Sunday 25 May 2014

Museums and social work: a year of changing thinking

Over the past 18 months, since starting at The Dowse, I have given a series of talks on the idea of Museums and Emotion.

At the 2012 NDF conference I gave a talk with that title, that was hard, personal, and transforming. It came out of a very particular set of events in my life, which changed me irrevocably, led me to do things I am proud of and things I deeply regret, and gave me a new way of viewing and being in museums that compelled me to apply for The Dowse position when it became vacant.

You can read the notes and see the slides here. But to summarise:


At the time I applied for the job I read a New Yorker article about changes at the Tate Modern. One of the people interviewed, curator John Elderfield, observed that we’re now seeing a period of radical change in how people use museums.

He was quoted saying: “It's not only about looking closely at works of art; it's moving around within a sort of cultural spectacle. I have friends who think this is the end of civilisation, but a lot more people are going to be in the presence of art, and some of them will look at things that transport them."

This quote gelled with some things I’d been thinking about for a while. One is a thought that goes back years, to a day when I heard a commentator on Radio Sport talk about a rugby game in terms of spectacle. He didn’t mean this in a ‘what a total freaking disaster’ kind of way. He meant it as an event designed for the viewers, built around a physical contest between two opposing sides. It made me realise that ‘spectacle’ does not have to be a dirty word. It can mean an event or experience that is carefully crafted to evoke a reaction. That reaction does not have to be dictated, but the expectation is that the viewer or participant will be aware that they are in a moment. Spectacle in this sense means memorable, meaningful, moving.

The second is a feeling - a question - that I had. I wondered if we have become a little timid. Our visitors are hungry for experience. I wanted to explore what it might mean to have more emotion in our museums.

Taking this idea for a walk, I took inspiration from Charles Simic’s poem William and Cynthia in a talk I gave not long after starting at The Dowse.

Says she'll take him the the Museum
of Dead Ideas and Emotions.
Wonders that he hasn't been there yet.
Says it looks like a Federal courthouse
With its many steps and massive columns.

Apparently not many people go there
On such drizzly gray afternoons.
Says even she she gets afraid
In the large exhibition halls
With monstrous ideas in glass cases,
Naked emotions on stone pedestals
In classically provocative poses.

Says she doesn't understand why he claims
All that reminds him of a country fair.
Admits there's a lot of old dust
And the daylight is the color of sepia,
Just like this picture postcard
With its two lovers chastely embracing
Against a painted cardboard sunset.

I had been thinking about how our language has become impoverished. How we have fewer words for love, for friendship, for our feelings. How words have become watered down over time - words like melancholy or chivalry once had entire schools of thought built around them, rather than meaning ‘a bit depressed’ or ‘holds doors open for women’. And when our language is impoverished, our ability to describe or share or face our feelings is likewise diminished.

The Museum of Emotions is not about collections, civic pride, or community involvement. It is a place you can go to to experience emotions that have fallen into disuse, emotions that are foreign to your workaday life, or emotions that have not been part of your life yet.

It’s not a place to learn about emotions. It’s a place to feel them. I had a conversation with a museum friend about this idea. He talked about a museum where you programmed exhibitions, performances, experiences, all around the idea of evoking emotion in the viewer or participant. I talked about a room that you went into where someone would radiate an emotion towards you, like perfume coming off warm skin.

* * *

Last year at the 2013 NDF conference I picked this idea up again, in a co-presentation with Paula Bray from the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney. Paula and I had both lost people in recent years, and had, through the very specific, strange, and utterly non-normalised experience of grief come to look at our work differently. Here is where I picked up after that 2012 talk ...


The metaphor of a museum of emotion struck a chord with a lot of people I spoke to in the following year. At the same time, I try not to look back and berate myself for being terribly naive. I still believe in a lot of what I said last year. But I think I’ve internalised that Museum of Emotion. It informs the way I work and the way I lead, rather than shaping what The Dowse puts out on the floor.

Rather than making emotional experiences at work, I generally find myself having them.

(At this point in the talk I recounted two stories about things that happened to me at The Dowse. They are stories I prefer to share in person, rather than share where I can't see people's faces while I talk. So I will summarise them here.)

One was a conversation with one of my Front of House team about a homeless man who regularly visits one of our museums, and what we should be doing to help him: in particular, whether we should feed him when he visits.

The second was a couple of conversations with a local foster mother and a social worker - let's call them Anne and Josh - who were talking about a group of teens they work with who have lives that are hard and sad, to a point almost beyond my comprehension.

The first conversation was part of a meeting with local stakeholders conducted by my division of Hutt City Council. When we asked Anne and Josh what we could do to help them, and these kids, they basically said - do a good job of what you’re doing. You’re a Council. You can’t love these kids, and that’s what they need. That’s what we do.

