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Museum Activism

Museum Activism – The Book


Robert R. Janes and Richard Sandell


The global museum community, a sleeping giant if ever there was one, is stirring from its slumber. It is a powerful community, indeed, but one whose latent power has been largely consumed by a preoccupation with education, entertainment and consumption. This preoccupation has rendered far too many museums somnambulant—content with ‘sleep walking into the future’ (Janes 2014: 7–8). Our ambition in this new book, Museum Activism, is to identify and support ways to move beyond this avoidable destiny and explore new and divergent expressions of the museum’s inherent power as a force for good.

In doing so, we hope to encourage further experimentation and enrich the debate in this nascent and uncertain field of museum practice. We also wish to acknowledge and celebrate the global museum community’s growing awareness of the world around them, and how this awareness is beginning to embrace the aspirations, challenges, horrors and misfortunes that mark human society everywhere. We have chosen to describe this work as museum activism, in the sense of museum practice, shaped out of ethically-informed values, that is intended to bring about political, social and environmental change.

We also acknowledge that, while the use of museums to bring about change is by no means a new concept (Sandell 2002), activism is not a household word among museum practitioners and academics, and generates responses ranging from raised eyebrows, to mild panic, to outright criticism (Sandell 2011). Museum workers are fond of saying that they are taking care of their collections for posterity. We submit that posterity has arrived for the museum’s mission, role, values and responsibilities—all of which require a radical rethinking in the early 21st century.

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 (Gopnik cited in Janes 2009: 183–4).1 Paradoxically, and despite their inherent conservatism, museums have existed for centuries, unlike the vast majority of business enterprises. Museums have always had some sort of ‘adaptive intuition’ to reinvent and transform themselves, however slowly and unconsciously. There is an important lesson in this historical trajectory—the ability of museums to learn and adapt as circumstances require. Socio-environmental conditions are changing rapidly and the museum as mall is the latest chapter in this long trajectory.

The museum as mall, although more audience-focused, embodies the dead end of materialism—over-merchandised and devoted to consumption and entertainment. It is the museum as mall that underlies our commitment to museum activism, as we believe that the relentless focus on money, consumption, and marketplace ideology continues to diminish the museum as a social institution and a key civic resource. It is prudent for museum practitioners to recognize that they are a privileged group, working in organizations whose purpose is their meaning (Handy 1994: 183). Museums already have a boundless capacity to act with intelligence and sensitivity—money is not required to do this. Everything that is required to fulfill the true potential of museums is here—now. There is nothing lacking.

Museums for the 21st century

In thinking about the museum’s next iteration beyond being an appendage of consumer society, would it qualify as a paradigm shift? Thomas Kuhn, the philosopher of science, wrote that replacing a paradigm (a pattern, model or standard) is tantamount to a revolution (Kuhn 1962: 43–65). Museums, however, have yet to qualify as revolutionary organizations, and there is far too much diversity and autonomy in the world’s more than 55,000 museums to permit a unified, paradigmatic worldview underlying museum method and theory.

Nonetheless, there is sufficient evidence in the global museum community that something unruly, not necessarily paradigmatic, is afoot—a foray into discomfort, disquiet, and the unknown. Various museums and their staffs are now exploring this new and unknown landscape—debating and acting upon social inequality, the marginalization of Indigenous Peoples, political injustice, and the causes of environmental destruction. Museums play a significant, but largely unacknowledged and overlooked part, ‘in shaping the social and political conditions within which human rights are negotiated, continually recast and disseminated, constrained or advanced’ (Sandell 2017:192). We submit that this brings forth a moral imperative for museums to reflect and act. As Wendell Berry (2015: 15), the American poet/farmer, noted, ‘If we are serious about these big problems, we have got to see that the solutions begin and end with ourselves.’

The big questions

Our central premise in Museum Activism is that museums must move beyond their internal preoccupations and create visions and missions that address the big problems and the big questions. Questions such as why does your museum exist, what changes are you trying to effect, what solutions will you generate, and what are your non-negotiable values? In short, the museum must now become an institution of the commons—a resource belonging to, and affecting the whole, of a community. Moreover, we submit that museum activism not only requires a willingness on the part of museum workers to exercise moral leadership in support of ethical issues (Sandell 2007), but also an openness to collaborative and participatory ways of working that build relationships and strengthen networks well beyond the museum, thereby supporting broader efforts to bring about change.

The meaning of museum activism

With a variety of notable exceptions, the museum community is not responding to the world, be it climate change, species extinction, or social justice issues such as poverty and homelessness. Instead, there is a continuing preoccupation with attracting bigger audiences, along with a growing fascination with digital technology. Had museums been more mindful of their unique attributes, they might well have served as distant early warning systems, as global, socio-environmental issues came into sight decades ago. Museums have their own distractions and internal agendas that preclude or discourage responding to the world. It also seems that museum practitioners are overly careful with their actions and speech. As crises mount, museums are alarmingly invisible—reluctant to disturb or assert. Raising museum voices in opposition to anything is traditionally out of character. Are museum workers and academics simply agreeable people who are not free or empowered enough to meet the global challenges? We suggest that they are not.

