Museums and Structural Change

How does change happen, and why?

The Authors

Suse Cairns: Suse is an Australian museum geek living in Baltimore. She is a reformed podcaster at, and she blogs at Since moving to Baltimore in 2014, Suse has fallen in love with the city she now calls home. You should visit her there one day.

nikhil trivedi: nikhil is an application developer at a museum in Chicago where he develops web-based software in Java, PHP and Drupal. After hours, he’s a volunteer educator for Rape Victim Advocates, and participates in movements to end oppression. He’s a regular contributor at The Incluseum, and his writing has been featured in Model View Culture and Fwd: Museums. He is co-creator of, you can visit his website at, or follow him on Twitter at nikhiltri.

A photo of the handwritten card nikhil wrote to Suse. It rests on a wooden table and Suse’s hand is seen holding it flat.

nikhil to Suse: June 13, 2016

Hey Suse,

I write to you the day after the mass shooting in a gay Orlando night club. I intended to write to you last night, but my heart was too broken, terrified and enraged to put my words down on paper.

I intended to ask you what your thoughts were on what structural change in museums might look like. But after yesterday, I’m feeling so dejected. What’s the point of thinking about change in museums? What’s the point of museums at all in a world where we can’t be safe in any of our sanctuaries?

I’m beyond words right now. I can’t believe we live in a world where we have been killing each other en masse for centuries. Primarily black and brown people, but really, everyone who has ever lived in the margins of what those in power defined as “normal.” I can’t even.

I’m kind of a hot mess right now, but I’ll try. Let me first just say: I care about you. I value our friendship so much. When you asked me to join you in dialogue, I was so excited mostly because it’s another chance to talk to you. To hear your smart, caring, thoughtful thinking, and improve my own. My heart is heavy and swollen right now, I just need you to know that.

Let’s agree on some guidelines for our conversation. You and I both bring our own perspectives to the conversation informed by our life experiences. I don’t want us to hold expectations on ourselves that if we talk about things like white supremacy, male supremacy, ableism, oppression, that we’ll be speaking for all people of any particular group. No one group is homogenous, so let us not expect to speak for all experiences, but let’s be explicitly personal and speak from our own experiences. I’d like us to explore our work in and thoughts about institutions, from day-to-day operations to museums as parts of our society at large. Please let me know if you find these guidelines agreeable, and if you have anything to add.

A printed out image that rests on a wooden table, that shows lines of where it was folded in the mail. The image shows Grace Lee Boggs in the background with text over it that reads: “A revolution that is based on the people exercising their creativity in the midst of devastation is one of the great historical contributions of humankind.” –Grace Lee Boggs #wcw / #wearyourvoice /

So, about change. The Orlando shooting has me thinking about how so many parts of our societies can trace their roots back to awful, traumatic histories. Violent homophobia and rape culture are rooted in a long history of patriarchy and male domination. Our modern police system has roots in the surveillance of slaves. Our modern immigration system has roots in the (re)moving of black and brown bodies to uphold racist systems of power. And many of our museums were funded off the exploitation of black and brown labor, and many of our collections only came together from the pillaging of indigenous peoples’ property around the world during awful periods of genocide, colonialism and war. So what’s the point of talking about change in museums if we’re not also talking about changing the many structures that came about from the same roots as our institutions? What is change in museums if it’s not aligned with the liberation of black, indigenous, people of color, queer, trans, working class, women, non-binary and differently abled people?

Given this context, I’d love to hear your thoughts: how does structural change happen? What prevents it? How do barriers play out day-to-day? For staff? For visitors?

With love,
❤ ❤ ❤

The letter that Suse sent nikhil tri-folded, sealed with a koala sticker. The letter sits on a wooden table.

Suse to nikhil: 8 September, 2016

Dear Nikhil

I have been carrying your letter for weeks. I carried it to Australia and back. It comes with me to work every day. I have written multiple replies to it. But each response has felt insufficient to the depth of sadness and frustration I felt within. How to talk about the nature of institutions in light of the Orlando shooting and have it be anything other than trite? Or a deflection? The words I have are not adequate for such overwhelming feelings, and lately it has felt more important to sit and pay attention than respond.

But speechlessness is not useful when engaged in conversation, and even less so when the outcome is intended to be a public or semi-public discussion. So please accept this late (and typed) letter, knowing that it will be a flawed attempt to capture or articulate some of the things I’ve been thinking about in recent months.

Before I start, I want to acknowledge that I cannot talk about what it means to grow up marginalised or as someone who feels mis- or underrepresented, nor can I imagine how it feels to have my History ignored or exploited to build institutions that exclude me. I have never had those experiences. Beyond that, there are dense, layered histories to be found in these issues that I do not fully know, nor understand. So, yes, I will seek to be personal in my responses, and draw upon the set of experiences I do have, rather than trying to speak for anyone else. More and more since living in the USA, I’m realising just how narrow my experiences of the world have been, and how little I can speak for the experiences of other people. It’s a humbling realisation.

In your letter, you left me with a series of questions: How does structural change happen? What prevents it? How do barriers play out day-to-day? For staff? For visitors? I’m going to start with those questions, because they are the areas of this discussion I am most familiar with. To answer them, it might be worthwhile to first consider the nature of institutions. I suspect it will help show why institutions can be hard to change (although change is not only eminently possible, it is necessary–even critical–to institutional survival).

Institutional theorist Andrew Schotter defines a social institution as:

A regularity in social behaviour that is agreed to by all members of society, specifies behaviour in specific recurrent situations, and is either self-policed or policed by some external authority.[1]

Institutions regulate behaviour and actions by offering systematic solution to social problems. At their heart, institutions are series of codified protocols for decision-making that come into existence over time in response to specific, repeatable problems. Institutions (such as marriage, or the law) allow us to short-cut the need for individual responses to social problems that are encountered frequently. For instance, standards regarding museum collections offer guidance to the problems of collections care and maintenance, and help ensure that objects are dependably managed carefully right across the sector.

