exhibits and institutions of their childhood. But sadly when this generation passes, your institution will likely become an artifact of the past if you don’t try to embrace the needs of future generations.

Opposums

Whatever the emergency or call to action, the response of these institutions is always the same…to “play dead” and hope the threat will pass you by. The problem with this response is that if you play dead long enough, your visitors might accept that as your reality and look to other institutions more responsive to their needs. Eventually they will pass your institution by permanently for a more vibrant experience.

Sloths

Whatever the emergency or call to action, these institutions wait too long to have a meaningful impact. Perhaps your infrastructure is too unwieldy, and it takes months to navigate the chain of command and make a public statement. When you finally do, you seem out of touch with your community.

Maybe you want to do something but do not know where to begin. You are overwhelmed by the complexities of the issue and by the time you do make a choice, again, your audience has moved on and likely your museum will suffer the consequences.

Lemmings

Whatever the emergency or call to action, these institutions wait for others to take action, see where the wind is blowing and only then follow suit. This typically results in posting a cookie cutter statement of support and then going on with business as usual.

This response may be founded in good intentions but it has no depth. It may keep your organization afloat for a while, but eventually as other organizations transform themselves to meet new public expectations, these institutions will fall behind. By the time they realize they have to truly change to survive they are on the edge of the precipice.

Turtle

Whatever the emergency or call to action, these institutions respond in a slow and patient and thoughtful manner. They never make a statement until they are sure it can be backed by action. Often while an action plan is being deliberated, these statements are late in coming. This could earn the institution initial public outcry. This may make the thoughtful actions they later make, appear to be damage control. Without consistent proactive positive messaging, these museums will always be on the defense. They will be constantly battling to win back disaffected audiences. At a time when resources and community support are crucial, this can be a museum’s undoing.

Butterfly

Whatever the emergency or call to action, these institutions lead the call for change. They make quick definitive statements that acknowledge culpability and embrace change. They are both brave and introspective. They know change has to be holistic. It has to be made across the breadth of the organization. They are ready to question everything. These organizations have a brand and base that will rally behind them when hard times come, like those we are feeling right now. When other sites shut down permanently these institutions will thrive.

Let us all try to be butterflies. Take the opportunity to do some self-searching and reinvent your institutions, especially now with so many of our institutions closed for the Covid-19 epidemic.
Have the courage to speak out when you see inequity and exclusion, even if, especially if it is present within your own institutions. Have the determination to put your words to work. Be willing to make fundamental changes. Show your public that you have been listening to their cry for change and become a leader in the field.

About the author – Amy Hollander

Amy Hollander is a storyteller, exhibit designer and a strategic planner with 20 years’ experience in the Museum field.  She established her company, Cloud Mill, LLC to help museums navigate 21st century challenges.  She works with institutions to strengthen their programs, policies and performance. Her focus is on developing comprehensive strategies that utilize modern tools and employ holistic solutions to address existential issues.

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