An Ecosystem of Museum Activism

There is a danger when activism gets theorized in an academic context to develop a sterile language that is removed from the people engaged in the cause. The book* Museum Activism, edited by Robert R. Janes and Richard Sandell, tries to challenge that by valuing both academic and lived experience through their three chapters: Nurturing activism, activism in practice and assessing activism, and gives insights in the many facets of the museum activism ecosystem.

My initial thought when I heard about this book was that activism is a really broad term and has a complicated relationship with institutions like museums that are grounded in power. People bring about change and institutions can be supportive in the initiatives but institutions do have their own politics. The introduction states the kind of activism they are referring to: “We have chosen to describe this work as museum activism, in the sense of museum practice, shaped out of ethically-informed values, that is intended to bring about political, social and environmental change.” [p. 1].

Their selection of authors for the book was carefully based on the values:

  • inclusive, non-hierarchical ways of working

  • a commitment to dismantling inequalities and advancing justice

  • respect for expertise derived from lived experience

  • support human rights for all

  • acknowledgment for collective responsibility for environmental stewardship

I’ve been revisiting the work of artist Cauleen Smith lately, and her words made me think a lot about how often people/ artists/ institutions are labeled activist:

“I sometimes get tagged as activist because I pay attention to the world, but I’m not an activist. You need a certitude for that which I don’t have anymore. That’s for the young. Their agenda is social change and that requires power, but art is about destabilizing power. I’m all for change, but my work, it doesn’t serve it. I want to undermine power.”

I find Smith’s artistic practice transformational as it is rooted in the power of speculative fiction, imagining a liberated world, but she doesn’t claim authoritarian certainty of her imagination. It made me wonder if museums are able to undermine their power or if their power in the context of activism is about being a vehicle for imagination that envisions alternatives for the narrative of dominance. This role is strongly connected to the question of whose imagination and stories are valued.

Mike Murawski live tweeted his impressions about the book and shared this sentiment:

On a side note, the other day I came across Deepa Lyer's article My Role in a Social Change Ecosystem: A Mid-Year Check-In (really worth reading) and her beautiful graphic about the social change ecosystem:

(c) Deepa Lyer

(c) Deepa Lyer

Museums have changed over the centuries, adapting to the changes in society and the way knowledge is presented. In an age where we have so many information sources at hand we are asked to be critical about the sources and the conclusions they point to. Museums are part of the educational realm and more and more people are being critical about the kind of assumptions museums allow with the discourse they provide: Who gets represented in the museum discourse? How do museums respond to issues of inclusion, dominant narratives and access? What background does the staff have and which impact does it have on decision-making? How much power do board members hold and how do they get to shape the programming? These are just a few of the questions museum activists work on and why Museums are not neutral (For more information follow: La Tanya Autry, Teressa Raiford, Mike Murawski).

The statement that museum work is deeply political comes often with a lot of push back. As I stated in The Myth of Museum Neutrality or Business over Education? “It seems that people relate neutrality to a wider truth that museums need to protect at whatever cost necessary, even if the cost is producing inaccurate assumptions.  The arguments pretending Museum Neutrality exists are connected to a wider narrative where cause and effect lead to problematic assumptions . To argue that Museum Neutrality exists and to silence museums means that museums aren't allowed to correct the hetero normative view and deal with colonial heritage.“

The book acknowledges the problematic situation museums face within the neo liberal system as “Socio-environmental conditions are changing rapidly and the museum as mall is the latest trajectory. The museum as mall, although more audience-focused, embodies the dead end of materialism—over-merchandised and devoted to consumption and entertainment. It is the museum as mall that underlies our commitment to museum activism, as we believe that the relentless focus on money, consumption, and the marketplace ideology continues to diminish the museum as social institution and a key civic resource.” [p.1-2]. The museum as mall analogy is very powerful as museums need to balance growth under neo liberal terms but also work with the resources they have. While reading this the problem at the Louvre Museum came to mind where exploding visitor numbers lead to a strike by the museum employees, in particular the visitor services staff, because of the poor working conditions.

If we concentrate for a moment on the business side it is very interesting to see how we assess institutional success. In many museums visitor numbers are still one of the dominant metrics taken into account and influence as a consequence programming decisions. Art Agency Partner has been asking Museum Directors, Artists and Critics on metrics of success. Okwui Enwezor—who died recently and whose valuable thoughts are missed—gave a response that resonated with me:

I am not in principle against large numbers—who doesn’t want loads of people to come to an exhibition you create? Of course, that is always a desire. But the mission of the museum is not about attendance figures and a mass of visitors—it is to show the complexity of the field of operation, exhibiting both artists who are very well recognized and popular and also artists who are deserving of critical attention. We always have to parse the difference between loved, admired and respected. Each of these play a major role in decision making.