You can probably already see where this gets problematic. The act of regulating behaviours attaches judgement and value to certain types of behaviours over others. Those values are then codified and normalised.

Equally troubling is that institutions tend to be interlinked, so the codes and systems of science or higher education, for instance, inform the codes and structures of museums. This means that institutions establish guidelines for dealing with social problems both within their own purview, but do so in ways that influence related institutions. This is one reason that systemic and systematic change can be so hard… it is rarely a single institution that needs to change, but many interlinked institutions.

Another challenge is that the institutional codification of cultures means that they are designed not to be influenced by individuals. Enshrined within institutional structures are traditions, established values, and persistent goals, which constricts the ability for individual people to change the institution. So with that in mind, how does structural change happen within institutions? When and how are institutions changed?

The top portion of the first page of Suse’s letter resting on a wooden table. It has a sad smiley face written on it near the words “sadness and frustration.” On the letter sits a black sticker with white text that reads “All painting is a kind of talking about life. — Romare Bearden REYNOLDAHOUSE.ORG.” A black pin also sits on the letter with white text that reads “EXCEED YOUR PROFESSION.”

In the last several years, some major public institutions have undergone huge changes. On June 27, 2015, for instance, same-sex marriage was made legal across the USA; an enormous, long overdue change for an institution that might once have seemed impenetrable to those left out of it. More recently, in June 2016, Britain voted to leave the European Union, prompting talk of a possible fracturing of the United Kingdom, and creating a great deal of uncertainty about the state of politics and the economy in Europe and around the world. Closer to home, it now appears that both sides of politics in the US are fraying under huge pressure from chunks of the population who have not felt heard within or recognised by the existing systems. These huge institutions, which might seem utterly impermeable, show signs of fracturing and massive change. So why does this happen?

The philosopher John Searle has done a lot of interesting work addressing the nature of institutions. One of his ideas is the notion that institutions are imbued with deontic powers­–­that is, powers associated with rights and responsibilities. Institutions are given certain rights whilst ever they can be understood to be meeting their responsibilities to their constituents. Think how this applies to the museum. We trust museums to take care of the objects and ideas of the present and the past in readiness for use into the future, and we give them rights over our objects, and our histories, so long as they meet their responsibilities to those objects, such as caring for them according to established or institutional standards and protocols, and to their publics. We make demands on the institution, but also give it unique privileges or entitlements over culture and its perpetuation.

That said, the rights and responsibilities that museums currently have are different from those it used to hold. Over time, our expectations about museums have shifted, and their institutional roles have changed, too. For instance, we now think that education and public engagement are core museum goals, but that was not always the case. New people bring new ideas and expectations to the institution. New social problems arise that need new solutions. The institution adapts to make sense of those needs.

Right now, there are lots of questions about the rights of the museum to keep and represent the histories and cultures of certain populations, particularly where those populations have been exploited by the institution. Lots of people (like you!) are examining the history and present of the museum and finding it wanting. As a result, I think we see the museum’s claims to legitimacy are coming under question. And it’s not just museums. There are lots of institutions that are having their deontic powers questioned. And this is in part where I think change comes from. When an institution’s legitimacy to carry out its responsibilities is examined and found wanting, the institution looks for new standards. It looks for alternate mechanisms to show that it is deserving of its rights.

That’s what I think is happening now. To prompt change in our institutions–to ensure that they meet their responsibilities to constituents who have been exploited or left out–then it is critical to show how the institution’s very legitimacy or authority is threatened should they fail to do so. These are the stakes we’re playing with.

The middle section of two pages of Suse’s letter. Some words are underlined and circled including “we,” “rights” and “hugely traumatic acts.” In the margin is hand-written “Who is “we?”” and a sad, teary smiley face.

I understand your despondence. When I first started studying institutions, I often felt defeated when considering how big and complex they are, with behaviours that are so deeply ingrained. Structural change is challenged by the density of interrelated institutions. It’s prevented by tradition and habits and history. It’s held back by the people who remain invested in (and rewarded by) its current systems. And, indeed, many of the institutions and structures we have, the behaviours that have become codified, have normalised hugely traumatic acts and histories. The realities of those situations are undeniable, and should not be ignored.

And yet, I am optimistic. I am optimistic because change is critical for institutional survival. Society does not stay the same, and the social problems that need fixing do not stay the same either. If we accept that the institutions that we’re involved with do and must change then it leaves room for hope that we can demand and make better institutions, with fairer structures. And I’m optimistic because many interlinked institutions are having their legitimacy questioned by many people, all at the same time. It makes this a ripe moment for change.

That might not be much, but it’s what I’ve got right now.

Nikhil, I will leave this here for now, acknowledging that in this too-brief foray, I have not even started to answer your questions of how barriers play out in institutions day-to-day. I’m interested in your take on that. You’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the marginalisation of visitors and staff in museums. How do you think these kinds of institutional frameworks shape the experiences of people who might be left out of certain codified or normalised cultures? How have your own experiences reflected these ideas? And do you think your experiences as a web developer dealing with standards and protocols in that space might prompt any other kinds of insight into changing established systems or frameworks of any kind?

Your friend and grateful correspondent


PS: I look forward to speaking with you each week for the next several, and then seeing you at MCN in November. It will be a lovely opportunity to pick up where the thoughts on paper leave off.

[1] Schotter, A. (1981). The economic theory of social institutions. Cambridge, London, New York, New Rochelle, Melbourne, Sydney, Cambridge University Press.

