Wednesday, August 01, 2018

Who are We Protecting?

I remember the exact moment when I snapped. I was at an informal talk by a visitor research professional from a large American art museum. The presenter was a few minutes in, setting context about a recent rebranding effort at her institution. "Our real challenge," she said, "was how to attract new audiences while protecting loyal patrons."

My eyes locked on that phrase on her slide, "protecting loyal patrons." I couldn't let it pass. I asked her: "what are you protecting them from?" A colleague of mine helpfully added: "who are you protecting them from?" The conversation went downhill from there.

I'm grateful to this presenter. She put in black and white what goes unsaid in so many talks and press releases. Cultural institutions are willing to change to attract new audiences. But not at the expense of the pain or discomfort of loyal patrons.

Some people might argue that protectionism is the natural political position of a collecting institution. These institutions exist to protect heritage. To protect artifacts from harm. To protect and preserve that which would otherwise be discarded or destroyed.

But when it comes to people, protectionism is problematic. Loyal patrons don't need protection--even if they may be the people who gave us those artifacts. Loyal patrons get most of our attention, assets, and appreciation. And they already have most of the power. They are, on average, wealthier, whiter, more educated, and older than the general population. They are, on average, people with privilege. They may feel that their privilege is at risk, or fragile. But that doesn't mean they don't have it.

For people with privilege, protection is a waste of resources that demeans their agency. Loyal patrons don't need to be wrapped in archival tissue paper. They need to be engaged in change processes. They need invitations--to participate, to be part of the new, to embrace the unexpected alongside the familiar. Just like new audiences, loyal patrons need to be welcomed into institutions full of different people, experiences, and opportunities.

When the MAH was changing aggressively, we embraced Elaine Heumann Gurian's idea of "the museum of and." We didn't want to reject some people and anoint others. We wanted to build a truly pluralistic institution.

Most of the time, this strategy works. When confronted with a conflict between two groups, or two ways of experiencing the museum, we choose both. We bring them together. We build bridges. We choose "and." But when we have to decide--and sometimes we do--we try to stand on the side of those who have less power in the given conflict.

For the MAH, siding with the less powerful is part of our work and our mission. When an institution protects powerful people, it hobbles its ability to involve new people and grow more diverse. Organizations often protect powerful people at the expense of the very same new audiences they seek to attract. Protecting power means protecting the power structures that put whiter, wealthier, more educated, older people on top.

This incident happened at the same time ICE started separating families at the southern border of the U.S. My colleagues at the MAH were working with local organizers on the Santa Cruz #FamiliesBelongTogether rally (which ended at our museum). My colleagues were working with partners in the Latinx community who were receiving overt threats. These partners--who represent audiences we have recently worked to attract--were afraid for their loved ones. Their rights and safety were at risk.

Who are we protecting?
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