Museums and Civic Discourse

Last Saturday, I was fortunate to attend the “Museums and Civic Discourse” symposium at John F. Kennedy University in Berkeley. The room was packed with some West Coast and national leaders in the field–really some amazing women there (and a few men, too). The symposium sought to imagine what civic discourse in museums might look like, as well as brainstorm ways that museums can advance civic discourse beyond their walls. The day also was a celebration of the publication of the museums and civic discourse issue of Museums and Social Issues.

Some of the issues the symposium raised for me:

  • What do spaces of civic engagement look like, and with what kinds of institutions should we be collaborating?
  • What do museum civic engagement and advocacy look like in an age of culture wars?
  • How do we build conversations and discussions into civic discourse?
  • How can I get more museum folks on board with social media?

Note: Some of what I write about below was raised during the symposium, while some of it came to me afterward; the details of who said what are now mixed up in my mind. Apologies if I’m not always giving credit where it’s due–corrections are welcome.

What do spaces of civic engagement look like, and with what kinds of institutions should we be collaborating?

These spaces are unlikely to look like traditional exhibits, especially those you see in older natural history and art institutions (first-generation museums) and push-button exhibitions (second-generation museums). They may look something like science centers or children’s museums (third-generation museums). These spaces must allow for interactivity, encourage curiosity, reward discovery, and facilitate problem solving.

These places don’t necessarily look like auditoriums, although a panel/forum discussion might begin in an auditorium and move into spaces more conducive for small-group, face-to-face discussion.

These places are comfortable, familiar and/or stimulating, and, in a best-case scenario, free of charge for community members to access. They will be on public transportation routes as well as have plenty of parking for cars and/or bikes. In other words, we want to remove any psychological hurdles to attendance: “It’s too hard to find parking in that part of town,” “I don’t have a car to get there,” “I can’t afford that museum’s admission fee,” etc.

For more information on what these spaces should look like, check out Herman Miller’s research on “places to teach, learn, and grow.” The company lists six must-haves for up-to-date learning spaces:

These spaces may also be outside of museum buildings completely–for example science cafés, where a “casual meeting place, plain language, and inclusive conversation create a welcoming and comfortable atmosphere for people with no science background.”

We may find ourselves reaching out to constituencies we never really imagined. Do you run a science museum? Do you have an exhibit on AIDS or STDs? Have you reached out to the local African-American church? AIDS is a major concern in African-American communities, and data published this week shows that STDs are a growing epidemic among African-American teen girls. Years ago, when I was a reporter in Long Beach, California, I remember a nurse telling me about the presentations she did in African-American churches about HIV transmission and AIDS treatment options. Why shouldn’t science museums, or museums focused on African-American culture and community, get involved in this kind of advocacy?

It’s also possible, of course, to encourage conversations within museum spaces–and then partner with organizations (like churches) to continue the conversations off-site. The Monterey Bay Aquarium has a faux diner where visitors can “order” seafood and get immediate feedback on their choices via video. Visitors can also tuck the aquarium’s tiny brochures about sustainable seafood into their wallets so they know what not to order the next time they’re dining out. The little cards are useful, but when I purge my wallet, I’m likely to toss it because my wallet is already thick enough. So how then does an institution continue to reinforce a message about sustainable eating? Institutions wanting to spread information about sustainable eating should partner with local supermarkets to get the word out to community members. For example, my local supermarket chain, Nugget Market, labels the fish at their butcher counters with red, yellow, or green labels to indicate each fish’s sustainability as seafood. Why not go further? Encourage the supermarket to label all its meats and dairy products in that manner: Which product manufacturing processes are the most polluting? Which kinds of food production consume the greatest number of resources? Extend this labeling to fruits and vegetables, and you’ll even reach vegetarians like me. :)

Depending on your particular issue or institutional mission, partnerships (both traditionally likely and unlikely) might include working with:

  • churches
  • supermarkets
  • malls
  • managers of indoor public spaces (such as those found throughout San Francisco)
  • public transit
  • local bands and symphony groups
  • local environmental justice activists
  • commercial entities related to your mission/issue (e.g. partnering with a local utility on an environmentally-themed forum and campaign)
  • universities
  • school districts (think beyond the obvious: try to reach new audiences on kindergarten enrollment days, or at open house and back to school night)
  • pet stores
  • radio stations
  • restaurants and bars (think themed “science pub quiz” with prizes)
  • furniture dealers (get them to donate flexible furniture for your new stimulating discursive spaces)
  • local sports franchises
  • . . .and so many more organizations

We also need to ask ourselves what it is about our museum spaces that makes visitors uncomfortable–what is keeping them from speaking to other visitors? There’s not a whole lot we can do right away with American cultural mores that keep strangers from speaking freely with one another, but we can try to chip away at visitor reticence by ensuring all visitors feel relatively at ease. (Of course, we can also put visitors ill at ease in order to get them talking–I’m thinking in particular of the “Colored” or “Whites Only” doorways through which visitors must pass in the Smithsonian National Museum of American History’s Field to Factory exhibition.)