These two encounters really shook me. They made me question whether I was doing the best thing I could with my energy and talents. I had a follow up meeting with Anne and Josh to talk more. I said: I keep thinking about what you said about being able to love those kids. I keep thinking, what if a museum could be a caring organisation? What if we could care about people?

And Josh looked at me, and he said "Whoa. That's not normal. That's not what museums talk like."

And I thought Yes. This is it.


I often feel like institutions like mine operate between two modes: the academic and the touristic.

On the one hand, we generate and share new research and insight, and stimulate the creation of new art and understanding.

On the other hand, we have visitor numbers as KPIs and compete with other tourist attractions for attention and visitation, and with other like institutions for staff, funding and product.

What I began thinking, especially after that time with Josh and Anne, was:

What if, instead of seeing ourselves as a meld of academic and tourism impulses, we saw ourselves as part of the health and community sectors? What if we became part of the caring professions? What would the museum of the future look like if it was focused on improving the lives of the people who use it?

I found this to be an incredibly exciting and moving thought. Typically, it sent me scurrying off in all directions. I got quite righteous and started saying things like ‘Why do we employ educators and public programmes people but not social workers?’.

Emotion is great. But it’s got to be tempered in order to be used. Three things have helped me reflect on Anne’s observation that we need to do a good job of what it’s our job to do.

The first was a research report published by the British Museums Association, seeking to capture what ‘regular’ people want and expect from museums. Titled ‘Public perceptions of – and attitudes to – the purposes of museums in society’ the report gathers feedback from a series of workshops held around Britain, with carefully selected pools of museum visitors and non-visitors.

The report found a “strong, positive emotional attachment to museums by both visitors and non-visitors” and that attitudes have warmed as museums “shed their image of stuffiness and sterility and become more entertaining and interactive”.

One of the most notable findings was the trust participants accorded to museums, with museums being perceived as more trustworthy than both the government and the media.

Perhaps given the current British cuts to cultural funding, museums were widely seen as being "under threat" and concern was expressed that museums were "spreading themselves too thinly". Participants wanted museums to focus on what they are good at, in order to preserve the essential purposes for which they are respected and loved.

So what are these essential purposes? The museum sector had proposed a range of purposes for workshop participants to discuss and prioritise.

The core of museums’ existence for these groups is our role as the caretakers of national and local heritage. This was strongly linked to national pride and seen as the key contribution we make to society.

In addition to caring for collections, participants emphasised their display, and the need to keep refreshing exhibitions to attract more visitors. Interactivity was seen as very desirable.

Museums were seen as having an important role in public education: we provide equitable access to education, and we provide opportunities people can make use of, rather than generating elite research.

While they thought museums had a role in promoting wellbeing and happiness, participants did not broaden this definition to encompass mental health and wellbeing. Instead, this purpose was regarded as being about entertainment, and linked to the education goal; this is what differentiates museums from theme parks.

Where it got almost hurtful for me, with my nascent ideas about museums and social work, was when participants got on to low priority purposes. These included ‘fostering a sense of community’ and ‘helping the vulnerable’.

Here’s the summary:

Both these purposes were seen as being aimed at specific individuals or groups in society and were therefore somewhat at odds with the essential purposes that provide accessible benefits for everyone in society. The idea of museums reaching out into communities or sections of societies isn’t one that the public sees them as being the best placed to do.

As one attendee put it: “Social services should look after the vulnerable and museums should look after the history.”

Hardest of all to read were the purposes that were challenged by the workshop attendees.

Two objectives were not seen to sit well with the core purposes of museums, and indeed were seen to undermine “the essential values of trust and integrity that people cherish with regards to museums”. These are:
  • Providing a forum for debate, and
  • Promoting social justice and human rights

The report observes:

participants consistently agreed that museums were not appropriate environments in which to hold controversial debates.  Rather, museums are regarded as places to go to find out factual and unbiased information and for people to subsequently make up their  own minds about a particular topic.

This is not to say that people felt museums cannot broach controversial subjects, but that they should remain neutral in the displaying of information, rather than act as a leader in telling people what to think.

I was initially deeply thrown by this finding. Museums and galleries are often promoted as ‘safe places for unsafe ideas’ and centres of debate and discussion.

But for participants in this particular exercise, attempts to ‘tell people what they should think’ threaten the perception of privileged, trusted position museums hold. As the report noted, though museums professionals may question the notion of an objective truth that can be expressed through an exhibition, the public – at least as represented by many in this sample – does not.


I found this report deeply deflating. I felt like I had all this energy and all these ideas, and then I felt like no-one wanted them.

Fortunately, around this time I came across a post written by Nina Simon, who is always about five years in front of where I seem to be able to think for myself. Or perhaps, to be less self-deprecating, Nina is about 18 months ahead of me in this process of transitioning from working within and with cultural institutions to running one.

The post is titled ‘Seeking clarity about the complementary nature of social work and the arts’. In it she unpicks what it is we’re speaking of when we talk about “cultural institutions as vehicles of social and civic change”.

