Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Book Club Part 8: Time to Change

This is the final installment of the Museum 2.0 book club on Civilizing the Museum; The Collected Writings of Elaine Heumann Gurian. For me, this has been a valuable exercise in attentive reading and exploration; I hope you have enjoyed it as well. I would like to thank Elaine for her generous involvement and contributions over the summer. The whole series will be available soon via its own link if you would like a companion as you read this excellent book. I’d like to do more book clubs in the future; please let me know if there are any particular books on museum theory, design, innovation, etc. that you would recommend for Museum 2.0.

And now, on to discussion. This week, we’re looking at Chapter 8, Turning the Ocean Liner Slowly: About the process of change in larger institutions. Presented in 1990, this essay is one of Elaine’s most impassioned, written from her vantage point of deputy assistant secretary for museums at the Smithsonian, a sort of unwanted helmsman for a wild ship in the eye of what she saw as an international storm. The essay focuses on two points: first, that outside pressures of multi-culturalism, relativism, and global instability are forcing change in museums, and second, that change is very unpleasant for large institutions, which will push back with all their might.

I’m most interested in this second point about the change-adverse culture of museums. There will always be outside forces pushing museums in one direction or another. Where in 1990 the need to diversify staff, to reconsider ownership of cultural objects, to grapple with the end of the Cold War may have been paramount, today we have another, equally long and ponderous list of pressures for change. The need to compete with commercial businesses offering similar services as museums. The need to respond to audience desires not just to be included in the museum experience, but to help create it. The need to set a reasonable tone in a time of fiery wartime rhetoric.

The question is not what pressures currently exist, but what we are going to do about them. As Elaine states in her essay:
Change by itself is so uncomfortable that institutions do not do it voluntarily or for noble reasons alone. They change because they fear the consequences of not doing so, and only then are willing to override the cries of anguish from the discomforted.
But the "cries of anguish" are not always consistent, which exposes an underlying problem with pursuing change out of fear of consequences. In 1990, one of the outside pressures Elaine identified was a rise in global instability, ushering in a new age of uncertainty. How can museum leaders chart a certain path through uncertain waters? When the pressures change, the fears change, and change never comes. In an afterword written in 2005, Elaine comments,
The most striking thing I did not anticipate was losing… I did not predict that the pressure to change museums would waver and die down, even as the conversation would continue. I did not preduct that the changes that were made would be fundamentally small except in a few places. And I certainly did not predict that change could be eroded and stepped back from. I should have anticipated the possibility of failure.
Elaine’s honesty is both arresting and depressing. Can museums change? Perhaps the pressures being felt now—which are more financial than cultural—will spawn greater action. But I think we fundamentally need to remove ourselves from fear-based action to get anywhere meaningful. If change is a response to (changing) outside pressures, as Elaine noted in 2005, it “remains episodic and sporadic.” We need to change without pressure, continually, because it is the best way to move forward. One of the reasons I am so fascinated by the tech world is that it largely comprises institutions, small and large, that promote a culture of change. Tech businesses are constantly reinventing themselves, creating new products, reaching out to new audiences. It’s exhausting and risky and potentially wildly successful.

When I was working as a performance poet, I had a fabulous coach who told me, “The only way to improve is to change.” It was a statement I resisted at the time but have continued to attempt to integrate into my mindset. At the time, I was a successful performer. Why would I change my “signature” style away from the tried and true? Why would any museum abandon its core audience, its core way of presenting content, its signature style? We are under the erroneous (and comfortable) impression that great art comes from consistency rather than experimentation.

Elaine concludes her afterword with a nod to the future, saying, “Perhaps I must look to my younger colleagues with fire in their bellies and a mixture of naivete and idealism to take up the cause. I am ever hopeful that they will succeed, and I am ready to support them wholeheartedly.” I hope that Museum 2.0 can be a place for us to share and explore that fire. Remember that there are museum leaders like Elaine out there ready to support your quest for change.

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