Museums and the Future

In a recent opinion piece in the NY Times, Museums Need to Step Into the Future, Darren Walker calls for museums to embrace a new and more diverse society, to relinquish their role as “guardians of a fading social and demographic order.” Instead, he believes, “museums have the responsibility to hold a mirror up to society.” He offers a few key reasons for his position. Museums in their current form

  • exclude large swaths of society;
  • exploit rank-and-file employees and grossly underpay them while enriching the administrative ranks;
  • threaten the “underpinnings of democracy.”

The solution he offers is “diversity.”

Darren Walker calls for more diversity in museums.

The problems are real but not unique to museums, and his solution has considerable value but likewise is not unique to museums. I worry that diversity, however earnest, has become a fetish that distracts from the issues that can bring about transformation Walker hopes to see.1 Yes, Walker is absolutely right, museums from the boards down need to be more diverse in every possible way, but we need to recognize that this diversity in itself will not bring about transformation. It might help attract new visitors, but will fall well short of inclusivity until we change society in a way that makes museums a welcoming past-time for larger swaths of society. Until we make it possible for larger swaths of society to feel comfortable and welcome in a museum. Until we make it possible for larger swaths of society to have the spare time and be able to afford the entrance fees. Until we move museums out of the exclusive neighborhoods and their august buildings that exclude either actively or passively large swaths of society. Until, that is, we change what museums are.

Perhaps a more fruitful way forward is to imagine a new type of institution that serves the varied and broad populations Walker wants museums to serve. A new institution that doesn’t assume first and foremost that cultures are best served through the preservation and presentation of art and artifacts. Museums, after all, have never been about inclusion or diversity. They have always been about the wealthy projecting their authority and cultural values, usually to other wealthy and powerful people. And a robust current of colonialism flows through the museum. The very act of collecting and preserving is an exercise of privilege.

Maybe we shouldn’t expend too many resources on changing museums and, instead, work toward a new type of institution that doesn’t depend on exclusion and colonialism, the K. Wayne Yang has urged us to think about a “third University.”2 Maybe.

  1. It seems elite institutions are struggling with a remarkably similar set of problems and have glommed onto “diversity” as the solution. Unfortunately, diversity itself risks being the problem because the “guardians of the fading social and demographic order” get to determine what and how much qualifies as diversity, and determines what is seen as successful diversity. In other words, it’s too easy (and comfortable) for diversity to become a tool that supports the established social order and, paradoxically, limits the very transformations diversity was meant to bring about.  ↩

  2. Yang analyzes universities and other schooling systems to uncover the ways that despite their hopes and claims universities continue to support colonialist projects.  ↩