The front of the card nikhil sent Suse. It says “you’re awesome” in pink embossed stylized text.

nikhil to Suse: September 22, 2016

Hey Suse,

Thanks for your letter. My mind and my heart have been racing all year, and continues to as I’ve read headlines this week about Terence Crutcher, another Black person whose name I only know after his life was taken by law enforcement. This time because his car broke down. This just days after a South Asian man in New York was apprehended by police — wounded but alive — for setting off multiple bombs in and around the city, in a climate that’s been “hunting down” South and West Asian meeting a generic description. I can’t open up the articles, I can’t read the updates, I can’t look at screenshots of the video, let alone watch it. I just can’t. In an interview, Roxane Gay got to the core of how so many of us are feeling:

“It’s overwhelming to see what we are up against, to live in a world where too many people have their fingers on the triggers of guns aimed directly at black people. I don’t know what to do anymore. I don’t know how to allow myself to feel grief and outrage while also thinking about change. I don’t know how to believe change is possible when there is so much evidence to the contrary.”[1]

That’s where my mind and heart are right now, so it’s relieving to read your empathic words. And I find your optimism inspiring, so from under this weight I’ll try to continue our rich conversation about institutions.

The beginning of the letter nikhil sent Suse. It’s held up in front of a window looking out to trees on a sunny day.

But before I do, I want to share my appreciation of your humility in approaching our conversation. Your recognition that you can’t claim experiences that are simply not yours is important. But your words sound like you’re removing yourself from marginalized people entirely? I may not be reading that right, but I wonder if I might be so lovingly bold and ask about places in your life you have experienced some kind of marginalization. As a woman, have you not ever experienced mistreatment? As an immigrant to the United States, have you never felt like you just didn’t have all the information or resources? I would love, love, love for the answers to be “no,” but my sense is that’s not the case. We all live in varying degrees of privilege and domination every day, and I think we don’t allow space for our whole selves when we don’t recognize all the places that we’ve both been marginalized in our lives. I think it would be short-sighted of us to not acknowledge all the identities we bring to each other. They’re important aspects of ourselves, aspects of you that I value, and they certainly inform our perspectives in this conversation.

I appreciate your smart breakdown of institutions. I agree that it’s an important place to start, and it raises lots of questions for me. The words “all” and “we” are general red flags for me in discussions about people on varying sides of power and oppression. In Schotter’s definition of social institutions, he says institutions are agreed upon by “all members” of society, and you’ve already talked about how this can normalize, and indeed reward, oppressive behavior. But when you and I talk about the trust “we” give museums and the rights and responsibilities “we” give them, who exactly is the “we” that we’re talking about? I think in most cases when we dig into it, “we” is those who have historically held greater social power. And in the United States that’s usually been straight cisgendered owning-class white men. And I think that’s the crux of why institutions are failing today, including museums. Because they were bestowed trust and responsibility by the powerful, for the benefit of the powerful.

I think museums, for the most part, have always failed marginalized people. Partly because the shortcomings of institutions disproportionately effect marginalized people. For example, let’s look at the framing of institutions as systematic “solutions” to social “problems.” This framing will place those furthest from social norms as the biggest “problems,” without an engagement with how power and oppressions have shaped those very norms. The “problems” that police forces were put in place to solve have, from their inception, targeted Black people. The “problems” that marriage was trying to solve have, for many, normalized the domination of women. I think when we think about institutions as things that benefit “all people,” or as solutions to “problems,” we ignore how, in many ways, they are enforcers of larger systems of domination. This is what shapes the experiences of marginalized people with institutions, so it becomes more clear why so many of us are disengaged with them.

Another shortcoming of institutions is how they “allow us to short-cut the need for individual responses” in situations where individual responses are actually critical. In my volunteer work as an advocate for survivors of sexual assault I’ve seen so many ways that medical and legal institutions fail survivors precisely because they’re designed to provide formulated responses and eliminate individualized ones. I’ve also seen it with my own mother, a working class immigrant woman who was put through a number of surgeries over many years before she was finally diagnosed with Crohn’s Disease. Institutions aren’t set up to provide support that isn’t centered around overarching policy. Even though sometimes letting go of a policy and supporting people on an individual basis is exactly what we need.

A printout of a photograph nikhil mailed with his letter. It shows a sign propped up in the grass that reads “Stop killing Stop shooting Black lives matter ❤ ❤ ❤ ❤ ❤ ❤” A Chicago Police Department truck is seen parked on the street in the background. Photo by Sarah-Ji,

As organizing has built more power in marginalized communities, and social media has made our voices stronger, the failings of institutions and their fault lines are becoming more clear, as you point out. Given these fault lines, I like how you describe how structural change happens within the context of challenging deontic power. I’m reminded of the movie Selma, have you seen it? [It came out in theaters while my partner was pregnant, and we were avoiding watching anything that would cause us stress (instead, we watched the whole Gilmore Girls series while she was pregnant). So we didn’t watch it until much after all our friends saw it.] I’m reminded of all the conversations they showed between the President and Dr. King. As much as he may have wanted to, President Johnson didn’t feel he had the buy-in to pass transformative policy without the work of Dr. King organizing millions of people across the country to demand change. I think the places in our world we’ve seen structural change has been a result of years, often decades, of grassroots organizing shedding light on these fault lines, and institutional leaders having no choice but to move the change forward. We saw it with marriage equality, as you mentioned. We saw it with women’s suffrage, with the abolition of slavery, with the 40-hour work week. We’ll see it with the work of the #NoDAPL water protectors, with the work of trans and queer organizers, and I believe we’ll see it with all the work demanding the abolition of police and prisons in our country[2]. I think we can make comparisons here between museums as government institutions, and visitors as the people. As much as leaders of our institutions may want to change (and let’s be honest about the varying degrees that our leaders actually want change), it might be much more difficult to happen unless there are large, unsilencable demands by visitors and non-visitors interested in the future of our herstories. And in many cases, that’s already there. It’s what contributes to the feelings among museum workers that if we don’t change *now* we’ll be irrelevant. People are making demands of our institutions by asking questions that don’t have easy answers, demanding space in our galleries and on our walls, and by voting with their dollars by simply not coming. As museum workers, we’re in a unique position to hone our abilities to listen to these demands, and translate them into transformative change that we can push for from the inside.