Activist museum practice explicitly challenges the immorality of inaction. It enables museum workers to be citizens and to assume agency, as well as responsibility for the consequences of their actions or inaction. For the sake of the biosphere and all the communities that museums purport to serve, it is time for the global museum community to speak as clearly and forcefully as its privileged position in society demands of it. This is admittedly not without risk. We know, as museum practitioners and academics, what we do, but most often we do not know what effects or results will ensue from what we do (Solnit 2016).


Many of the warning signs have now become crises. Museums may or may not be able to contribute to many of the global problems that need solving, but museums of all kinds are in a position to invent a new future for themselves and their communities, or at least help create an image of a desirable future—the essential first step in its realization. Museums are uniquely positioned to do so, with their mix of humanism, science, time-depth and societal respect (Janes 2013: 13). Equally as important is that many people look to museums for inspiration and guidance.

The next stage in the evolution of museums must now be defined in alignment with this potential – grounded in museums providing substantive and sustained public benefit. We submit that there is a need for a new breed of museum workers and museums, rooted in an awareness of the world around them and the need to work in a less museum-centred way. Paying attention to the world around them is the new foundation for museum sustainability. The challenge of sustainability for every museum—be it large or small; volunteer or paid—is to redefine the ultimate purpose and standards of museum work. Professionalism and the yearning for popularity must make room for a commitment to the durability and well-being of individuals, communities and the natural world (Berry 2000: 134).

As Museum Activism demonstrates, there are new initiatives underway that clearly challenge the status quo — rethought, reshaped and revitalized by museum workers. The 34 essays in this book, written by 51 authors from 14 countries, are testimony to this fact. All of them seek to harness the museum’s unique resources towards more sustainable, fair, and just museums and societies (Sandell and Dodd 2010). There is a Buddhist teaching called the Six Perfections or Paramitas (Bercholz and Kohn 1993: 321), the fourth of which is concerned with ‘courageous energy’ or taking action to make the world a better place. Therein lies the meaning and value of museum activism.



Bercholz, S. and Kohn, S. C. (1993) The Buddha and His Teachings, Boston, MA: Shambala Publications, Inc.

Berry, W. (2000) Life Is a Miracle, Berkeley, CA: Counterpoint.

Berry, W. (2015) Our Only World, Berkeley, CA: Counterpoint.

Handy, C. (1994) The Age of Paradox, Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Press.

Janes, R. R. (2009) Museums in a Troubled World: Renewal, Irrelevance or Collapse? Abingdon and New York: Routledge.

Janes, R. R. (2013) Museums and the Paradox of Change, Abingdon and New York: Routledge.

Janes, R. R. (2014) ‘Museums in a dangerous time’, The Fellows Lecture, Canadian Museums Association, Toronto, Canada, 10 April.

Kuhn, T. S. (1962) The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Chicago, IL and London: University of Chicago Press.

Sandell, R. (2002) ‘Museums and the combating of social inequality: Roles, responsibilities, resistance’ in R. Sandell (ed.) Museums, Society, Inequality, Abingdon: Routledge: 3–23.

Sandell, R. (2007) Museums, Prejudice and the Reframing of Difference, Abingdon and New York: Routledge.

Sandell, R. and Dodd, J. (2010) ‘Activist practice’ in R. Sandell, J. Dodd and R. Garland-

Thomson (eds.) Re-Presenting Disability: Activism and Agency in the Museum, Abingdon and New York: Routledge: 3–22.

Sandell, R. (2011) ‘Ethics and activism’ in J. Marstine (ed.) The Routledge Companion to Museum Ethics: Redefining Ethics for the Twenty-First Century Museum, Abingdon and New York: Routledge: 129–145.

Sandell, R. (2017) Museums, Moralities and Human Rights, Abingdon and New York: Routledge.

Solnit, R. (2016) ‘Rebecca Solnit: Falling together’, DailyGood: News that Inspires, 25 June. Online. Available at www.dailygood.org/story/1322/rebecca-solnit-falling-together-on-being/ (accessed 5 May 2018).



Robert R. Janes is a Visiting Fellow at the School of Museum Studies , University of Leicester (UK), Editor-in-Chief Emeritus of Museum Management and Curatorship, and the founder of the Coalition of Museums for Climate Justice. He has devoted his career to championing museums as important social institutions that can make a difference in the lives of individuals and their communities. His museum publications have been translated into nine languages.

Richard Sandell is Professor of Museum Studies at the University of Leicester, UK. His research and collaborative practice with wide-ranging institutions is concerned with the social potential  museums, galleries and heritage sites and, in particular, their capacity to shape the moral and political climate within which human rights are experienced.

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