The blog post grew out of a conversation Simon had with two of her friends who work in not-for-profits focused on homelessness and criminal justice. While all three worked in organisations that care about making a difference in the community, when you move from the ‘why’ to the ‘what’, museums and social service organisations are emphatically not the same. Simon writes
Their work involves life-or-death situations. Museum work is mostly non-contact. The consequences of risk-taking and experimentation are incredibly different. 
There is infinite demand for their services, whereas we struggle to generate demand for ours. There will never be enough meals for hungry people or mental health facilities for those who need them. Meanwhile, arts industry leaders worry about "oversupply" of organizations in the face of dwindling demand. 
Social service providers often find themselves working in a reactive stance to unexpected incidents. Arts organizations can operate on their own timelines and internal values. Those that want to be more relevant often have to push themselves to work responsively to events outside their domain.

As the participants in the Museums Association’s research and as Anne the foster parent observed: we are not social workers. While we might be moving into the social sphere, we are not doing social work. When I’d been beginning to get a bit depressed, Nina gave me another way of looking at this topic. She wrote:

Instead of asking whether we are focusing too little or too much of our attention on social work, we should be asking HOW we can approach the work of community development in a distinctive way.

We are in a luxurious position. Few people rely on us to provide social services. Few people expect them of us. By drawing on our strengths and thinking about how we direct them, we have tremendous opportunity to create new value in our communities.


Finally there came a point when I realised that I’m far from the first person to think about social work and museums. It is always useful to discover that your mad tangle of ideas is someone else’s academic career.

In my case, it’s the work of Lois H. Silverman as collected in her recent book The Social Work of Museums.

What I have taken from this book is a framework of four levels of social interaction, that offer different ways to engage with people, to channel our energy, and to connect in a meaningful way.

Social work operates in its broadest function in the level of culture - the shared way of doing things that allows humans to live together. As Silverman says, at the widest angle, the work cultural institutions do “involves nothing less than the making and changing of culture”. This is where we, through the language we use, the collections we form, the programmes we run, the buildings we build,  the products we make, and the audiences we try to reach, can intentionally aim to create social change at a macro-level.

Come down a level, and social work is focused on relationships between groups. This is where we can play a role by being as accessible as possible to all people in society, and running the kinds of programmes that bring diverse groups together with the aim of increasing understanding and connection.

The level below this is interpersonal relationships. What opportunities can we create for people to form or reinforce relationships? What can we do to strengthen connections within a family, or within an environment like a rest home?

At the narrowest angle, social work is concerned with the individual self. The self is defined as the fundamental building block of all social relationships. Furthermore, the self is defined as already being a relationship: a person to a sense of the divine, a person to another person, and a person to his or her experiences and memories.


What I am trying to do now, as I get stuck into a year of thinking strategically, is to use all this as a new lens that I hold up to each piece of work. I am trying to hold every possible project up to these four levels and ask myself: where do I see this operating?

We can’t be all things to all people, and nor should we try to be. We can’t just walk up to people on the street and start loving them. But we can add value through our strengths: our collections, our buildings, our social capital, and our staff. And we can enhance our strengths by finding new ways to look at our work and our mission.

* * *

In a recent talk for the Govett-Brewster, I recapped the points above. To help clarify them, I gave this illustration:

The Queens Museums in New York is widely respected for its Art Access programme for people with differing physical, emotional, behavioural and cognitive abilities across New York. The programme has been running since 1983 and now serves thousands of children and adults.

They have a special focus on families affected by autism. They are regarded as world leaders in this area, and I believe the reason for this is that the programmes operate on many of the levels I’ve described above.

On the individual level, the programmes are about giving kids on the autism spectrum a safe social environment to enjoy art.

On an interpersonal level, there are programmes targeted at teenagers, aimed at building friendships, and programmes targeted at bringing families together through art projects.

On a group level, activities include visits to other museums and galleries, who are coached on how to support families with autistic children when they visit.

And on a macro level, the Queens Museum team has also published a book to help other arts and community spaces, like libraries, develop programmes for families affected by autism, and provides professional development courses so others can learn these skills.

These are not one-off, opportunistic, or project-based activities. This is a belief in who the museum is here to serve and how its does its work, enacted.

* * *

So, this is where my thinking is these days. Add to that thoughts about creating value and the production chain of the visual arts, and you pretty much have what's inside my head when I try to make decisions - well, mixed in with Council priorities, awareness of what other institutions are doing, lack of awareness about what other institutions are doing, personal taste, and thinking about what will make my team's working lives as rewarding as possible.

I want to thank Suse Cairns, Rob Stein and Ed Rodley, for whom I'm right now meant to be writing an essay for to join the CODE | WORDS project. This post comes entirely out of productive procrastination, fuelled by Michael Edson's exemplary opening essay for the series, Dark Matter.

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