‘We are living in times of unprecedented change […] permanently affecting the way we live, the environment, who we are as human beings, and, above all in these times […] how we must relate to each other in our relationships and communities across the globe’ (O’Hara 2003, 66).
Written in 2003, marking the first edition of The Journal of Transformative Education, O’Hara’s statement is as true today as it was then. Perhaps it is human nature to feel that we are permanently on a rollercoaster of change. Popular media suggests that this carries with it large doses of both fear of change and inspiration to initiate it (Kickbusch et al 2020). Whether this is the case or not, the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic has been profound and the museum sector has not been exempted. This short article aims to draw from Transformational Education Theory (Mezirow 2000) to highlight an opportunity to be found in the midst of the current crisis for the museum sector: a chance to embrace a role as an enabler of individual and societal change.
Despite challenges caused in part by the crisis (Stokes 2020), furloughed and housebound staff – utilizing reduced budgets and limited facilities – have managed to innovate, creating new output. These have kept museums connected to audiences and, in particular, have exploited digital technologies and their strengths (Agostino, Arnaboldi & Lampis 2020). In an attempt to respond to pandemic control measures, the approach towards museum adaptations could be described as ‘medical’: physical spacing, hand sanitization, removal of tactile exhibits (which may unintentionally reduce access for groups such as partially sighted people), etc. These retrofitted adaptions to existing experiences may give confidence to returning audiences, however, are they simply tinkering on the edges of an outdated, self-serving model?
‘I submit that most museums have largely ignored, on both moral and practical grounds, a broader commitment to the world in which we live’ (Janes 2009, 30).
Recent years have seen many museums face scrutiny and criticism that has touched upon diverse issues such as funding sources (e.g. sponsorship from the petrochemicals industry); colonial legacies continuing to influence curatorial practice; and staff bodies unrepresentative of communities served (Janes and Sandell 2019). Now is the time for a radical response to these failings, for the sector to push harder to confirm the societal value of progressive museums, as McWhinney and Markos write: ‘crisis unfreezes the person to accept the loss and begin a search that takes one across the threshold into a space where one can risk deep exploration’ (2003, 21).
How then can the sector move beyond lip service (Culture& 2020) to this goal of transformative change? Transformational Education suggests a route, but it will only be successful if the sector can unite to acknowledge their role as agents of positive change. Recent controversy over the International Council of Museums (ICOM) definition of the museum (Noce 2019) highlights that not all are ready (or able) to do so. The new definition split the sector over the ‘ideological’ purpose of museums as agents of societal change.
Transformational Education concerns itself with the expansion of mind-sets, encouraging a reconsideration of one’s worldview. Through an inherently political process it fosters societal change by supporting critical thought. Theory built upon the foundations laid by pioneers such as Friere (1972) and Mezirow (2000) form the backbone of thought in the field, which initially guided adult educators but is currently being tested and applied in new contexts. There are now 18 volumes of The Journal of Transformative Education.
Likewise, the conceptualization of the Transformational Museum is not new (Nielsen 2014) but is perhaps newly relevant. Becoming a Transformative Museum requires a holistic approach to imbuing the organization, its staff and output with a coherent aim of delivering transformational experiences. These experiences are those that enable a reconsideration of the ‘assumptions by which self and society are guided and given support’ (McWhinney and Markos 2003, 30).
In support of the delivery of these transformational experiences, I suggest a three-step process:
Some may be nervous about museums being so intentional in their desire to foster new thoughts and actions, and it could be considered overstepping of the natural remit of these institutions. Doing so will pose significant challenges as museums strive to understand complex issues, scan the horizon to avoid being swept away by transient issues, and craft thoughtful, creative and transformative experiences.
This is where the skill of museum professionals and the strength of governance of institutions and the sector will come to the fore. Developing both the skills and the conviction that museums are there proactively to support society is what is needed. This can steer the sector into the post-Covid world and finally answer Janes’ criticism, ensuring the sector is outward focussed rather than navel gazing and that it grows to embrace a positive role in shaping post-Covid societies. ‘We are in the process of reinventing what natural history museums are for,’ says Johnson, Director of the National Museum of Natural History. ‘Museums can play a much more impactful role than they have in the past 50 years’ (Pennisi 2020).
The author has no competing interests to declare.
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