Talkin' About a (R)evolution?

By Jason B. Jones

As a graduate student in the San Francisco Bay Area, revolution is familiar territory. Ideas of changing the world permeate the culture of the Bay. At the John F. Kennedy University’s Berkeley Campus, on Saturday April 10, 2010, the Department of Museum Studies hosted a colloquium: Museums in a Troubled World.

Dr. Robert R. Janes discussed his recent book Museums in a Troubled World: Renewal, Irrelevance or Collapse? Janes presented a need for revolution in the museum field. Oddly, I found myself taking a step back.

I am not a revolutionary.  Perhaps years of being a politically active anarchist made me nervous about revolution. Revolutions tend to be unstable, and can swing back the other direction with a vengeance. As a result, I became an evolutionary. Gradual change through education and intentionally setting a direction will stabilize an organization and allow for more complete organizational acceptance of the new ideas.

I think these aspects are critical to holistic change. However, Janes’s talk and the following discussions framed the need for change in the museum field due to the irrelevance of museums as social institutions. Janes described how museums tend to ignore major concerns--including a broader commitment to the world, a growing adherence to marketplace demands, and unlimited collections growth and limited resources for care of objects.

He suggested mission statements that only address ‘what’ museums engage in and not the ‘why’ do not go far enough. Specifically, Janes thinks museums need to strengthen their commitment to making a difference, confront “sacred cows” in the museum field, and reevaluate the real work museums should be doing.

As most things do these days, the discussion made me think of the thesis that I am currently writing. In part, my thesis addresses a recent overhaul to the Tax Form 990, the annual financial reporting document for non-profits.With the changes to form, the IRS defines a new direction for non-profit management structures.  The ideas themselves aren’t new, but the IRS making them guidelines for non-profits is quite new.

So, I started to wonder: Has the IRS begun to revolutionize the non-profit sector in America, and therefore museums? I think the structural changes to policies and procedures needed to complete the Form 990 approaches the definition of a revolution.

If museums are in the midst of a revolution, then why not strive to re-imagine the place of museums in society? Why not create new organizational structures based on collaboration? Why not look to effective models outside the field? Why not make museums about the ‘why’? Upon reflection, perhaps I am a revolutionary. I certainly believe the museum field needs to adapt to survive. Why not adapt to thrive? Maybe surviving verses thriving is the difference between evolution and revolution. Man, one little ‘r’ can make a big difference.

Jason B. Jones is learning to better manage his time. His primary method for improving this skill is by concurrently completing an MA and a MBA in Museum Administration at John F. Kennedy University. He can be found on twitter.




I suppose the idea of "why" have a museum is at the heart of what has happened at the Barona Cultural Center & Museum (as we celebrate our tenth anniversary). The Museum exists because Tribal members were concerned about preserving their culture for the children on the Reservation. The Museum emerged because they did know "why," and cared more about that idea than "what' would be in the Museum. The objects are important, but the ideas and actions of the people are vital. Today, the Museum is a focal point for cultural revitalization. The dreams of revitalization are coming to fruition in the form of classes, traditional gatherings, the first written tribal history, and the recently published 696-page dictionary to preserve the language--and exhibits reflecting all of these. As I look outside to the concerns of fellow Americans, I see a need for cultural revitalization and also a sense of "who am I" in this vast globalized history that is emerging? This has happened for me personally since immersing myself in the Barona culture story—I know myself better and have begun to cherish, investigate and preserve my own family story. I love the image that being evolutionary evokes and I understand that revolution reminds us that change is necessary or cultures will die—and perhaps cultural institutions too. What I have seen demonstrated is revitalization. Revitalization tells us that what we have as our foundation needs to be reawakened. I am grateful to the Barona people who after thousands of years of culture, have demonstrated a sense of re-creation, meeting modern challenges on a global level, and preserving what is fundamental at a local level. This seems to me an evolving revolution—not too fast to destroy the heart of their story and not too staid by refusing change—one that revitalizes. Thank you, Jason, for a column that made me reflect on the story that this tribal culture tells through its museum—what is local is often universal. Our world requires that we revitalize ourselves and this institution, the Museum--otherwise we will not know ourselves and our place in the emerging story.

Absolutely, Marjorie. Dr. Janes made a number of good points. One that struck me was his call for practitioners in the field to contribute to the theoretical discourse. It surprised me that I hadn't heard more people championing the worker's voice. The field discusses siloing in our organizations, but what about the separation between theory and practice? This is one example of many opportunities that Dr. Janes presented for museums to move forward in healthy and sustainable ways. His talk, and the following discussions, still have ideas bouncing around in my head. I just need to figure out how to USE some of them.

Thanks for writing this, Jason.

For the past...however many years...the museum field has been awash in the idea of change. My biggest issue when colleagues discuss this, however, is the negative mentality. That the focus is on all the horrible things that will happen if a sea change doesn't occur. They're right, but how come the big voices aren't also heralding the opposite side of the coin? That great things can come if it does happen?

