by columnist Tegan Kehoe

I recently read an older article in The Journal of Museum Education, Partnerships: Hype and Reality (Amy Jared, Winter 1994), that had some thought-provoking things to say on museums engaging with their communities. The author pushed back on the idea that museums’ greatest challenge is to convince the public that they are no longer elitist temples of wisdom: “I would like to suggest that the museum’s greatest challenges is convincing not neighbors and audiences, but ourselves — museum professionals from all levels of management — that the elitist regalia have indeed been shed.” From reading the article, I believe she means that in two ways, convincing ourselves both that elitism is no longer appropriate in museums even on the occasions when it is tempting, and that certain patterns of behavior, such of ways of interacting with community “partners” are holdovers from a more elitist time and need to be shaken up.

Spending time with my family over Thanksgiving made me reflect on the ways people’s viewpoints change over time. Some family members whom I have often agreed with politically seem to have become more resigned to the status quo in the past several years, and it seems to me they are becoming less willing to embrace the possibilities for positive change. We talk about the optimism of youth, and I feel that it’s been a very long time since I’ve been a Pollyanna — I think of myself more as a positive-oriented realist, in both politics and the museum world. I believe in making the world a better place and I embrace the fact that it takes time, work, and compromise. Sometimes I wonder, however, if I’m going to lose more optimism over the decades. A lot of museum professionals today will tell you that the trend in museums is towards becoming more inclusive, more interactive, and more willing to share authority, and they will also predict that this transformation will be completed as the baby boomers retire and Generations X and Y take the helm. I believe that’s true to an extent, but I’m not certain that we can count on our generations’ ability to effect these changes fully without becoming … well, tired. I don’t think that people necessarily become jaded as they gain more work experience, and more management experience in particular, but the ideals that matter so much to us now can take a back burner to day-to-day responsibilities, except for those enough lucky enough to have a position in which those ideals are at the core of their jobs.

What’s a young museum professional who does believe in inclusive, interactive, authority-sharing museums to do? I know I don’t have the answer, but in the spirit of staying practical and positive-minded, I offer my own brainstorming list of ways to stay ideals-oriented about museums throughout our careers.

  • Keep going to conferences and participating in online conversations via blogs and social media. NEMA always infuses me with energy and passion for my field, and online conversations can do the same on a more day-to-day level. If one conference ever starts to feel repetitive to you, use your professional development as an excuse to travel, and try a conference in another part of the country, or another part of the world (if you can find the time and money). Meet new colleagues and get their ideas on the issues that matter.
  • Follow another piece of advice from the article quoted above, and get involved with a non-museum organization in your community, one that your museum might hope to partner with in the future. Attend meetings and get active as a full participant and a learner, and hear what the core members of the organization are passionate about. “Too frequently museums expect community leaders to serve on museum advisory boards,” says Jared, “but how often are museum representatives involved in community organizations?”
  • When possible, treat the day-to-day responsibilities of your job as tools to improve your museum, not as competition for the work of making change. I have heard before that if you leverage a museum’s strengths to fulfill public service needs, you can tap into a whole new market for funding, but I was skeptical about the success of this theory. Sara Meirowitz, formerly of the New Bedford Whaling Museum, emphasized that this really is true in a session at the NEMA conference in which she shared the Whaling Museum’s successes with their teen apprenticeship program. If your daily responsibilities involve development, you can apply this idea directly. In another department, get creative about how to help your museum strive for excellence. 
  • Do sweat the small stuff. Not every change has to be radical. Focus on a very small change you can make in the museum where you work or intern, and find a way to implement it. In an earlier post, I wrote about my experiences creating a large-print guide where I work; it turned out to be just the right size project to do during a slow season. 
How do you plan to keep your big ideas about museums a part of your work life for the long haul? I encourage you to do some brainstorming of your own and share in the comments.