Monday, March 10, 2008
Thank you to Susan Spero and all the folks at JFKU and Left Coast Press for starting a highly stimulating conversation this weekend at the colloquium on Museums and Civic Discourse. It was a special day, not just because a group of 65 smart people buzzed energetically around an interesting topic, but because there were a series of insights and flashes that felt new. There were, as we say in the museum business, some good aha moments.
There were also plenty of unresolved questions. What role should museums play in promoting discourse? What services or opportunities should we offer to staff and to visitors to engage in civic grappling? How will it impact the other services and roles museums represent in contemporary society? Over the next several weeks, I will be dedicating posts to these questions, and most specifically, to some of the HOWs of making museums sites of civic discourse. But today, I want to talk about one of the other big questions raised on Saturday: Why?
As Kathy McLean observed, speakers presented several examples of places that are promoting civic discourse successfully--public radio, science cafes, Web 2.0. Why do museums need to get in on the act? Some argued that it's a question of survival--that museums will sink further in irrelevance if we don't take up the cause. Others reacted hotly: do we really need to get into public debate to survive?
I partly agree with the survival argument, but I also recognize that it is based on fear--an opposing but related fear to that held by those who reject civic discourse as too divergent from (and dangerous to) institutional missions. I think there's another, more positive, argument for why museums need to get in on the act: because our tools for civic discourse are inadequate and our opportunities and venues for it are often haphazard. As centers of informal learning, museums have an opportunity to be leaders in this arena and to provide a mainstream venue for visitors of all kinds to confront each other and themselves.
Because the reality is in that room of 65 people, only a handful had participated in one of the high-functioning models of civic discourse presented--calling in to a radio forum, bridging political differences through internet chat. But all of us have experienced more informal, less well-facilitated forms of discourse. Sue Allen spoke of an uncomfortable discussion in an airport with a man on the opposite side of the Iraqi war from her, a conversation in which she and the man careened towards and away from each other, conflicted yet drawn to the debate. I instantly thought of the argument two friends had at a picnic last month: she, a lawyer for a pharmaceutical, he, a friend who couldn't understand why she didn't have ethical issues with her work. It ended with both parties pissed off, no closer to understanding or respecting each other. Another woman at Saturday's colloquium spoke of a confusing experience at a museum program on global warming, saying without any trace of irony: "I came to listen to the facts that I believe in."
Yes, there may be sites for discourse in our lives, but they are not well-facilitated and are more often seen as undesirable disturbances--the kinds of incidences to lead us to look away from strangers on the street. We all have plenty of prejudices, but I was taken aback at the number of people at the session who said, in one way or another, "I don't want my institution to be a place where it is safe for THOSE people to air THEIR beliefs." I guess I shouldn't have been surprised; I've been there. I remember walking out of the Spy Museum during a workday to stand in the middle of the street facing thousands of pro-life marchers parading on the anniversary of Roe V. Wade. I would stand there, my face screwed into the hardest angles possible, and I wasn't looking for discourse. I couldn't even imagine discourse. I was a ball of confused, unfulfilled hate.
We live in an increasingly polarized society. We are encouraged to define ourselves by what we are and aren't for, and we're lousy at respecting people on the other side of the aisle. When I think of the times I have experienced civic discourse in a positive way, it was because of a personal relationship built through a common interest. For me, that's often sports. I pride myself on the friendships I have with Exxon Mobil engineers, evangelicals, people who I'd classify as OTHER if not for our common love of rock climbing and a desire to protect each other in challenging physical situations.
A lot of this has to do with creating more venues for people from different backgrounds to interact safely--and that's a place museums can start. But it also requires those venues to be places where people initiate and cultivate relationships with the strangers who are there, places where the prescribed interaction is civil and implies a fundamental respect for and interest in others. In the climbing gym, people naturally raise their arms to spot each other on tough moves and call out words of support without knowing each other's names. But the climbing gym is not in the business of encouraging discourse, so the gym facilitators don't take advantage of the common respect therein to take the social experience to the next civic level. Museums could be in that business. It's a unique value proposition for museums, one that might be useful at a time when our other value propositions are being challenged by a growing experience economy.
And this gets back to the survival argument. Yes, museums need to keep looking for new reasons and ways to be relevant, even, hopefully, essential, in our world. And to me, this is one of the most hopeful and interesting survival paths we can take--one that isn't about rivaling theme parks or movie theaters but opening up our ability to talk to one another. I'm increasingly interested in the museum as a place that becomes both more social and more personal. As Kris Morrisey (University of Washington) commented in the opening session, there has been a shift in museums, especially science museums, from focusing on "public understanding of" to "public engagement with" museum content. Perhaps it's time for us to go a step further, to become places for public engagement with each other.
More on what that could mean and how it can happen in the weeks ahead...
Labels: participatory museum