It is no secret that negative reinforcement just doesn't work on me. I'm not motivated by fear or doom and gloom. Which is why "Why not adapt to thrive?" struck a very significant chord with me. Is it the assumption that change is inherently bad? (That's a rhetorical question.) Change doesn't have to suck, I guess is what I'm saying. So heck yeah - let us absolutely adapt and thrive.

I'll be fascinated to read your thesis when you're done - in how museums are reacting and modifying their infrastructure to this big governmental mandate. Wow.

I agree, Kristen. I am motivated by the positive possibilities that change can bring to museums. I think the conversation should be framed by "How can museums bring that positive change to communities" and "how can museums expand on what is working for the field." Change is always happening, but it is up to us to give it direction and a voice. And yes, let's absolutely adapt and thrive!

To use that old Berkeley term: right-on Jason! But perhaps the question should be as Dr. Janes framed it: WHY and how can museums *CONTINUE* to bring that positive change in creative ways? At the end of his talk, Dr. Janes reminded us (I think) that museums bear witness to the past, promote creativity and the human spirit, and represent ways of being and technologies that might vanish or be completely appropriated for profit, otherwise. Let's cherish what we do well -- and have the courage to call out "museum myopia" where we see it. (and deal with those sacred cows as well) Marjorie


I would love to hear more specific details about how the redesign of the infamous 990 form is (possibly) revolutionizing the structure of the non-profit sector and museums as structures. Is it so much that the redesign is prompting or nudging a revolution as dictating what non-profits must look like? Does the form do anything to address the *why* of museums or non-profits? I'm fascinated by the idea of the potential correlation between the structure of an organization (as described in the 990) and its real purpose for being. And I have long been interested in seeing museums come up with alternative structures and organizational business models to combat the culture of deprivation that seems inherent to the non-profit sector.

Cheryl~ Awesome to hear! Thanks for sharing!

Allyson~ The new Form 990 is bringing a lot of change to the American non-profit sector. Legally, the policies and procedures inquired about on the Form are not required. However, the direct questioning on the Form about management structures implies 'fault' by the non-profit for not having them, or at least the appearance to potential donors that the non-profit is poorly managed. So, even though the policies aren't Federal mandated, many non-profits have been adopting them as visibly, disclosed evidence of their organization being well governed.

That's the part I find brilliant, the IRS is changing (and aligning) the management structures in non-profits without actually requiring them. While you can argue a certain amount of indirect coercion. The adoption of these policies is voluntary and happening on a large scale. Essentially, the new Form 990 establishes a formal set of 'best practices' for non-profits, and makes not adhering to it potentially harmful to the organization's contribution level from donors. Calling it a revolution is hyperbolic, but it is still large structural changes to many non-profits at once. In a few years, the non-profit sector will look and function differently.

Now, AAM contributed quite a bit during IRS discussion period before the redesign, and the Form is very similar to the accreditation guidelines for governance. Thankfully, many museums were well positioned to handle the change to the Form 990. I think this presents the museum field with an opportunity to be leaders in the reshaped non-profit sector. After all, the non-profit sector is our community as well. Museums should be contributing to its strength and stability too.

Heather~ Thank you for sharing!

The non-profit sector in America is changing. This recent New York Times article points to another way the IRS is pushing the evolution of non-profits:

One-Fourth of Nonprofits Are to Lose Tax Breaks

What will be the position of museums in the new non-profit sector?

Your observations about Dr. Jane’s remarks and his talk in conjunction with Museums in a Troubled World: Renewal, Irrelevance or Collapse? struck me on a personal level, as relevance and community have been core ideas to my personal vision for museums and as a museum professional.

The last two museums that I served at as Director/Curator were exemplary contemporary art centers in small towns or cities unknown for their support of contemporary art and artists. According to old paradigms these art centers should not have existed, been of questionable quality, or been irrelevant as most people didn’t collect contemporary art and weren’t knowledgeable about the latest artistic trends and practices. However, what defined these museums were their missions – both the “what vs. why” as Dr. Jane observes. One museum’s mission “to create exchanges among art, artists, and audiences that reveal life” provides a clear, honest statement for the role of contemporary art, art centers, and museums as social institutions– the why – they reveal something about our lives and our society.

The challenge for how your museum in this troubled world can thrive, serve its mission, and remain relevant to the community is by embracing the community and becoming centers of community - its dreams, concerns, identity, and challenges. What I learned while at these art centers, as opposed to earlier work in a traditional regional art museum, is that underlying social themes, creative partnerships, participatory public programs, and interactive dialogue connect the audience to the exhibitions and museum creating the relevancy and engagement that our visitor-member-donors desire. Too often we tell our audience the "what" - artists, dates, movements, objects - art museums can be especially culpable of this narrow view.

To embrace the “revolutionary” metaphor, museums must act upon this idea by including our audience at a participatory level in much of what we do, especially educational and exhibition planning and programming (high-browed curators and exclusivity being sacred cows not so easily relinquished by many of us in the fine arts).

Whether evolution, or revolution, museums must seriously reconsider their role and their relevancy in today’s 21st century and act now – adapt to thrive!

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