Museums, Activism, and Social Media
On the heels of a particularly divisive election cycle, 2017 was a challenging year for many Americans. Numerous issues were brought to the national forefront including immigration reform, climate change, sexual harassment, police brutality, xenophobia, racism, health care reform, and women’s rights among many others. Many people looked to public figures and institutions to take stands on controversial issues, denounce moments of injustice, and vocalize their political opinions. From celebrities to corporations, this past year has been a year to make one’s values known. Some companies have found this shift to a political arena to be lucrative, for example about 91% of millennials say they would switch brands to ones associated with a cause. For museums, wading into potentially controversial matters has been, and still is, a debated action. Many Americans view museums as neutral institutions, spaces where facts are displayed without bias. In fact, museums are considered the most trustworthy source of information in America, rated higher than local papers, nonprofits researchers, the U.S. government, or academic researchers. The matter of museums taking political stands is further complicated by their often complex organizational and financial structures. Board members and donors may have social and financial investments that conflict with the views held by those who work within the institution and in some cases with the views of the museum itself. Nevertheless, in a year of political strife, these barriers did not prevent members of the public from looking to museums to take activist stances. As museums struggle to attract broad audiences (Filene 11), many have used the ephemeral nature of the web and social media as a platform to spread activist messages and reach new audiences while circumnavigating internal and structural obstacles. The use of social media provides museums the opportunity to post political messages and respond to current events, but it also risks co-option of activists’ movements and potential audience alienation.
At my previous institution, there were three physical buildings or sites that comprised the museum. The museum’s web presence was considered the fourth site. While not a physical space, it welcomed numerous visitors daily and exposed them to the museum’s collection and its mission and values. Unencumbered by the structural limitations of a building, the website and, even more so, the social media accounts were spaces of flexibility, freedom, and limitless opportunity. In his text “Passionate Histories: ‘Outsider’ History-Makers and What They Teach Us”, Benjamin Filene describes the success “outsider history-makers” ( re-enactors, genealogists, heritage tourism developers), have established in their emotional, personal approach to history. He states, ““Unmoored by institutional expectations, they are what we might call “outsider history-makers.’ They respect the past, but unbound by professional affiliation or, often, training, they can break the rules about disciplinary rigor, form, and footnotes. For them, the past is not remote and dead but a comfortable companion. Freed from scholarly and professional conventions, they create passionate histories and revel in the past as a living, sustaining resource” (Filene 12).
In many ways, institutions are using their social media accounts to reach people in a similar manner as these “outsiders”. Through social media, institutions can introduce audiences to their collections in totally new ways; express personality and a voice that may not come across in a wall text; and forgo academic speech for humor and levity. Over the past year many museums have also levied the spontaneity of social media to respond immediately to events in ways that they are unable to do in their physical space. The inherent immediacy of social media is in contrast with the often slow moving, hierarchical structures that mark many museum processes. For these reasons, social media is a natural platform for museums who wish to take activist stances and be more responsive to the outside world. In 2017, museums across the nation took to social media to address current events and express their point of view. A few examples below:
While it is clear that many museums have used social media as ways to engage with social justice matters, the question still remains: should museums be activists? A second question might be, can museums be activists? In her article “Public Humanities’ (Victorian) Culture Problem”, Mary L. Mullen questions the progressiveness of the field of public humanities and contemporary cultural institutions, arguing that these institutions reproduce their ancestral Victorian cultural norms, maintaining social inequalities while touting change. Mullen states, “Instead of changing the principle of knowledge or cultural authority, the public humanities strengthen and legitimare established power relations as they exclude minority cultural groups” (Mullen 1). On one hand, one can view museums as agents of change holding great social capital and potential. Many museums hold missions that include advancement of cultural and public good. Thus, it makes sense that they take stands on current events relevant to their collections and their publics. On the other hand, one can argue that museums are symbols of imperialistic control that aim to support cultural good and progress only when it aligns with their own interest. This form of institutional-supported progress can come at the expense of underrepresented groups that yield less power.
At my previous institution, I worked with high school interns to create content for the teen Instagram account. The teens were told that this account was their space to share their voice and express themselves. Compared to the guidelines and expectations that were attached to the museum’s main account, with its 2.2 million followers, the teen account could be edgy, personal, topical. Many of the interns were interested in posting about current events and sharing social justice messages, and we encouraged this. In fact, I have noticed that many institutions’ teen social platforms are more activist leaning than their main accounts, which falls in line with national trends. In hindsight, I wonder if we, the overall institution, were co-opting the “radicalness” of these teens’ views. Of course this was not the intention of myself or any of my colleagues, but leaving the activist messages to the teen account can be viewed as the museum simultaneously supporting these messages, while protecting itself from any potential critique or controversy. This is an example of a museum not owning up to their values completely. Even when these stated values are placed front and center, the actions of museums can contradict their messaging. This conflict arises when museums say one thing but do something else. How can the public trust a museum’s #metoo tweet, when their current director has been accused of sexual harassment. How should they feel about a museum’s instagram post supporting renewable energy, when a noted climate change denier sits on its board?
So to answer the first question I posed: Yes, museums should be activists. Due to their history, their missions, and their collections, they cannot remain neutral. To remain neutral implies that they are not affected by the outside world, and this is not true. Artists will create political work and museums will collect it. Social movements will impact history and museums will share those stories. Visitors will be affected by various issues and museums will aim to get them through their doors. Can museums be activists? This second question is harder to answer. The current structure of many museums will prohibit them from making actionable changes. As Mullen states, “In a neoliberal age where privatization is the norm, the mere inclusion of the word ‘public’ is energizing, evoking a sense of community and shared discourse that is essential for democracy, but actively eroded by increasingly dominant profit-driven logic” (Mullen 2). In an era where, 57 percent of consumers are more likely to buy or boycott a brand because of its stance on a social or political issue, it is unlikely that many museums will take the risk of harming their business by upsetting visitors. However, this is the same era where 66 percent of millenials, a target audience of most museums, say they make purchasing decisions based on brands’ beliefs. Consequently museums have as much, if not more, to gain from expressing their beliefs as they have to lose. Social media plays a role in the ways museums message their beliefs, but museums will need to reevaluate their fiscal structure, internal culture, and core values if they want to transition into less passive institutions and be able to add weight behind the words they tweet.
Filene, Benjamin. “Passionate Histories: ‘Outsider’ History-Makers and What They Teach Us.” The Public Historian, vol. 34, no. 1, 2012, pp. 11–33.
Mullen, Mary L. “Public Humanities (Victorian) Culture Problem.”Cultural Studies
, vol. 30, no. 2, 2014, pp. 183–204., doi:10.1080/09502386.2014.978802.
“Should museums be activists? - Museums, Trust and Activism.”MuseumNext
, 3 Nov. 2017, www.museumnext.com/2017/04/should-museums-be-activists/.
Other sources, hyperlinked within the article