The Social Responsibility of Museums

It irks me when I hear people say that if a negative situation "has always been that way" then no solution should be searched for. It is such complacency that gets people to accept horrible things. Good, kind, well-meaning, German citizens fell victim to the bystander effect because they did not want to break the status quo and preferred to defer to the Nazi government. Nothing better to sum up these situations that the famous quote of Martin Niemöller:

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

Because I have been a museum professional for a long time, I know how good museums can be for the community, especially in times of distress. Some, constantly bend over backwards to serve their community of families, artists/artisans, scientists, researchers, professionals, etc. A few, keep their communities very involved with their work. And then there are the museums that, as we say in Spanish, "lo que hacen con una mano, lo borran con la otra" / "what they do with one hand is erased by the other". These institutions' incapability to do a job with integrity is ultimately paid by the public they have been trusted to serve. The same public that when they need good reviews and attendance from, they buy with food, drink, and entertainment - panem et circenses. A few can see thru, though.

Wonderful projects like the Incluseum make their way into the art world. They give me hope. Yet I know it takes time for things to change, I understand, I want to understand, I need to understand. I know that in a large percentage of minority homes art is not a priority. Access to art programs and workshops is limited. The children who can attend schools that open up the study of the humanities have a privilege they cannot be blamed for. BUT! why do certain museums insist in alienating minorities and low income youths by not facilitating art programming?! Now, how can this be reached? by waving/lowering visiting costs, by actively engaging with them through outreach programs, by inviting them and making them feel welcome, by opening both minds and arms to these youths and adults, and letting them know that the arts & culture is not for the privileged, the affluent, or the connoisseurs, but for ALL! And also, by giving then something they can identify with, like art by minorities they can relate to. Oscar Murillo anyone?

Many times, art that exposes these and other injustices, is chosen for exhibits by the same museums that perpetrate those wrongs, without realizing it. These museums search for the good reviews and excellent comments, while ignoring the "bad" reviews and negative criticisms, in an optimal example of confirmation bias.

I must clarify that it is not my intention to conflate hawkish museum administrations with the Nazi government. Nevertheless, the people that work with these administrations and decide to not speak up and act for what is just are no different than those good, kind, well-meaning, German citizens. I know this sounds like the moralistic high ground of naïve youth... but I do not think it is.

- A. Iaroc