Museum TrendsWatch 2024: Culture Wars 2.0

Rachael Cristine Woody

Rachael Cristine Woody

June 05, 2024

The Center for the Future of Museums (under the American Alliance of Museums) publishes a TrendsWatch report annually. The report includes topical deep dives and insight into emerging trends in the field.

With a combination of strategic foresight, global visioning, and keeping up with the latest in ethics and technology; the Center delivers content on wide ranging topics housed within a theme. This year the report theme is TrendsWatch: Navigating a Volatile Future and includes three main trends: Culture Wars 2.0, AI Adolescence in Museums, and Decarbonizing the Future. Then, in the pattern they adopted last year, a Short Take: Dropping the Degree; a For Your Radar: Digital Twins and Doom Loops; and a Trend Alert: Combatting the Loneliness Crisis.

The intention of this miniseries is to offer TrendsWatch snapshots to support distillation and application at museums. For our purposes we’ll cover each trend with a post. Today’s post will focus on Trend #1: Culture Wars 2.0.

For this main trend I’ll provide a summary of the topic as presented by the Center (The Challenge section), how the trend shows up for museums (What This Means for Museums section), and the Center’s advice to museums (Museums Might). Throughout, I’ll offer analysis, insight, and tie-ins.

The Challenge

In this first challenge Elizabeth Merritt, Founding Director of the Center for the Future of Museums, introduces the “culture war” concept with a quote from Patrick Buchanan’s 1992 Republican National Convention speech. In his speech Buchanan described the culture wars as a “struggle for the soul of America.” Merritt ties museums into a culture war 2.0 concept with the following explanation: “Some are criticizing museums for embracing progressive values, while others regard museums as conservative vestiges of a colonial past.” While this is not a new phenomenon, Merritt points out what we’ve all observed over these last few years—that cultural clashes are increasingly occurring at nonprofits and specifically at libraries, museums, and K-12 classrooms.

What This Means for Museums

Perhaps the most important observation Merritt shares in this section is that the culture war is both external and internal to the museum. She explains:

One source of tension is the fact that museum staff are overwhelmingly liberal, while boards and donors often skew conservative. This can complicate decisions around what topics the museum should address and what communities it should serve.

Further, museums are continuing in their evolution to diversify those represented in their collections and to provide a fuller and more accurate history. While Merritt doesn’t state it explicitly, the implication is that many museum audiences believe museums are neutral and exist to tell the truth—though how full and representative that truth is, is up for public debate. Ultimately, Merritt concludes this trend with a quote from Culture Wars author James Davison Hunter:

The whole point of civil society […] is to provide mediating institutions to stand between the individual and the state, or the individual and the economy. They’re at their best when they’re doing just that: They are mediating, they are educating.

In other words, Merritt is suggesting the museums (and by extension, their staff) continue to operate in a role of mediators and educators. Unfortunately, what is not covered here is any discussion of risk to museums and their staff for engaging in this often-thankless mediation work. As a result, some of the advice Merritt outlines in the Museums Might section falls flat.

Museums Might (the advice section)

Admittedly, I had a hard time with the Center’s coverage of this trend and especially with the advice section. I admire Merritt’s desire to provide pragmatic activities we can proactively engage in; however, I think the brevity of this forum leads many of these suggestions to come off as naïve or overly simplistic. With that said, please consider the suggestions listed by the TrendsWatch report as “big ideas” that will need to be seriously thought about and scrutinized for their perceived versus actual benefits, the risks involved, and whether or not these actions are appropriate to ask of museum staff.

  • Lead conversations with Board and staff regarding their personal values to then arbitrate on how a museum should engage (or not) in cultural war issues.
  • Establish a “potential for controversy” evaluation framework and procedures for how to manage those controversies for exhibitions, programs, event rentals, etc.,
  • Identify partisan trigger words and develop alternative language.
  • Train staff on how to have difficult conversations with others who don’t share their beliefs.
  • Create policies, procedures, and training for prepare staff for dealing with angry or confrontational members of the public.
  • Strive to be “third places” for community gatherings of persons from diverse backgrounds and beliefs.
  • Monitor legislation and legal decisions that can impact museum operations.

Conclusion

This trend is one that will require extensive coverage, discussion, and learning on the part of museum leadership. Any adoption of the above advice will need to center on the safety of the public and museum staff. However, it’s also a trend we’re undeniably in the throes of, giving it a sense of urgency we must pay attention to. Please join us for our next post on trend #2: AI Adolescence in Museums.

Rachael Cristine Woody

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 her newest: Demystifying Data Preparation for a New CMS. Rachael is a regular contributor to the Think Clearly blog and always a popular presenter.

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