Monday, 22 June 2015
Community Engagement and Social Action
By Susan Burrows-Johnson, Galt Museum & Archives
As a museum worker, I have been confused and concerned about the entanglement of social issues and community engagement in museums. The current literature on the future of museums directs workers to participate in the community to seek remedies for injustice and troubles. Following this strategy is full of perceived risks such as mission-drift, loss of financial support, a threat to scholarship, and insulting activists while museums join an unsolvable civil society challenge.
Tangling participation and social issues together as a strategy makes the prediction of the outcome feel difficult and dangerous. It seems easier to understand when the museums’ actions are described on two axis. A more explicit description of where a museum, exhibit, or program chooses to be can be plotted in relationship to the two choices.
Community engagement is on a continuum of “little interaction” to “a great deal of community two-way participation”. At one end, the museum is very self-contained. In the middle of the continuum, the museum seeks the community’s advice. The far end of the continuum has the museum in a two-way, power-sharing relationship with the community.
A social action continuum moves from "not being a change agent" to seeking "a particular change or justice" in the community. This museum continuum is, at one end, object-focus to the other end of social issues focus.
The choice seems clear as we position a museum, exhibit, or program with these characteristics. The lower left quadrant might be a traditional small museum, focused on putting objects on display and telling their stories. This museum does not ask for advice, nor power-share with the community. The upper left quadrant is a museum choosing to seek a social change without the community’s input. The museum does the research and makes the conclusion that change is required.
Museums (or exhibits / programs) that choose to engage the community are in the two quadrants on the right. The lower right quadrant would hold programs or exhibits that invite community participation in delivering the museum’s mission. A museum in this quadrant will seek advice and participation without addressing social issues. The upper right quadrant contains the museum, programs or exhibits that actively seek to deliver a social change sought by the community. Power and control is shared with the community.
To map the choice around the levels of engagement and social change can provide more understanding and control over the perceived risks. By clarifying, we can guide our institutions to the relevant, useful purposes we intend rather than rejecting any tools that might help us create public value.