But there certainly are barriers to change that play out in our institutions every day. I’ve been thinking lately about what Ryan Wong said at a public forum at MFA Boston regarding an exhibition that exoticized traditional Japanese clothing: “institutional racism means a lot of people looking at this and signing off on it.”[3] This dynamic in work culture isn’t unique to museums. I imagine it’s the same dynamic that allows newspapers to print really awful and misleading headlines for stories about violence. What is it that stops us from speaking up when something doesn’t sit right with us? What’s the barrier? Is it the pressure we put on ourselves to say it exactly right or not say it at all? Is it a fear of repercussions? Is it a fear of losing our relationships if we say something too different from the norm? Those are my reasons, and I imagine each of us have plenty of reasons of our own. But there are a lot of elephants in our rooms. What will it take for more of us to summon the bravery to speak out? It’s one of the most basic ways we can challenge institutional oppression in our museums. The world needs us to. Our institutions need us to. The people we love need us to!

The stamped corners of two brown envelopes that nikhil has mailed to Suse. They rest on a silver Mac keyboard with black keys.

I appreciate you asking how my experience as a developer might inform this conversation, I hadn’t considered it. Because of the rapid cycles in which software has been changing over the past few decades, largely driven by the quick pace that hardware has been changing, it’s become quite common for us to completely rewrite our systems. We take what we’ve learned, save only what makes sense to, throw everything else away and rewrite the rest. But nothing is really built from scratch anymore. Most new software relies heavily on frameworks built on top of one another over the past several decades. We plug in frameworks where it makes sense, and write the rest custom. With this model in mind, it would make sense to completely abolish institutions that just aren’t working anymore and create something new, like police, prisons, the two-party political system, and so forth. How do you think a model like this might work for institutions like museums?

With love,

PS, have I ever mentioned to you that I prefer my name spelled in all lower case? It’s not a big deal, just thought you should know!

Screenshot of Suse’s letter to nikhil in a Microsoft Word

Suse to nikhil: 5 October, 2016

Dear nikhil,

Thank you for your thoughtful letter. I appreciate your perspectives and questions, and recognise and know those same emotions: tiredness and exhaustion, sadness, and a yearning for hope.

It was interesting to read your observation that I had removed myself from the idea of being marginalised entirely. I think that’s probably true. The times that I have been on the margins in my life (whether personally or professionally), I’ve usually been able to draw strength from that boundaryness. I’ve often been able to use marginal positions as a way to carve out my own space. That is a kind of privilege, however… The cost of being on the margins in the times when I have been has rarely precluded the capacity to change or otherwise impact my circumstances. Those times on the outside often felt personal, rather than institutional. Because of that, I did not feel that those experiences belonged in this discussion.

I’m also not convinced–although we might disagree on this–that dwelling on personal pain is necessarily useful or helpful when thinking about changing systems and institutions, particularly since they’re designed not to respond to individual cases. This might be one reason why I’ve been struggling with a lot of the conversations within our sector about “institutional empathy.” I don’t know whether institutions, which provide shortcuts to action, can be empathetic. Empathy requires attention to the individual and their needs, and institutions seem antithetical to this. That said, I do believe you can create a culture of empathy within an organisation, but I do not know whether institutions as a type can be empathetic. It feels like it’s outside their nature. What do you think?

That said, one place where I am aware of my outsider status is as a temporary resident in the USA. My residency is tied to my job, so a loss of employment would also mean a loss my right to be here (I’d need to leave within ten days). This is a space in which I feel vulnerable and powerless. Such vulnerability impacts how I act (I consistently think about long-term implications of my actions), and makes me less willing to take risks. I have little control over whether I am allowed to remain here long term or not, and that leaves me feeling exposed. The institutions that relate to immigration in this country are not designed to protect me. I think it’s the first time I’ve experienced that kind of vulnerability.

In your letter, you asked, “What is it that stops us from speaking up when something doesn’t sit right with us?” I think fear and vulnerability plays a big role in that. The decision to put oneself out into the world, to speak up and stand visible, brings with it risks–some of which you articulated. I find it harder to take risks here in the US than in Australia, because my position feels more precarious and less guaranteed. I suspect it is particularly hard to take risks if you lack other forms of power, or if you don’t believe that the institutions that surround you will protect you. There is a relationship between risk and power, and it is easier to define risks (for yourself, or others) when you have power.

Last weekend, Matthew Desmond and Andrew V. Papachristos published a NYTimes piece titled, Why don’t you just call the cops? They were addressing a recently published study focusing on crime-related 911 calls in the wake of one of Milwaukee’s most publicized cases of police violence against an unarmed man. The study showed that:

residents of Milwaukee’s neighborhoods, especially residents of black neighborhoods, were far less likely to report crime to the police after Mr. Jude’s beating was reported in the press and the subsequent fallout shook the city.

I think this is an illustration of the point above… if do not believe that you will be protected by the institutions that surround you, you are less likely to trust them. 
 I suspect that relationship between risk and power applies to institutions, as well. Although institutions can often seem powerful, threats to institutional reproduction (the idea that the institution might not be able to replicate or remake itself over time) do make institutions vulnerable. One of the criticisms that I regularly hear about museums is that they’re risk-averse and overly conservative when it comes to change. That lack of willingness to take risks seems to imply a lack of faith in the institution’s own power to determine its survival. Think about those frequent questions we hear about the relevance of museums. If people working in museums weren’t worried about institutional reproduction, there wouldn’t be nearly so much hand-wringing about their identity or practice.

