Forum Museum: Communities and Museums Collide

The evolving perception of community has played a pivotal role in this month’s museum news. Museums, led by visionaries like Nina Simon, have recently embarked on a rebranding quest to transform into essential shared spaces [1]:

“When people can actively participate with cultural institutions, those places become central to cultural and community life.” – Nina Simon, The Participatory Museum [2]

Concurrently, essential shared spaces have become increasingly more inclined towards the creative, inclusive and well-designed [3]:

“…designers actually welcome the opportunity to work with communities to open up places for new interpretations, creating more room for public art—especially in parks, transforming them from ersatz cemeteries and static sculpture gardens into great multi-use public destinations.” – Cynthia Nikitin, Project for Public Spaces [4]

A third element important to the reshaping of the museum is the challenge modern cultural organizations have been dealt to be spaces for staff to be more create, innovate, include, and increase accessibility while simultaneously navigating an ever-evolving workplace culture. Rob Weisberg, the Senior Project Manager in the Publications and Editorial Department for The Metropolitan Museum of Art [5], summed up this contradictory conundrum succinctly:

“Because workplaces like museums have so many different internal subcultures, each with its own communication style (that can change from staff member to staff member), museum workers are asked to deal with a dizzying variety of interactions—in-person meetings, emails, conference calls, Slack chats, Skype videoconferencing, Microsoft’s zillion Office 365 apps, Google Docs, and Dropboxes, never mind internal servers and systems like Workday.” – from Mindfulness is a Terrible Thing for Museums to Waste [6]

As the conceptual trajectory of both ‘museum’ and ‘community’ dip and swoop in varying directions, they are bound to crash into one another in surprising ways.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art, viewed through this lens, has experienced a series of frustrating fender benders. Director and CEO Thomas Campbell’s resignation was announced on February 28th amid speculations of worrying financial stability and sustainability [7][8]. Campbell had ascended to his position in 2009, after serving as a curator of tapestries [9]. Perhaps more shocking to the museum community than reports of the Met’s precarious finances was the announcement’s implication that even those groomed precisely for positions in art museum executive management are not immune to scrutiny, mistakes, and distrust.

Illustration of French Judith by Abraham Bosse, 1647. Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art (Met Open Access)

Influential museum stakeholders, undoubtedly made more uneasy by the proposed NEA & NEH cuts, were loud and clear on February 28th: if the institution you manage is not serving its communities, a degree won’t save you [10]. A lifetime of applicable experience won’t save you [9]. Opening a funky new brutalist satellite space to highlight your fledgling contemporary collection won’t save you [11]. Digitizing and opening usage and reproduction rights to the portion of your collection in the public domain won’t save you [12]. Rebranding won’t even save you – in fact, it might make things worse [13].

Some organizations have begun making changes at the ground level by increasing volunteer and community influence and  involvement. The Met has chosen to work from the top down, willing to accept the risk of falling back several spots on the list of innovative museums in favor of stability and longevity. As Weisberg points out, the pervading attitude du jour among museum professionals seems to be: “we can do anything but we can’t do everything” [6].  

A small but necessary aside: when the Met does begin the search for Campbell’s successor, they should seriously consider candidates who are both women and minorities. Mindful institutional choices must henceforth include the presupposition that women and minorities are equally capable of leadership.

The Minneapolis Institute of Art

Just one day prior to Campbell’s resignation, ‘community’ conceptually t-boned ‘museum’ in an irony-laden interaction between two opposing activist groups who literally came to blows inside the Minneapolis Institute of Art [14][15]. A group of I.W.W. Wobblies were using the museum as a public forum for protest and political engagement, arguing for open borders and in support of illegal immigrants.

Simultaneously, several individuals who have now been identified as members of a Minneapolis Alt Right group approached the museum, intent on using it as an art-centered community resource, according to Alt Right MN [16]. The I.W.W. protesters, however, stated afterward that as the Alt Right group passed them, the Alt Right group expressed Neo-Nazi sentiments. The groups physically collided in a gallery of the museum containing art from the 18th century. Paintings and historic furniture looked on as they clashed, using the museum as a space for the physical expression of their beliefs. A museum security guard eventually ended the altercation [14].

Examining this event in conjunction with the belief that museums are essential community spaces, this fight is fascinating. Each group was exercising their right to use the space in a way that was essential to them. Both groups, independent of one another, could have successfully and peacefully completed their uses of the space. But in simultaneously interacting, the groups turned the museum from a safe space of verbal expression to an open arena for physical conflict. The jump from the mental, to the verbal, to the physical produced dangerous, violent results.

Communities should, according to Nina Simon, be encouraged and able to make museums community spaces that are essential to them – spaces that fulfill their societal needs [2]. The Metropolitan Museum of Art is currently grappling with the fact that they are not considered by their community to be essential, a fact made more obvious by their recent rebranding, expansion, digital initiatives, and executive reorganization [13][11][12][7].

The Minneapolis Art Institute, conversely, is facing the opposite problem: what to do when your space is considered so essential to your community that its institutional purpose is compromised by the community’s needs and actions. If “violence ‘really does have no place in our society,’” will it instead seek refuge in the museum space [17]? The dichotomous nature of museum-community interactions undoubtedly indicates that similar convergences will continue to evolve and influence the museum’s role in society.

Featured image: Pierre Puvis de Chavannes, “Ludus pro patria,” ca. 1883–89. Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art (Met Open Access)





















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