Monday, January 18, 2016

Money, Politics, and Museums

The intertwined issues of money and politics are on full display with the U.S. Presidential Campaign in full swing.

I can't help seeing parallels to the issues being raised by the candidates, and the challenges of museums.

Starting with money, of course.  In both cases, one has to wonder if the needs and interests of the "people" (the vast majority of voters, in the case of political elections, along with visitors and most staff members, in the case of museums) are being swamped, if not completely lost, by the sway of big money donors and funders.  Recent revelations concerning the sway of funders in exhibitions that touched on issues of climate change are disappointing.  There is no such thing as a "neutral" exhibition, so why do museums continue to claim otherwise?

Fortunately, groups like The Natural History Museum are pushing museums to be more transparent and thoughtful in considering the implications of who their funders and trustees are.  

Wages and demographics are two related issues in the political process, but also in museum operations.  Politicians (and museums!) seem to have any number of excuses for not being able to pay some of their employees a living wage.  Lucky you if you work for a Wall Street firm or in the Development Department of a museum.  Too bad if you are a woman art museum director, or are part of the front line or education staff at most cultural institutions.

Again, groups like #MuseumWorkersSpeak and Museum Hue are bringing forward issues of inclusion and social justice in museums.

More than anything my takeaway from all this is to try to call out issues to be examined rather than hidden or "hushed up" in the museum community.  Kudos to museum organizations like NEMA who are building their conferences around such topics of common interest to museum workers.  I, and the general public, hold museums to high standards, and consider them highly trustworthy institutions.

But let's continue to earn that respect as a field by not falling victim to institutional laziness or craven pandering to funders.


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