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A Moment of Change for Museums

During this year’s AAM Annual Meeting, I had and heard more conversations about museums (and non-profits) reaching A Moment of Change.  What is that? Moments of Change are when the dynamics or parameters of a system or institutions are fundamentally altered. The 2008 recession was thought to be a moment of change for non-profits but giving levels & behaviors and institutional structures returned to prior norms.

Why are we now in A Moment of Change?  Museums themselves are expanding their parameters from preservation and education to communication and facilitation.  Taking a page from public history, museums are inviting community members to share authority about their collections.  Museum collections are also being re-examined through other lenses like colonization, feminism, diversity, inclusion, and gender.  Emerging museum professionals begin these discussions during their schooling and subsequently instigate or continue those dialogues when they enter the workforce.

Those dialogues are also the result of shifting demographics.  The US Census Bureau’s blog post We Are A Changing Nation:  A Series on Population Trends examines changes in race, ethnicity, birth rates, death rates, and migration.  The World Bank’s Data Blog discusses similar topics on the global and continental scale.  The ease of global travel and communications over the past few decades has perhaps accelerated pre-existing trends.  Delving into all the trends is a book in and of itself. Suffice to say, when you review a few of the blog posts or charts available via the US Census Bureau, the World Bank, or the OECD, you discover that your presumptions about your local and regional cohorts are most likely inaccurate.

Social media, obviously, provides the communication tool that people all over the world can use to interact with your institution.  Your community is now truly global, which can be good and also overwhelming.  Viral moments can be beneficial or unfortunate. If anyone can use LinkedIn or other directories to identify your staff, is it realistic to say that only your marketing department or executive director or board can officially communicate your institution’s public positions?  Should all staff receive communications or public relations training?

Thus, we return to the expanding parameters of museums.  The democratization of communications is the driving factor for this Moment of Change. Everyone’s voice can be heard. There are no excuses for ignoring or silencing.  The question is now:  how can museums and audiences productively communicate with one another?

I think we are currently trying to establish a process or guidelines for productive communications. At this moment, museums may learn more from being in listening mode than acting mode.  Hear what the community is saying.  Gather those perspectives.  Uncover commonalities and unearth critical differences.  Listening can be more powerful than doing.

For those whose training was museum focused, here are a couple of public history books that contain perspectives and examples of shared authority or collaborations between underrepresented communities and museums/history institutions:

Bill Adair, et al’s Letting Go? Sharing Historical Authority in a User-Generated World

Dolores Hayden’s The Power of Place:  Urban Landscapes as Public History

2018-05-14T15:44:49+00:00May 14th, 2018|Museums, ThinkPiece|

About the Author:

Samantha Chmelik, principal of Preston Argus, uses her background in operations management, benchmarking, and strategic planning to help cultural and history organizations implement their missions. She has worked and volunteered at libraries, museums, and non-profit organizations for two decades. She is also the author of Museum and Historic Site Management: A Case Study Approach, Rowman & Littlefield, 2015 and Museum Operations: A Handbook of Tools, Templates, and Models, Rowman & Littlefield, 2017.