This becomes something we can draw upon when seeking or thinking about institutional change. One of the most prescient observations I’ve ever heard was that, “People don’t fear change, what they fear is loss.” Consider the fears that can come from changing existing and established practice… Museums can fear loss of audiences, loss of funding or stakeholder investment, damage to objects, reputation damage, loss of time or other resources, being overwhelmed, being called out in public, etc. The decision to go against known or established practice brings with it risk. Part of the argument for any form of institutional change, then, has to be a demonstration that the gains that will come from the change are more meaningful and significant than the potential losses. In other words, those seeking to change an institution have to show that the risk to the museum of not making the change to practice is more serious than the risks associated with moving forward and changing practice or the institution.

A photo of Suse’s letter printed out with sentences underlined and a sad face drawn in the margins.

Let’s add this idea to the one we spoke about in my last letter: that institutions need to demonstrate their legitimacy, or else they risk losing their deontic powers. To create change means demonstrating that the benefits gained from making that change outweigh the risks, and that failure to make the change will (or could) lead to possible loss of institutional rights and responsibilities. What do you think? Does this make sense? Some of the ideas above are thinking out loud, and I’d be interested in hearing if these ideas connect with you and the thinking you’ve been doing.

I haven’t yet spoken about some of the more immediate factors that affect change, like resources or staff investment in existing practices. I think we can go into those more in our next letters. But I do want to address something you raised in your last letter. You asked me about the “we” language of institutions, and observed that it immediately excludes people. I think you’re right, though I’m not sure I know how to communicate without using that kind of language. That said, I do think there is a fuzziness to the language that allows both for edge cases and commonalities. You and I can both talk about “museums” as kinds of things, even though we might have different ideas in our heads about what we’re speaking about. The language allows both of our realities to exist side-by-side, but also offers a shared starting place for social concepts.

You also asked me to imagine abolishing our institutions in order to allow us to start again. I’m honestly not sure that I can. We have lived with these institutions long enough that they will inform our thinking even if we were to seek to replace them with something else. I attended a talk between artist James Turrell and architect David Adjaye on Monday, in which Adjaye reminded us that, “The past isn’t finished. It’s continuous.” We cannot leave our pasts behind. Not only to they give shape to our presents, they are usually still present with us. More realistic, then, to ask how to remake and reshape our existing institutions than to tear them down altogether.

Your friend and grateful correspondent.


PS: I wanted to share a quote from a lovely blog post I recently read, in which Jennifer Rosen-Heinz shared a letter that Hillary Clinton sent to her young daughter. In it, Clinton writes (emphasis mine):

“I know it may seem like a lot now, but as you grow and learn and search for your own place in the world, I hope you’ll consider how you can make your voice heard. Speak your mind in your classes and at meetings once you have a job. Proudly take credit for your ideas. Have confidence in the value of your contributions. And if the space you’re in doesn’t have room for your voice, don’t be afraid to carve out a space of your own.

There is power to make change both from inside institutions and outside them. There is power in all positions. We can all play a role in making fairer and better systems.

The front of the card nikhil sent Suse. It says “hello” in dashed cursive embossed text. A paper airplane was embossed at the right that may have just flown the path of the word.

nikhil to Suse: October 25, 2016

Hey Suse,

How are you? I’ve been traveling for conferences and have been thinking a lot about the ideas and questions you’ve brought up. You’re such a good writer. I hope to return my thoughts to you with nearly as much clarity.

The more I simmer on our conversation, the more I realize that structural change is ultimately a process of healing. Our museums have borne witness to some really awful things in their time, and have indeed participated in and benefitted from some of them. As museum workers and as visitors, even if we don’t think about this consciously, many of us feel this viscerally when we walk into our buildings. I’m realizing that this is a type of retraumatization. A reremembering of a past that we know happened, but aren’t quite sure of the details (though sometimes, we are). These are collective hurts. I wonder if meaningful transformation of our institutions can’t happen unless healing is a central part of that change.

So it’s hard for me to separate the personal from the institutional. I think the two are deeply connected. Although institutions may be designed not to respond to individual cases, they have always impacted individual people. Often in significant ways. That’s why I keep bringing up examples of how various institutions have affected me personally and the people I’m close to. As we focus on the actions of institutions, how can we separate them from the personal impacts that they have? I don’t think I can, because I see structural change as a process of healing for myself, my peers, my elders, my ancestors, and all the people who have been hurt by them. (Well, I should say hurt by *us*. As a museum worker I should take responsibility for working in and personally benefitting from institutions, while I simultaneously lay claim and identify with ways they have hurt my communities.)

In order to do this work, I think we first have to decide that harm has been done, recognize that there are tangible ways that we were/are affected by it, and make an active commitment to heal. To borrow a framework from the anti-sexual violence movement, “deep healing only happens when you choose it and are willing to change yourself.”[1]

An illustration of a plant with many small green leaves and small white and yellow flowers. Around the plant are vignettes showing various stages of the flower in bloom. There are a few words next to each vignette that can be read in any order that read: “1. healing 2. is not linear 3. grief 4. has 5. no deadline 6. you are not broken 7. your ancestors 8. have carried you 9. through anxiety 10. and worry 11. 12. your body 13. remembers 14. and its possible to feel that way again.” In the top right the illustration is titled “Reminders” and at the bottom reads: “Healing Together Network Gathering, Allied Media Conference. Detroit, MI 2013. words by Fabian Romero art by TextaQueen”

Once decided, structural change as healing can look a lot of different ways. It’s not a linear process, and it will certainly be different for each organization. (Healing is less effective when it’s institutionalized.)