I am not opposed to popular exhibitions: I have made them—my Documenta was visited by hundreds of thousands, as was Venice and others. But, for me, visitor numbers are only one measure and I think we need to be careful that we don’t make them the only measure of success. This is what museums are struggling with. During my tenure at Haus Der Kunst, I was willing to risk that fundamental misunderstanding in order to champion what I believed was the central mission of our institution, which was to engage with the field in as broad and complex a way as is possible for the public to grasp.

Continuing with the business aspect and money, I stumbled when I read in the introduction of the book “Museums already have a boundless capacity to act with intelligence and sensitivity—money is not required to do this. Museum workers also know intuitively that money is not a measure of their worth” (p. 2). While I am aware that money cannot be an excuse to not do the necessary work, the people who are under financial pressure are often the people doing the work. The longer I work in the museum field and am engaged in topics around labor issues and diversity in the arts, the stronger the connection between money and privilege appears. If we want to see activist or diversity work from underrepresented groups, institutions have to make sure they get compensated for their work. There are many talented people leaving the field or in a vulnerable place of burnout because the necessary work they do does not get compensated accordingly. We cannot talk about topics of agency, diversity, inclusion and access without talking about labor issues in the arts. I was very relieved to read later throughout the first part how the editors acknowledged the financial challenges of museums and the staff as well as the need to rethink leadership and the influence of museum boards.

There were two parts in the introduction that positioned the idea of the book within the current museum discourse: 1) The notion that museums are often forced through board members to work based on neo liberal principles of indefinite growth: “Business literacy is about methods, however, not values. Values are enduring beliefs and guiding beacons about the purpose of the museum and how it will conduct itself, as well as how it will treat others. There is persistent confusion in many museums between business imperatives and values, as exemplified by preoccupation with quantitative measure—based on more revenue, more collections and more visitors. Sensitivity to the environment, cohesion, inclusion, tolerance and decentralization are values, and have nothing to do with commercial dogma and business literacy.” [p. 12]
2) The rethinking of museums in reaction to the world we’re living in where we have to “consider what the work of museums should be in the early 21st century. Culture is not about leisure, entertainment, and the overwhelming distractions of social media. Culture is about how we lead our lives. Culture is also about organizations and individuals thinking critically and assuming responsibility […].” [p. 15]

Many ideas and strategies in the book reminded me of Adrienne Maree Brown’s book “Emergent Strategy”.

Adrienne Maree Brown: Emergent Strategy, p. 15.

Adrienne Maree Brown: Emergent Strategy, p. 15.


In a concept as broad as activism there is a sense of interconnectedness among different causes that are rooted in social justice work: liberation, sustainability and well-being. The museum activism portrayed in this books shares these core values. The 53 authors involved in this book did a fabulous job in translating their engagement and research into language for an academic publication that is understandable and able to convey the reasons behind their personal engagement. As the editors stated in the introduction, a book with such a big topic can only be “partial and particular” but the book is an valuable orientation within the discourse and will provide many points of reference for future research. I found this book comforting as I resonated with many of the frustrations shared in the chapters and it did make me hopeful to be reminded that there is a whole community out there doing important work.

When I read academic books that deal with activism I am always interested in their own politics and which other knowledge sources are referenced. Sara Ahmed wrote in her book Living a feminist life about citation as a commitment to challenge the reproduction of dominant knowledge.

In this book, I adopt a strict citation policy: I do not cite any white men. By white men I am referring to an institution, as I explain in chapter 6. Instead, I cite those who have contributed to the intellectual genealogy of feminism and antiracism, including work that has been too quickly (in my view) cast aside or left behind, work that lays out other paths, paths we can call desire lines, created by not following the official paths laid out by disciplines.9 These paths might have become fainter from not being traveled upon; so we might work harder to find them; we might be willful just to keep them going by not going the way we have been directed.

My citation policy has given me more room to attend to those feminists who came before me. Citation is feminist memory. Citation is how we acknowledge our debt to those who came before; those who helped us find our way when the way was obscured because we deviated from the paths we were told to follow.

— Sara Ahmed: Living a feminist life p. 15-16.

I am very aware that academia is not neutral and plays on its own dominant narratives, that said, I noticed that 23 out of 34 chapters referenced books and articles by the two editors Robert R. Janes and Richard Sandell. Both are without a doubt excellent academics and did a lot for the topic in the field, I just think it is worth mentioning that our citation practice is part of its own diversity practice.

