Judith Koke: Museums MUST become facilitators of social transformation, or risk becoming closets..
Listen to thought-provocateur Judith Koke as she discusses the urgent need for museums to reposition themselves to be the enablers and facilitators of collaborative persuasion – of the vitally important multi-vocal discussions we need to have at so many levels in society. And hear who she challenges to lead this effort.
Hello, I’m Bob Westrope.
I believe these things to be true.
We live in an Age of Abundance, where, for the first time we have the means to eradicate human suffering, want and need.
Our world is in unprecedented danger. Too many issues that must be dealt with simultaneously, from climate change to an all-out assault on democracy itself.
We have years – not decades - to prevail. To make possible a new Age of Wonder.
The root problem is a systemic, global leadership insufficiency.
We can’t rely alone on current systems and structures to address this insufficiency. It’s time for big ideas.
It’s on us to fix it - the BoomXers born from 1946-1980. We have the experience, networks, power, money, time and most importantly the motivation. It’s our children’s world. It’s our legacy.
Join me as I explore the big ideas needed to inspire our generation to action – ideas offered by leading thinkers, doers and activists united by the understanding that we all share one very small and very fragile planet.
Before we start, the BOOM! series of podcasts will be brought to you by several sponsors. Since BOOM! is intended to promote actionable, measurable and meaningful impact, I wanted to make a statement in the acceptance of our first sponsor. That's why I invited Storyminers to be the first to support us.
Looking at the ten years we have to fix the world, each of us will undoubtedly face situations where success will depend on painting a super-clear picture of the future. The possibilities each of us sees and the means to get there, have to make it – clearly - into the hearts and minds of our friends, fellow citizens, employees, partners, and customers. If we can't make the future clear and compelling, how can we expect others to join us to achieve it?
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Let's get started.
When I was eight or nine years old, I knew what I wanted to be. For want of a better term, I was to be an archeo-anthropologist, mainly because at eight or nine, I wasn’t sure of the difference between the two. Years before Lawrence Kasdan conceived of Indiana Jones, in my pre-adolescent mind, I saw being an archeo-anthropologist as my pathway to swashbuckling adventure, fame and fortune. At the very least, I saw it as my ticket out of my too-small hometown.
I lived for our end-of-year school trips to the Royal Ontario Museum, Pioneer Village or the Ontario Science Centre. I loved the mustiness that I always associated with such places and loved too, that they could be simultaneously time portals, story tellers and windows onto the world. But curiously, I never imagined them as places that really, truly, mattered. Indeed, by the time I was in my late teens, I had moved on in my aspirations – deciding that Prime Minister was likely to be a better job for me. Certainly, it was a job that mattered.
Ultimately wrong on so so many accounts, I was especially wrong about by my dismissal of the power – and relevance - of museums.
According to UNESCO, the number of museums around the world has grown from 22,000 in 1975 to just under 100,000 today. And according to the American Alliance of Museums (citing pre-COVID 2018 data), museums in the US contributed over US$50 billion in revenue, generating $5 in tax revenue for every $1 dollar they receive in government funding. They also directly employed over 700,000 people, and indirectly an almost identical number. Most astoundingly though, in the US, more people visited an art museum, science center, historic house, zoo or aquarium than attended a professional sporting event. In 2019, the Economist noted that just the leading art museums of the world saw 230 million visitors that year.
Leading thought leader in the museum space, Gail Lord, President & Co-Founder of Lord Cultural Resources writes that “In the not-too-distant past, museums and the arts were agents of hard power. Wards initially of royal courts and then nation states, museums were repositories of hard power – safeguarding the spoils of war and human conquest of nature. They reflected the state’s hegemony, which was very useful for cultural diplomacy: cultural diplomacy boasts, whereas soft power persuades (italics mine).
As the franchises of all institutions have been challenged so fundamentally by glaring social justice and income inequities, and the reality that climate change and therefore climate action is a reality, so too has the future of museums come into sharp question – especially in a post-COVID world. What role to play in a world of Rodney King, critical race theory, residential schools, anti-vaxxers and QAnon?
Well, Lord has an answer for that. That is that what is required is the exercise of soft power and the nurturing of the art of persuasion in a socially fractured world - and the institution to facilitate that is the museum. Lord writes “In this era of power diffusion, museum buildings are more than landmarks. They are also cornerstones in successful place-making. Place-making refers to the interactions between people and place in the creation of social capital (that is the capacity of people working together to solve problems). Museums present beautiful, accessible, and meaningful spaces in which communities and individuals can meet, exchange ideas, and solve problems – platforms for soft power.”
