The Myth of Museum Neutrality

Last week the MuseumNext conference took place in Dublin and I could follow some incredible discussions via livestream and twitter. The conference dealt with nothing less than the future of museums. The participants touched on a variety of issues: visitors engagement, storytelling, digitization, community building, and financial sustainability.

To put it in a nutshell, everyone agreed upon that museums have to define their role within society to remain significant in the future. In the past, museums were temples where knowledge was preserved and education was the highest value. This might still be a big asset, but with this purpose comes the voice of institutional authority, that does not facilitate a dialogue with the people visiting the museum. Ever wondered which objects end up in a collection and what is worthy to be preserved? This selection is highly political and often connected to colonialism and the power of the West. If we want to attract new audiences, museums have to enable dialogues about these issues. A collection can be used as a tool to start visitor’s engagement, but knowledge works two-ways. How much space is there for the own experiences of the public and in which ways are museums still able to transport the research and knowledge behind the exhibition? Museums are facing a shift and need to open up in order to remain relevant in the future.

One of the most impressive talks, among the contributions of Monica O. Montgomery and Ngaire Blankenberg, has been the conversation of Dr. David Fleming. He became the director of the National Museums Liverpool in 2001. He said something that builds the core of engagement for me “I have been trained to think of museums as neutral: but that’s impossible today if we want people to respond". People are emphatic and bond through emotions and authentic communication-they want to be taken serious. Unfortunately, within the academic context emotional engagement is considered unprofessional, but this is where the transformational power can happen! Dr. Fleming stated that "Museums are full of the biases of the people that run them and they need to face that." This frees museums from their role as gatekeepers of knowledge and opens them for being a space where everyone is empowered to engage in this knowledge, including the staff. There has to be room for an honest debate. He went even a step further and articulated something that has been ever since the motor of my work “If you don't think museums can change lives, you shouldn't be working in museums.”

There seems to be the assumption that the public will come to the museum no matter what, but there is a shift: You need to reach the audience. Museums have to leave an open window to respond to issues in a flexible manner. Does that mean the death of large-scale exhibitions? No, but it is necessary to remain flexible to react to current issues and see what the site-specific community is interested in. Risk taking is an important quality to keep the connection to the laboratory of life. In the museum communication something has to change to open the dialogue to a diverse audience: the provided information have to be welcoming for other opinions, information has to be spread among different platforms and formats (it is an open secret that people engage in different ways). Conxa Rodà, Head of Strategy, Innovation and Digital Transformation of the Museu Nacional d'Art de Catalunya in Barcelona shared some really interesting insights about the digital transformation in Museums. She was so kind to share her slides.

My main takeaways for the museum of the future:

Emotional Storytelling, Engangement & Empowerment

  • Storytelling is never neutral. Digitalization and technology are tools to help create an emotional impact. The overall objective is an educational, social impact.
  • What is emotional engagement? Thoughts about social responsibility, being compassionate, facilitating a culture of inquiry instead of a voice of authority.
  • Visitors engagement is not just the gamification of the museum experience, it is a way to facilitate a long-term conversation with a community.
  • Museums should take a more activist role: they can (and should) be powerful agents of social change.
  • Museums operate in a social world, so debate and opinion are a necessity.

Collaboration & Community

  • Partnering with like-minded organizations is key to museums changing the world.
  • There has to be a transition from the museum temple to the open social museum.
  • New job categories might be helpful to mark the shift e.g. Community Engagement Manager
  • Don’t just make it about the collection. What is the structure of the city surrounding the museum and how is it going to change? Not just from a historic perspective, even though art is rooted in a historic context, it is important to engage with the living audience and their real life problems.

Institutional Reflection

  • Museums have to be allowed to experiment, fail and learn from their experiences. The presentation of Silvia Fillippini Fantoni, Director of Interpretation, Media and Evaluation of the Indianapolis Museum of Art on whether to To Charge Or Not To Charge: Museums and The Admission Dilemma, has been such a brave, honest and transparent demonstration of a learning curve.
  • Is the staff part of the leadership? Proactive staff is important for change, but for an authentic engagement they need to be involved in the whole process: financial planning etc..
  • Museums have to define their core values and mission. What are they passionate about? In which area do they add value? What is the strength they want to be known for? For what do they want to be known in the world?
  • Museums have to work between mission impact and financial sustainability. Sponsorship might provide a solution, but careful it is never a benevolent relationship. A sponsor has to be chosen wisely and has to be aligned with the museum’s mission. It is important to make clear how the relationship can work out.

What Makes a Museum Successful?

  • Awareness of external issues: demographics and population shifts, geo-political trends, politics, technology and social media. communication.
  • Mission driven, inclusive, proactive, transparent, definition of core values, flexible to react to external issues.
  • Impact in discourse-building, role within the city structure that nourished the cultural life.

Further Information:

I really urge you to watch this amazing two videos to get more insights:

1. Ngaire Blankenberg, How you can activate the soft power of your museums, TEDxHamburg, 2015

2. Nina Simon on the participatory museum, 2012


I would love to hear from you and your experiences. Do you have further points that are missing here. Get in touch in the comment section below, on social media or drop me a line.