The contributors of the book are able to draw a very wide picture of museum activism but it would be incorrect to argue that this is the state of a global museum activism as such a thing does not exist. First of all, activism is not a linear rigid force, it has a cyclical nature adapting to its circumstances. It is always shaped by concrete local realities and so is the work of museum activism as well. Several chapters talked about the emotional labor institutional activism requires and I wish that at least one chapter would have gone deeper into the well-being of museum activists and the challenge it can represent do bring about institutional change and the professional consequences “complaint work” can have (Sara Ahmed is extensively working on a pedagogy of complaint). Another topic I hope to see in future editions is the precarious compensation of many museum workers that work on topics around engagement, diversity and activism. Museum activism is not just about outward change but needs to reflect on internal institutional structures as well.

That said, the book weaves many connection points together and is able to show that museum activism is not a flat term but holds multitudes. Here are a few chapters that I found particularly meaningful:

  • Chapter 2: Sara Wajid & Rachel Minott on “Detoxing and Decolonising Museums. If you’re not aware of the work of Museum Detox get to know them. I resonated deeply with the dilemma of money and diversity work. The emotional work that is required and the challenge to be expected to spark institutional change “like some sort of Black museum superhero” (p. 26). They elaborated on their views on insider (working on an institutional payroll) and outsider activists (with less insides into the institutional process but “with the potential to be loud, uncensored and unrelenting” and the role of Allies (a support network).

  • Chapter 4: Maria Vlachou gave some really interesting examples of museum initiatives and stated her skepticism towards museums as safe spaces and argued for the concept of museums as “empathetic spaces” (p. 54) . A concept that I’ve been thinking a lot about myself.

  • Chapter 5: Catherine Kudlick & Edward M. Luby argue in this chapter about the need to include people with disabilities in leadership positions for a true transformation in museum policies. They stated something really important: “nearly all efforts related to bringing disability into museums are done for disabled people rather than by disabled people in leadership positions.” (p. 59)

  • Chapter 6: Paula Serafini & Chris Garrad talk in their chapter about the the challenges of arts activism on agency and accountability through an analysis of BP or not BP? and the Art not Oil coalition. These networks, among many others, have been vital in their efforts to raise awareness around the topic of ethical sponsorship. The chapter focuses on the relationship of BP and the British museum. I found their thoughts around the challenges of the “ethics of activism” (p. 71) particularly interesting such as: “the politics of introducing the perspectives of frontline communities into protest actions” (p. 71); the potential “interfer[ence] with the creative work and cultural diplomacy of other Aboriginal communities who were actively liaising with the British museum” for the repatriation of stolen objects (p. 73); the “presentation and representation of frontline communities” (p. 73) with taking into account that frontline communities do not have a homogeneous voice (p. 70) and the BP or not BP? activists are a “predominantly white, middle class British activists based in the UK” (p. 71).

  • Chapter 7: Victoria Hollows’ reflections on the activist role of museums staff are a valuable dive into why many museum workers chose the work they do: values. “Values are a way to understand common ground in the principles of how people engage socially.” (p. 81) She references a larger study (Schwarz 1994) that identifies ten common value sets and divides them into “extrinsic values (self-oriented, status and wealth concerns) and intrinsic values (care for others, the environment, and concern for social justice).” (p. 81) and compares it to her own findings that revealed “that people working in museums associated closely with intrinsic values, but often perceived their museum organisations to have more connection with extrinsic concerns.” (p. 81). Hollows reflects on how values shape the way we work, and ultimately bring about change in institutions through the people working within them.

  • Chapter 9: Julie McNamara starts her chapter with a quote by Mia Mangus that I printed and hang next to my desk: “We must leave evidence. Evidence that we were here, that we existed, that we survived and loved and ached. Evidence of the wholeness we never felt and the immense sense of fullness we gave to each other. Evidence of who we were, who we thought we were, who we never should have been. Evidence for each other that there are other ways to live—past survival; past isolation.”. Her text weaves personal experiences with works of other artists that challenged the dominant museum narrative and that influenced her own practice. I loved how this text, and many of the others in this book, is an evidence for what many of us feel “The personal is political”. Throughout the text she reflects on works that shaped her views and left her with an impact. She ends her exploration with ““It will take a great tidal force to reverse the image of the museum as an oppressive monument to a colonial past, and acknowledge the museum as a central contributor to building a just and equitable society but there are enough energetic activists and artists up for the challenge. Let’s do it.” (p. 113)

  • Chapter 11: I really appreciated Viv Golding’s chapter on Feminism and the politics of friendship in museums “Leadership and a collaborative ethos are critical to the politics of friendship and the activist museum” (p. 129).

