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Museums as Activists

Are museums activists? Should they be activists? I would argue that museums have an opportunity to bring activism, however subtly, into their galleries. With the removal of the Theodore Roosevelt statue outside the Museum of Natural History, and the Brooklyn Museum opening up its closed doors to provide restrooms to protesters, it is heartening to see large institutions getting on the activist bandwagon. But besides these more one-shot or temporary events, how can museums begin thinking about their work more broadly through an activist lens?

Here are 3 Ways Museums are Activists:

  1. They combat the spread of misinformation. Perhaps the most obvious, although overlooked, is museums’ ability to combat the spread of misinformation. In our current world filled with #fakenews, museums remain one of the few places that society generally trusts. Museums should use their power as a reputable source of information to disrupt the spread of misinformation. Museums are rife with specialists who have the skills and resources to seek out, examine, and identify accurate information. However, it is also important that museums acknowledge when they do not know the answer. Being transparent about the accuracy of their information, or lack thereof, is critical to maintaining the public’s trust.

Image: Infographics on incarceration in the United States from Behind Bars: Incarceration in the West at the Autry Museum of the American West. Photo credit: Emma Thorne-Christy.

 

  1. They teach and inspire critical thinking. This goes hand-in-hand with point 1: in a #fakenews world, we all need to be better at analyzing and evaluating the credibility of information. As the proverb goes, give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach him how to fish and you feed him for his lifetime. By teaching and inspiring critical thinking throughout their programs and spaces, museums strengthen their visitors’ abilities to be thoughtful knowledge seekers out in the world.

Image:  “Three of these labels are incorrect: the stories are made up. Which is the real description of the object?” activity in History Hangout at the Oakland Museum of California. Photo credit: Emma Thorne-Christy.

 

  1. They create dialogical spaces. There are many grey areas in the world, quasi-facts, and open questions. Museums do not need to have all the answers, and perhaps they are more powerful when they shed light on multiple sides of an issue and leave the visitor to recon with their own personal beliefs. By providing space for visitors to share and reflect on their personal opinions as well as those of other visitors, museums promote self-reflection and collective dialogue.

Image: “Travel Fears: For explorers in the 1500s to 1800s, cannibalism was a fear. Do you recall a trip that you took to some place entirely new and different? What were some of your fears? How did the trip turn out? Use these journals to tell us about it” activity in Cannibals: Myth & Reality at the San Diego Museum of Man. Photo credit: Emma Thorne-Christy.

 

I believe that all museums are capable of incorporating the above ideas into their institutions. Some museums may choose to go further, exploring questions such as: should our museum back a specific cause? Should we direct visitors to calls for action? Should we apply the values we inspire in our visitors to the structure of our institution? For some institutions, these questions are easier to answer than others, given their mission statements and stakeholders. Through combating the spread of misinformation, teaching and inspiring critical thinking, and creating dialogical spaces, museums promote activism.

This is part one of a multi-part series on museums, activism and politics.

About the author – Emma Thorne-Christy

Emma Thorne-Christy is an exhibition designer and activist artist based in Los Angeles, California. Emma works with museums, libraries, universities, and cultural centers to create informal and inspiring learning environments. She is fascinated with the ways in which physical environments can inspire civic engagement. Find out more at: www.ExhibitsOfHumanity.com

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