TrendsWatch 2016

The big brains at the AAM’s Center for the Future of Museums have released this years’ Trendswatch. These trendswatch reports identify emergent, um, trends that will shape society in the next decade or so, and consider how they might effect both museum operations and the place of museums in our communities.

This year Trendswatch examines things that it deems reflective of the shifting nature of identity in modern western cultures. As we shift from work, for instance, defined by long tenures in 9-5 jobs to a “gig economy” defined by freelancing, variable work hours, and low pay, museums should respond by being intentional about paying living wages and by adjusting schedules for openings and programming to accommodate non-traditional work patterns. Elsewhere, as society redefines disability to being merely different, universal design techniques will need to be expanded to make accessibility more capacious. This years’ Trendswatch also considers how Augmented and Virtual Reality will expand the range of human experience, and how museums may prepare for visitors whose lives are enhanced by haptic clothing and Transhuman apparatus.

Of interest to me, of course, is the chapter that touches on issues of controversial (i.e., Confederate) artifacts and issues of representation in museums. I do not believe there is anything new regarding the politics of display here, but the way CFM frames the matter of Confederate stuff and its representation is useful only because it gets us slightly outside of our own silo that sees this debate at the end of a historiographic braid of reconstruction, reconciliation, Civil Rights, and memory.

CFM sees a larger breakdown of binary categories in racial and sexual/gender classifications into a variety of spectrums. Gender is no longer limited to male and female, and racial categorization (at least on census reporting) encompasses more complex categories that acknowledge mixed parentage and choices for self-identification. This fracturing of identity accelerates the urgency to make claims for establishing identity through representation. Of course, cultural objects as sites of power through representation is old. What is new? “The rise of social media has changed the dynamics of these conversations, both accelerating change and amplifying conflict.” (33) And because of the sheer multiplicity of voices vying to shape new identities, complexities and conflict will emerge over who has a right to speak for who? Again, as the decolonization of western museums is almost old news at this point, this is nothing new here except the recognition that the dialog is amplified, accelerated, unimaginably complex and a permanent feature of contemporary cultural conversations. Because museums are traditional repositories meaning and identity, they will only continue to be one focus of attention in a larger process of social transformation.

What does CFM recommend? In this moment of heightened cultural tensions, “museums are being called to act as cultural hazmat teams.” But what that actually means, CFM acknowledges, is unclear. “Do people want museums to serve as explosion-proof vaults to volatile social issues? Or do they want museums to bury offensive objects in collections storage, out of sight and out of mind? Or (optimistically), do people trust museums to foster productive debate, dialog and reconciliation?”

I suppose it is well that they do not endorse any particular direction (even though AAM literature since 2001 has leaned toward the later prescription. Here is a sophisticated argument for the former.) That’s a question that must be asked and answered of the communities in which museums reside and of which they represent.

CFM offers generic, if more practical, steps that might be summed up as, do some critical self-examination, do not be afraid to seek and hear criticism from the outside, and plan intentionally to engage in difficult discussions. For instance, “take a fresh look a [your museum’s] own environment and the overt and subtle signals [it] might send about the categories in which they place visitors, potentially signaling who is welcome and not welcome.” CFM might be thinking about the presence of gender-neutral restrooms, but I’m thinking about how you present that Confederate flag at your site. Also, be aware that diversities of opinion will likely mean you will be criticized. Don’t let that prevent you from acting.

I particularly like this prescription:

“Realize that people will experience the museum in the context of their own identity and concerns. Guided by its mission, a museum may focus on the aesthetic or scientific meaning of an object—but others may view these collections through eh lens of culture and history. How can museums acknowledge these perspectives?” [my emphasis.]

This is basic constructivist museum stuff. But that final question forces us to consider how we get past the desire to compress multiple points of view into a consensus narrative of history, and allow antagonistic voices to be represented without qualification.

What do you think?

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