One possible way healing at an institutional level might look is as a process of accountability. It would require us to be radically honesty with ourselves about our pasts in order to gain a clearer understanding of what has happened and how it has affected ourselves and others. With a clear understanding, then we can consider and think about what forms of apology might look like.

I feel this is internal work done with a vision towards our long-term futures. Work with an intention of healing is done without expectations of deliverables, or a clear idea of what the final outcome will look like. And that’s hard to jump into. But when we as individuals do any form of therapy — physical, emotional, and so forth — it’s hard to meet expectations that we might have at the outset. That’s not really how healing works. I think the same mentality needs to be held with this work at an institutional level.

I like the model you laid out of the benefits and risks of change versus the potential loss of not changing, but I’m having a hard time quantifying healing in this way. Maybe the benefits include richer, more honest visitor experiences, a greater sense of satisfaction in our work as museum workers, stronger relationships with the communities we serve, or greater trust with our visitors. If I tried to quantify the benefits using Max Anderson’s model of talking about tech[2], I wonder if benefits might be bigger crowds in the form of more communities engaging more deeply with our institutions in larger numbers, and greater buzz about our institutions as they break from traditional forms of operating, and as wider groups of people talk about those changes. The risks are that we maintain the status quo, and all the losses that come with in. (Many people have already spoken eloquently about why our current state is a problem. Colleen Dilenschneider does a great job of making the business case[3]. And these reflections[4] on the current exhibition at CAMST do a good job, too).

Your example of your interaction with immigration is striking. I think that reflects how many people feel about many institutions — that they weren’t made to protect us, that they weren’t made for us. If we were to take the question of abolishing vs. reshaping museums and apply it to our immigration system, what would the answers look like? I imagine we wouldn’t have a hard time imagining something new, possibly because we wouldn’t feel so tied to its history. Does our relationships with our institutions limit how radically we can imagine something new?

Abolishing museums isn’t about erasing or ignoring the past. It’s about challenging the belief that human ideas are as fragile as the things we choose to represent them. And that a small group of people keeping these things alive is necessary to keep the ideas alive. Abolition would recognize that to reach a just end, reshaping isn’t enough, because we need to rethink the very premise that museums were built on.

nikhil holding his white iPhone 4s editing a Notes document containing the text of this letter. The screen is cracked. The floor of an elevated ‘L’ train platform is seen in the background along with a bit of the street below.

This doesn’t mean tearing down all our buildings and putting all our stuff up for grabs. I’m more focused on trying to envision new ways, other than museums, to create space for learning from and building upon the evolution of human ideas, in ways that makes our communities more sustainable, healthier, and more successful for all. [I should say much of how I’m thinking about abolition has been borrowed from the prison abolition movement, which itself has been influenced by the movement to abolish slavery.]

Does that all make sense? What do you think?

These are all big ideas. Part of what I want to do with our exchange is to make these ideas concrete. What are things we as museum workers can do everyday to work towards a more just future? I was awarded a Gender Equality Award last night from the Chicago chapter of UN Women (!!!!!!), and in my remarks I said something that crystallizes how I think about all my activism work:

“At some point I realized that if I wasn’t actively working to end sexism and male domination in myself, in my relationships and in my communities, I was supporting an oppressive status quo. This is what led to my deep, passionate commitment to end all forms of violence in all the communities that I’m a part of.”

Just as with healing, I think we each need to dream big and make a decision as to what we’re working towards, and root it deeply in our lived experiences. From there, find collaborators and try things — we need to activate our decisions. I know you’ve thought a lot about your vision for the future of museums as well. What was/is your decision, or your commitment for the future? What are some tangible things we can do everyday to work towards change?

My apologies again for taking as long as I did to write back to you, and for sending you such a long letter! I appreciate your thoughtfulness and your brilliance in thinking with me on this. I look forward to your reply, and to seeing you next week at MCN!!

With much love,
❤ ❤ ❤

“The trouble is that once you see it, you can’t unsee it. And once you’ve seen it, keeping quiet, saying nothing, becomes as political an act as speaking out. There is no innocence. Either way, you’re accountable.” — Arundhati Roy
Photo of Suse’s letter to nikhil displayed on a desktop monitor.

Suse to nikhil: 28 November, 2016

Dear nikhil

First of all, congratulations on receiving your Gender Equality Award! That is such wonderful recognition of your work. I am so proud of you.

The last few weeks have been difficult, to say the least. I, like many people, was devastated about the result of the election. The following days were spent in numbness and grief, but also, in seeking better insight and understanding. I read widely, and tried to spend a lot of time listening. Much of what I heard and thought about brought me back to our conversation. After all, we’ve been speaking about the collapse of institutions, and how change happens when the legitimacy of institutions comes into question… well, I think we’ve just witnessed the startling results of that exact situation.

A bar graph of Gallup poll data visualizing levels of confidence in various institutions. The image is titled “Confidence in Institutions,” and asks the question “I am going to read you a list of institutions in American society. Please tell me how much confidence you, yourself, have in each one — a great deal, quite a lot, some or very little?” The military is rated the most with 41% having a “great deal” of confidence and 32% having “quite a lot.” The numbers go down steeply as the list goes on to small business, the police, the church or organized religion, the medical system, the presidency, the US Supreme Court, public schools, banks, organized labor, the criminal justice system, television news, newspapers, big business, and finally Congress with less than 5% having a “great deal” of confidence in them, and 6% having “quite a lot.”