But how do we assure that museums leverage the power they have – their legacies, their assets, their expertise, the unique permission that most in our society still afford them as trusted arbiters – to assume the role of transformers of society? And to do that in the very near future, while we still have viable democracies and a pathway to a new Age of Wonder.
A person who has given this a great deal of thought is also a thought provocateur in the museum space, and she has graciously agreed to share her big idea to effect the needed change. Joining me today is Judith Koke, Deputy Director of the Portland Oregon based Institute for Learning Innovation. Prior to joining ILI, she was Chief, Public Programming and Learning at the Art Gallery of Ontario, and before that the Director, Education and Public Programs at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City MO. Judith is also a lecturer in the Museum Studies program at the University of Toronto and has authored over 50 peer-reviewed articles and papers. She holds a Masters Degree in Museum Studies from the University of Toronto, and an Honours Bachelor of Science, also from the University of Toronto.
"Bob: So Judith, what is your big idea?
Judith: My big idea is that arts and cultural organizations like museums need to redefine their purpose towards social responsibility, or risk becoming closets.
"Museums MUST become facilitators of social transformation or risk becoming closets."
Bob: Okay. Sounds intriguing. Where does this idea come from?
Judith: I think in response to the current multiple global crises - changes in the environment, climate change, social inequality, both race and income inequality, our increasing difficulty in having civil conversations and conversations across difference.
"It's my belief that museums are the right place to create spaces that host conversations and show people how conversations across differences can be held. Rather than being places about ‘stuff’, I think it's time that museums become active participants in shaping a better world and the future we want."
Bob : Your background clearly brings you to this conclusion. Can you connect the dots for us - talk a little bit about where you come from and how that experience leads you to this?
Judith : During the time that I have worked in museums, which has been across the last three decades, it's been with all different kinds of institutions - history museums, science museums and art museums, but also zoos, national parks, heritage sites, and aquaria. So, when I use the word ‘museum’, I mean a broad group of cultural organizations originally started around collecting and saving objects and living collections in zoos - objects and mementos of our heritage and shaping stories around those things.
And while objects and tangible things are still important, I think the focus of museums needs to shift away from being about ‘things’ to being about the stories that objects and artifacts, mementos of the past, mementos of the present, of the stories that they hold, and the stories that they tell and how we use them to tell stories. The main conversation we've been having in museums is: who gets to tell the story, how is the story told, who shapes the narrative?
Whenever you design an exhibition or a program you decide what to keep in the story and what ends up on the metaphorical cutting room floor. We have a lot of experience in shaping narratives and understanding the impact of the decisions we make on the ultimate narrative, so I feel that museums, as have other organizations, been really involved in this conversation, and have a lot they can share about the process of creating a narrative, the process of defining the truth, the process of weaving together multiple perspectives in telling a story that depends on facts and depends on being correct.
That's why I feel that museums are central to this conversation in our larger society.
Bob : It strikes me that there's a transformation of the concept of learning happening in society. I'm intrigued with the concept of ‘free choice learning’ and the work you've been doing there, and the observation that most of the learning and therefore development of citizens happens outside school and in environments such as museums and zoos and other such institutions. Can you talk about?
Judith : Free choice learning is how we talk about the learning that happens when people are internally motivated. Our school system comes out of an industrial age where we felt it was important that a society have a shared body of knowledge so that when you went to a factory or a place of employment, people understood what you probably knew, and how to build on that learning to create reliable workers. With the huge leap in how we understand the world in science - in all the various disciplines - it's much more difficult for one person to wrap their head around the totality of that information. Coupled with the ubiquitous access to information through smart phones and the internet, people can look anything up on-demand.
When I was in school in Canada - and I'm in my sixties - we were still learning the Kings of England, the order of the Kings, Queens and Regents of England. Today, nobody wastes their time learning those dates because we all know you can look those up if they're important to your conversation. So free choice learning is putting the power of learning back in the hands of the learner.
"...free choice learning is putting the power of learning back in the hands of the learner."
If I decide tomorrow that I want to understand better what a particle accelerator is, and why they're bothering to do these tests in physics, I can find that information, I can start at the beginning and learn on my own. I can even contact experts. So free choice learning is the 95% of what you learn across your lifetime that doesn't happen in a classroom, that happens when you're alone with your computer or with a book or in conversation with a friend.
