Is Your Community Better Off Because it has a Museum? Final Thoughts About Participatory Culture (part III)

In the first two posts of this series we examined some of the challenges and opportunities for museums and libraries in an era of participatory culture, and also highlighted a few of the more pressing questionsthat popped up in discussion among colleagues during a recent meeting at the Salzburg Global Seminar.

In a gathering that could ostensibly have been about how technology and social media have changed the landscape of museum practice, I was so thrilled to find that almost all of our discussion focused on how museums and libraries can make significant and lasting changes in our local communities. Working in a museum, I’ve taken that as my context, but many of these issues have important corollaries in libraries as well.

Perhaps the most useful change in my own thinking is an understanding that the era of participatory culture is not a new thing, but rather – enhanced by recent trends in technology – one that has its roots in the very reasons why museums exist in the first place.  While technology, social media, and mobile adoption influence the ways that we engage museum audiences and the expectations they bring into the museum, an attitude that invites participation has the potential to transform individual and community experiences that enhance the public value of the work we do.

Why is your community better off because it has a museum?

I’m challenged by the courage and convictions of colleagues I met in Salzburg, who take a commitment to their local community very seriously. Whether helping neighbors recover from devastating storms in the Philippines, reaching out to the homeless and poor communities in Sao Paulo, or bringing libraries to rural Kenya on the backs of camels, I found myself inspired to think about how a museum in Indianapolis can learn from such tangible demonstrations of public value.

In his book “Making Museums Matter,” Stephen Weil talked about a mandate for museums to demonstrate real value within our communities:

“Why is your community better off because it has a museum? [The answer] must necessarily be something more than, because otherwise it wouldn’t. Museums matter only to the extent that they are perceived to provide the communities they serve something of value beyond their own mere existence.”

This topic surfaced repeatedly during the conversations about participatory culture in Salzburg. The consensus among the group coalesced in an assertion that museums have an inherent mission to deliver public value driven by a universal right to cultural access.

It is clear to me that although museums have long enjoyed a privileged place in the public’s confidence, societal and economic changes, as well as the public’s expectation of museums, have significantly augmented the landscape of public value.  New questions about what constitutes public value and who sees the benefits of that value need to be considered seriously by those museums that want to see real impact from their effort. Lest we think that the value of museums is secure, the nascent ”occupy museums” movement reminds us that a growing frustration exists with the way museums think about their role in society.

The real test for public value is not what the museum says it is, but rather the value attributed to us by our communities and stakeholders. Simply declaring that the museum is valuable isn’t a substitute for actually demonstrating that value on a consistent basis.

At the heart of the issue is the museum community’s willingness to take a harsh look in the mirror and ask hard questions about whether or not we actually do a good job of bringing value to our constituents. In my opinion, a more wholehearted embrace of participatory culture may be the tonic we need to really delve into the ways that museums can change their current practice.  To realize the benefits of participatory culture will require an openness to welcome new opinions about the museum.

Serhan Ada, from Istanbul Bilgi University had a wonderful way of framing the difference. He notes that,“Participation occurs when someone welcomed as a guest feels as though they have become a host.” Are visitors to your museum truly guests in this sense? Perhaps the benefits of participatory culture are most easily witnessed with such a shared sense of ownership.

Read the rest of this article on imamuseum.org

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  1. [...] development? I think Rob Stein’s presentation at the Salzburg Global Seminar and his follow up, “Is Your Community Better Off Because it has a Museum?” are good refreshers on the bigger issues that these current debates reside [...]

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