This process of understanding what puts visitors at ease involves not only surveying visitors and undertaking observations of visitor behavior, but also placing ourselves in spaces that make us uncomfortable. For example, a few years back, I visited the Trinity Broadcasting Network headquarters in Southern California. My husband, cousin, and I had decided to visit on the day after Christmas because we’d always wondered what was going on in that building with the big “Happy Birthday Jesus!” sign on the roof. From the moment we entered, there was so much about the decor, the commercial spaces, and all kinds of details about the building that made us uncomfortable to be present in that space; there was no way we were going to engage with other visitors. What was supposed to convey to TBN’s intended audience a lesson about the gospel of wealth (the gilded banisters, the paintings and sculptures that adorned the place) only spoke to us of corruption, of money that was sent by working-class folks to pay for
“ministries” but that instead was invested in garish buildings.

What details of your museum might visitors find off-putting if not suspicious? Again, the point is not to make your visitors feel entirely comfortable–some of the best learning takes place because we are uncomfortable–but rather to identify those points where you can remove obstacles to engagement for visitors who are not in your core constituency.

What do museum civic engagement and advocacy look like in an age of culture wars?

One person participating in the final large-group discussion expressed her concern that she doesn’t want to dialogue in her scientific institution with creationists or racists. Nina Simon paraphrases this comment as “I don’t want my institution to be a place where it is safe for THOSE people to air THEIR beliefs.” I think Nina is spot-on. While I can in some ways understand the impulses from which this speaker’s sentiment arises, I also feel we can’t bar the doors of our institutions from “those people.” Can we moderate the discussion a bit? Certainly. Can we discourage racism and ignorance? Yes–and serving as a forum for civic discourse is one way of discouraging such beliefs and practices.

That said, we have to pick our battles. Museums, of course, are perfectly within their rights to serve as forums for discourse only on subjects that fall squarely within the museum’s mission. And sometimes it is difficult–if not impossible–to talk with people who refuse to open their minds to other possibilities. But we can’t lump all “those people” together into one camp, because we need to take a different approach to discourse with each of them. For example, take talking with creationists or racists. My experience in talking with creationists is that they feel they have enough pseudoscientific research to support their claims–or, rather, to refute the claims of evolutionary biologists, and thus can be difficult to engage in meaningful, mind-changing conversations. Racists, on the other hand–and here I’m talking about your everyday ignorant racist, not people who participate in organized hate groups–may not have thought through why they hold the opinions they do, or they may express particular beliefs they feel are grounded in reality but which are actually easily refuted by more level-headed folks.

Sometimes we need to come at an issue from an alternative angle, perhaps by conversing at the intersection of two issues. Take creationism and racism, for example. In talking with a creationist, I might push her to more fully explain her beliefs, and in so doing, I might discover that some of what she believes is rooted in racism. (See this interesting article on how both evolution and creationism have been used to promote racist beliefs and behaviors.) Would I accuse her outright of being a racist? No. But in leading the conversation down that path, she might better understand why–beyond its obvious false statements of “fact”–I find her belief system troubling. And maybe that would make her reconsider her position. (My guess is also that some of your harder-core racists–e.g. white Christian nationalists–are also creationists, which raises a whole bunch of other issues.)

But just because these conversations could take place doesn’t necessarily mean museums need to be facilitating them. And certainly not all museum staff participating (as institutional representatives or more casually on their own time) in such discourses are keen enough facilitators to handle such hot-button issues.

I believe that museums can and should take on such issues. Too often these complex issues become black-and-white in the public eye. Evolution vs. intelligent design. Racism vs. antiracism. When these issues are presented as dichotomies, we feel compelled to pick a side and fight for it tooth and nail. But if we ask new (or at least new-to-our-audience) questions that don’t let people settle comfortably on one side of another, then we open up avenues for discourse. I can see a museum hosting a forum with the title “Is creationism racist? Is evolution?” And the answer to both of those is “at times, deployed in certain ways, yes.” But it can be deeply discomfiting to hear that your side of an issue has been compromised morally or ethically. It forces you situate yourself more thoughtfully. You might, over the course of an evening, move from “I believe evolution is the only way to explain life on earth” to “I believe evolution is an excellent explanatory mechanism for life on earth, but we need to be careful how we explain its workings because there are huge cultural ramifications to this discussion, especially concerning human evolution.”

