The Role of Relevancy and Museum (Data)

The average American is exposed to more than 5,000 branded messages every day. These messages can be everything from the logo on your tea bag to the ads that run while you are streaming NPR. In this saturated environment, how do you choose what to consume? Research indicates that many consumers are carefully privileging socially-responsible brands. In a recent survey by Havas, 75% of consumers expect brands to contribute to their quality of life. In other words, people expect everything from Adobe to AT&T to have a meaningful impact on society.

This is the environment that museum patrons live in. They don’t leave that mindful brand mindset when they walk into the museum. There is the point of disconnection between museums and consumers. Consumers are barraged with tweets about NFL owners standing with their police-brutality protesting players and the political advertisements of beer companies. They walk into museums, often places with socially-responsible missions, and find sanitized, subtle messages of social consciousness.

Quite to the contrary, they choose to be museum patrons, effectively consumers of the museum’s brand, because they appreciate the contributions of the museum. While some might directly patronize a museum for its philanthropic or educational contributions, most often direct attendance (and the associated earned revenue) is based on interest. Those people are walking in, and spending their hard-earned cash, because they value something in the museum. Consumers have more choice than ever, often in their own homes. Consumers of these exhibitions want that experience, and they are choosing these spaces over other leisure options.

So, what do patrons want in terms of relevancy?

First, it’s important to note that “meaningful” is in the eye of the beholder.  Sometimes patrons want something that feels a certain way.  (I have more to say about transformation in museums here). Visitors want to engage in experiences rather than being observers in inert spaces. A recent article in Wired extolled the power of the Instagram-friendly museum or exhibition. (Yayoi Kusuma’s exhibition Infinite Mirrors might be the exemplar of this genre.) These types of exhibits are relevant in their experiential nature; just as media is becoming ever more interactive, so are these exhibit spaces.

But, those types of experiences are the rare example not the norm for museums.  What about the 98% of other museum experiences to be relevant? Most museums have collections that they preserve and share. How do they highlight their collections for a populous that privileges meaningful impact? This summer I invited professionals to share their ideas about if and how museum collections should address social issues. The following discussion draws on the ideas of the 116 respondents.

Should museums engage in social issues? 

The vast majority of respondents felt that museums should tackle social issues and contemporary issues.  Very few respondents said no.  But, look more closely at the “maybes.” This was a sizable minority of responses.  There were more respondents on the fence about presenting social issues. In other words, museums should engage with the present moment, but maybe not with the social issues of this moment.  This highlights a real challenge in the field–we want to be relevant but maybe remain out of the fray on social issues.  This is in opposition to what our patrons expect and experience outside the museum where brands are engaging in social issues.

Exploring the qualitative responses helps understand the nuances of these answers. In many ways, the “maybe” camp comes from a desire to remain collection-centered.   Museums need to use their mission and their collection as their compass to make choices on how they deal with social issues.

When asked why museums should deal with contemporary and social issues, a number of people cited the fact that museums are social constructs and far from neutral.

  • “Museums have a responsibility to not exist in a bubble. By nature, museums are a reflection of the community it is in. And it needs to reflect that in all aspects.”
  • Museums are part of the fabric of the community and in order to engage the community, we must address their issues.
  • “To remain neutral is to enable oppression. If a museum doesn’t say something, the silence says it for them.”

Many people felt that museums needed to respond to social issues due to their mission.  

  • “Education is a prime function of museums”
  • “Tying the present to the past is a vital activity and contained in the heart of the museum mission”

Engaging in social and contemporary topics goes beyond the mission—it is the ethical prerogative of museums to engage in this service.

  • “Museums have power.”
  • “Museums should find valuable connections between contemporary topics and their core values and mission. They need to stay in service for their public/audience and their institution.”
  • “Because museums are already deeply connected with contemporary and newsworthy topics. By not “dealing” with them we’re choosing not to engage the very people many of our institutions are tasked to engage more of!”

Some professionals noted that this move to relevancy was not selfless. As noted above, people are walking into museums with certain cultural expectations. Shying away from social relevance puts museums out of step with society. Engaging with contemporary topics and social issues was seen as a way to maintain current audiences as well as future-proof the museum.


This is the big question. There is really no one answer, as there is no one type of museum. Many of the respondents highlighted the social nature of museums. Museums have a special position in society to be able to engage in dialogue that is unlike any other type of institution; one that can put people at the interstices of many moments in history.

  • “Relevance to community, opportunity to present difficult complex issues in ways that invite reflection and possibly dialogue”
  • “I think it is important to stand for something and a museum is a place where those topics can be argued and given a platform”

Though many museum professionals were quick to point out that museums have to be thoughtful in their social conscious programming. They noted that museums, not unlike commercial brands, can come off as opportunistic when attempting to engage in social issues.

  • When they do it in thoughtful collection-centered ways, it expands the museums.
  • The engagement should feel authentic to the museum’s mission and personality. It should not come across as opportunistic or trendy.

Using the respondents as a sample, many museums are tackling social and contemporary issues in ephemeral, event-based ways like programs and social media, for example.  These kinds of incursions make sense on some level. With exhibitions often taking half a decade to plan, relevancy can be a hard goal. Programs are quick to plan and implement. However, they also often have a smaller reach in terms of audiences. They also offer museums a chance to do something without actually changing their status quo.

What should museums be doing? 

The short answer is more. Museums have a much smaller share of the public consciousness. Every staff member of your local art museum could do social justice programming, and still, their reach would be much smaller than one football player’s reach. That said, museums have more patrons annually than sporting events. This disparity is telling. We reach more people and yet we choose not to make waves.

  1. Museums need to speak out at the institutional level to use their power to make a change. Social media is a great way to do this but there are other ways like exhibition policy standing for change, directors marching in protests, and joint-statements for change. Here is a great example led by the Guggenheim to fight the immigration ban. 
  2. Museums need to center social issues into their exhibitions and permanent collection planning.
  3. Museums need to stand up to donors who might have political motives to prevent social issues from being addressed.
  4. Museum professionals need to advocate for big action, not just isolated programs.

Thanks to everyone who contributed to this data, by responding, forwarding, sharing, considering, etc. The anonymized raw data is available to anyone who would like to play. Just email me at seema (at) . The first blog post about this survey is here. 

Useful Associated Reading

Andrea Kim on the Culture Lab Manifesto

Anabel Roque Rodriquez’ article about museum neutrality

Anna Schwartz on museum neutrality

Importance of Protest Art

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