Vanguard of Discussion: Museums and Social Issues

If you ask the public to identify an entity that is attempting to address social issues in America, many individuals will likely reply that they feel lobbyists or protesters are the ones most actively involved in discussing these problems. Unfortunately, many people do not think about museums as institutions capable of implementing, or even discussing, social change. Given the great amount of trust the public places in museums, however, it becomes clear that these great cultural institutions can be leaders in aiding the public’s understanding of this nation’s many social problems.

When asked if museums could serve as a location for discussing social issues, Sarah Pharaon, the Senior Director of Methodology and Practice at the International Coalition of Sites of Conscience, replied that museums are the perfect place for doing so. While museums have the capability to discuss all issues, Sarah stated some topics, such as the debate surrounding gun rights, need to be handled tactfully.

A proven way of dealing with delicate issues is through allegory. Looking at how American society treated individuals with Tuberculosis is a classic example of the use of allegory in order to address a sensitive subject. By looking at the irrational actions taken against infected individuals by American society, museums can examine this historic example to help the public make connections to the similar ways people have reacted to more contemporary issues such as the 1990s HIV/AIDS panic.  Given their roles as forums, museums are ideally suited to serve as the vanguard for addressing social issues.  

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25 Responses to Vanguard of Discussion: Museums and Social Issues

  1. emerbr84 says:

    As a forum museums offer a more informed space to discuss tough issues without a threat of attack on opinions.

  2. karissa430 says:

    I think it’s interesting to think about how museums can address social issues. From our discussion in class, it appears we all agree museums should at least address these social issues. But should museums go beyond that? Should museums be advocates for social change? Should museums take a stance on social issues? Or should they strive to be unbiased and only present the “facts”?

    • thankyouluke says:

      That is an excellent question! I personally believe museums SHOULD take a stand on social issues,and can do so through the presentation of facts. Take global climate change, for example. I believe (and this is only my interpretation) that if a museum were to only present the facts of global climate change, the prospects for social, ecological, and economic devastation that will result, without calling for action, the experience would feel “hollow”. That being said, I do NOT think museums should involve themselves in political debates (even though some political parties almost always wrong *cough cough*.)

    • kiewma93 says:

      I believe museums should take a stand on social issues; however, I believe it should coordinate with their mission and that they should think long and hard before choosing a position. Some topics are to sensitive to choose a side right away. Like Sarah’s example of gun control, a museum could alienate the community it serves by choosing a different side.

  3. varljt75 says:

    Good choice of interviewee, Sites of Conscience are nothing but tough issues.

  4. thankyouluke says:

    Thank you! Gretchen recommended Sarah. She was very inspirational!

  5. peteglog says:

    What role does timing play in discussion? If time is thought of as a tool and not an obstacle for talking about issues in society. As time passes, we are distanced from events and may become less aware of them. What amount of time should a museum give an issue before bringing it up directly? Of course, museums can indirectly have forums about current events using allegories as was mentioned above.

    • thankyouluke says:

      I am really torn on this issue. Gretchen and Sarah both have really good points. On the one hand, interpretation of some events might strike people as insensitive. On the other, is ignoring these the events fair to the victims of them? I can see both sides, but I typically lean towards sensitive interpretation.

  6. at01lang says:

    I feel museums could not avoid taking some sort of a stand on a significant social or cultural issue: any time an exhibit is produced, certain objects displayed and others not, and a decision on how the public will be involved, the museum is presenting a point of view. It stands to reason such considerations would affect some sort of stance on this particular content.

    Where museums can and should have value is how this stance is taken. When people think who is attempting to address social issues in America, their thinking may inevitably revert to how so many social issues and present-day events are understood and covered. Thoughts of politicians or lobbyists leading these charges only reminds us of how politicized and partisan things become, where issues are understood in terms of strategic value, ability to elevate one side and take down another, or sheer volume. There is a tendency among the commentators of today, the shapers of public opinion, to avoid any substantive discussion of the ideas behind these issues.

    That is the role of the museum. As an institution, it undoubtedly takes some sort of stand, but in doing so, it discusses the idea behind it. It looks at the history, affecting factors, and places it in its larger context, father than raising it to a fever pitch in a isolated bubble of bluster. The quality museum looks at whatever it does substantively, educating and providing people with enough to make their own understanding. Thus, they are an ideal and proper public forum.

    • thankyouluke says:

      And that is the beauty of it. Even if a museum is taking a stand, it is allowing for open discussion. The very meaning of a forum is a place of open discussion. I think, regardless of the sand a museum does or does not take, the forum should be open to all to discuss all sides of an issue. Does that make sense?

