The Empowered Museum: Why I Love Being Involved With #WAM18
Running a museum is a difficult and important task. Museums are the arbiters of global culture, defining what we as humans consider important to remember for future generations. They maintain value, they preserve knowledge. That is no small job, and making this engaging is such a wonderful thing to do.
But in all honesty, working with museums and the culture industry in general can be hugely inspiring - they change lives and provide an alternative form of education that is more interesting - but it can be hugely frustrating in equal measure.
Why frustrating? My conclusion is that professionals in the museum & culture industry tend to parallel the museum’s role, to maintain and preserve, in their daily working practices and interactions. Meaning that stoicism, routine and predictability are preferable to change, movement and evolution. Processes can be quite slow and the trend is to keep things as they are, rather than question them.
This is true on a practical level: many museums still use paper-based systems for administration, and manage cumbersome local servers to store data. On a practical level that can be frustrating internally and externally, given the huge amount of opportunities for connection that come out of working digitally and in the cloud. But these practicalities in the physical realm aren’t what are most frustrating, it is actually more about the immediate reactions to any type of change.
But there is hope. A counter-revolution is happening in museums and it is extremely exciting. A new generation of museum professionals is also progressing into more senior and decision-making roles. “Museums are not neutral”, “museums are peace builders”, and “museums are change makers” - these are some of the slogans that were on view at the last “We Are Museums” conference in Riga, Latvia in June 2017.
We Are Museums is a French-born initiative set up by Diane Drubay and Claire Solery, two forward-thinking and proactive culture professionals who noticed that the frustrations with the museum industry can and will change - they just need a little push.
The first few conferences they organised, in 2013 and 2014, were more focussed on digital tools that are available for museums, ranging from audio guide technology to museum websites, and moving on to new tools built by startups that museums can use. This focus on tech is still very much alive in the annual event through their initiative called “Tech Loves Culture”. But the conference itself has evolved to deal with more than just the digital products to changing mentalities as a whole.
Can you believe that a museum conference is proposing that all museum professionals need to be digital natives, that they should not be neutral, that they should move people? It goes against the idea of the monastic scholar studying their subject in isolation and publishing findings to a learned community. It is against the idea of a cultural elite who understand themes - it is against the idea of museums being on the periphery. These statements will rub many museum professionals up the wrong way, and it shouldn’t.
What museums were originally set up to do was handle the important process of preserving and conserving collections and sharing ideas.
Running a museum is still a difficult and important task - but rather than just conserve and preserve, innovators would argue that their goal should be to share. Sharing can empower audiences and drive change through knowledge. Knowledge used to be something that was reserved for a few, but the internet has changed this completely.
As our daily lives merge the digital and the physical, so will a merger occur in the stories we tell about ourselves. Museums are still the arbiters of culture, the judges of what we consider important to remember - but as humanity, we will remember things both in the digital and physical spheres.
Knowledge is power, and it doesn’t need to remain with the few - it should empower the many through this new vision brought forth by the museums of the future.
We'll be at We Are Museums from 7-9 May; if you haven't done so already, you can still get your tickets here.