Tuesday, September 10, 2019

Who are we, museums?

This month, I want to ask us this question. As a field, who are we?

I have been thinking about this question at work for the past few weeks. I had started a rapid research experiment recently. I invite the whole staff to my office anytime between 2-3 on Tuesdays to answer one question. They get a cookie, and leave their desks for 15 minutes, interact with colleagues from outside their silo, and I get a bit more insight as we build our audience engagement plan. Most weeks, people give me great surprises. But, recently, one of my colleagues, a man with an impressive assortment of checked shirts that I consistently envy, said, “I think we can’t do this until we decide who we are.” It was one of those record-scratches-to-a-stop moments. I’ve been thinking about it ever since.

Then, I get home, confined to the couch with a terrible sinus headache, to find ICOM was debating the definition of a museum. A different sort of ache began. ICOM matters because museums are a global phenomenon. Is there a country without at least one? Over the years, I’ve enjoyed interacting with all the international museum folks at conferences, particularly at AAM. From those scant moments, I’ve garnered that, like many things, the happenings in America are different than those in the world. ICOM might not seem to matter to our workdays in American museums, but it does matter global. Why? For me, it is a sign at a high-level of what bureaucracy of our field thinks.

I have many thoughts about the ICOM definitions. Procedurally, I worry that many of the people leading this debate are not well-verse in practice (thanks for that clarification Suse Anderson) or in what visitors think. Good leadership is informed by others and on behalf of others. It is not deciding what is in your own best interest. Sure, some of the people working on the definition have been informed. But I’d love transparency on the ways that the ICOM delegates prepared for their role defining museums. As as Katie Eagleton brought up, who is this definition for? 

I’m particularly interested in the ways that the possible definitions by ICOM relate to the ways the people of those nations define museums. Susan Spero brought up a good point. Our field is more than casual observers see us, and our future requires us to go beyond the assumptions people make of museums. Absolutely. Tony Butler offers a publication that also resonated with Susan’s point. Both of these issues are important. People can only define museums on what we have now. We as professionals get to define museums on the future we will make.

But the gaps between the ICOM definitions and their people’s/ visitor’s definitions would be telling. Do these gaps happen because we have forward-looking, visitor-centered leaders? Or do we have these gaps because our leaders are not grounded in visitors or practice? The former is my hope, and I’m sure some of the people at ICOM qualify in this group. My fear is the latter is all too common, and I know some of the ICOM definitions reeked of naval-gazing, esoteric stupidity, and backward thought.

Why does it matter to get a definition? Or does it? I don’t know. I do think a good definition is a good way to show funders and foundations our collective vision of the field. I also think when museums are taxed, and in countries with different norms for museums, the definition can be a positive way to shine a light on the best path. But with all unfunded mandates, people are not being compensated to change. Should they? The status quo is the path already cleared. Many people on Twitter talked about how our actions as a field are a better definition of the future than any word salad a committee can produce.

But I’m curious: Who are we, museums? (As Sarah May said, we might ask, who is a museum? Who is it for?) 

I’d love every answer and all answers. In many ways, our discussions are the most essential way to move forward. ICOM would be well-served by invited huge digital debate by museums folks and the folks who go to museums, by then inviting thinkers to synthesize these thoughts, and then use that to make something worth voting yes for.

I’ll summarize your answers at the end of the month.

Please share, talk, and tell me. Tag me when you share (@artlust, @seemarao, @_art_lust_)

For your enjoyment, the ICOM definitionish:
Also, I'll put in a plug for my Medium post this week. I don't write there often, just when something feels important. It's an ode to my colleagues.
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