When thinking about the changing role of the museum in society we see this idea, the museum as a safe place to have tough conversations, emerging as one of the roles of the museum now and into the future. As we see with Gretchen Jennings and the #museumsrespondtoFerguson initiative, museums can be a place where communities come together to heal and a place for different sides of the debate to meet. More and more I am hearing these and other similar conversations among museum professionals, and it is an exciting time to be in the museum field, when “facilitating difficult conversations” and “telling difficult stories” are more widespread. But, how does this translate to practice?
I kept returning to this idea during our visits to the National Museum of the American Indian and the United States Holocaust Museum and Memorial. Both institutions have very difficult stories to tell, both institutions are national museums with huge audiences, how are they using their platform? Very carefully, it seems. One of the challenges of being a federal museum is legally you can not push for political change, there is also the unspoken added layer of ‘working within the system’. One way that the USHMM navigates this is to simply provide to historical facts in the contemporary situation and allow the visitor to come to their own conclusions. For someone who is pushing for change, this might not seem like enough. As a museum educator, I know when a visitor makes a connection on their own it has a lasting impression and is more powerful than if the museum spoon-fed the visitor every connection you want a visitor to make.
Museums can and should take a stance, but what it takes a stance on and the way they take a stance will look different. Why might a museum not take a stance? Being vulnerable and not wanting to relinquish control are two reasons I see stopping museums.