‘Relevance’ of Museums: From Rhetoric to Reality?

With enthusiastic support from Robert Mac West, editor and publisher of the Informal Learning Review (ILR), RK&A is pleased to share Emlyn Koster’s recent opinion, ‘Relevance’ of Museums: From Rhetoric to Reality? which was part of ILR’s pandemic-themed September/October 2021 issue.  Emlyn’s original article is reproduced in full below. It is followed by his additional ‘seeing the forest for the trees’ themed remarks, spurred by the topical context of the UN’s just-completed Climate Change Conference in Scotland and the UN’s just-announced 2022 Human Environment Conference next June in Sweden. Huge thanks to Robert and Emlyn for allowing us to repost this timely piece and commentary!

‘Relevance’ of Museums: From Rhetoric to Reality?

A black pair of glasses is in the foreground as if the viewer is about to put them on. There is a forest full of trees with green leaves in the background. Looking through the glasses lenses makes the forest in the background appear clear, while the forest looks blurry outside its frames.
Not Seeing the Forest for the Trees
By: Emlyn Koster

“… Will history show that the Covid-19 pandemic stimulated the museum sector to take steps toward a resilient future? In 2009 Marjorie Schwarzer recalled in Museum News: “When the funds began to flow again, museums quickly forgot the shock of the Depression as well as their moments of innovation on behalf of the public… An opportunity to be societal role models for the wisest possible use of resources and talent was lost”. In 2012 when interviewed for an AAM Annual Meeting keynote address, Neil deGrasse Tyson predicted: “If in 2050 we were delivering the same messages, either we’ve failed at affecting change in society and still needed to give those messages, or we just got left behind and we were no longer on the frontier of what mattered in society”. 

‘Making Museums Matter’ in 2002 by Stephen Weil, a scholar emeritus at the Smithsonian, arguably continues to be the sector’s most thought-provoking book. ‘Beyond Management’, his last article in 2006 which was published by ICOM, emphasized the awkward fact that museums lack a standard for gauging their relative worthiness. They still do. At the core of the museum sector’s value lies the often used, but seldom defined, concept of relevance. With synonyms and antonyms that include pertinent and unconnected, respectively, it means being consequential to one or more specific matters at hand.

In his 1992 book ‘Visionary Leadership: Creating a Compelling Sense of Direction for Your Organization’, Burt Nanus cited a 1980 book about the genius of the composer Bach, the artist Escher and the logician Gödel. One way to imagine a more successful future is to synthesize new concepts by taking old ones and assembling them in new ways. In a 2006 AAM Museum News article, I opined that relevance involves topical content such as the divergence of society into rich and poor, the rise and fall of superpowers, the winning and losing of wars, and humanity’s disruption of the natural world. My recent article in AAM’s Exhibition journal elaborated on the paradigm shift that is needed to illuminate the Earth System with a holistic past-present-future mindset.

Each crisis confronting the world is named to enable public communication as it unfolds and for historical reference. When news breaks about catastrophes such as Delta, Dixie and Ida, most people soon grasp their what, why and how details. Yet for too long, progress of the museum sector—borne of a purpose to be reflective and inspirational resources―has been impeded by numerous perceptual disconnects. Homo sapiens are but one species among the millions of others who share Planet Earth. Nature and culture are interconnected. Environmental health and human health are interdependent. Academia and curatorship suffer from hyper-specialization. The different types of museums ought to blur their boundaries. Diversifying staff is only an advantage if this measure is surrounded by collateral big-picture actions. Timidity is the enemy of what is needed. The nice versus necessary debate is passé.

With this chapter of history besieged by a mutating pandemic, systemic racism, authoritarian regimes, and climate change with extreme weather, a profound introspection across the museum sector should be underway. While COVID-19 instantly resulted in major operational adjustments, airing of the hefty implications for each institution’s values, visions, missions, and strategies remains inadequate. What was already a busy agenda of apt topics for museums abruptly magnified into a vital focus if they are to be meaningful in today’s troubled world. The profound challenge before the museum sector is to seize this jolting period of environmental and societal changes as a launchpad for directional improvements and not just for operational adjustments. History tells us, however, that inertia tends to be a more powerful influence than courage.

As a geologist, museologist and humanist focused on the Anthropocene, my view of what urgently faces the museum sector is a wake-up call to become an integral player in the ecosystem of what matters locally and globally. Well-marketed meaningful experiences require deep directional thought with new stakeholders, including those who are rising up to publicly object to the status quo. In particular, it is my hope that this surfaces as a commitment to integrate the philosophies and priorities of associations and institutions. Well-informed, visionary, and effective leadership has never been more critical ...” 

Turning Rhetoric into Reality in Practice

The priority when I was appointed at the helm of the NC Museum of Natural Sciences in 2013 ― then in urgent need of a post-capital slowing of pace and directional clarity — was an organization-wide situation analysis. Widely consultative and completed within six months, this was embraced as a blueprint for tackling strategic and operational needs and became recalled as a pivotal step when AAM issued its report on the Museum’s re-accreditation in 2017. An anecdote about generative thinking in a Harvard Business School research summary had been instructive. A staff member excitedly updating a board meeting that an approach to an institutional challenge had just surfaced was met with a board member retort of “well, you haven’t asked the right core question yet!”. As the distant and close-up views of a forest and its trees imply, a bifocal vision is an imperative for museums in need of change, and especially so in this tumultuous world. One cannot grasp the nature and causes of a problematic situation by only considering parts of it.

Several years later when proposing a holistic ethos for nature-focused museums in the Anthropocene (see Emlyn Koster, Eric Dorfman and Terry Nyambe, 2018, A holistic ethos for nature-focused museums in the Anthropocene. In: The Future of Natural History Museums, edited by Eric Dorfman, Routledge: 29-48), I recommended two other planning approaches from outside the museum sector. The Triple Bottom Line approach was introduced in 1994 by a UK consultancy called SustainAbility. Advocating that sustainable decisions are characterized by balanced attention to three bottom lines —people (referring to social responsibility), planet (referring to environmental responsibility), and profit (referring to feasibility and growth) — the concept offers an important reminder that organizations should take a long-term and holistic perspective when formulating big decisions. Introduced in 2004 by two professors of strategy at INSEAD, one of the world’s top business schools, Blue Ocean Strategy is an approach contrary to conventional profit motives. Centered on the refreshing notion of uncontested market space, the example of Cirque de Soleil is commonly cited. This enterprise reinvented the core attribute of a circus with artistic performers replacing trained animals. This innovation together with news that two longstanding circuses and killer whale performances at a prominent marine park were ending were clear expressions of a new public conscience. As the Association of Zoos and Aquariums announced during that period, the time had come to envision a world where all people respect, value and conserve wildlife. For their part, museums ought to also probe their driving philosophy and practice in a generative and innovative manner.

About the Author

Emlyn Koster, PhD has been the CEO of the Royal Tyrrell Museum of Paleontology, Ontario Science Centre, Liberty Science Center, and NC Museum of Natural Sciences. A distinguished alumnus of the University of Ottawa, his awards include Humanitarian of the Year by the American Conference on Diversity and volunteerism includes the Ambassadors Circle for the International Coalition of Sites of Conscience. The initial chair of ICOM’s Anthropocene working group and an adjunct professor in Marine, Earth and Atmospheric Sciences at NC State University, he can be reached at koster.emlyn@gmail.com and his previous RK&A blog posts are here.

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