We've spent a lot of time in my organization, the Institute for Learning Innovation, thinking about how to support the learning that happens as people navigate the learning landscape themselves. How does that happen in astronomy clubs, boys and girls clubs, 4H clubs and at home within the family? Museums and zoos and national parks are all part of that learning landscape for people in ways that are different than classrooms because a classroom almost always has a leader at the front, leading the activity, leading the agenda. And so free choice learning is when the learner is in charge of the learning.
Bob : Which is as you say, a challenging process, but an opportunity, nonetheless. It strikes me that nations, tribes, societies all create mythologies with museums the keepers of those mythologies. The question is now, how do they take a more active role in the shaping of a duality of mythologies within society?
Judith : They’ve been the keepers, they've been the shapers, and they've been the promoters of those narratives. You're absolutely right, with the work and reflection we've had to do internally, we've had to really think through our understanding of what is a ‘truth’, what is a fact, what is a perspective? What is an opinion and how do multiple narratives come together to form a single story which is never neutral? Museums have had to realize that they aren’t neutral spaces, that every decision you make has consequences, moving away from the content and focusing more on the process of how we identify a truth, what do we know as a fact and how do we integrate perspectives?
"Museums have had to realize that they aren’t neutral spaces, that every decision you make has consequences..."
Think of the Second World War. Most people agree, except for some real outliers, that the Second World War happened, and we have a limited range of dates that we can say it happened within. We also know that we can tell that story from the perspective of a soldier from England, a Jewish person from Poland, a person from the Romany nation or from a housewife in France – there are multiple narratives that together weave together the true story. And those stories may contradict each other on occasion, but it doesn't make them untrue. So where then, does the difference in perspective stray into untruth or support a truth that leads to a shared understanding? How do we make meaning together about what the Second World War was, what it means, and how it impacts us today? The stories are less straightforward or simple, or ‘uni-vocal’. We no longer believe in a single textbook, or a single voice of authority, but rather realize that it takes all those voices to really describe a truth.
"We no longer believe in a single textbook, or a single voice of authority, but rather realize that it takes all those voices to really describe a truth."
Because museums have had to become comfortable with that fact, to lesser or greater degrees and must be transparent about the work that they do in delivering stories and exhibitions programs in their spaces, has to me become more important than the story itself.
Bob : This podcast series is based on tenets that we frequently refer to. The point of the tenets is the aspiration to a new Age of Wonder, that is the potential in the next 10 to 20 years, to develop human society to a point where we can realize our (that is humanity’s) full potential. How does this help prepare the citizen for that Age of Wonder?
Judith : I think there are two important things that can come out of this. One, is that museums are places, institutions that are trusted. When you do surveys of trusted organizations, museums broadly rank very high in people's minds as places that are trusted. An example of how that can play out is, there was a time in Brooklyn New York, in the early nineties, when there was tremendous tension between the Hasidic community and the African-American community that erupted into violence. It was the Brooklyn Children's Museum that stepped into the middle of that fray and said, “...we need to have a conversation about what's happening here, essentially we want the same things. We want a space for our communities to be healthy and to thrive, and we want the members of our community to be safe and to have opportunity”. Because the Brooklyn Children's Museum was a place that was trusted by both communities, they could host those conversations in a safe and neutral space.
Not only could they be the host for those conversations, but they could model how those conversations can happen. And those conversations across difference often need to start with what we agree on. So often we come to those conversations with a focus on our differences where to have a conversation across difference, we need to start with what is it that we agree on. In a difficult conversation that might be politically very fraught - say childhood poverty - we can agree what childhood poverty is, and we can agree that the impacts on long-term health and long-term education and long-term opportunity for success are compromised. The origins of the problem will have differing perspectives, and the suggested solutions will have differing perspectives, but by starting with what we agree on and standing in that shared space of meaning, that we've been able to make together, it creates a foundation for which we can begin to navigate and weave together those different perspectives on the causes and the solutions. That's what the Brooklyn Children's Museum was able to do.
"...conversations across difference often need to start with what we agree on."
The Holocaust is another example. When you go to the Holocaust Museum and you see the pile of leather shoes, that's a starting place for a conversation that is rooted in something that I can see, and touch, and understand, and have a personal connection to, and that grounds the conversation in another way in something tangible that then gives me common ground with someone with whom I have perhaps very different perspectives. This grounding in the shared space is one important part of the museum world, the opportunity to contribute.
