Interview with Dr. Robert Janes

Robert R. Janes is an independent scholar-practitioner, a former museum director, Editor-in-Chief Emeritus of Museum Management and Curatorship, and a Visiting Fellow at the School of Museum Studies at the University of Leicester (UK). He has a Ph.D. in archaeology and began his career as an archaeologist in Canada’s remote Northwest Territories. Janes was given a traditional Blackfoot (First Nations) name in 1995. He has worked in and around museums for 40 years as an executive, consultant, editor, author, board member, archaeologist, instructor, volunteer, and philanthropist - devoting his career to championing museums as important social institutions that are capable of making a difference in the lives of individuals and their communities. His museum publications have been translated into seven languages and his latest book, Museums without Borders (2016), is a collection of nearly 40 years of his writing. In this interview, Dr. Janes shares his thoughts about leadership in the field and the future of museums.

  1. In your book Museums in a Troubled World you argue that much more can be expected of museums as agents of change in society. What role do you think museums should have in social and environmental change?

Paradoxically, many of our global challenges are the harbinger of a new future for museums. As deeply trusted, knowledge-based, social institutions in civil society, museums of all kinds are untapped and untested sources of ideas and knowledge, and are ideally placed to foster individual and community participation in the quest for greater awareness and workable solutions to our global problems - ranging from homelessness, to migration, to climate change. 

Contrary to a popular misconception in the museum community, museums need not engage in radical change to realize their full potential, for they already have what they need to act as agents of change and catalysts for individual and community well-being. Public trust and accessibility are already at hand. A renewed sense of the world around them, a redefined mission based on community well-being, and the courage and vulnerability to truly engage with their communities are now required.

  1. What do you think is the most pressing issue that museums are currently facing?

The world’s issues and challenges have changed dramatically over the past two decades. The erosion of public and private funding has been an overarching concern for decades, and this has led to a preoccupation with internal museum concerns such as exhibitions, collections and increasing earned revenues. The pressures on museums, however, now reach far beyond these internal preoccupations of money and popularity, and must embrace an informed sensitivity to societal needs and issues - ranging from the consequences of climate change to social justice issues. The foundation of this new future must be stewardship, and I cannot emphasize enough that the sustainability of museums cannot be separated from the sustainability of the biosphere. By biosphere, I mean the global ecological system integrating all living beings and their relationships.

Museums will prosper to the extent that they are humble, reflective and create the new knowledge, learning and action required to address the complexities of contemporary life, including our undeniable interconnectedness with the natural world. Sitting on the sidelines is no longer an option for any competent museum. All those engaged in the museum enterprise, be they scholars, students, practitioners, consultants or associations, are essential to this task.

  1. What do you think your greatest accomplishment in the museum field has been?

I can think of various initiatives that I hope have been helpful to the museum community, such as:

  1. Developing the first professional museum in Canada’s Northwest Territories, where over 60% of the population was First Nations, Inuit or Metis.
  2. Creating the first strategic plan for a Canadian museum with qualitative and quantitative performance measures.
  3. Publishing the, the first practical case study on a museum change effort – a book that has been published in three editions.
  4. Overseeing the largest, unconditional repatriation of First Nations sacred objects in Canadian history.
  5. Reviving the journal of Museum Management and Curatorship and making it the only truly global, peer-reviewed museum journal in the world.

Yet, these are only projects, with a beginning and an end. In retrospect, I think my greatest accomplishment is actually a commitment to continuous learning -  to being mindful and paying attention to my surroundings, and to learning and changing in an effort to address new opportunities and challenges. It is not useful to have 40 years of museum experience if it’s the same year repeated 40 times. I have tried to avoid that trap.

  1. What is the best way to contribute to the future of the museum field?

At the heart of organizational effectiveness are individual museum workers, as organizations only exist because of the people who work in them.  With this in mind, assuming personal agency is key to the future of museums. By personal agency, I mean the capacity of individual museum workers, not just their leaders and managers, to take action in the world. Museum workers are insightful and motivated by concerns beyond the museum, and possess personal values that guide their everyday lives. Yet, many of them shy away from expressing their values and assuming their personal agency - for fear of losing their job or their friends. I think that this fear is exaggerated, so I recommend rocking the boat and flying under the radar. Do what you need to do in your museum if you feel that something is important and needs to be addressed.

In addition, museum boards and staff must become comfortable with asking “why” they do what they do. The emphasis is always on the “what” and the “how” of museum work, but rarely do we ask “why”? If boards and staff are willing to undertake a process of organizational self-discovery by asking “why”, it will inevitably result in the critical assessment of traditional museum assumptions and practices. This self-reflection and its consequences would be a major contribution to a more intelligent and caring future for museums.

Museums have existed for centuries, equipped as they are with some sort of adaptive intuition to reinvent and transform themselves, however slowly and unconsciously. Museums have evolved through time, from the elite collections of imperial dominance, to educational institutions for the public, and now to the museum as “mall” and appendage of consumer society.  The museum’s next iteration must now be defined, and it will require no less than a commitment to the durability and well-being of individuals, communities and the natural world.

  1. What are some differences between Canadian and American museums that you have observed?

Please note that I have not worked in an American museum, so my observations lack direct experience. Overall, one of the major differences is the sheer number of American museums – 35,000 compared to 2,500 in Canada. That makes for a very strong museum community in the US. It is also noteworthy that American museums rely much less on government funding than in Canada. The tradition of philanthropy and private giving is highly developed in the US, where there is also considerably more wealth than in Canada – your population is nearly 10 times that of Canada.

More specifically, Canadian museums have adopted a different approach to working with First Nations, than did the US with Native Americans. The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act was created to force cooperation, while we in Canada have relied on voluntary consultation and collaboration with First Nations, Inuit and Metis. The overall effectiveness of the Canadian approach remains to be seen.

I also note some impressive new thinking and innovation emerging from the American museum community, such as taking a stand against racism; the humanitarian collaboration “Curators without Borders”; and a growing commitment to “greening” museums and enhancing their physical sustainability - to mention only several examples. I would like to see more cooperation and collaboration between Canadian and American museums, such as the excellent and upcoming joint meeting of the Western Museums Association and the Alberta Museums Association in Edmonton. We have much to learn from each other.



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Just want to see if you are a robot.