Societal Issues and Museums

As the role of museums has shifted toward a more engaging and participatory experience for visitors, there is an opportunity for museums to address societal issues in their content. As institutions of public education, it is essential for museums to address these issues, not only to remain relevant but also to ideally have an influence on civic engagement.

The International Coalition of Sites of Conscience is an alliance dedicated to “activating the power of places of memory to engage the public in connecting past and present in order to envision and shape a more just and humane future”. Drew Radke works for the Coalition and describes one of their programs called Front Page Dialogue that frames discussion on key societal issues. The four phases of this dialogue promote sharing of stories, building community, and reflecting on the overall experience. Not only does this program effectively promote dialogue on societal issues, but it also establishes the participating sites as safe spaces to have these conversations.  The experience is very structured with the use of facilitators and organized activities, which is important when dealing with sensitive topics and heightened emotions. These methods could be applied to many controversial social topics, such as vaccines, and could possibly alleviate some of the controversy.  Including science educators could help to better connect scientists and the public.

No matter the topic, productive dialogue is a significant first step. By telling and hearing these narratives, one may be more apt to be passionate about these issues and act on them.

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10 Responses to Societal Issues and Museums

  1. Anna says:

    Narratives definitely make complex issues more accessible. I’m curious how we could use narratives of long past events to create discussion around new issues?

    • welceq51 says:

      History repeats itself, because humans have this odd habit of not learning from it. Just like using tuberculosis to talk about aids, we could find past narratives (such as women’s suffrage) to talk about contemporary problems (such as the politicization of women’s reproductive rights). From a historic standpoint, no issue is really a new issue, just a twisted version of an old problem. We, as museum professionals, simply have to find the old issue.

  2. shaual96 says:

    One of the really cool things that you touch upon is the ability for informal science educators reaching out to scientists to inform discussion. By creating these safe places and by bringing in professionals, we’re more apt to see discussion based on fact, not so much opinion. Since we read a lot about how parents see scientists as “just one more opinion”, this would be extremely useful.

  3. jehartman93 says:

    Love this! ALL museums should designate themselves places where visitors can respectfully and insightfully explore contemporary issues of injustice and poverty. I agree with ICSC and believe that more museums should teach empathy as a bridge-building tool, and facilitate constructive dialogue on thorny problems that are plaguing society.

  4. peteglog says:

    Should museums be biased in their exhibits? I do not think so, when discussing topics that are emotional and may be polarized, museums should keep to the facts and act as facilitators for conversation.

  5. lucega96 says:

    Great post! We discussed the International Coalition of Sites of Conscious in Migration and Community. Will really emphasized the role of sites as “safe spaces” for dialogue which you’ve mentioned as well. I think it is so important that museums can serve as these “safe spaces” where people can go, be inspired to engage in dialogue, and then feel comfortable enough to contribute and share with one another.

  6. corwhe56 says:

    I absolutely agree that museums can utilize narratives in order to talk about complex issues. My thought is how much advocacy can the museum participate in? Or is it the museum’s responsibility to simply present the factual information and let the visitor decide?

  7. peytonktracy says:

    This system of sharing narratives is an excellent tool for alleviating confusion, fear or tension around a subject, controversial or not. How many of us have asked friends or family for help during an issue in our own lives and had our fear or confusion cleared up by talking to them? I think the challenging part comes from creating a dialogue that clears up the confusion rather than turning into an angry debate or only wallows in the confusion. That responsibility I suppose lies in the dialogue facilitators (i.e. us?)

  8. armok59 says:

    I love the idea of using these methods to connect scientists, educators, and the public. I would really like to address further the role that science museums can play in addressing social issues.

  9. scalje70 says:

    Exhibits that spark conversation between visitors are ones that have the most value. I think by starting a conversation, more ideas and thoughts will be explored, and our modern societal issues will be addressed more often.

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