  • Chapter 14: Njabulo Chipangura & Happinos Marufu talk about the colonial legacies in African Museums and show in their example of the Mutare Museum in Zimbabwe that “a degree of museum homogeneity amongst museums in Africa […] has […] tended to constrain, rather then encourage efforts to engage with and respond to the shifting demands of 21st century societies” (p. 166).

  • Chapter 15: Steve Lyons & Kai Bosworth’s great chapter talks about role and responsibility of museums in a time of climate emergency. “In the climate emergency museum relevance should be linked to the struggle to secure the common good” (p. 175.) which is ultimately linked to “taking a stand against the system which enables this plunder” (p. 178) and acknowledging that “the roots of the ongoing climate emergency lie in the privatization of the commons” (p.178)

  • Chapter 17: Selina Ho & Vivan Ting write about “civil-led museological activism” (p.197) during the Hong Kong Umbrella Movement. Raising important questions about how a methodology of collecting changes when objects are not collected through an institution but through citizens, and what it means for the establishment of an archive when a social movement is still ongoing but there is simultaneously a need to preserve the political moment.

  • Chapter 20: Marcelo Lages Murta does a fabulous job in describing the complicated relationship between museum initiatives and political developments in Brazil. “The unequal urbanization in big cities throughout the country is also revealed in its public policies. Historically excluded from the decision-making centres, the favelas were also excluded from what used to be called ‘the city’” (p. 241). He uses the example of community centered museums in Favelas as a means to “amplify community voices in the struggle for their rights, some with the assistance of the State, others inspired by other actions” p. 241) .

  • Chapter 22: Moya McFadzen, Liza Dale-Hallett, Tatiana Mauri & Kimberley Moulton write in their chapter about the roles of museums when it comes to activism, sometimes being a “change agent” (p. 256) through a “responsive programming in collaboration with communities” (p. 266), and other times through being a “change recipient” (p. 256) where the institution needs to step back “and empower communities to identify and give voice and space to issues of public importance” (p. 266). There are many interesting resources and ways to assess the impact of projects within this chapter but I think it is particularly important to emphasize the point that institutions need to make an effort to listen to the needs of communities and be open to change their own internal structure when it is required. Activism is both “inside out” and “outside in” as the authors wrote.

  • Chapter 23: Åshild Andrea Brekke talks about the social role of museums fertilizing “social trust” (p. 274) and uses the regional Ryfylke Museum as an example. In her chapter she talks about the mission statement as a commitment to actively engage with a community and how this commitment translates into the attraction of museum workers interested in this work. “For museums to succeed in embracing a socially engaged practice over time, there needs to be congruence between the institution’s motivations and values and those of the individual museum professional, as well as an organisational culture and structure conductive to such an alignment” (p. 271). She also talks about the need for room to experiment and the willingness to build trust through honest vulnerability (p. 271-272).

  • Chapter: 27: Lynn Wray’s thought-provoking chapter explores if curating can actually ever be anti-authorial. I do not agree with all of her arguments, in particular with her arguments that curation is largely exhibition making and “primarily, a visual and spatial medium which is experienced multi-sensorily” (p. 319). I think that the curatorial practice goes beyond exhibition making and can indeed be rooted in other media to shape the discourse. I’ve been influenced by the curatorial practice of Okwui Enwezor, whose practice was deeply connected to writing (his exhibitions were always accompanied by extensive exhibition catalogues as a form of intentional memory making), there are curators like Hans-Ulrich Obrist who use conversation as part of their practice or curators like Kimberly Drew (MuseumMammy) who uses social media, lecturing and other formats to extend the notion of curation.
    However, Wray is able to emphasize that curatorial practice that is supposed to connect to others has to be personal (political and values based), and she makes it very personal by sharing her experience of being the curator of the exhibition Art Turning Left: How Values Changed Making 1789–2013 and shares very openly what she’s learned.

  • Chapter 30: Jennifer Bergevin talks in her chapter about the narratives of transformation and how difficult it is to assess the impact museum visits have for visitors as “that impact is a highly individualised phenomenon which relies upon emotional commitment and critical reflection” (p. 356). Transformation is deeply connected to reflection and needs often time to take concrete form. I think her point that museums should “facilitate personalised critical reflection” (p. 356) space is very valuable. The question is how we can engage with visitors over time and to not limit it to the exhibition space.

*Disclaimer: Routledge provided me kindly with a free review copy. The opinions stated in this review are my own.