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Process and Meditation for the Emergent Museum

The world is changing before our eyes. What is the impact on our communities and subsequently our museums? Dr. Porchia Moore advocates for disruption of museum praxis as we know it in this presentation from MuseumNext Disrupt (2020).


Dr. Porchia Moore:

Hello everyone. My name is Dr. Porchia Moore. I’m an assistant professor of museum studies at the University of Florida. I’ve entitled this talk Disrupt! Process and Meditation for the Emergent Museum. Really, I have more questions than I have answers.

If you’re like me, you’ve experienced a great deal of adaptations during this time. You’ve experienced lots of changes, maybe even transformations. It seems like everything is not only changing, but everything is shifting. We have new routines, we have new emotions, new thoughts, new ways of being, new disruptions.

Many of us have experienced tremendous loss, periods of hesitation, and we have definitely seen a disruption of what used to be normal. What feels good for me is knowing and understanding that change is constant, and because everything is changing, and changing in real time before us, it means we have an opportunity to build something new.

I sat around from the beginning of the pandemic thinking about what it would be like to return to museums. If you’re like me, you might have asked yourself, or you might have heard yourself say, “I miss going to museums.” I heard myself saying that almost every day. “I miss going to museums.” There were several exhibitions that I was really excited about exploring and really excited about just sort of immersing myself in the museum experience.

But as the weeks and days went on, and I started to ask really critical and fundamental questions about myself, about my work, and doing the deep kinds of reflection that only really and truly a pandemic would bring about, I started to ask myself the questions of origin, “What actually drew me to museums in the first place?”

For me, it was because my mother was a fourth grade teacher and she was largely in charge of organising school field trips. And as she did that, I would go along with her, and my love and passion for museums grew from there. What do I miss specifically about museums? What is it?

Is it the building? Is it the sound? Is it going with someone? Is it the artwork? Is it purely about the objects? Is it the time and space that I get to think about myself, my own humanity, that I get to be playful and joyful? “What can I do to be re-energised by the creative power of museums?” That’s the question that I began to ask myself every day.

Gloria Ladson-Billings, who is one of our most important critical race scholars in the field of education, actually makes the argument that what we are experiencing now is a series of connected pandemics. And so Gloria Ladson-Billings argues that what we are experiencing is actually four pandemics at once.

We have the global health pandemic that was brought about by the coronavirus. We are seeing in real time what essentially amounts to as a second civil rights movement. We’re seeing a racial pandemic which is in response to police brutality across the globe, and systemic and institutional racism. We’re also experiencing an economic crisis like never before. And then finally, Gloria Ladson-Billings is arguing that we are experiencing as well a climate crisis.

What I believe is that we are also collectively experiencing a collective trauma event. That what we all are seeing in our homes and in our communities and in our families is a collective trauma event. And for me, it’s really important for us to think about the ways in which these four connected pandemics really call for a deep exploration, and examination, and utilisation of intersectionality.

It’s the lens in which we should be making decisions about how we move forward as a field and how we move forward as institutions. What does this actually mean for museums? Again, we’re in a time of great change and transition. I would hope and imagine that this actually means that we’re in a time of great transformation.

What I see as an opportunity in this moment is that we have an opportunity for evolution in terms of museums. That in fact we have an infinite number of possibilities in which to grow. And today I’d like to briefly discuss four opportunities for evolution. We have an opportunity to embrace new definitions of museums.

And because we can embrace new definitions, it means that we ultimately must embrace and understand our new purpose. What is our new purpose for museums moving forward in a world that is, again, changing before our eyes. We have an opportunity to reexamine our own understanding of power in these museums. Museums have so much power, not just in our boards and not just from our senior team, but right there in our communities.

How can we begin to share in that collective power and shift our energies? We have an opportunity to evolve in terms of the way that we work. I’ve been really studying, and thinking about, and reflecting on the ways in which we do our work in museums. Our museum work practise can and must change.

And then finally, we have an opportunity to evolve in terms of learning new things. If these pandemics have not taught us anything is that we have to learn new ways of adapting, and that requires new types of literacies. The great writer, Ta-Nehisi Coates, author of Between the World and Me, recently was asked to guest edit and curate the September, 2020 edition of the Vanity Fair magazine.

And Coates titled that addition The Great Fire. I’ve been musing about that for several weeks. The Great Fire is in reference to James Baldwin’s 1963 essay and book of the same name. And in it, Baldwin references an old Negro spiritual called Mary Don’t You Weep. And there’s a line in that spiritual that reads, “God gave Noah the rainbow sign, no more water, but the fire next time.”

And essentially within the context of James Baldwin’s work, what Baldwin is doing is imagining an alternative world. I’ve been really thinking about The Great Fire, the symbolism and the parallel for what we are experiencing here in America and Australia, different parts of the world. We’ve literally seen the West Coast of our nation be on fire.

