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Musuems... So What?


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A keynote for the 2015 We are Museums Conference in Berlin, Germany.

Museums… why should we care? Much has been written about the changes our culture is experiencing as institutions that once held a place of primary esteem have now somehow become less important than they once were. Museums are at the crux of this change and are wondering how we might preserve and bottle the relevance we hold with our audiences. At the same time, we find that relevance to be changing, ephemeral, and eroding.

How should museums answer these fundamental questions about our impact and why we matter at all? When challenged to defend the public investment and trust that we have stewarded for so many years, are we prepared to give a good account?

In this talk, Rob will expand on his seminal article about museum impact, Museums… So What? and will provide new insights and opportunities for museums to look towards to document and demonstrate actual real impact that museums provide and the tangible benefits museums can bring to their communities.

“Museums… so what?” will follow up on his much discussed article from the CODE|WORDS series on Medium.

Published in: Art & Photos
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Musuems... So What?

  1. 1. Flickr Credit ~brandondoran MUSEUMS… SO WHAT?Robert Stein, Dallas Museum of Art @rjstein
  3. 3. We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too. September 12, 1962. President John F. Kennedy at Rice University in Houston, TX.
  4. 4. If this capsule history of our progress teaches us anything, it is that man, in his quest for knowledge and progress, is determined and cannot be deterred. The exploration of space will go ahead, whether we join in it or not, and it is one of the great adventures of all time, and no nation which expects to be the leader of other nations can expect to stay behind in the race for space. President John F. Kennedy 12 September 1962.
  5. 5. Flickr Credit ~atrid MUSEUMSare under pressure
  7. 7. Flickr Credit ~andyhay ATTENDANCE
  8. 8. Flickr Credit ~fotodispalle RELEVANCE
  9. 9. Museums are caught in a tug of war between impact and entertainment
  11. 11. EDUCATE ENTERTAIN Unfortunately for many museums’ social missions, visitors indicate that the quality of an organization’s “educational experience” matters relatively little to overall satisfaction. Entertainment vs Education: How Your Audience Really Rates The Museum Experience – Colleen Dilenschneider (
  12. 12. PETER SINGER
  13. 13. “… it seems clear that there are objective reasons for thinking we may be able to do more good in one of these areas than in another.” Peter Singer on supporting the arts vs. global health Good Charity, Bad Charity, August 10, 2013. The New York Times PETER SINGER
  14. 14. Quoting from an argument advanced by moral philosopher Peter Singer, for instance, [Gates] questions why anyone would donate money to build a new wing for a museum rather than spend it on preventing illnesses that can lead to blindness. “The moral equivalent is, we’re going to take 1 per cent of the people who visit this museum and blind them,” he says. “Are they willing, because it has the new wing, to take that risk? Hmm, maybe this blinding thing is slightly barbaric.” Financial Times, Richard Waters, November 1, 2013. MUSEUMS… SLIGHTLY BARBARIC
  15. 15. The things that make a museum good are its purpose to make a positive difference in the quality of people’s lives, its command of resources adequate to that purpose, and its possession of a leadership determined to ensure that those resources are being directed and effectively used toward that end. (Making Museums Matter, Weil, 1997) WHAT MAKES A MUSEUM GOOD? Flickr Credit superamit
  16. 16. WHY ARE WE SO BAD AT PROVING OUR IMPACT? Flickr Credit ~hadock
  19. 19. MUSEUMS ARE PLACES TO THRASH OUT BIG IDEAS [Museums] have become cathedrals for a secular culture, storehouses of collective values and diverse histories, places where increasingly we seem to want to spend our free time and thrash out big issues. We put our faith in few traditional institutions these days, but the museum is still one of them. Museums in a Quandary: Where Are the Ideals? Michael Kimmelman, New York Times, August 26, 2001
  20. 20. Flicker ~draphotography MUSEUM PEOPLE BELIEVE THIS
  21. 21. Flicker ~draphotography BUT THE PUBLIC DOESN’T We’ve dawdled around too long with a small vision and failed to inspire them
  22. 22. Issues of low or no priority for museums: • Fostering a sense of community • Helping the vulnerable • Providing a forum for debate • Promoting social justice and human rights PUBLIC PERCEPTIONS OF – AND ATTITUDES TO - THE PURPOSES OF MUSEUMS IN SOCIETY A report prepared by BritainThinks for Museums Association (Museums 2020 vision)