I do want to circle back to the question of trust. Traditionally, the storytellers in our society have been the news media, but over the past 25 years trust in our news media has pretty much dissolved. People see the news media as very polarized, and I think museums must really pay attention to that. How do we open space for conversations across difference without losing that trust? How do we do it in a very transparent way? I believe that the way we do that is to focus less on the content and more on the process of how narratives are shaped, and engage people in that process and keep the focus on the process as much as on the narrative and the content of the story. I think that will help us create more important, more meaningful stories in museums, more relevant conversations in museums, putting at risk some of the trust, but doing it in a way where we can hold onto most of it.
"I believe that the way we do that is to focus less on the content and more on the process of how narratives are shaped, and engage people in that process and keep the focus on the process as much as on the narrative and the content of the story."
Bob : Is it fair to say that museums need to catalyze congruence around a shared future, as opposed to mediating the past? The past is the past and we'll always have different interpretations of it, but it seems to me that there's a permission structure with museums and like organizations to help catalyze the development of a narrative of the future that we can all share.
Judith : Absolutely. I think you've hit the nail on the head with that. There's a Canadian author in the museum field named Robert R. Janes, and one of the chapters in his book is Museums, Social Responsibility and the Future We Desire, wherein he makes that case. He points out how our understanding of the past has multiple perspectives in it, we can look to the future and think about how we can weave our multiple perspectives together to focus on the future we desire, and the different avenues of achieving that future.
The Oakland Museum of California is an example I'd like to call out. In the past five years they have shifted their mission to really focus on the social cohesion of the city, which historically had revolved around the African-American community. Oakland is the home of the Black Panther movement. It had a very strong, politically active community and a very strong art community. However, as neighbouring San Francisco became so expensive, residents there started migrating into Oakland, and the people of Oakland are feeling a huge sense of loss - they feel like their community has become extremely fractured. With rising home prices, many of the African-American community are moving to more affordable areas outside the city with the consequence that the strong core and sense of community of the city is dissipating. The Oakland Museum of California did a lot of work with the evolving community to facilitate agreement on the social issues that mattered to all the people of Oakland and have strongly committed to being drivers of the social cohesion of the city.
So what does that mean for the museum? Well, they've decided that means that when you go to their museum, you feel like you belong there regardless of where you are on any demographics spectrum. They want visitors to feel like they've heard a new voice or a new idea while they've been there, but also that their personal perspectives are also honored and welcome in that space.
"They want visitors to feel like they've heard a new voice or a new idea while they've been there, but also that their personal perspectives are also honored and welcome in that space."
They are working hard to show how multiple perspectives actually help us arrive at better solutions. There's a lot of research that decisions made with multiple voices are more stable long-term and provide greater benefits. So they're working really hard in this space to, yes, continue to collect objects that are important and relevant to the history of California, and as a combined history, art and natural science museum, they collect across those spectrums, but the work they do with those objects has changed very dramatically in the last decade.
Bob : To suggest that museums need to become more forceful catalysts in societal transformation, would suggest that there's a Delta or an opportunity for them to do that. Of the museums that you've worked with and know, is the industry or the sector doing a good job right now? Are they doing a passable job, or would you give them a fail?
Judith : That's unique to each museum of course, but across the field, I have to give them a fail. Museums are, on a project basis doing this work – they will do an exhibition on a topic that addresses these issues, or they will host a program. The Art Gallery of Ontario and the Royal Ontario Museum, both here in Toronto are doing a lot of work around what does reconciliation mean for museums, what does a nation-to-nation relationship between settler and first nations people look like? A current whale exhibit at the Royal Ontario Museum is a great example of this. So on a project basis, museums are moving into this space pretty actively, they are way behind where they need to be in terms of making a core commitment to be catalysts of our social transformation. That's why I need to give them a failing grade.
"Though on a project basis, museums are moving into this space pretty actively, they are way behind where they need to be in terms of making a core commitment to be catalysts of our social transformation. That's why I need to give them a failing grade."
Bob : In a polarized world where ignorance seems to be winning the day, I’m hearing you say that museums are uniquely positioned to be able to contribute to a shared sense of the future. It strikes me that that's not a nice to have - that's a must have.
