Wednesday, October 06, 2021

Are Museums a Cult?

 Yesterday I gave a talk about if museums are cults for Museum Computer Network. I’ll put my notes at the end of this blog post. The talk had come out of a Twitter thread, as too often happens to me. I’d been sitting in a meeting, listening to people discuss if the labels should match the wall color, and I was feeling very strongly on the subject. And, I couldn’t help but laugh at myself. How had I come to this point in my life? I’d drank the Kool-aid, I suspect.

But like so many of us, it’s truly wearing off. I’m still pretty hyped about labels, but more and more I see that I’ve long missed the forest for the trees. I’ve gone astray a bit. I’ve forgotten that these little arguments might keep me from making real change. So, why do I get caught up in those little things? Well, first the system is set up that way. So much of our field spend 1010% of our time on exhibitions. The roller coaster of work and energy is so exhausting that we can’t even begin to think about systematic change.

Second, we might not be asking ourselves the right questions. It’s not just if this label is the best, but also is this whole thing working. I once asked, and only just recently, do we need to do exhibitions? It was really just a thought question. And, everyone in the room looked at me like I’d sprouted an extra head. We then talked through the idea. We decided yes to exhibitions to offer audiences new art and new ideas, but maybe we could have a schedule that was humane to staff.

In the end, this is what will help us improve life in the cult of museums. Thinking hard about why we do these things and then finding out what really matters.


Are Museums a Cult? (the numbers corresponded to the timer on the Ignite)


This talk starts with a pre-test.

Put your hand up. Answer the following questions about your museum with a yes or no. Put a finger down for each yes.

Do some People claim to have a special corner on the truth? 

Are you told not to question leadership?

Do people speak dismissively about those who aren’t “museum people”? 

Are finances transparent? 

Are there special requirements to get ahead? 


If you answered yes to most of these questions, you might have a problem. These are the same questions they ask people who might be in a harmful group or cult. 


There were a few months this year where I thought I can’t have one more scathing museum article about someone I know in the times. I ached for my friends. I ached for my field. And, I felt impotent and lost. 


I got to museum bc I loved art. I loved the ideas around art and I loved sharing those ideas. I figured everyone here was the same—excited to share. Then, I got into museum work. I found that people were only excited with sharing if they could control every aspect of learning. Sharing with parameters is not true sharing. 


It was disheartening. I realized the field often preferences things to people. Given the capitalistic matrix we live in, I shouldn’t have been surprised. But I was. I was also saddened. 


And I wasn’t alone in my disillusionment. Everyone I knew was wondering if they were in a field that was problematic. We went into this field for good. And we were wondering, if somehow, our idealism blinded us. If we were on the side of the good. 


I started wondering was 2020 the great cataclysm of our field. The standoff wasn’t quite as dramatic as Jonestown or Waco. But, those big cult combustions have one thing in common with the museum reckoning of 2020. 

9 and 10

Stepping back a min, What is a cult? The term is somewhat problematic, but in this context, it’s a useful thought tool. Cults are groups that highly control their adherents to maintain the power of the group leaders. Outside voices are minimized so they status quo can be maintained. Change is avoided by squashing dissent. Ideas are vetted through the cults thoughts, and so not critically considered thoroughly. 


Much of the premises of our field are buoyed by excluding ourselves from the world, just like in cults. We work in echo chambers. We vet our plans amongst ourselves. We try to make the best museum experiences without really questioning if the museum experience is the best option. 


As a field, we’re in a crisis. Why? Because of the system. It’s trained us, not unlike a cult, to question only enough to keep the system going. It requires sacrifice from most people, and certainly doesn’t sacrifice for Us. 


The system sucks. The system gives a few people great tax breaks by giving a few more people the chance to do scholarship. It’s a system reinforcing scarcity. And like all hierarchical systems, it needs a whole lot of other people to get less, and have less say. 


Basically the system has been supported by the idea of special power. But this system has not led to universal successes. It’s seen declines in visitors. This system that once lauded a special few educating masses is no longer doing that. The investment isn’t worth it, without change. 

15, 16, 17

We must deprogram ourselves together. What does this mean? 

Deprogramming ourselves means we need to question why we do everything. We need to be critical about every aspect of our work, and no one person can be the final answer. Sure you studied that artwork but you won’t even look the cleaner in the eye, so you don’t get to be the final say on the interpretation. Sure you tell a great tale of dinosaurs in a science journal, but you don’t understand business, you will need to honor someone else’s ideas.Sure you are a fancy person from Europe with a design degree, but you don’t shop at Jewel or CVS, you can’t be the only voice in messaging for our audiences. 


Deprogramming means not centering all power in singular leaders. It means not giving in to whims of curators. It means honoring those whose knowledge comes from interacting with people (rather than books). It means standing up to donors. It means looking at our budgets critically, and reassessing who gets money.


More voices means more success. More shared decision-making mean better decisions. More honesty means more trust. 


It means leaving the cult of the past and moving to an open new future. 

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