We’ve seen an intellectual, emotional and communal fire as it relates to calls for change from our police, and fighting back against a carceral state. We’ve seen so much change, so much fire and passion and energy. And we’ve seen that play out even in our own institutions. We’ve seen call-outs and call-ins in the form of open letters, which have documented and called for change in museums and institutions.

We’ve seen a call for an increase in diversity and representation, not only in our workforce, but also within the objects and programming that we offer in institutions. We are in a period and in a time of great reckoning, whether it’s in the terms of reconciliation, or reparations, or repatriation. We are seeing and witnessing a great fire.

Which made me think about what would it mean if our institutions thought of themselves as incendiary? I would ask you to think about, in what ways can museums be in incendiary? What are our bright ideas? What are our even brighter ideas? And how can we execute them? I gave a talk called Death To Museums. Today is a good day for museums to die was part of the Death To Museums OnConference.

One of the premises that I offered is that fires can be healing and they can be nourishing. We can actually be fueled by the nourishment that ashes provide. In many ways, I think that we should be thinking about the new and emergent museum, how we can stoke the flames of curiosity, how we can learn and grow from all of the global changes that we’re seeing now during this time of great unrest.

And if we are incendiary as institutions, if we are on fire and we are passionate about what we’re doing, how can we use that fire to lead? Who among us can lead? And how can we share that fire so that we can all lead together? What are some of the ways that we can illuminate those ideas and spread the passion to our visitors?

I know that many people last year felt that the ICOM debate was a bit of a distraction, or felt that it didn’t really exist other than to be an exercise in scholarship or intellect. But I have to confess that I’ve been thinking almost daily about the ICOM definition proposal.

And so many of you are aware that in 2019, the International Council of Museums put forth a new definition of museums. And I know many people rejected that definition, but I actually felt that this definition was not only inspirational and aspirational, but that it included an embedded map, a map for us to think about our future, to help shape and create an emerging museum.

Museums are and should be polyphonic spaces. We know from Chimamanda Adichie that there’s a danger in telling a single story. Museums are already critical spaces for dialogue. And in this particular moment, above any other moment perhaps in history, in time, in recent memory, we should be using this moment to capture and create and catapult critical dialogue to help change our communities.

We know that museums should be participatory and transparent, especially when it comes to our governance. And I deeply believe that our museums should centre social justice, global equality, and planetary wellbeing. If this is not the definition that you agree upon, I totally understand that. But I would ask that we come up with a shared vision for museums.

That if this definition isn’t the one that you think is the one that can propel us forward, then let’s come up collectively with the definition that will meet this moment and will meet our new purposes. I think in terms of the evolution, this evolutionary moment, that we should also be thinking about the ways in which we can reexamine our understanding of power, a sort of base definition of power means that one entity’s behaviour has an influence on another entity’s behaviour. This idea of behaviour and influence equals power.

But I would argue that not only in the context of museums, but in the context of this time, and recognition and response of this moment, that we begin to think about power in museums as change in energy over time. Where is our energy in museums? Where does it come from? Is it a question of harnessing our energies, or is it a question of providing enough fodder and material to build something great, something blindingly fantastic?

Again, I would ask, how can we think about changing our energies? And if we change our energies, will we not attract a different type of visitor that can share and meet and match our energies? Where can we shift our energies to address social justice and, or systemic and institutional racism? And what new ways can we govern ourselves?

We can also evolve, again, in terms of work practise. If we’re going to build a new museum, then we need new ways of working. It’s just that simple. We have to ask ourselves what no longer fits and what can we build from scratch? One of the things I like to advance is for us to begin to think about collectively how we can begin to practise community care.

We have to take care of each other as museum professionals. We have to take care of each other because we matter. Our lives matter, and the work that we do is critical, especially in times where intellectual and historical accuracy are being questioned. We have to think about if this work is really and truly important. The ways in which we can increase and create equality and equity in our pay in wages.

And then finally, I would ask us to stop looking for a plan or a model, and truly and deeply invest in worlds building. We are starting over. And we see this, again, in real time, that the world is changing. We have to think about not what is an old plan, or not what is a useful model that might have worked at one institution or another, we’re building from the ground up.

We have to have new energies, and fresh ideas and new passion. We have to figure out where our curiosity comes from to do this type of work. And then finally, we have to learn new things. As I mentioned earlier, we are experiencing a collective trauma event. I would ask you to consider that as a result, we have to think about, in our institutions, how we can be both trauma informed and healing centred.

I think that our visitors demand it and they deserve it, and we deserve it ourselves. We have to think about new models of funding and development. We, again, are experiencing a global economic crisis. The old models of funding will not hold. We already see that they won’t. What are the new ways that we can think about funding and development?

Learning new ways. We have to consider the fact that activism within our discipline, in our profession, is not something that’s relegated to the radical rabble rouser. Activism is something that belongs to all of us. Activism literally means that you are committed to being an agent of change.

And if museums are not committed to being agents of change, then we really and truly need to redefine who and what we are, and what our purposes are. We need new models for leadership. Again, how are we going to govern ourselves? How are we going to not only share authority, but think about the actual shape and sound of that authority?

