You Want a Museum Revolution? 10 Things to Think About

Eugène Delacroix. 1830. Liberty Leading the People (July 28th 1830). Place: MusΘe du Louvre.

Sometimes sports metaphors just work, so here goes: It’s easy to Monday morning quarterback what’s wrong with museums. Too often their boards are insular, classist, and totally risk averse. And thanks to the pandemic we now know some museums’ finances are more than a bit precarious. Too many are led by moderate, middle of the road white folks, who have struck a bargain with their boards not to sail too close to the wind, to keep everything as it was, limiting creativity and change.

Too few museums have addressed climate change. At some, it’s hard to find a recycling container much less a place to plug in your car or a field of solar panels or an acknowledgement in the disaster plan that climate change is a thing. Until the pandemic, there was an almost field-wide denial of the need to acknowledge race and gender issues in the workplace, to care for, support, and mentor museum staff, while also making leadership training an imperative. And last, but by no means least, there are way too many museums whose collections and exhibitions need a massive re-centering focused on life as it is, not life as it was, representing the rainbow of everyone as artists, scientists, thinkers, collectors, doers, and makers.

Did I forget anything? Probably, but making the list isn’t the problem. No doubt you have an if-I-ran-the-museum-field list of your own. But how do you start a revolution? Whose responsibility is that? Do we make change incrementally, one organization at a time, which seems to be happening thanks to places like the Baltimore Museum of Art and Old Salem Museum and Gardens, or all at once? What role do AAM and AASLH play? And where do we begin? Is that Les Misérables’ “Do You Hear the People Sing” playing in the background?

I spent some time last week exchanging emails with a group of museum thought leaders around the need for systemic change. No one painted a rosy picture, but if you want a revolution, here are ten things to ponder:

  1. If boards are part of the problem, do you reform them–(Is that possible?)–or do away with them?
  2. Is part of board reformation repopulating them, not just with token BIPOC folk, but humans whose value-added isn’t their wealth but their values, the museum equivalent of Congressman John Lewis?
  3. If you do away with boards, who hires and provides oversight for museum leaders, whether it’s one director or co-directors because God knows there are enough examples of directors behaving badly?
  4. Should endowments change? Should museums and heritage organizations only invest in companies making a positive sustainable or societal impact?
  5. Does having have many, many small donors balance the wishes and desires of a few wealthy donors?
  6. And speaking of endowments, do museums need a different funding model? If you look at Stanford’s Ten Nonprofit Funding Models, museums don’t fit easily into any of them. Someone needs to articulate the difference between a museum’s value for its community versus its economic engine. Clearly the two are separate, and if its funding model is more than allowing a group of rich one-percenters donate to an endowment, then what is it?
  7. How do museums get out of their bubbles and understand that ownership of the rare, the beautiful, the unusual doesn’t always make them community assets?
  8. Replacement–whether humans on staff or boards or one big painting for work by BIPOC artists–isn’t change. Change is acknowledging the history of your organization’s actions and creating an architecture that brings your whole community to the table now and in the future.
  9. Should all museums be required to have values statements that fit their particular ethos, culture and community?
  10. How can we create a job sector where you don’t necessarily need a graduate degree to participate, where you will earn an equitable, living wage or better, and where leadership matters? Is AAM’s plan to get creative workers back to work enough?

Revolutions take motivation. They coalesce around message and messenger, an individual whose empathy and enthusiasm is contagious. They need a memorable speech, treatise or slogan, that is tweeted, repeated, and forever associated with the movement. And they need all of this done again, and again until change happens. The museum world is overdue for change, but we need a leader and a message. Are you that person? Can you lead us to a museum-world green new deal because many of us are waiting in the wings to help?

Stay safe.

Joan Baldwin

3 Comments on “You Want a Museum Revolution? 10 Things to Think About”

  1. crow cianciola says:

    I appreciate this article, thank you. One thought I have is regarding 6. where you smartly posit, ” Someone needs to articulate the difference between a museum’s value for its community versus its economic engine. Clearly the two are separate, and if its funding model is more than allowing a group of rich one-percenters donate to an endowment, then what is it?”
    I would say that the community value to a museum can actually be aligned with it being an economic engine because museums employ scores of invisible or occasional art handling, security, maintenance, education, events and trade laborers, who in turn support local economies. These levels of employment within museums are where some internal multi racial multiculural and multigender workforces already exist however precariously and without the racial equity, advocacy and leadership training initiatives being performed at “higher” levels since George Floyd’s murder.

  2. Michael Holland says:

    I think that there are many capable and passionate people working within the museum sector who can be leaders of change, but most are not in and have no real pathway to leadership positions as they are traditionally defined (executives). Like many movements, this one will need to happen from the ground up. Being a “squeaky wheel” advocating for the changes we need can be more than a little neck-outsticky, (yes, that totally should be a word!) so some thoughts and ideas may not get expressed.

    Museums with sensitive and thoughtful leadership that are willing to ask the hard questions, tell the hard truths, and take the bold steps will be the ones out in front on the leading edge. All of that might seem even harder to do in the midst of the current crisis. But this crisis has been incredibly illuminating and instructive, and while deeply damaging it also may bring tremendous opportunity. To suffer so greatly and emerge only to find ourselves carrying the same problems we went in with would be an even greater loss. Let’s use what we are learning!



  3. marianneeileen says:

    I left my job as a museum director in February after a 2 year fight with my board and chief curator to be more attentive and responsive to our community. It was exhausting. Now I’m working on a grad certificate in non profit management and trying to really dig into what a “community centered” museum would look like. Beyond “visitor centered” where we try to imaging what a vistor needs and responding accordingly, but really involving the community. My background is in art museums and I find them exceptionally intransigent and elitist as they protect their institutional hierarchies. Is it actually possible for an established art museum to become community centered? OR is it something that has to be built from the ground up?

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