I think museums also can provide facilitation to these discussions–we can help people rediscover (or learn for the first time) how to have conversations, how to be listeners and be listened to, how to talk civilly with people whose opinions they find distasteful or offensive. After all, haven’t we already been challenging and correcting people’s beliefs through exhibit signage and interactives? Let’s make those challenges collective and connective by transforming them into civic discourse.

How do we build conversations and discussions into civic discourse?

I guess I’m not sure how much museums can tackle “civic discourse” head on, other than by providing space and hosting/modeling good discussions. We need to provide inspiration and space for people to start the conversations that will snowball into larger civic discourse. At the symposium on Saturday there was some discussion at lunch as to what constitutes discourse vs. discussion vs. conversation. I don’t have an answer (yet), but we can’t wait for museums to figure that out before we dive into the realm of civic discourse.

Here are some sample forums I think museums might host in a variety of formats and spaces (online and off), as well as some ideas for community-based research projects museums might facilitate, particularly if they have scientists on staff:

  • What would we do as a community if our city ran out of oil? What contingencies should we put in place? For what actions should we be lobbying local and regional government bodies? (Thanks to Nina Simon for her references to the serious game World without Oil.)
  • In an era of high-stakes testing, how can we be sure our children discover the joy of learning?
  • Do we redevelop our downtown area for the wealthier people we hope will live there once construction is finished, or for the working-class people who already live there? For example, at the redeveloped mall, do we put in a supermarket (since there’s no grocery store downtown) and a Target or do we anchor the mall with Nordstorm and Saks?
  • What’s the best neighborhood in which to site a much-needed but unattractive and potentially polluting industrial process/plant?
  • Why are asthma rates rising among children in our urban area, and how do we remediate this trend?
  • What are the best ways–in terms of ease, feasibility, and cost–to reduce our city’s carbon footprint by x thousand/hundred thousand/million tons? (What are we willing to give up? What big and little changes are we ready to make? What are we willing to pay? And what are our next steps?)
  • Where does our community get its food? Is this the most sustainable and widely affordable method of procuring sustenance?

When does conversation become elevated to the level of discourse? When it engages diverse constituencies in a common discussion about important issues with the goal of defining specific steps to take as community members or recommendations to make to community leaders.

How can I get more museum folks on board with social media?

What’s your institution’s plan for engaging visitors online? Now that the InterConnections Report has concluded that “Internet users are more likely than non-users to visit museums and public libraries and to visit them more frequently, particularly in the case of museums” (22), there’s no excuse for not engaging with Internet users because these netizens are already more likely to visit a museum than people who don’t use the Internet. Interesting content online–content to which visitors can contribute as well as learn–is only going to help your museum raise its visitor numbers and its profile in your community.

What’s keeping your museum staff from embracing key online social networking platforms? Technophobia? Lack of conviction that these tools work? A dearth of time? My personal experiences tell me that even a small, focused investment of time into social media provides a good rate of return.

I think it’s very important not to overlook online spaces when we’re thinking about how to encourage and facilitate discourse. Social media, when used properly and in partnership with key influencers, can be exceptionally powerful in all kinds of ways. I’ll write more soon on how to identify appropriate social media platforms for achieving different institutional goals, how to develop a social media campaign, and how to measure and evaluate the results of that campaign.

Comments

  1. Alexandra Alves says:

    Thank you for sharing all this information with us.
    Visit me in http://crescercomopatrimonio.blogspot.com to learn all about the world of museums in Portugal.

  2. Leslie,

    It’s not so bad … the papers at Museums and the Web this year report a whole series of actual uses of social networking in museums, building on the excitement of 2007.

    As well you’ll find some useful theoretical / framing pieces this year that are a bit more reflective.

    See http://www.archimuse.com/mw2008/speakers/ for the list of presenters. All the full papers will be online before the meeting April 9-12, 2008 in Montreal.

    You can also search past papers from Museums and the Web and ICHIM from http://conference.archimuse.com/researchForum/ as part of our community of museum informatics professionals.

    come join us!

    jennifer

  3. Hi there and thanks for the interesting post. We had a conference in Australia a few weeks ago where we discussed the question of why museums were reluctant in taking up social media. You can check out the blog posts here – http://nlablog.wordpress.com/. I gave a paper that looked at informal learning, social media and organisational change and you can download the paper from my wiki – http://audience-research.wikispaces.com/Conference+papers

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  1. […] on their journey toward making their communities a better place. This gets back to the post on museums and civic discourse I wrote back in March. Funding issues aside, many museums are ideally positioned to serve as these […]

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