Museums in an Age of Despair

What is the role of the museum—and the workers in the field—in the post-repudiation-0f-everything-we-seem-to-hold-dear era?

Don’t give in

If you work in a museum, the title of this post is a no-brainer, but it is also part of the problem. While many in the museum field (and seemingly almost all of their friends) have been in fetal positions for the past week and a half, this isn’t universal — indeed, many of the audiences we say that we want to reach are those very people who voted for Trump. (Of course, many other people have been actively protesting or preparing to defend themselves.)

Museums may aspire to universal values, but have we practiced these values? Not just for the “basket of deplorables” that Hillary Clinton described, but for the marginalized people — audiences as well as colleagues — whom mainstream white liberalism hasn’t done well enough by? Museums are caught between the reaction last week and ongoing activism exemplified by #museumsrespondtoferguson and The Incluseum (see their resource list for more groups holding the feet of white art institutionalism to the fire). Neutral, middle-of-the-road, whatever — either way, museums risk being run over.

I don’t want to beat the drum (better than a dead horse) of empathy, but … shit, who am I kidding? It’s ALL about empathy, now. We have to get out from under our desks and walk in the shoes of colleagues we have marginalized (and start with the parts of the museum staff — often non-white — who have felt the brunt of job actions, and not the curator who feels threatened by tech-driven disintermediation), the audiences whom we haven’t made feel welcome in our institutions, and yes, even the Trump voter about whom we’ve read so much but never seem to have met outside of awkward family gatherings.

This doesn’t mean we let ourselves — and especially those more vulnerable than us — be abused by the victory-lap-takers. But we need to think about those we want to disown or write off — family members, people in our neighborhoods or cities who might have surprised us with their vote (in New York, for instance, consider religiously devout sections of Queens and Brooklyn), the “flyover” denizens in the electorally red counties and towns (especially in supposedly blue states), all those the people outside the New York Times/New Yorker/NPR axis of nice-person elitism. What are museums doing to reach these people? We aim to inspire some percentage of the usually-bored student visitors; do we have a similar purpose for Trump voters or non-voters?

Of course racism and misogyny and white-male-cis-worship-by-way-of-resentment-and-self-pity are wrong. The question isn’t “was the election a result of that” (we could debate that forever) as much as “are *we* in the museum field as free from these prejudices as we think we are?” followed by “what are we doing about it?” There has been as much finger-pointing this past week as there was back-slapping eight years ago, but are the NYT/NY/NPR followers a cause or a corollary of these outcomes? Are we in our limestone-and-glass edifices already thinking of the bright side? (Lower taxes on the wealthy? No more Obamacare “Cadillac Tax” on our high-end health plans? A Wall-Street driven boomlet in the stock market?) Or are we thinking that when we take our next vacation to somewhere warm and exotic which we can afford to travel to, that we might just stay?

New Zealand was considered a top fleeing-Trump destination

There’s no shortage of analysis or suggestions as to what individuals can do now. Getting news outside social media feeds seems a good start (assuming, of course, that people really want news that challenges them). Being real allies to those under physical threat seems better. (My friend Jon Schwarz of has a great piece about next steps.)

But what about us who work in museums? How do we bring together art (often paid for by elite means) and the public (many of whom are the people we have felt threatened by) in the service of education (which might be denigrated under the new administration) in the arts (ditto)? Do we try to stay neutral (if there is such a thing anymore) or become active for values which we interpret as being inherent in our mission and woven into the fabric of our humanity? Do we confront and make uncomfortable those we perceive to be ascendant (though I imagine non-whites have a little something to say about a so-called sudden ascendancy of white supremacism), or focus on refuge and retreat? Can a single institution do several of these things? Can multiple institutions occupy a gamut of responses? Or do museums have to look out for ourselves in increasingly uncertain times? (This is one good article: Crafting courageous truths: The creation and philosophy of MASS Action: Museum As Site for Social Action. Another museum-focused statement from the Alliance of American Museums is here: “Key Takeaways from Election Day 2016: What it means for museums, and how you can support museums today”.)

I wonder if other cultures who felt at the precipice of a civilization-wide moment of fear and uncertainty (or victory and culture-war) asked these questions? Did Romans in 410 B.C.E. ask, so what now? France in 1940 is a closer, better-documented case, and the results aren’t always encouraging.

If there was ever a time to put aside internal culture wars inside the institution, it is now. If there was ever a time to be experimental and open, welcoming and thought-provoking, it is now. If there was ever a time to say to our trustees, we need a budget to become the museum our nation and civilization needs, it is now. If there was ever a time to say to our younger staff, we want you to feel like you can speak and act, and we will learn from you, and maybe it won’t be the perfect message but we will stand behind you, it is now. If there was ever a time to say to our non-white-cis-het staff and audiences and communities, “What can we do? You lead and we will follow and have your back and tell our own socioeconomic cohort that the problem is ours,” it is now. Because no one now has the luxury of despair.

[Postscript: This article also appears on my website, and after it went live there this past weekend I wavered about rewriting it to reflect what seemed to be some complexities in the narrative about the election: namely, was the white working-class turnout for Trump really, as I implied, a matter of the reaction of a white supremacist power structure? There has been no shortage of articles with the theme that the WWC who voted Trump did so out of economic desperation, a last-ditch attempt to save their communities by siding with the only candidate who seemed to address them directly (here’s one, but there are, like, billions). The Trump supporters — and these articles almost always asked those who’d voted for Obama, or at least not a Republican, in past elections, claimed not to be acting from racism. So was I being harsh and judgmental? Maybe so, but, again, to borrow a page from the empathetic playbook, the communities these people are picturing are communities made up almost exclusively of people like them. White supremacy is America- and Western-civilization-wide, and we’ve had a failure of progressive politicians (indeed, all white progressives) to make a case for inclusion and to address the economic decline of many parts of the nation. And unless Trump has a few thousand factories stashed in a black hole or gate-to-an-alternate-reality somewhere, it’s collective action and not empty industrial promises that are going to restore health to these communities. Or, as Design Thinking would say, we need to respond to claims of economic dissatisfaction with “yes, and … (white power structure)” and not “no, but (racism).”

A second point from my post which I was unsure about had to do with inclusion in the museum field. I used language that took for granted that museums were white-cis-het places and that **we** needed to engage with others to make for a better world. That’s not true; there are many non-white-cis-het museum professionals fighting on the inside for inclusion on behalf of our workers and our audiences. But the numbers demonstrate how far this has to go just within the museum field; again, whites in the museum have to fight, first of all, the power structure which benefits them most of all.

Thank you for reading. As always, please comment or tweet any responses my way.]

I write about the culture inside cultural organizations. I also blog as Museum Human at

I write about the culture inside cultural organizations. I also blog as Museum Human at