  23. 23. The study goes on to assert that the public holds museums in an esteemed place of trust, but would rather have them stick to caring for collections and providing entertaining (but educational) experiences for our children. PUBLIC PERCEPTIONS OF – AND ATTITUDES TO - THE PURPOSES OF MUSEUMS IN SOCIETY A report prepared by BritainThinks for Museums Association (Museums 2020 vision)
  25. 25. For all our laments about losing relevance – we’ve failed to pitch a big enough idea to inspire the public and ourselves to great change. Flickr Credit ~hadock RELEVANCE IS FLEETING
  28. 28. To solve the world’s big problems we need to get out of the BOX
  29. 29. Flickr Credit ~photohannah COULD MUSEUMS BE A CATALYST FOR THAT CHANGE?
  30. 30. Flickr Credit ~photohannah COULD YOU BE A CATALYST FOR THAT CHANGE?
  31. 31. Flickr Credit ~mediotanque GLOBAL POPULATIONis growing by 80m people each year
  32. 32. Source
  33. 33. Flickr Credit ~fab05 70% OF THE GLOBAL POPULATION WILL LIVE IN ONE BY 2050CITIES Source: Guardian Cities, Jan 2014 human-history-welcome
  34. 34. Flickr Credit ~cgpgrey INCOME INEQUALITY No society can be flourishing and happy of which the far greater part of its members are poor and miserable Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations
  35. 35. 1% OF THE POPULATION OWNS 46% OF THE WEALTHSource: Oxfam, “Working for the Few”
  36. 36. 85 RICHEST OWN AS MUCH AS THE POOREST 50%Source: Oxfam, “Working for the Few”
  37. 37. The simple story of America is this: the rich are getting richer, the richest of the rich are getting still richer, the poor are becoming poorer and more numerous, and the middle class is being hollowed out. The incomes of the middle class are stagnating or falling, and the difference between them and the truly rich is increasing. The Price of Inequality: How Today's Divided Society Endangers Our Future. Joseph E. Stiglitz, 2012.
  39. 39. This massive concentration of economic resources in the hands of fewer people presents a significant threat to inclusive political and economic systems. Instead of moving forward together, people are increasingly separated by economic and political power, inevitably heightening social tensions and increasing the risk of societal breakdown Oxfam, “Working for the few” Jan 20, 2014.
  40. 40. Jean Antoine Theodore Giroust French. 1753-1817 The Harp Lesson 1791
  41. 41. Philippe Joseph de Bourbon, Duc d’Orléans (1747-1793)
  42. 42. Eugene Louise Adelaide de Bourbon Orléans (1777-1847)
  43. 43. Féicité Ducrest de Saint-Aubin (1746-1830) Madame de Genlis
  44. 44. Eugene Louise Adelaide de Bourbon Orléans
  45. 45. Louis Philippe I, King of the French – 1830-1848
  46. 46. Flickr Credit ~cgpgrey SOCIAL ISOLATION We must learn to live together as brothers or perish together as fools. Martin Luther King, Jr.
  47. 47. These days, insecure in our relationships and anxious about intimacy, we look to technology for ways to be in relationships and protect ourselves from them at the same time. The ties we form through the Internet are not, in the end, the ties that bind. But they are the ties that preoccupy… Sherry Turkle, MIT professor and author of Alone Together THE CHANGING NATURE OF FRIENDS
  48. 48. I fear that we are beginning to design ourselves to suit digital models of us, and I worry about a leaching of empathy and humanity in that process. Jaron Lanier, virtual reality pioneer and author of You Are Not a Gadget THE CHANGING NATURE OF FRIENDS
  49. 49. Flickr credit ~cosmic_bandita 35 percent of adults older than 45 are chronically lonely, an increase of 25% compared to a decade prior Roughly 20 percent of Americans—about 60 million people—are unhappy with their lives because of loneliness. In 1985, only 10 percent of Americans said they had no one with whom to discuss important matters, and 15 percent said they had only one such good friend. By 2004, 25 percent had nobody to talk to, and 20 percent had only one confidant. Is Facebook Making Us Lonely. The Atlantic AN EPIDEMIC OF LONELINESS
  50. 50. Flickr Credit ~bionicteaching Death from suicide is now more likely than dying in a car crash or from cancer. Dan Diamond. Stopping the Growing Risk of Suicide. 2014
  51. 51. Flickr Credit ~nanophoto69 Loneliness is not just making us sick, it is killing us. Loneliness is a serious health risk. Studies of elderly people and social isolation concluded that those without adequate social interaction were twice as likely to die prematurely. The increased mortality risk is comparable to that from smoking. And loneliness is about twice as dangerous as obesity. Social isolation impairs immune function and boosts inflammation, which can lead to arthritis, type II diabetes, and heart disease. Loneliness is breaking our hearts, but as a culture we rarely talk about it. Jessica Olien – “Loneliness Is Deadly LONELINESS IS DEADLY