Judith : That's a must have, in my - and in other people's opinions. There are a lot of museum scholars, John Faulk in the United States, Graham Black in England, and Sarah Briganti in Portugal, come to mind, all of whom believe the work of museums is in the promotion of democracy, the support of critical thinking and becoming better citizens, not in the sense of understanding the world, but in the sense of understanding how we move the world forward, how we build this shared future.
There was a meeting of directors of art museums in either 2011 or 2012 in Aspen CO, where something like 30 art museum directors came together, and they were pretty evenly split around the idea. They held a vote on whether art museums would be around in 75 or 100 years, and the group was very evenly split. The museum world really does see this obsolescence on the horizon, and they know they need to do something different, but the stress, the risk involved in taking a side and taking a position for organizations that have, until the last 20 years, seen themselves as neutral - which is a fallacy entirely - but they've seen themselves as neutral in a very political space. This is a really significant change to their identity and their way of doing work.
"The museum world really does see this obsolescence on the horizon, and they know they need to do something different..."
Bob : This is a good segue then to the challenge that you've prepared. So what is your challenge?
Judith : My challenge is to museum leadership, the C-suite and the boards of directors. I challenge them to refocus the central mission of museums, the reason for their existence - away from stuff, that is objects and collections - and towards social transformation. Becoming spaces that help societies understand how to make shared meaning and how to think critically about the information they're bombarded with.
'I challenge the C-Suite of museum leadership to reorient their institutions from being the warehouses of 'things' to drivers of social transformation."
Bob : You've done a good job of describing the cohort, but can you talk a little bit more about the executive decision maker that needs to be targeted.
Judith : These people are the boards of directors of museums, more often than not volunteer positions. The directors report to the board, obviously, and are employed by the museum. It's the museum directors, whether it's a small museum in a smaller community, really helping that community think about the world that it's facing or whether it's the National Museum of Art, or the National Museum of History, the Smithsonian's. It's on all levels.
Smaller museums tend to be much more engaged with their immediate communities, whereas larger national museums are more engaged in the national story and the national narrative. Smaller museums tend to be more nimble, and I think smaller museums can move into these spaces. They're less risk averse than larger museums who are so heavily dependent on funders, on charity, on philanthropy, so I think smaller museums have an opportunity to demonstrate how this is done, to show that it can be successful to learn how to do this work in different ways, how to do museum work in different ways.
"...so I think smaller museums have an opportunity to demonstrate how this is done, to show that it can be successful to learn how to do this work in different ways, how to do museum work in different ways."
National, large museums have an important responsibility to think about what this does mean on a national level? What does it mean to be a Canadian or a Slovenian, or a member of the European union? What does that mean for how we think about the world and how we make decisions, and what are our shared values that bring us together and unite us?
With respect to that board of directors, most people who join the boards of museums join because they have interest in their topic. They'll be history buffs or art collectors, so they'll be really interested in the content, but they really must ask themselves, to what end is this institution important in this community and what is the contribution we're making to a healthier, sustainable society?
Bob : Clearly if one wants to achieve impact in a relatively short period of time, say 5 or 10 years, it means revisiting who is recruited for board positions. If one needs to be more than a history buff or an art collector, one needs to have the capacity to see how the power of the museum can be leveraged to catalyze the shared future you are talking about.
Judith : I think we need to recruit people to the board that expect more of museums, demand more of museums in terms of their social role, and challenge the existing board and leadership to think really deeply about the long-term impact, and therefore the short term priorities that museums are engaged in.
"I think we need to recruit people to the board that expect more of museums, demand more of museums in terms of their social role, and challenge the existing board and leadership to think really deeply about the long-term impact, and therefore the short term priorities that museums are engaged in."
Bob : Not to put you on the spot, but who are the exemplars out there that you might cite?
Judith : The example I gave of the Oakland Museum of California is an exemplar. There are conferences being held - Slovenia in the spring of 2021 held a large conference for members of the European museum community to really think about what is the social responsibility of museums? I mentioned the example of the Great Whales: Up Close and Personal exhibit at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, where the decision was made to present not just a scientific view of whales, but the First Nations view of whales as well. If we're talking about whales in Canada and we're honoring reconciliation and a nation-to-nation position, then the story isn't just the scientific point of view, it's a combined point of view.
It's still awkward. People who go through the exhibition find the two strands of the story sometimes awkwardly put together. We’re adolescents in this work. We're not as accomplished at this as the work we've been doing for a hundred years - we're still learning how to do it well.
"We’re adolescents in this work... we're still learning how to do it right."
