Robert R. Janes and Richard Sandell
The global museum community, a sleeping giant if ever there was one, is stirring from its slumber. It is a powerful community, indeed, but one whose latent power has been largely consumed by a preoccupation with education, entertainment and consumption. This preoccupation has rendered far too many museums somnambulant—content with ‘sleep walking into the future’ (Janes 2014: 7–8). Our ambition is to support ways to move beyond this avoidable destiny and explore new and divergent expressions of the museum’s inherent power as a force for good. In doing so, we hope to encourage further experimentation and enrich the debate in this nascent and uncertain field of museum practice. We also wish to acknowledge and celebrate the global museum community’s growing awareness of the world around them, and how this awareness is beginning to embrace the aspirations, challenges, horrors and misfortunes that mark human society everywhere.
We have chosen to describe this work as museum activism, in the sense of museum practice, shaped out of ethically-informed values, that is intended to bring about political, social and environmental change. The mindful museum (Janes 2010) is complementary, if not one and the same. The mindful museum cannot help but be activist, and the activist museum is grounded in mindfulness. Museum workers are fond of saying that they are taking care of their collections for posterity. We submit that posterity has arrived for the museum’s mission, role, values and responsibilities—all of which require a radical rethinking in the early 21st century.
Museums have evolved through time, from the elite collections of imperial dominance, to educational institutions for the public, and now to the museum as ‘mall’ and appendage of consumer society (Gopnik cited in Janes 2009: 183–4).1
Paradoxically, and despite their inherent conservatism, museums have existed for centuries, unlike the vast majority of business enterprises. Museums have always had some sort of ‘adaptive intuition’ to reinvent and transform themselves, however slowly and unconsciously. There is an important lesson in this historical trajectory—the ability of museums to learn and adapt as circumstances require. Socio-environmental conditions are changing rapidly and the museum as mall is the
latest chapter in this long trajectory. The museum as mall, although more audience-focused, embodies the dead end of materialism—over-merchandised and devoted to consumption and entertainment. It is the museum as mall that underlies our commitment to museum activism, as we believe that the relentless focus on money, consumption, and marketplace ideology continues to diminish the museum as a social institution and a key civic resource.
One toxic expression of this material fixation is the incessant talk of shortage in the museum world—be it money, staff, technology, or public support, and this self-limiting refrain continues. We reject this thinking, as perceived shortages of all kinds have become an overriding excuse for maintaining the status quo in museum practice. Museums already have a boundless capacity to act with intelligence and sensitivity—money is not required to do this. Museum workers also know intuitively that money is not the measure of their worth. It is prudent for museum practitioners to recognize that they are a privileged group, working in organizations whose purpose is their meaning (Handy 1994: 183). Everything that is required to fulfill the true potential of museums is here—now. There is nothing lacking.
A new story for the world and museums
No one would dispute that museums exist to tell stories—about people, communities and nations—but who is telling the story of the early 21st century? Corporations and governments are, but it is the story of ceaseless economic growth. Their rhetoric is agonizingly familiar and destructive, as author and activist, David Korten, clearly describes—consumption means happiness; economic inequality is unavoidable, and rampant environmental damage is regrettable (Korten 2014). Although this story is clearly corrupt and false, it is the predominant story in our public lives and it defines our common future. This story, however, is damaging human lives and destroying the planet upon which we depend.
Korten concludes that humanity needs a new story. Museums also need a new story. The museum community must move beyond the doomed economy of industrial growth to the recognition that the connection between individuals, communities, and the natural environment is the key to our collective well-being. It is incumbent upon all museums to help envision and create this new narrative in partnership with their communities, and then deliver this story using their unique skills and perspectives.
Before we glimpse the promise of a new story crafted by museums, it is necessary to comment on both the creative and destructive tensions that pervade the early 21st century, as it is here and now that all museums are living out their legacies, their aspirations and their frustrations. The here and now for museums is paradoxical—replete with opportunity and constraints; freedom and danger; clarity and chaos—contradictions born of external issues that push, pull and batter. These paradoxes are, in turn, accompanied by a host of internal, museum issues that hinder or diminish organizational courage, foresight and empathy (Janes 2013a).
Charles Handy, the Irish social philosopher, noted that paradoxes are like the weather—‘something to be lived with, not solved, the worst aspects mitigated, the best enjoyed and used as clues to the way forward’ (Handy 1994: 12–13). We contend that museum activism is a worthy means of managing these paradoxes in a turbulent and complex world. We also acknowledge that, while the use of museums to bring about change is by no means a new concept (Sandell 2002), activism is not a household word
among museum practitioners and academics, and generates responses ranging from raised eyebrows, to mild panic, to outright criticism (Sandell 2011).
To set the stage, we provide an overview of the complex mix of real-world challenges, opportunities, and professional constraints that frame the activist work described here. This environmental scan is admittedly selective and personal—what we see as important at this moment in time and the implications for contemporary museum work. We conclude with some thoughts on the meaning of activist museum work, with a view to broadening the understanding of what constitutes authentic museum work in these challenging times.
A troubled world
The litany of the world’s ills grows daily. What follows is a glimpse of some of the most critical issues, including a catastrophic view of the future of our species. We would be remiss in ignoring this extreme view, as it is a valuable contrast to the widespread apathy, denial and self-interest in the West—a mindset that is blocking a collective commitment to addressing climate change, wealth inequality, gender inequality, species extinction, nuclear proliferation, and many other issues.