  52. 52. Flickr Credit ~cgpgrey POLARIZING IDEOLOGY If you want to go fast – go alone. If you want to go far – go together. Dr. Johnetta Betsch Cole, Smithsonian National African Art Museum
  53. 53. Source: DW-NOMINATE Scores of the House and Senate
  54. 54. FRANKFURT MARCH, 2015
  55. 55. BALTIMORE April, 2015
  56. 56. DALLAS, TX MAY, 2015
  57. 57. K.1.2014.82 Syria The “Homberg Ewer”, 1242 Brass inlaid with silver 15 1/2 × 8 1/2 × 8 in. (39.37 × 21.59 × 20.32 cm) The Keir Collection of Islamic Art on loan to the Dallas Museum of Art
  58. 58. 66
  59. 59. 67
  60. 60. Polarization of opinion along ideological, racial, gender, and class lines; exclusive social structures separating rich from poor and majorities from minorities; a sense of individual disempowerment; and the overwhelming nature of many of society’s problems are all factors contributing to this sense. Perhaps most fundamentally, the crosscutting nature of today’s complex issues often places them outside of the traditional structures and settings, such as civic organizations, labor unions, and political parties, which have served in the past to organize civic discourse. Americans for the Arts, 1999
  62. 62. EMPATHY /`empaTHē/ noun The ability to understand and share the feelings of another.
  63. 63. There’s a lot of talk in this country about the federal deficit. But I think we should talk more about our empathy deficit – the ability to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes; … we live in a culture that discourages empathy. A culture that too often tells us our principal goal in life is to be rich, thin, young, famous, safe, and entertained. A culture where those in power too often encourage these selfish impulses. Senator Obama at the 2006 Commencement Ceremony for Northwestern University rack.html#sthash.4ql0gZhs.dpuf EMPATHYDEFICIT
  64. 64. EMPATHY Recent research shows a steep drop in self-reported empathy measures among college-age students. In a study of nearly 14,000 student, 75% of them rated themselves as less empathetic than the average student 30 years ago. Multiple studies link the increase in social isolation as a key factor resulting in lower empathy scores. What, Me Care? Young Are Less Empathetic Jamil Zaki, Dec 23, 2010. IS CHANGING
  65. 65. Even after controlling for age, race and education, we found that participation in the arts, especially as audience, predicted civic engagement, tolerance and altruism. Ranallo, A. B. Interest in Arts Predicts Social Responsibility: Study University of Illinois at Chicago. August 16, 2012. CULTURE CREATES BETTER CITIZENS
  66. 66. The potential of art to create indelible images, to express difficult ideas through metaphor, and to communicate beyond the limits of language makes it a powerful force for illuminating civic experience. Animating Democracy, Americans for the Arts EMPATHY
  67. 67. Begin with art, because art tries to take us outside ourselves. It is a matter of trying to create an atmosphere and context so conversation can flow back and forth and we can be influenced by each other. W. E. B. Du Bois EMPATHY
  68. 68. BALTIMORE April, 2015
  69. 69. EMPATHY Is empathy the killer app for museums?
  71. 71. Just 7 years after Kennedy’s speech in Houston, Neil Armstrong walked on the moon
  72. 72. What if museums could help to solve any one of these problems in the next 7 years?
  73. 73. If this history of our culture teaches us anything, it is that a changing society cannot be deterred. These changes will go ahead, whether we join in them or not, and they are one of the great adventures of all time, and no museum which expects to be the leader of other museums can expect to stay behind in the race for impact and relevance. President John F. Kennedy 12 September 1962. Adapted for Museums, @rjstein June 2, 2015.
  74. 74. A EULOGY FOR ROBERT FROST If sometimes our great artist have been the most critical of our society, it is because their sensitivity and their concern for justice, which must motivate any true artist, makes him aware that our Nation falls short of its highest potential. I see little of more importance to the future of our country and our civilization than full recognition of the place of the artist. If art is to nourish the roots of our culture, society must set the artist free to follow his vision wherever it takes him
  75. 75. Music will never again be quite the same. This will be our reply to violence: to make music more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly than ever before. And with each note we will honor his spirit, commemorate his courage, and reaffirm his faith in the triumph of the mind Leonard Bernstein, 1963
  76. 76. THANK YOU! @rjstein Please read the original Museums… So What? article as a part of: CODE|WORDS: Technology and Theory in the Museum Project @CODEWORDSmuse