Editor’s Note: Every once in a while I read something that I simply must share as widely as I can. And although I have not frequently used ArtMuseumTeaching.com as a site for re-blogging, I greatly value the dialogue and discussion that can be generated through this unique and dynamic online community of practice. Several months ago, I was asked to be a part of an experimental project in online publishing called CODE WORDS, working with an inclusive group of technologists and thinkers to write a series of online essays about technology and theory in museums (and I hope to have my own essay available soon). I encourage everyone to link to this project through Medium, and share these essays with your peers and colleagues. The essay excerpt pasted below, written by Rob Stein, really struck some serious issues that rung true to my practice and thinking — and I would like to encourage readers to use the CODE WORDS project to engage in dialogue about this essays and its ideas. Find Rob’s full essay here.
“Museums … So What?”
Written by Rob Stein, Deputy Director, Dallas Museum of Art. Originally published online through CODE WORDS, an experiment in online publishing and discourse around issues of technology and theory in museums. Find the full essay here.
In August last year, the ethicist and contemporary philosopher Peter Singer wrote an op-ed piece for the New York Times that struck a nerve with me and with many in the arts community (Singer, 2013). In it he compares the relative value of giving to the arts with giving to charities that are actively working to cure blindness. Singer asserts that, “… 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.” Furthering his argument, Singer offers a thought experiment implying that those who are willing to fund the construction of a new wing of your museum are, in essence, choosing to allow thousands to become blind. To Singer, this simple value comparison clearly favors a moral imperative to fund the tangible and immediate needs of global health and poverty over relatively frivolous cultural endeavors like museums.
You can imagine that the response to Singer’s article from the cultural community was swift and loud. Dozens of articles and blog posts were written to highlight the logical flaws in his argument and to malign his brand of social philosophy; in essence dismissing the argument he presented. Certainly, I was mad too. His provocation was offensive to me. It is an affront to those of us who believe that art and culture do make an important difference. But somehow, many of those ardent responses from the cultural sector ring a bit hollow to me. While Singer’s argument is directed squarely at art museums, its easy to see how he would extend this critique to the broader cultural heritage sector as a whole.
Singer’s logic is clear, compelling, and important. He brings data with him that supports his conclusion and with it; he documents a tangible benefit to a global public. This doesn’t change the fact that I find his idea to be deeply flawed and easily refuted. I don’t believe that he’s right, but others do and that’s what has me worried. Singer highlights an emerging international movement called “effective altruism” whose proponents invest in charities that can deliver the biggest tangible benefits, believing that a disciplined method of investing in these causes will result in the greatest human impact for good.
Among these proponents is none other than Bill Gates, founder of Microsoft and among the most influential philanthropists of our generation. During a recent interview with the Financial Times (Waters, 2014), Gates echoes Singer’s op-ed and asserts that support of the arts and culture is “… slightly barbaric” using again the same flawed comparison of arts support versus curing blindness. Again, my initial response to the interview was to be angry and dismissive of these points, but as I reflected more on what was happening, I now have quite a different impression.
I have to admit some bias on my part. Bill Gates, the technologist, has not been among my favorite people. However, I must admit that Bill Gates, the philanthropist, has earned my admiration in ways I didn’t expect. When one day we reflect on Gates’ impact on the world, I’m quite certain that the lasting and permanent good he has done through his charitable foundation will far outstrip the impact he made on the technology industry. Gates brings a methodical, visionary, and principled approach to his philanthropic choices and it’s no wonder that a philosophy of “effective altruism” and its data-driven approach to giving appeals to him. Herein lies the problem. If a well-reasoned, well-meaning, and generous philanthropist like Mr. Gates is predisposed to believe that giving to the arts might be“slightly barbaric”, we’ve got a problem.
The effective altruism movement is not in and of itself a bad thing. In fact, a community of serious investors who are committed to seeing true and demonstrable impact from their giving can hardly be faulted. The problem lies with the cultural sector’s inability to mount a compelling case of evidence to convince these “effective altruists” that tangible and meaningful benefit does indeed result from investing in the arts and culture. Our impassioned arguments about how museums can change lives and bring communities closer together are all well-and-good, but they mean very little to a data-driven philanthropist if we cannot bring supporting evidence with us to prove our point.
Proving the Point, What Makes a Museum Good?
Given that the year is now 2014, why is it acceptable for museums to tolerate such a lack of evidence for why we matter to the world around us? According to the American Alliance of Museums, the museum sector contributes $21 billion to the US Economy every year. Considering that robust number, doesn’t it seem strange that we still have difficulty putting our finger on the data that explains what important outcomes result from those efforts?
Stephen Weil raised the clarion call regarding the need for museums to define for themselves why they exist nearly 17 years ago, but I feel that we’ve still not taken him seriously. Why should our public even care if museums are succeeding or failing if we can’t prove to them why we matter?
Museums… So what?
The good museum is neither a survival-driven institution nor a process-driven one. The good museum is a purpose-driven institution. Its leadership understands and makes manifestly clear that other, more conventional measures of success — a balanced budget, approbation of peers, high staff moral, acquisition of important collections — all have to do with means and not with ends. They may be necessary to the good museum — adequate resources certainly are — but in and of themselves they are not sufficient to make a museum a good one. 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. (Weil, 1997)
Weil goes on to poke his finger more deeply into the wound we’re all afraid to walk up to. What if Peter Singer is right? What if there are some museums who don’t matter, or those that matter less?
The first necessary step — the bold one — requires that we publicly face up to the reality — and face up to it with a forthrightness that has hitherto been lacking — that all museums are not equally good and that, in fact, some museums that manage to remain solvent and go about their day-to-day business might really be no good at all. (Weil, 1997, pg 56)
If we care about the change that good museums make in the world, we should be scouring the field for the tangible proof-points of museum impact. We should be among the first to volunteer our museums for studies that can begin to test whether we are actually making the impact we claim to be. Why do museums spend millions each year to host temporary exhibitions that will be gone in a matter of weeks, but only a fraction of that amount to study how we might do a better job of changing the world? Now that museums are beginning to have the tools and expertise at their disposal to monitor, track, record, and analyze all the various ways that the public benefits from their work, the real task begins to redesign the process and program of museums and to embed impact-driven data collection into every aspect of our efforts….
What is Project CODE│WORDS?
Project CODE | WORDS is an experimental discursive publishing project that gathers a diverse group of leading thinkers and practitioners to explore emerging issues concerning the nature of museums in light of the dramatic and ongoing impact of digital technologies on society.
Project CODE│WORDS is an effort to gather and harness the discourse occurring among the museum technology community, the quantity and quality of which have grown and matured tremendously over the past decade. Conversations online and at conferences regularly tackle challenging questions regarding the identity of museums, their roles in society, their responsibilities to serve a global public, and the nature of collecting, preservation, education, scholarship, primary research, and ethics in a digital age. While the influence of these ideas is widespread among the immediate community of practitioners, they are not always shared more broadly throughout the field, limiting their utility. In spite of this, those discussions are beginning to inspire change in many museums and are demonstrating the important relationship between emerging digital practices and museum theory. CODE│WORDS aims to explore ways to spread new ideas, and to engage the global community of museum professionals in exploring how we respond to challenges and opportunities digital technologies present.
Learn more by connecting to the collection of essays through Medium.