Twenty-five years ago, the Union of Concerned Scientists and more than 1,700 independent scientists, including the majority of living Nobel laureates in the sciences, wrote the 1992 World Scientists’ Warning to Humanity (Union of Concerned Scientists 1997). These scientists did not mince their words in issuing this warning:
Human beings and the natural world are on a collision course. Human activities inflict harsh and often irreversible damage on the environment and on critical resources. If not checked, many of our current practices put at serious risk the future that we wish for human society and the plant and animal kingdoms, and may so alter the living world that it will be unable to sustain life in the manner that we know. Fundamental changes are urgent if we are to avoid the collision our present course will bring about.
That was 25 years ago. In November of 2017, the number of concerned scientists had risen to 15,364 from 183 countries and they, too, expressed their views with striking clarity and certainty in the World Scientists’ Warning to Humanity: A Second Notice (Ripple et al. 2017):
On the twenty-fifth anniversary of their call, we look back at their warning and evaluate the human response by exploring available time-series data. Since 1992, with the exception of stabilizing the stratospheric ozone layer, humanity has failed to make sufficient progress in generally solving these foreseen environmental challenges, and alarmingly, most of them are getting far worse. Especially troubling is the current trajectory of potentially catastrophic climate change due to rising GHGs from burning fossil fuels, deforestation, and agricultural production—particularly from farming ruminants for meat consumption.
Of particular interest in the ‘Second Notice’ is what could be considered a call for activism, in that the authors note that ‘most political leaders respond to pressure … and [that] lay citizens must insist that their governments take immediate action as a moral imperative to current and future generations of human and other life’ (Ripple et al.
2017). These scientists call for a ‘groundswell of organized grassroots efforts’ to compel political leaders to do the right thing.
Equally as important, they call on all individuals to re-examine their behaviour to drastically limit population growth and consumption (fossil fuels and meat, in particular). This means discarding the magical belief that we can behave just as we always have, if we adopt renewable energy sources. We cannot, and it is essential that we reduce our energy use and consumption of raw materials. With unbridled consumption as the fundamental cause of rising greenhouse gas emissions, it is necessary to probe more deeply into climate change and disruption, including our collective denial of its calamitous consequences.
We will not discuss the science of climate change here and how it is throwing our civilization into chaos—it is a dire emergency by any definition. Suffice it to say that levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere have now reached levels unmatched in the last four million years. The oceans are acidifying; coral reefs are bleaching; sea levels are rising, and extreme weather events and wildfires are now commonplace. We must reduce our carbon emissions by 80% by 2050 (many experts are arguing by 2030 (IPCC 2018)), to forestall the worst impacts of climate disruption. With a 97% scientific consensus on the human causes of climate change, why are we not confronting climate change with our collective will and resources? One explanation is that climate change is a taboo subject—not to be talked about with family, friends and colleagues.
In fact, the most important thing to do to bring about climate action is to talk about climate change and its solutions with colleagues, friends, families and communities (Klein 2013). In confronting climate change, there are two essential lessons to be learned from activists within the LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer) community. The first is the need to have conversations about subjects that some may find uncomfortable and the second is the need to focus on the immorality of inaction.
For example, the silences and distortions that have characterized the treatment of same sex desire and gender diversity across the global museum landscape have consequences and effects that powerfully impact LGBTQ lives, and help to create the conditions within which equality struggles are staged (Sandell 2017). It follows, therefore, that an unwillingness on the part of museums to acknowledge and purposefully address the causes and consequences of widespread discrimination for LGBTQ communities, is to be complicit in the practices that make this inhuman treatment permissible. The same logic applies to climate change denial and the victims of this denial—the people directly impacted by climate change and disruption.
Most of the world is living a massive lie about the impending catastrophe of climate change and it must not be avoided as a topic of discussion (Klein 2013). The inescapable truth—that our lives are inextricably linked with the natural world—inspires our belief that the global museum community must now take a stand on climate change. This is a moral imperative for museums, as climate change is no longer just about science or politics—it is also about social justice.
The catastrophic view
In addition to climate change and disruption with its current and projected consequences, we must also acknowledge the catastrophic view of the planet’s future. Societal collapses have occurred repeatedly throughout human history, with no respect for how seemingly great the society was, be it ancient Egypt, the Roman Empire, or the Han Empire in China. In fact, 23 advanced civilizations have now collapsed (Motesharrei, Rivas and Kalnay 2014) because of two key factors—ecological strain and economic stratification (Nuwer 2017). Much is known about ecological strain, and a glimpse of its make-up was given earlier in the scientific warnings about the state of the planet—the depletion of water, soil, fisheries and forests—all now underlain by climate change and disruption.
The economic stratification factor is of particular interest, recognizing that museums are institutions of choice for societal elites. The growing disparity in wealth is a 21st century phenomenon and is nothing short of astounding. Half of the world’s wealth is now in the hands of 1% of the population (Treanor 2015). Moreover, the top 10% of global income earners are responsible for almost as much total greenhouse gas emissions as the bottom 90% combined (Nuwer 2017). Herein lies the undeniable link between wealth inequality and climate disruption.
Inadvertently or not, many of the world’s museums are agents or partners in the hoarding of wealth, while also indulging in excessive consumption as organizations—consumption being the handmaiden to disproportionate wealth. It seems that museums are unconsciously aiding and abetting the possibility of societal collapse from economic stratification. Although it is a simple matter of observing the relationships, this inference remains undiscussed, unknown or hidden among boards, management and staff in mainstream museums. Not surprisingly, museum activism has recently revealed both the fragility and consequences of excessive wealth in museum boardrooms (The Natural History Museum 2016, 2018). This is a harbinger of things to come.
The erosion of trust
One should not underestimate the importance of trust in human affairs—it is the social, economic and political glue that underlies and coheres social capital. Museums are civil society organizations (distinct from state, family and market) and both generate and contribute to the norms, networks, shared values and trust that constitute social capital. This social capital is transferred into the social sp...