Like many colleagues I believe that cultural institutions have a social responsibility to the communities in which they are situated. But what exactly does this mean to each of us? Can there be consensus on how museums should serve the public? Should there be? Does this role change from history museums to fine art organizations, time period to time period, or in different regions of the Country?
American museums have a long history of public engagement. Founded as an educational venue for promoting democratic values, Charles Wilson Peale’s museum was politically progressive from its inception. From George Hein to John Cotton Dana, professionals have called for more active and direct ways that institutions can serve the general public. Often concerns about financial sustainability or straying too far from one’s mission have held back initiatives that could directly impact the lives of community members. Some programs, such as The Lower Eastside Tenement Museum’s Kitchen Conversations have bravely tackled politically and socially charged issues such as assimilation. Others may seem to quickly jump on recent trends without the appropriate reflection. What is the right balance?
During this discussion we will explore the various ways that museums can benefit society and discuss the potential roles that they might play in community engagement. Opinions about the level of commitment organizations should exercise in the name of social responsibility as well as the relationship to mission is sure to reflect the diversity of session’s participants. We will explore examples of projects that have been successful and others that have been less so; debate the idea that museums should remain “neutral;” explore ways of addressing issues such as climate change, economic inequality, political charged issues; and have conversations about how to best connect to communities to serve new audiences.