Lessons for museum advisory committees from the 2016 presidential campaign

Two weeks ago, members of the Black Lives Matter movement met with Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.  You can watch a full video of the meeting at the Democracy Now! website.

I was thinking about museums while watching this meeting.  Why?  Advisory committees.  More about them in a second.

The Civil Society
First, some background.  It shouldn’t seem all that unusual to think about museums while watching this meeting.  Over the last year, the Museums Respond To Ferguson movement has done an excellent job of reminding museums about their responsibility as members of the civil society.  Museums Respond to Ferguson and Black Lives Matter are two movements that are part of a larger movement.

Robert R. Janes (2009) defines civil society as “that part of society lying between the private sphere of the family and the official sphere of the state, and refers to the array of volunteer and civic associations, such as trade associations, religious organizations, cultural and educational bodies, that are to be found in modern, liberal societies” (p. 21).  The civil society also includes activists.

Advisory Committees in Museums
Over the last 30 years, museums have begun to fully understand their place in the civil society.  Museums have realized that they need to provide tangible benefits to the communities they call home.  In our multicultural society, that means being able to serve everyone in the community.

In order to do this, many museums have turned to the use of advisory committees.  These committees are made up of members of a community—those with a disablity, African-Americans, Native Americans, Latinos, Hispanics, etc.

The committees advise the museum on a range of issues: exhibition development, repatriation, marketing, physical and intellectual accessibility, etc.

Through the committees, museums give community members a voice in the operation of the museum.  The advisory committee ensures that the museum is accessible to, representative of, and welcoming to everyone in the community.

I believe that advisory committees help museums be of greater use to their communities and I urge all museums to make these committees part of their management practice.

Back to the video of Black Lives Matter meeting with Clinton.  I think this video offers two important lessons for working with communities the museum has not served well in the past.

Members of Black Lives Matter meeting with Hillary Clinton.
Members of Black Lives Matter meeting with Hillary Clinton.

The first goal of the activists is to try and get Clinton to admit to her role in supporting state oppression of African-Americans.  Laws passed under President Clinton, and supported by Mrs. Clinton, have led to a disproportionate amount of African-Americans being incarcerated in this country.

Clinton offers a classic politician-running-for-office response: Not fully admitting guilt (while calling herself a “sinner”) while offering that she can best change the wrong that she helped put in place.  For many, this response is not genuine.

Apologies go a long way.  They are often the prerequisite for a fractured relationship to be healed and are needed before that relationship can move forward.

When starting an advisory committee, museums should acknowledge their failure in not being accessible to, representative of, or welcoming to the community it now seeks to work with.  Museums should apologize if necessary.

The good news for museums is that in seeking out the help of a community goodwill is often created.  Apologies can create even more goodwill.

The most contentious point of the meeting comes when Julius Jones, one of the activists, asks Clinton to talk to white America about the historical white oppression and discrimination against African-Americans, especially how discrimination has been institutionalized in our government and her role in that.

Clinton, however, asks Jones and the activists to provide her with a policy agenda to change the current manifestations of state violence against African-Americans.  In a way, Clinton asks the activists to be a type of advisory committee for her.

The problem for both parties is that they fail to understand each other.  Part of the misunderstanding is a problem of perspective.  Clinton has a perspective of the problem that is much different than that of the activists.

For museums (and for Clinton), it is important to understand the perspective of the community.  The new way forward is not by forcing the museum’s perspective on the community.  That hasn’t worked in the past.  Why would it work now?  It is imperative that the museum understand the community’s perspective for the relationship to go forward.

Final Thoughts
Thankfully, museums aren’t politicians.  But they exist in the civil society, which makes them political.  When museums use advisory committees and better understand the people they serve, they are better equipped to create positive change in society.  An apology may be required to begin the process.  Listening is critical to full understanding.

Finally, it should be noted that communities aren’t monolithic.  Museums should seek out multiple perspectives from the various communities that make up our societies.

Janes, R. (2009). Museums in a troubled world: Renewal, irrelevance or collapse? New York, NY: Routledge.

Image credit: Black Lives Matter Boston


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