We can learn new things. And I think one of the things that we can learn is how to shape shift. If we’re building a new and emergent museum, what shape does it take? What shape does it hold? What shape does it need? What shape is required? We have a lot of new things to learn, and I’m hesitant to name all of them, because I think we’re still growing and we’re still learning, and we’re still trying to figure out what this moment is.

But I’m super excited to think about all of the new learning that needs to take place in museums, and all of the emerging museum professionals who are going to help lead the charge in that learning. Let’s talk about emergence, and the new museum, and the emergent museum. I draw and rely heavily upon Adrienne Maree Brown and her work, Emergent Strategy.

She defines emergent strategy as strategy for building complex patterns and systems of change through relatively small interactions. Emergent strategies are the intentional adaptations which can be made through small skill acts over time, through intense, intentional listening, research, facilitation, data collection, et cetera, for transforming practises, institutions and individuals as part of a collective.

It is movement making that practises, adaptive relational ways of being owned on our own and with others. I would argue that the emerging museum brings with it a promise. What’s the promise? When you show up for work every day, when you go to your museum, what’s the promise that you bring with you? What’s the promise that lies there, whether it’s in the objects or the visitors?

I would love to be in community with anyone who wants to think about and work on the promise of the museum. The emerging museum is augmented by useful era. I think for me it goes beyond taking risks, but understanding that new learning that needs to take place, that we are actually expanded, that we can grow by making errors, errors that come from adaptation, errors that come from new learning, errors that come from risk taking, errors that come from emergence.

The emerging museum creates opportunities for visitors to be different people. I’m a different person because of this pandemic. I would imagine that you might be as well. And we can create opportunities for visitors to be different people in our new institutions, with new information, new narratives, new dialogue, new opportunities for play, new opportunities for creativity.

The emerging museum relies upon disruptive strategies to harness critical new innovation. The emerging museum understands its own energies. Again, where’s our fire? Where’s our passion? And how can we use that to illuminate change? I would offer a way forward for museum professionals who are set on emergent strategies.

We can scale up by going deeper, being more vulnerable for sharing power. We can be more empathetic by de-centering professionalisation and academic knowledge. We can be willing to be intention with policy, best practises and accepted knowledge by discovering new methods of research, facilitation, and evaluation.

We can reframe the visitor as a trusted teacher whose lived experiences are the catalyst for change, new learning and new information. We can align ourselves with visionaries, change makers and community sages rather than our core group of base visitors. And finally, we can embrace the notion that failure is welcomed data for the birth of imagination.

The last part of my presentation is deeply a meditation, because as I began, I have more questions than I have answers. My meditations are emotion, intuition, imagination, and faith. There is power in disruption. I would ask us to reject the notion that we should go back to normal. There will be no returning to normal.

We should reject the idea that disruption leads to destruction, or at least destruction that has a negative connotation. If we are going to build a new world, I’m totally fine with knocking everything down. We can burn everything down, but I don’t want us to be discouraged. I want us to be hopeful. I want us to be joyful, because there is promise in the museum, because there’s promise in all of us, there’s promise in humanity.

Finally, here are my actual meditation. I’d like to ask you to return to these questions every day. I’m calling these meditations for disrupt patterns and for shaping new worlds. Ask yourself, “How am I shaping change? Where is my vulnerable reflection? How can I disrupt the flow of my work to stop old patterns? Is the approach to my work present and intentional? And finally, where is the visitor in this?”

I’m going to read that one more time. This is your meditation. “How am I shaping change? Where is my vulnerable reflection? How can I disrupt the flow of my work to stop old patterns? Is the approach to my work present and intentional? Where is the visitor in this?”

The true final meditation of the emerging museum. Adaptation is critical. Adaptation reduces exhaustion. I am on museum Twitter, and I see that there’s so much exhaustion, there’s so much critique, there’s so much disappointment. I understand all of it. I’m a part of it. But I also want us to have hope, to have resilience, to have joy as we’re shaping the new museum.

If we adapt, and we co-create, and we shape change, and we build a new world, we can reduce exhaustion. Our joy can return. Our creativity can return. Adaptation occurs when community and relationship exist. Whom are you in community with as museum professionals, and with whom are you in community with as institutions?

That’s where the adaptation will begin. Deep radical trust is the foundation for creation of emergent strategies. If we’re going to shape change and build new worlds, we have to have radical trust. I want to leave you with the words of the great Octavia Butler, who says, “There is nothing new under the sun, but there are new suns.”

How can we harness the energy of our new suns? How can we be incendiary institutions? How can we use our own personal passion as fire? How can we burn things down metaphorically and be nourished by the ashes? Thank you. I thank you so much for taking the time to share with me in my meditations.

As someone who deeply loves and is passionate about museums, who’s passionate about the idea of disruption, I thank you for joining me as we continue to not only shape change and build a new museum, as we see a new world emerging, but that we can actually become and promote agents of change. You can follow me on twitter @PorchiaMuseM, and you can email me at Thank you.


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