Bob : What are the obvious inhibitors to this? Is it within the system itself? Is it external? Is it funding?
Judith : There, there are three major inhibitors. One is that the people in leadership roles in museums have done all their schooling through our current academic model, which has positioned them as the expert, as the person that knows the important stories, that is the decider of what stories are told. Asking them to move away from this area in which they've become so skilled and inviting in alternate voices of disagreement is really challenging for them. That's one thing. Another is funders. Museums are often funded by large corporations - petroleum companies, banks, and other organizations that frankly are just as happy if our society continues the way it's been built. The funders and museum boards, I believe, too often think that museums need to be neutral spaces, and are only slowly coming to understand that that neutrality is in fact rather a sham.
"The funders and museum boards, I believe, too often think that museums need to be neutral spaces, and are only slowly coming to understand that that neutrality is in fact rather a sham."
Finally, there's the audience and what audiences expect. We've trained audiences over the last 150 years, as to what a museum is and what a museum does. For us to suddenly shift to new ways of working and new ways of telling stories means we have to bring that audience along with us. Otherwise, we're just talking to ourselves, which doesn't move anything. So, it would be all three of those.
Bob : That’s interesting. When you think about it, the BoomXer’s no doubt constitutes virtually all the C-suite of museums and cultural institutions including the funders and the boards of directors. It strikes me that the challenge is to assure that the next generation of leadership is incubated and supported in being brought into the sector, and needs to be in a quite revolutionary sense, different, whereas the tendency has always been to build an organization that looks pretty much as it’s always been. What I'm hearing you say is the onus on the BoomXer generation is to do what it can to assure that the next generation has really redefined the essential nature of that sector.
Judith : That's part of the pressure that's going to help us make a difference in our field. Younger people, younger generations than the BoomXer generations, are used to multiple perspectives in their news. They're used to seeing the commentary of the non-expert in response to the expert that's been invited onto the news show or onto Google. They are used to seeing non-experts respond, they're used to sifting and sorting through all those responses, and they don't find that overwhelming or a waste of time the way those of us who are perhaps more comfortable with a single news outlet and tend to get all our news in one space from one place. They're much more comfortable with the idea of multiple perspectives and sorting through a lot of different ideas to construct one's own understanding of the world. So in supporting people in acquiring the skills to do that well, we'll only amplify the natural inclination of our society in this moment. And I think we'll strengthen our ability to do that properly.
Bob : You teach a first year course, at the University of Toronto, is that right?
Judith : Yes. I teach in the Museum Studies program at the University of Toronto. I teach different courses in different years, but usually around the idea of: how do we invite community voices into the museum? Where we might be the expert on the topic of whales, the audience is actually expert on what they find interesting and what they want to know and how they want to learn it, and so engaging audiences in shaping, what the experience is going to be, what parts of the story are most interesting.
Given all of the various topics that experts can choose to focus on, not abdicating our responsibility as museum professionals and experts, but integrating visitor voices into that decision making is a really important way in my opinion, that museums can stay relevant and make more important contributions to their community.
Bob : Are you encouraged by the cohorts you see coming through your classes, thinking in the context of the redefining of museums?
Judith : Absolutely. That tendency to want diverse opinions in any decision is much greater in my experience with the graduate students that I work with. The observation when diversity is lacking at the table, the desire to know what other people think before making a decision, the increased awareness of how a narrative thread might be received by other people is so much greater in this incoming museum professional cohort, that if I didn't feel such a strong sense of urgency, I could just sit back knowing that we're going to change in the long-term anyhow. I have complete confidence in future generations of museum professionals, but I am afraid that as they come into the field, it'll be a while until they’re in positions of power and influence, and it needs to happen more quickly. We don't have the time to wait for them to...
Bob : So maybe the greatest contribution BoomXer’s can make is to get out of the way, or facilitate a...
Judith : ...faster transfer. To bring those voices to the table. Yes, exactly!
Bob : To start to wrap up, what do you think the relevance of this conversation is to the generation of people that are in some respects, inclined to say it's not my problem?
Judith : Museums are a small and perhaps insignificant part of the world that we live in, unless you love them or work in them, but I hope that the BoomXer generations demand more of their public institutions in terms of transparency, in terms of asking challenging questions, and to consider taking an active role on the board of a local museum, or if you have the opportunity, of a large museum and really advancing these issues. How are we making a difference in our community? How would the world be different tomorrow if this museum disappeared? If there's no difference in people's day to day lives, if the museum disappears, then why are we continuing to fund these organizations? We really need to challenge the relevance and contribution of these types of cultural organizations and the contribution they're making to the health and well-being of our society.
