Shaking Things up: Small Museums and Activism
from Michelle Willard, Founder of Mighty Museum
Mighty Museum is inspired by the potential of museums as powerful platforms for positive social change.
Lorraine Bell, Mighty Museum contributor and University of Victoria PhD candidate researching small museums as agents of social change, thinks small museums are hotspots for activism. Here is why:
- SOCIAL ENGAGEMENT: Small museums have a long history of serving and collaborating with their communities. In the words of one small museum professional “we have community engagement larger museums can only dream of”.
- LOCAL KNOWLEDGE: Small museums conserve local knowledge that can shed light on wider historical and contemporary events. This makes abstract stories more real and personal, and can deepen understanding and empathy.
- NIMBLE PRACTICE: Because their exhibit and program spaces are smaller, staff and volunteers are skilled at distilling information and highlighting essential messages.
- REGIONAL NETWORKS: With their high level of collegiality and spirit of cooperation with other organisations, small museums can build networks of activism around local and regional issues.
All of this provides an ideal platform to get the message out and make a BIG impact.
What might activism look like? Small museums have engaged in various forms of activist work both inside and outside the museum. Examples include protests, workers memorials, historical re-enactments, lobbying, grassroots community building, performance theatre and more. Often with a staff of one or two, it is significant that small museums have found ways to create space to engage in activism regardless of ongoing limited capacities within small museums. Perhaps it is through the strength and validation from the communities they serve that lights the fire of activism for small museums.
Decolonizing the museum is activism at work with the intent to expose, reconfigure and protest deeply entrenched narratives step by step. I would like to acknowledge staff in small museums who have been engaging in this work, or organizing to do so – it is a long journey (many setting out with minimal support or resources, and for some under the added challenges of mixed organizational approval). It is this last point that continues to perplex me; there remains a disconnect between museum staff practices and organizational mandates.
As a small museum, navigating the pandemic while sector wide issues make headlines across the country, this is an opportunity to take steps which may provide the footing to begin new dialogues.
Take a critical look at the messages on the museum’s website or other marketing materials. Is there lingering written content from when the non-profit society was incorporated years ago, including narratives such as these?:
The X Museum celebrates European settlers and their contributions to the development of the area.
The Y Museum was established to collect documents and records of historical and cultural value which details the lives of early pioneers.
Examine collections policies. One small museum developed an Indigenous Belongings Policy in collaboration with local First Nation to acknowledge that Indigenous communities have ownership over “belongings” within the museums collections and are primary decision makers about the use and care of “belongings”.
Plan an intervention within the exhibits or outside the museum entirely through the insertion of new dialogues.
One small museum together with their municipality sought to raise awareness about the Japanese Canadian Community which was forcibly removed during WWII. Through extensive research the museum located and connected with descendants of Japanese Canadians who had lived in the community, together developing interpretation to be located on the site of their former homes.
Foster partnerships with diverse cultural communities as an opportunity to critique historical museological practices in juxtaposition with current directions.
One small museum built a relationship with a Contemporary Northwest Coast First Nations artist through a discussion surrounding a problematic European settler focused timeline in the museum’s gallery. They collaborated on responses and an art installation was developed to disrupt the timeline’s narrative.
Activism is a commitment to positive social change. What support might small museums need to undertake this work? How might we engage organizations as a whole to join the journey?
Looking for an engaging book about museums and activism? Try Museum Activism, edited by Robert R. Janes and Richard Sandell, (London and New York: Routledge, 2019).