Many of the people in this country, right across the political spectrum, have lost their faith in its political systems and media–in fact, in all kinds of institutions. According to Gallup, American trust in institutions such as congress, public schools, newspapers, and the criminal justice system is sitting at just 32 percent, having plummeted after the financial crisis in 2007. Indeed, one of the greatest narratives of the last several months was that of the erosion of trust in the political establishment, which found its form and personification in Hillary Clinton, in contrast to perceived outsiders, such as Trump and Sanders. Thus, the person elected was someone who promised to smash those institutions up. Frankly, I find that terrifying.

But we also need to ask why those institutions are no longer working for so many people. Maybe it’s something you’ve answered already, in the text above:

And I think that’s the crux of why institutions are failing today, including museums. Because they were bestowed trust and responsibility by the powerful, for the benefit of the powerful.

All institutions have major, irrevocable flaws, in large part because institutions are essentially mechanisms for wielding power. It is impossible for institutions to be fair for all, because at their heart, institutions are about granting power and rights to some and not others. And yet, they are essential mechanisms for the perpetuation of culture. Institutions enable knowledge to pass from person to person, and generation to generation. There is even evidence that trust in institutions increases social trust, or trust in “the abstract, generalized other about whom little information exists.” When we trust our institutions, we are more likely to trust one another. Strong institutions make for strong societies.

There is a fascinating paper by Bart Nooteboom on Social Capital, Institutions and Trust, in which he argues (emphasis mine):

Countries vary in the extent that there are institutions that support trust, and to the extent that there are no such institutions, trust must be built entirely from relationships, and without institutional support that can be laborious and such trust can be fragile… The development of industrial societies can be seen as a movement away from highly personalized trust relationships, in small and tight, localized communities, in which people are involved with most of their personality, largely excluding membership of other groups, towards larger, more varied groups, with more abstract, depersonalized relationships, in each of which people are involved only with a limited part of their personality… Closed, small homogenous groups that engage individuals more fully, are cohesive but also yield isolation, which obstructs sophisticated division of labor and innovation. (p30–31)

Healthy institutions help us trust one another even without personal relationships, better enabling sophisticated division of labor and innovation. We can share the work and effort, even without knowing one another. I suspect that increased social trust is also found in populous areas with diverse populations­–like cities (which predominantly lean towards more liberal politics). In those cases, we know we cannot work alone or survive without many other people to help, and so we trust one another even without personal connection.
(Interestingly, there are certain aspects of social media–particularly Facebook–and its seemingly personalized trust relationships, that could be understood as prompting a return to increasingly localised communities, which might be geographically dispersed, but less abstract and depersonalised than other kinds of communities. I suspect this could be a contributing factor in the decreasing trust in institutions.)

I think this is why I struggle so much when you call for me to imagine a world without museums. I want to change museums, to make sure they are fairer, and that power is distributed more equitably. I want better institutions–institutions that don’t discriminate per race or gender, sexuality or class. I want institutions that are honest about their conflicts of interest, and institutions that don’t reinforce traumatic histories. I want museums that have diverse staff, and diverse funding streams, so they are less beholden to the whims of the few. I want museums that are open and honest about the choices they’ve made in building their collections or creating their exhibitions. But I don’t want to get rid of our institutions. Despite their myriad flaws, I do believe that institutions are critical in building strong, safe societies. This is ultimately why I study museums and try to understand how they work. It is through that work, through examining the forces at play in institutional dynamics, that helps me learn where change comes from in order that I can help make change and build it into institutional structures.

Of course, I have benefitted and continue to benefit from institutions such as museums and universities, so when I value and defend them, it’s in part because those institutions work for me. Equally, I must acknowledge that those who want to tear down these institutions is likely doing so because those same institutions do not feel protective or valuable. There are reasons for those feelings. There are reasons for your call to abolish museums and rethink the very premise that museums were built on. It’s important that we listen to and hear those reasons and take them seriously. Your call for us to “decide that harm has been done, recognize that there are tangible ways that we were/are affected by it, and make an active commitment to heal,” might be a good starting place for so many of the institutions that we now see coming under question.

How do we resolve these differences? Do we pull down what we’ve got and start again (a la, the French Revolution)? Or is there a way to return trust to our institutions, like museums? How do we create nourishing, strong, and fair institutions? How do we ensure that our institutions are protective and help people?

The World Bank has published a useful resource on the character of institutions, which considers the qualities that poor people across the world value in institutions. These are:

trust, participation, unity, ability to resolve conflicts, caring, compassion, respect, listening, honesty, fairness, understanding, hardworking behaviour, timeliness, responsive support, access, and contact with the institution.

If we want our museums to be healthy, robust, and trusted, then we must be working to build these values and behaviours to their core. That means being open, transparent, and honest about the decisions that you make within your work and your institution, and the factors that affected them. It means being accountable to all the people in your communities (including your colleagues), and owning your decisions. It means making conscious, proactive decisions about who you work with, and how that work will take place. It means actively committing to working with people from diverse backgrounds every day, not just at special times or special projects, and making sure that representation is equitable. It means being kind, hardworking, and dependable. It means building in values like participation and unity into the processes and decision-making structures. It means listening when your communities speak.

Hard change is hard, and institutional change is some of the hardest there is. But it’s important. Without strong institutions, we stop trusting one another. It’s why institutions matter. But if the institutions we have aren’t working for so many people, we need to take a serious look at them, and ask why not. Maybe it relates to your observation that, “although institutions may be designed not to respond to individual cases, they have always impacted individual people.” Yet while this is an obviously true and important statement, I don’t know how to reconcile it with my understanding of how institutions work.

Koven Smith’s blog post about MCN2016 proposes that sustaining innovation and change within museums has to be a “coalition-building activity.” I think that’s true of all meaningful institutional and social change. If we want to create structural change in museums, we need to organise and build in those values and characteristics of trusted institutions into our coalitions, in order that they translate beyond them.

