Monday, March 10, 2008

Why Museums Should Become Sites for Civic Discourse


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...

10 comments, add yours!:

kris said...

I have been thinking about the important question that you've highlighted of "WHY should museums get involved in civic dialog?"

I don't think its a matter of "should" or "must", which make me a bit uncomfortable but the idea that we "Can" get involved. An analogy is if I'm driving along the highway and see someone stranded with a flat tire, they need help but they don't need me specifically, and I don't need to help them. But I have the tools and opportunity to do so if I choose.

Society may not need museums, and museums don't need to get engaged, but if we as museums are about understanding our world, why would we choose not to engage?

Thanks for the thoughtful reflection on the event and topics.

marjorie said...

Why should museums get involved in civic dialog? Because we already are. Museums --whether we admit it or not -- are agents of dialog, by virtue of our exhibits, collections and sites. Most people visit in groups, and talk with each other about and during their experiences.

So, why not be more overt and facilitative about the issues, emotions and values our sites surface in our communities? Why not participate more transparently in democracy?

And, Kris, I believe that society does need museums. But it's a question we need to keep asking.

Susan said...

I think there are tremendous issues around risk and comfort, so the conditions of the dialogue and engagement are very important. How can we get institutions to understand that community members want and need places to talk about the pressing needs of the day? How can we encourage museums to take risks with controversial topics and then offer good programming and other avenues for the discourse?

Lately I have been appreciating Gail Lord's idea that museums can be cultural accelerators. Why not accelerate the pressing conversations of communities?

I am looking forward to your posts about how we can do this, because we can, which in turn makes me think, we should.

Christopher said...

Our increased polarization seems to be from an increased focus on purity of thought and litmus tests rooted in political operations that have gotten better at using data to narrowly categorize us. Plus activists on all sides that seem influenced by a us vs. them/are you with us or not mentality.

When you couple that with the increase in the anonymous forums that the web has created -- the rhetoric becomes even more heated, we can hide behind our personas.

Museums offer a place for face to face interaction that is unique as more of our public spaces are privatized -- gone are the public square in favor of the privately owned mall, the BID-controlled streetscape etc.

There is a concept that is gaining some press and traction in England called the Idea Store. It's really about opening up the library as a place beyond just books -- as a meeting places, as public forum, as node in the digital frontier. (The Idea Store website.)

Museums could and should function in the same way.

Perhaps though, with funding tied to corporations and government, there is a fear of treading into controversial waters.

Museums have to figure out away to appeal to broad audiences (to satisfy funders) while still opening up the doors to controversy and civic discourse.

Nina Simon said...

Christopher,
Thank you so much for the link. I've dreamt for a long time about creating a place, The Library of New Ideas, that can be a coffeeshop/bar/museum of things created and collected by the community.

Really interesting that they brand as a "store," implying more of a marketplace of ideas, learning, content. Looking at the website, it doesn't look like their services are too different from those offered by a traditional contemporary library (many of which are doing awesome 2.0 stuff these days) but they are messaging it better.

I look forward to doing some posts soon on the state of museum websites, what they are messaging, and how we can better represent the fine community work we are already doing that is not apparent to visitors.

from Libbie said...

I was just talking to someone at New Conservatory Theatre in SF about providing the venue aspect for dialogue. My thesis is looking at how museums are making use of live theatre that deals with social issues (i.e. AIDS, bigotry, immigration) and if this engages audiences enough to promote dialogue—and then, what does that dialogue look like?

As I talk to museum and theatre folks, I've definitely witnessed a lot of interest in deeper issues by visitors. But “should,” “pace in timing” and “need" are still questions I’m exploring.…it’s also interesting to me to think about what will be attractive to visitors if a full swing acknowledged recession kicks in.

I've also heard (in this case particular to issues-based theatre – although I’d argue applicable to other platforms) a lot about the need to process difficult issues and what comes out in post-play discussions might be only the precursor. Think about it. We took all day to get to that last 1/2 hour of intense discourse at JFK's Civic Discourse program. ACT (SF) and Cal Shakespeare hold public discussions about plays 1/2 way through a production's run, off-site at SF Public and Berkeley Public Library… I don’t know about ACT, but Cal Shakes’ sells out- although its free.

That's what intrigued me about your museum and me model. Web 2.0 implications. Where’s the entry and where’ the exit of this discourse we’re trying to create among our visitors? Where does the discourse live?

from Libbie said...

Correction RE: my previous comment- Cal Shaks theatre holds its off-site talks at the Orinda public library not Berkeley.

elena said...

Nina - I think the use of the term 'Store' is slightly different in the US and UK. In this example I would assume it is more concerned with 'storage' than 'shop'.

Great article by the way - I really look forward to reading the upcoming posts.

elena said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
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