People First!

Mike Murawski - Museums as Agents of Change

An interview by Diana Fehr / December, 2021

As a museum consultant with more than 20 years of experience in education and museums, Mike Murawski brings his personal values of deep listening, care, and collaboration into the work that he leads with organizations and communities. He is passionate about transforming museums, cultural institutions & non-profits to become more equitable and community-centered. In his recent book Museums As Agents of Change – A Guide to Becoming a Changemaker, he addresses vital questions and the work we need to do to become effective changemakers, offering strategies for taking action toward positive social change and proactively shaping a new future for museums. He also serves as the Co-Producer of Museums Are Not Neutral, a global advocacy campaign calling for ethics-based transformation across museums. Learn more at mikemurawski.org

 

 

Diana: In your book, as well as in broader literature on museums, there is an ongoing discourse over how museums can become “Agents for Change”. What is it that drives you to call museums to this action?

 

Mike: My ideas for museums come from the work that I have done over the last 15 years within institutions, and seeing these places being more than just spaces where we hold objects, or passively learn from an expert about its stories and their past. I have seen them more as places that can actively play a meaningful role within their communities, working to bring positive changes beyond their walls, and acting upon inequalities both within and outside them. So I think museums have this incredible potential to be places that can contribute to a more just, equitable and connected world.

But for me the transformation really occurred as we were planning the “Upstanders Festival” (in May 2017 in Portland, Oregon) in close work with our community. Just hours before the festival was supposed to kick off, a white supremacist attacked three people on a light rail train only four miles from our museum. At this point, I thought we would have to cancel the program, as I expected that nobody would attend our venue under these circumstances. But it was quite the opposite; we probably tripled the attendance that we thought we would have that day. People came to the museum as they were looking for a safe place, where they could come together, a place for healing. And that is one of the experiences that showed me that museums really can play a powerful role. So I think museums have this incredible potential to be places that contribute to a more equitable and connected world, but they need to work for that change.

 

Diana: Transformation is essential for museums to establish their relevance in a contemporary society, but how can this be encouraged?

 

Mike: Well, we need to ask: How can museums shift their mindset to become these interpersonal institutions that are all about building trust and relationships, beyond their own walls? I think there is a lot that can be done, but I will try to break it down to about three core elements. Taking these steps is a process and an evolution, and I think it’s the future for museums.

 

One key step is putting “people first” and maybe even the relationships we build with each other, which takes a lot of change within the museum. Museums that want to engage with this work need to start defining: What the community means to them, who they are not connecting with, what “people first” means, and be open to think about this deeply with their staff, volunteers, and community partners.

 

Another important step is to shape a set of core values, which many institutions still fail to realise. We need to ask ourselves: What core values are driving my work? How do I focus those around a commitment to equity? And how can my museum serve the bigger universal goals of human rights?

 

Finally, one of the big shifts that I have written and talked about, is that of the power dynamics and leadership within museums, which are a vital key to change. Museums

end up having a corporate leadership structure that is not very human- or community-centred, and does not break down the existing power dynamics. Changing a lot of these internal structures of museums–making them more flat, horizontal, and having shared leadership models–is a key for making these changes happen. So there are a lot of things that can be done and I want to encourage museums to unleash their potential and to become agents for change.

 

Cover of the book Museums as Agents of Change

Diana: Nevertheless, successful change requires a large commitment from both the executives and the senior management. What is the role of these leaders during this transitional period and how do you think they must adapt to accommodate this emerging change, especially during the pandemic?

 

Mike: I have spoken to several directors of museums that have really stepped up during the pandemic. They have done what they needed to do, communicating clearly and being transparent. They have kept their staff and have prioritised people. On the other hand, we have seen museum directors (especially here in the United States) being forced to resign because they haven’t stepped up; because they continue to reinforce and support a toxic work environment as well as make decisions that clearly value wealthy donors and endowments over the health and well-being of their own staff. Therefore, the pandemic has revealed cracks in the foundation at a lot of institutions due to this poor leadership, thereby emphasising the vital need for change.

 

Leadership models are not changed overnight. But I do think leaders can start to develop completely different habits within their institutions. How they lead, how they listen to staff and their community, how they can be open and understanding, and how they can really practice a deeper version of empathy. So these are some of the changes that I think can be made right away.

 

Diana: Your literature provides many engaging examples of committed professionals serving their communities, so it is more of a guide.

 

Mike: Yes, when I started writing my book, I was focusing on this idea of museums having a social responsibility, but then I shifted it. It became more of a guidebook for change-makers at all levels of museum work. You don’t have to be the executive director of a museum to start making change. You can start small, you can start big, you can start with something slow, or push a fast change.