"I hope that the BoomXer generations demand more of their public institutions in terms of transparency, in terms of asking challenging questions, and to consider taking an active role on the board of a local museum, or if you have the opportunity, of a large museum and really advancing these issues. How are we making a difference in our community? How would the world be different tomorrow if this museum disappeared?"
Bob : It sounds to me like a ‘use it or lose it’ time for our museums. It also seems clear that we have a unique set of competencies, unique legacies with these institutions where it would be just tragic beyond measure if we don't leverage those.
Judith : Yes. And a unique relationship with our communities. There are very few organizations that have that relationship of trust with their community. And I think we really need to leverage that in an important way.
Bob: On that note Judith, thanks very much for joining me today."
Here are some take-aways from my talk with Judith.
If it is needed at all, as a privileged white male, I was reminded of the powerful logic that the storyteller shapes the narrative, and that a “uni-vocal” perspective has left far too many fellow citizens not feeling any sense of ownership – or connection - in that narrative. If perhaps it can be said that our societies have evolved ‘too rapidly’ (whatever that might mean), it must be observed that museums have, as a whole, done little to make those citizens, as Judith said “feel like they’ve heard a new voice, or a new idea... honoured and welcomed in that space”.
But that is clearly changing. There is a growing sense that museums – as the catch-all descriptor for many types of institutions – are in a unique position to be catalysts of transformative change. Obviously this requires that the museum leadership first acknowledge that that’s their new job, that they are no longer stewards of artifacts, but rather – and vastly more importantly, they are stewards of democracy. That is Judith’s most compelling point – all else is a consequence of that.
Museums, it seems, are popular because of the powerfully unique position of trust they hold in their communities – certainly compared to the media, our schools, and the church. But it’s a decent assumption that in part, it’s because they have played it safe, they have not leveraged that position for fear of losing it. The fact is that they have no choice. In the midst of this historical pivot point, a time when so many existential issues must be dealt with simultaneously, it seems clear that the path they must chart lies in the promotion of multi-vocal truth-telling that unambiguously supports a set of tenets not unlike our own, or become, as Judith notes, nothing more than closets with old things in them.
However, we need to be honest too, in admitting that through history every village, town, city, state/province and country, every culture, every society, every religion, exists on the foundation of a narrative that is at the end of the day, a myth. We have seen that those myths reflected a reality that not enough people ever shared, and today are out-right rejected by too many. In quantum mechanics, we have learned that through the process of superposition, the same matter can exist in two or more states (even into the thousands) in parallel, simultaneously. Each a ‘true’ version of reality. Likewise, the challenge of the museum is to facilitate the development of new myths to unite and inspire citizens, while continuing to inform and educate them. In short, they must devise the social algorithm that is the equivalent of social superposition – where multiple truths exist within one reality.
It follows then, that as stewards of democracy 2.0 – very interested parties at that - they must suss out the infinity of connections between scientific enquiry and the client citizens science exists to serve. No alternative facts. Objective always, neutral never. That’s a tall bill to be sure.
If you’re listening to, or reading this, the likelihood is that you generally agree with my starting POV, an anchor assumption being that the cumulative number of existential issues that humanity faces must be successfully dealt with in 10, and certainly not more than 20 years. They must be addressed simultaneously, with the threat to democracy considered ‘issue zero’ - for none can be successfully managed in a world where truth is a currency that can be shaped and manipulated, bought and sold.
A sidenote here. I am by nature an optimist – anyone who believes in a world where the observance of something like our tenets by most or all is possible, or that real glory is found in human potential and the possibilities of a new Age of Wonder, has to be. But I visualize that noted bundle of existential issues as an asteroid, one large enough that it threatens to be an extinction level event - where the best case scenario is if it hits, the survivors share a very Hobbesian world with the cockroaches.
I used to put the odds of being hit by that metaphorical asteroid in 10 years at ‘just’ 20%. Now, depending on the news of the day, I’m volatile, sometimes thinking it’s more like 60%. But what if it was ‘just’ 5%? Even if the greatest optimist that ever lived, wouldn’t we all be committed to assure that we somehow avoid that asteroid? Though not a material, physical threat, neither is it abstract. I believe that we must address the threat as we would that asteroid. With a systemic, global response, where no resource is wanting.
