Reculturing Museums

The text in this section will appear in my new book (in revision) with Routledge Press.

The title (tentatively) is:

Reculturing Museums: Exploring contradictions and equity (tentative)

Below are several excerpts from the book

This book is meant for museum practitioners, educational researchers, parents, teachers, administrators and others who wish to think more deeply about what happens in museums and how museums can ensure that all people have equal access to the activities, objects, and ideas residing in them. Building on previous research, practices, and evaluations in informal settings, this book strives toward achieving equity for the voices of the many people for whom going to museums is not a regular practice.

We have reached a critical tipping point, where, in hindsight, we may recognize that something could have been done to leverage and achieve necessary change. As Szanto (2007) has argued, no emergency should go to waste—why not reinvent museums? Decades from now, we may look back and point to this time as the moment we began to understand that museums needed to do things very differently in order to survive. The need to survive is inextricably linked to the need to serve a more diverse public in more creative ways.

Several key features mark this tipping point, including how we view rapidly shifting demographics (as a challenge and/or opportunity), the underlying beliefs driving pricing and program policies (populist vs. financial (Skorten, 2014), whether museum visitors are seen as clients or collaborators (Feinstein & Mesholulm, 2014), how we interpret learning and teaching (Ash, 2014), whether we adopt a deficit or resource view of learners (Gutierrez, 2009), and how we view the diverse communities that often surround, but do not often visit, the museum. We can start with the more obvious conflicts.

I use the term ‘reculturing’ to encompass the changes mentioned above, which refers to internal change, that is, change from the inside out, or what I call inreach, (as opposed to outreach). This worldview is centered around creating internal change in the museum culture, rather than changing the people they wish to serve. We know from school research that effecting such institutional change is extremely difficult. As described by Scott Thomson, “this “cultivating” of culture to transform “the way we do things around here” is what we mean by “reculturing”” (2005, p.1).

and later

‘The way we do things around here’

A question frequently voiced by museum professionals is “why don’t they (typically communities of color) come to museums? One typical answer involves vague or specific notions of outreach. This is the wrong question and the wrong answer.

Throughout this book, I argue that it is important for museums to change internally before they can ask their visitors to change. There is general recognition of the need for museums to genuinely collaborate with the communities they seek as partners. This will take time and effort, money and expertise, and these ingredients are often hard to obtain. Many museums are presently conducting experiments in community collaboration (Science Museum of Minnesota, Oakland Museum of California, Dallas Museum of Fine arts, to name but a few). This also means that evaluators, researchers, administrators, and educators need to know where, when, and under what conditions different groups of learners can become more comfortable in museum settings and begin to develop a sense of ‘belongingness’ there. Understanding these dimensions requires a different kind of research and practice.

The above constitutes only one part of the equation however. The other part may be even more difficult. Museums must also ask themselves what they must do differently within their own walls in order to effect the requisite change. This internal change poses a very difficult challenge, because ‘the way we do things around here’ is well established, it is comfortable, and it is often difficult to recognize. Recently, museum educators have worked increasingly on reflective practice (Martin, Ash & Tran, in process) as a way to identify underlying beliefs and practices. This has been a useful exercise and may prove beneficial to entire institutions.