 

Diana: You speak about the significance of “the people” who guide change within museums. Do you believe we as citizens can proactively contribute to shaping the new future of museums?

Culture: The Missing Link –

Mike: Definitely! I think community members, residents and citizens have a very powerful role to play in helping advocate and push forward this change.

 

We have talked about this idea that community members have a lot of power in shaping these institutions and in demanding change. Every time you buy a ticket to go see a museum exhibit, or become a member of a museum, you are investing in that museum and thereby “voting” for it. But as soon as you don’t think that museum is aligning with your values, or that you don’t see yourself reflected within that institution, you can take your investment somewhere else. You can find a museum that is doing what you want to see, and making a difference within the community. This is why we keep encouraging people to think of the role that they can play to encourage the change they want to see in museums.

Diana: During the lockdown many museums implemented “Digital“ tools to continue engaging their audiences. In your opinion, what role does digitalisation play in establishing museums as more diverse and accessible spaces?

 

Mike: It is really interesting to think about digital now, as museums were sort of thrown off by having to go in that direction. But even though I have done a lot of work over the years with museum technology and thinking about digital experience, I just tend to always gravitate towards a face to face, person to person connection.

 

Now I know that a lot of the technology work is happening and I think these efforts to digitise collections and to increase digital content is a very important part and a key tool for staying connected with the audience. However, I saw a lot of museums that just defaulted to creating cumbersome online galleries, simply taking pictures of their exhibitions and putting it online with endless text. Many people with way more experience with technology than I do, wrote to museums, asking them to stop these activities as their content became overwhelming and very time consuming. People just weren’t engaging with these online exhibitions. But just because museums have to close their doors doesn’t mean they can’t think outside the box and still make a difference in their own community. There are so many things museums can do in terms of community outreach and partnership, even when their doors are closed.

 

Diana: Can you share some of this kind of “outside the box thinking”?

 

Mike: I gave a talk many years ago at the Museum of Contemporary Art in San Diego. I asked people: What if there is a disaster and your museum lost power for an extended period of time? It was a really interesting conversation. But what we should have been asking is: what will your museum experience look like if you have to close your doors for many months?

 

And now during this pandemic, we have seen some exciting activities from museums using their resources to support people in this crisis. We’ve seen museums use their spaces for food activism, making sure that people in this situation of poverty have access to food resources. Or they turned their spaces into COVID testing sites to support a healthy community. Others brought their exhibitions outdoors to still keep the museum experience alive, instead of just closing their doors. One museum that I have spoken about a lot is the Smithsonian Anacostia Community Museum in Washington D.C., which has done a lot of these activities since the pandemic started. While I’m sure they are doing digital work as well, they foregrounded this human-based work.

 

Diana: “Interpretation bridges gaps in knowledge between museums audiences and objects“ (Loomis, 1983). But exhibitions are interpretations of the museum’s curators and are therefore not neutral. You address this in ”Museums are not neutral“, the fifth chapter of your book. Could you give us more insight on your discussion of this topic?

 

Mike: Well, it’s a big topic, and probably worth a whole other interview. In short, the key is that this idea of museums being “neutral” is a myth. The stories museums have been telling seem to be universal. But the decisions of what objects are displayed in the collections and what stories are being told are based on individuals and their knowledge, experience and bias. These stories have been told from a white, colonialist perspective for centuries, but we treat that like it is a universal and objective truth. This is why a lot of communities, stories and histories, art and culture have been excluded from museum projects, which is why museums can’t be seen as neutral. The decisions they make have supported the views of a dominant culture at the harm of oppressed communities. So Museums Are Not Neutral helps raise awareness around these issues, inviting us to critically examine museums and work toward making change happen.

 

Diana: Following the publishing of your book, what are the next steps you are planning to take and what visions do you have for the future?

 

Mike: After the book came out in early 2021, I recognized that it was a conversation starter of these ideas, but we have to continue pushing them, by bringing people together around these topics and advocating for change. This is why I started my newsletter on Substack called “Agents of Change“. I also plan to grow other types of content and programs to bring more people together around these ideas, not just within museums, but to expand into nonprofits, arts and other culture organizations, and even individuals that can start thinking of their role as change-makers. I am super excited to take on a lot of the ideas that started within the book, and then continue to expand and share them on this broader platform.

 

Diana: Thank you for this interview and good luck with your important projects.

Images: Unsplash (Richard Hirajeta, Gabriel Tovar), Murawski