I want to reflect on a part of last week’s discussion that focused on the representation of social issues in museums. Although the conversation centered on domestic violence, it could have applied to poverty, homophobia, discrimination, or any other difficult subject that people don’t like to talk about. I strongly believe that museums have an opportunity to inspire real social change by tackling difficult, contemporary subject matter in their exhibitions and programs. However, I maintain that curators cannot simply mount exhibitions that, “raise awareness,” of social issues and then merely retreat to the privacy of their offices. If museum professionals are going to successfully inspire change, they need to step out of their comfort zones and work with their communities to find solutions to society’s problems.
I searched the web for an example of a museum that partnered with a service organization to mount an exhibition on a difficult social topic. I will use poverty, an issue that every community faces, as an example. Ideally, such a museum would host dialogues and programs in conjunction with an exhibition chronicling poverty in their community. Within the exhibition, the museum would direct visitors to social services that could help them learn more about the topic, obtain needed assistance, or volunteer their time and talents. In addition, the museum would empower the local homeless and shelter populations by collecting their personal histories and artwork for inclusion in the exhibit.
If a museum was really ambitious, it could develop a free after-school program that would provide at-risk children with a safe, friendly, educational space every afternoon. Furthermore, the entire museum would greatly invest in finding sustainable ways to alleviate poverty in its community. It would mobilize staff and museum volunteers to perform direct service to the poor, offer itself as a venue for social service fundraisers and prompt education staff to work with local shelters and food pantries to develop educational materials for at-risk audiences. Not surprisingly, I didn’t find any museums that met my stringent criteria.
While the museum field has a long way to go before it is truly at the forefront of addressing social issues, I do see great promise in the work of the Lower East Side Tenement Museum and the International Coalition of Sites of Conscience. As the Coalition gains greater influence in the field, I see many museums moving towards a place where they legitimately and powerful address society’s problems. Such an approach could greatly aid museums in their fight to connect to their communities, cultivate additional funding sources, boost admissions, and remain relevant.