  7. kwebberj says:

    I love the example of gun rights as an issue museums could address–it broadens my own conception of the museum’s role in society. Although tackling controversial public policy is bound to alienate a portion of the museum’s potential audience, it is critical to placing the museum at the center of community dialogue (the ‘forum’ that has already been mentioned in this comment thread).

    • thankyouluke says:

      I couldn’t agree more, Kate. Ideally, a forum should allow for open and fair discussion for all sides of a debate. I agree with you though. I think some would feel alienated from the museum if such issues were addressed. However, if a community needs to address issues such as gun rights, marriage equality, or any other topic, it is the responsibility of a museum to provide the environment to facilitate this.

  8. saraumland says:

    Until I started here at CGP, I admit that I never really thought of museums as advocates on social or cultural issues. Looking at museums as lobbyists or protesters for issues opens my eyes to what museums can do for issues we face in society today. The tough question here though is that not everyone is going have an awesome education at CGP and see museums as places of advocacy; so how do we get the people around us to them as such places that bring light to problems in the world and advocate for change?

    • thankyouluke says:

      You’re right Sara. That’s why we, as museum professionals, have to advocate for museums as places to advocate change! By spreading what we have learned to others, hopefully we can start a movement!

  9. pnorman02 says:

    In addition to exhibitions, I think educational programming is another great tool museums can use to start social change and create dialogue. Like we learned at the FDR Library, it is important to bridge that gap in some way. By using an issue of the past to talk about an issue of today, you have a much easier time dealing with controversial issues and the timing Peter talks about.

    • thankyouluke says:

      Exactly! I think Education and Exhibitions go hand and hand for making museums the wonderful places they (can) be. One powerful exhibit or one powerful program really can make an enormous impact, especially when you relate it to the present!

  10. juliafell17 says:

    I think that often times museums sort of tacitly invite discussion on controversial topics with what extra materials, like books, that they might have for sale. Someone who wanted to seek out more knowledge could probably find what they’re looking for there, although what opinions, and the variety of said opinions, that the museum might choose to publish or sell could vary greatly.

    No matter what is available for those who actively seek it out, however, I think museums have a lot of opportunity to advertise discussion and invite a much larger amount of people in to actively talk about what they see. Holding public lectures or even debates based in the topic of a special exhibition could be wonderful way to welcome new visitors and stimulate educated thought.

    Controversy is always tricky, and an exhibit itself might need to err on the side of caution, but I do think that special events are an opportunity to state opinions, and respectfully debate over hot topics. And naturally the advertisement for these events needs to be well-distributed in order for it to be fully effective!

  11. kiewma93 says:

    I love the idea of gun control as an issue too sensitive for museums. If a museum in Texas, for example, decides to back gun control legislation it will likely alienate the community it serves. Adversely, if it took the side of the NRA it would alienate the other side, but keep it’s core constituents. A lot of thought and evaluation must be done before an institution can back one side or another. Does the issue reflect core values and the museum’s mission? Have all sides of the issue been objectively examined? Will the employees of the museum also agree with the position?

    • thankyouluke says:

      All excellent points! Caution is key and I agree 100%! BUT I sincerely believe that if museums can use enough tact, they can address any issue! Hot button issues are hot button because there is a need to address them!

  12. hoffsm90 says:

    Some really great comments and discussion. Controversial topics can be scary to try to tackle as museums out of fear of backlash or even alienation of certain people. However, museums need to weigh in on these issues, even if it’s not overtly done. Someone mentioned education and programming which is a great idea. In our science classes, we’ve discussed multiple times about talking controversial scientific topics like climate change and evolution. Addressing these and even more controversial that tackle social justice issues can be difficult but it’s our duty to open communication on these topics.

    • thankyouluke says:

      YES! Again, tact is the key, I think. Even if it is SUPER subtle, for example addressing TB as an allegory for HIV, you the museum is helping to get the gears turning so to speak. I think subtly is wonderful, because the museum is helping people reach their own (hopefully thought-out) conclusions.

  13. mickcr says:

    I don’t like to think that people don’t think museums can be an instrument for social change, maybe that is just the emerging museum professional in me. I would hope that museums can take controversial issues and address them with tact, and using problems that have occurred in the past as a tool of comparison is a great way to do so.

    • thankyouluke says:

      I don’t like to think that either, but I have seen it before. As a matter of fact, I used to think that most museums were just around to preserve history. I agree with you on museums using lessons of the past however. I feel that allegory is a powerful, yet gentle, way of providing people with facts while also aiding them in reaching their own conclusions.

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