Make Museums Great Again? Fear of Change in Museums

Anyone who has worked for me has heard my favorite old adage, “Change is the only constant.” I have seen 200 interns (yes, I counted them)  and numerous staff through countless institutional changes. The roils of change were so continuous we lived in a constant state of low-grade institutional motion sickness.

Why is change so constant in museums?

Entropy happens, man. But, more realistically, there are a number of factors spurring change. Firstly, human capital is undervalued at lower levels. A director often makes 10 x what an education associate makes. But, this is not to say that the director is working 10x as hard. These lower level jobs, hard to get as they are, are a serious slog. Education associates, for example, often work weekends and evenings.  If you manage to get the energy to fight your way up, and I assure from having done it, you make sacrifices to do so. Most move to find a new job since so few jobs are available in any one city. Many choose not to move or not to stay in the field. In other words, our field is in a constant state of staff loss & re-training.

The patrons are another driver of change. For all but a few patrons, museums are a leisure space. They want that leisure space to meet them where they are, or they will not visit. Just as any other place that they choose to spend their time changes, so should museums, on some level. So, even if we don’t want to change, our visitors are expecting change.  Don’t think so. Think of any major museum without wifi. In this way, innovation outside the field also has ramifications for the field, thankfully. Museums would seem like institutional ostriches if they didn’t adapt to the smart-phone society that their visitors are living in.

On a larger organizational management sphere, museums seem hell-bent to figure it out themselves. Keeping their ivory tower roots at heart, they imagine that they should solve running a museum in their own idiosyncratic ways. In the world of academia, the goal is publish something new. In running an organization, often you don’t want to try something totally new.  Yet, museums often restructure with every change of senior manager. They throw out so many babies with the bathwater that they could start whole new museums of lost good ideas.

What makes change scary for museums?

Museums are slow moving institutions. Many museums are basically corporations in which the sales of products is an experience. And like American corporations founded in a different era, there is the weight of history to contend with.  Museums, however, have an additional layer of challenge–their own perceived reputations. Museums are well-regarded by the public for their constancy.

For many in the museum field, the value of being the old guard is greater than the value of changing.  One might call this group the  “Make Museums Great Again” lot. These are the folks who use phrases like “don’t dumb it down” and “we don’t want to change just to change.”  To clarify, there is a strong current in museums to maintain the status quo: show collections with the information that we want to share. It would be easy to stereotype certain sectors of the field, like curators, as being the stalwart members of this cult. But, I haven’t found this to be true in my experience. I know plenty of educators who believe change as beneath us.

But, like any cult of the past,  those who hope for museums to maintain a status quo, they are hearkening to a false past.  The museums of the past are themselves a fairly new phenomena; with only a few hundred years of past to reckon with. Even then, museums of old didn’t draw the large numbers that today’s museums do. More people go to museums annually than sporting events, as is often stated by museum folk.  In the past, museums drew on a small sector of society. Those in the museum field who are averse to change, the MMGA crowd, do not want to turn away our millions of visitors.  Instead, they want those millions of visitors to continue to come without changing the way we do things

Why does change matter?

Change is scary, in the end, because staff in key roles fear loss more than they desire gain. They worry about losing the solid, respected past, more than they desire gaining new opportunities.

But, in the field now, there is also a strong current of #TheResistance. There are many inside and outside museums agitating for change from the way boards are composed to the way collections are interpreted. The rise of museum consultants is in part due to this impetus.

If you imagine museum culture is like grained marble, many change-makers are the bright white lines passing through the dark surface.  They often are  far outweighed by those who don’t want change. Some change-makers are able to find ways to carve out narratives that honor multiple motivations, including the status quo folks. Many however choose instead to recut their block, moving out of their in situ state and into self-contained one.

What next for Museums?

If only that I was the oracle of Delphi… In many ways it feels as if we are in the middle of a narrative right now, potentially at the Empire Strikes Back period of our field’s history.  In the last few years, we created many projects that exemplified change, from digital ones to community ones. Now, with so much national uncertainty on funding for the arts and culture, the field could choose to close ranks, and go backwards.  Or instead, we could lead change.

We could realize that we are a very young field as it goes (younger than universities, medicine, and law, for example).  We could see that we are in the teen years of our institutional culture.  We could be foolish and joyful, and know that our mistakes won’t be held against us.


This post was inspired by  one of those megatweets reply all threads that remind you of the good ole days of twitter as well as offer the short burst intellectualism that makes that platform so useful. The wide ranging conversation touched on many issues in contemporary museums, including diversity, technology, and experimentation. (Read Storify synopsis).

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