I posit that there is no way that existing institutions, alone or in the aggregate have the capacity – or importantly, the mandates – to address these issues and hold themselves accountable for the addressing of these issues. Not at least before the asteroid hits. Instead, a civic mobilization of people and material support is required to take these issues on, systemically and globally, with a self-imposed 10-year deadline. And I believe, the cohort best suited to lead and facilitate this mobilization are the BoomXer’s.
If Elon Musk can raise many, many billions of dollars to one day colonize Mars (a vision I wholeheartedly support), I have to believe that there are people with the financial resources to fund a movement to assure that our world exists first for him to be able to do that.
In my first interview with Mike Wittenstein, we saw how Mike wanted to address the challenge of disinformation and fake news in a way that he understood, had expertise in, and could realistically impact. He wanted to target the leaders in the global advertising industry and challenge them to adopt and enforce a code of ethics to facilitate truth-telling in advertising and marketing. Likewise in my second interview with Stephen Hurley, we heard how Stephen wanted to target public school Principals and Vice Principals to be community leaders as opposed to chief administrators, integrating their institutions with the community to better prepare the future citizens we so desperately need.
In both instances, clearly defined choke-points were identified. Advertising agency and marketing execs on the one hand, and Principals and Vice Principals on the other. Is it too hard to imagine well-funded and co-ordinated citizen-led initiatives developing 10-year roadmaps to target and transform those cohorts, in a specific, measurable, attainable, relevant and timely manner?
Judith has presented us with a third challenge. We know the target audience is something like 100,000 institutions across the globe, from the smallest to the largest. She has challenged us to consider what a 10-year plan might look like to reach and transform the leadership of these institutions so that museums become themselves powerful drivers of social change, to leverage their awesome franchises to remake our societies, and facilitate the redefining of democracy and capitalism along the way.
The very well-funded forces supporting nationalist/populist agendas around the world, are clearly executing a co-ordinated long-view plan. In the US for example, anti-pluralist efforts are actively, and very successfully targeting chokepoint actors in the system, ensuring that locally elected positions from precinct captains to school board officials are seized and held by people they consider to be “their people”.
Perhaps our plan might be to target the smaller institutions, that as Judith points out “have an opportunity to demonstrate how this is done, to show that it can be successful to learn how to do this work in different ways, how to do museum work in different ways." I don’t find it impractical in the least to consider a scenario where 1,000 or 10,000 BoomXer’s committed themselves to a 10-year effort to transform the sector, starting with the smallest museums first.
It's only impractical if not well funded. And there is that asteroid.
So here's what I'd like you to do - for now.
First, click the 'follow' button wherever and however you are accessing this podcast – see the links at the bottom of all print postings.
Second, please share this podcast with as many of your friends, family, peers and colleagues as you can - and ask them to follow us.
Third, please engage in the community discussions on your preferred platform – on LinkedIn or at www.boombigideas.com, our new website. These discussions will help elevate and refine the big ideas and the challenges that have been issued.
Fourth, and perhaps most importantly, imagine a world where our museums function as Judith has proposed, repositioning themselves to be the enablers and facilitators of collaborative persuasion – of the vitally important multi-vocal discussions we need to have at so many levels. And imagine how you and your peers might leverage your years of experience, your time, your connections in a specific, measurable, accountable, relevant effort to reach – and influence - the Museum boards of directors, and the C-Suite leadership as challenged by Judith by 2035. To in some small, yet vital way, make the world better as only you can. The stakes could not be higher.
As Judith said, “I hope that the BoomXer generations demand more of their public institutions in terms of transparency, in terms of asking challenging questions, and to consider taking an active role... and really advancing these issues. How are we making a difference in our community? How would the world be different tomorrow? What if this museum disappeared?"
Let me be frank. My purpose with this podcast series is to see if we can mobilize a well-funded global civic effort that leverages the learnings of Leaders Expedition. We might call this new initiative LeadersX. If we want to redefine the role of the museum – and countless equally daunting initiatives like it simultaneously, I believe nothing less will or can work.
Sometime soon, I hope we will move from discussion and imagination to action - to connecting, empowering and mobilizing our uniquely positioned and powerful BoomXer community to transform the world we have made. Until then please reflect, engage and spread the word.
We broke it, let’s fix it.
To view all of our podcasts, visit www.boombigideas.com
Gail Lord, The Soft Power of Museums, https://softpower30.com/soft-power-museums, 2017