What do you think? I know we are nearing the end of this correspondence, and I’m curious to hear whether these ideas and perspectives, which I know are still very abstract, are useful to you, or not. What takeaways do you have from this discussion? What questions remain?

Friend, it was so lovely to see you at MCN2016, and to continue our correspondence. Have a beautiful day.

Lots of love.


nikhil to Suse: December 8, 2016

Hey friend,

It’s been a rough few weeks since the election here, too. I’ve noticed that I’m hyper-aware of and super-sensitive to the world around me. I found myself wiping away tears at my desk while reading an email from a friend about how she explained the election to her daughter. It was such a sweet, honest, loving conversation to have shared with me.

In a lot of ways, this moment feels similar to the time after 9/11 for me. Much of my radical, feminist identity came to form during that time as my South Asian communities mobilized and organized in response to so much awful stuff that was happening to our communities. I’m seeing similar responses to the election, so these past few weeks have also been strangely reinvigorating. So many people are thinking hard about what they, personally can do to have an impact on our world. Not waiting for someone or something else, but really engaging in personal action. Perhaps that’s one result of the falling trust in institutions you describe — the building of stronger relational trust based on shared experiences, activism and collective power.

I agree that it’s important to think about how trust within our relationships and with institutions differ. But I disagree that relational trust is more fragile than institutional trust. Trust in its very essence is a fragile thing. It is active and in both scenarios takes a consistent commitment to keep. And these two types of trust are remarkably different from each other. Trust in institutions like museums, hospitals, the electoral college and so forth is based on the idea that someone else is more capable of making decisions that affect me than I am. It’s a dynamic that is rooted in systems of establishing and maintaining power. However, the trust we build in our relationships are (or should be!) based on sharing power and control of our own lives and futures. I think both forms of trust are quite laborious and fragile. One could argue that institutional trust, in the ways we’ve seen it today, is a much more fragile trust precisely because it’s not based on mutuality, active participation and constant negotiation.

As we’ve been talking about abolishing versus reforming museums, I think we both have quite similar intentions. When you say “I want to change museums, to make sure they are fairer, and that power is distributed more equitably,” I couldn’t agree more! YES with lots of adorable and affirming cute animal GIFs! But our thinking around our means of getting there differs.

I’m not completely for or against reformation or abolition as exclusive options. I think different institutions will require different answers for themselves. And I don’t think we need to know those answers before we engage in the work of transformational change. Part of what I’m trying to do in out letter exchange is encouraging you and I to be open to every possible outcome. To allow space for our most radical thinking without being limited by a desire to keep our institutions around, if that’s not what ultimately makes the most sense. We agree that many of our institutions aren’t working, and they will transform whether they choose to or not. By pushing for a serious consideration of abolition, I want our imaginations to reach the widest possibilities of what that change can be.

This will be my last letter in our conversation, I’ll leave it to you to close us out. Thank you so very much for sharing your time and your thinking with me, and pushing me to clarify my own thinking while giving me space to share what’s been difficult about this past year in particular. The ideas we shared have been so useful to me. Going into this, I felt hindered by my lack of an academic background on the subject, but I trusted you and your trust in me. I hope, as we discussed in our initial guidelines, that my thoughts were grounded in a way you could connect to, and that they weren’t too abstract or obtuse.

Do you remember way back when I wrote you this one-line email with the subject “Question”:

How will museums end racism? Sexism? Classism?

That was December 3, 2013. (Happy conviversary!) I take heart in the thought that we’ve been thinking about museums and structural change for a few years now, and I look forward to many years more of growth, inquiry and friendship in our continued exchanges on these questions.

Lots of love from a frigid Chicago,
❤ ❤ ❤

P.S. Sorry I wasn’t able to take the time to send this letter to you via postal mail. I owe you another letter! Oh! And remember while you were still living in Australia we started an International Treats Exchange for Museums and Scholars? I owe you some treats, too!

Suse to nikhil: 19 December, 2016

Dear nikhil,

I’m going to keep this last letter short. We’ve covered so much ground already, and I’d rather be a tiny bit more personal and reflective in my final note.

As we’ve both acknowledged via Twitter and in emails/texts, this has been a challenging but rewarding project. You mention that you felt hindered by a lack of academic background. I had the opposite experience. I worried that my academic study of institutions kept me blinkered to aspects of their nature beyond what I’d studied. That’s why your perspectives have been so valuable to me. You’ve been thinking about institutions from such a different matrix of experiences to my own, and in doing so, you’ve forced me to push and test out my ideas in a different context. Although at times I was concerned that our different angles would obscure what was meaningful in what we each said, I think that our disparity in perspective led to better insight than if our views had been too similar. This has been perhaps the most useful kind of dialogue–entered with trust and respect, always with good intentions, but also a great difference of experience and knowledge.

Working on this project has prompted me to go back through some of my old work and writing, and revisit it. Hopefully it will prompt me to publish more formally on this topic, to more broadly share my research and equip more people to ground their ideas for change in a broader understanding of the institutional context. Sometimes it feels as though that is missing in conversations about institutional and structural change; a sense of what those structures are, and how they work. If we want to change institutions, whether through revolution or slow persistence, it helps to understand the forces at play from as many angles as possible. Knowledge is a form of power, after all.

It is amazing to me that we’ve been writing to each other about these questions for almost five years. I do not expect that this letter will be the end of this discussion, nor the end of our correspondence (yes! Let’s exchange snacks again!!), but it might be the end of this chapter.

Thank you, friend, for your openness and willingness to be vulnerable and to push against my thoughts and ideas. I look forward to talking and thinking through these and many other problems together into the future.

Hugs from Baltimore.