Each year the Center for the Future of Museums (under the auspices of the American Alliance of Museums) publishes a TrendsWatch report. Each year, I provide an analysis of the issues therein via a series of posts.
This year the report is titled TrendsWatch: Building the Post-Pandemic World and includes six trends: The Future Workplace, A Digital (R)evolution, The Partisan Divide, Repatriation, Restitution, Reparations; The Metaverse and Web 3.0; and Changing Climate Risk. Today’s post addresses The Partisan Divide.
This section opens with the acknowledgement that hyper-partisanship is increasingly impeding the work of public institutions, including museums, schools, and libraries. With a few statistics shared by the Center, we’re left with the nauseating sense that things will get worse before they get better. One such statistic shares that 60% of Americans anticipate an increase in political violence in coming years. And, as has been the case since the 2016 elections, historians warn that democracy itself may be at risk.
What This Means for Museums
As I write this post, news of the recent uproar surrounding a Florida school principal fired for showing students Michelangelo’s ‘pornographic’ David sculpture (The Art Newspaper) is still (3 weeks later) circulating within museum conversation channels. The sub-headline explains: “Tallahassee Classical School’s principal, Hope Carrasquilla, was fired following parental complaints her Renaissance curriculum was too risqué.” We know better than to assume this is a one-off event. As the Center stated earlier: Museums, as with schools and libraries, are increasingly getting caught up in politically fueled culture wars.
So, how do museums fit into this partisan quagmire? Or, as the Center frames it: How do museums chart a path between apathy and violence and bridge the growing partisan divide? How can they encourage mutual respect and peaceful civic participation? The Center raises previously explored topics such as the Museum TrendsWatch 2019: Truth, Trust, and Fake News. A trend that identified the high amount of trust (as measured in 2018-2019) people place in the information museums give them. This is particularly fascinating when compared to the following statistic that “69% of people working in the museum sector identify as somewhat or very liberal compared to one-quarter of the public.”
The Center’s Advice for Museums
The Center leaves us with the following considerations in the Museums Might… section.
- Provide education that supports civic activism.
- Advocate for K-12 funding history and civics education funding.
- Build on research related to activities that strengthen democracy.
- Include political diversity in DEAI.*
- Provide free access to information typically censored.
- Support staff who volunteer as poll workers and paid time off to vote.
- Become a National Voter Registration Day Partner.
*I do not agree with this conflation that political ideology is somehow the same as identity and should be included in DEAI work. DEAI is intended to support people—marginalized communities, personhood, and identities historically excluded, persecuted, and under threat of harm—most often from persons who hold political ideologies committed to perpetuating harm upon vulnerable communities. We cannot create a safe and inclusive environment when we invite those with ideologies that actively harm a portion of the diverse community we’re trying to support.
Of all the TrendsWatch trends over the past few years, this one is perhaps the most unnerving because it has the greatest amount of risk for repercussions. Coming out of the pandemic, many museums are still on precarious ground (financially), are understaffed, and undertrained when it comes to any political savviness or pedagogy. Given the high risk/low reward scenario for museums with limited resources, there’s understandably little motivation to engage with this trend. In the near future, I hope the Center spends more time on how to support museums in this endeavor.
Rachael Cristine Woody
Rachael Woody advises on museum strategies, digital museums, collections management, and grant writing for a wide variety of clients. She has authored several titles published by Lucidea Press, including soon-to-be-released Prepare for Takeoff: Get Your Museum Digital Project off the Ground. Rachael is a regular contributor to the Think Clearly blog and an always popular presenter.
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