Not long ago, Ravon weighed in on what she saw for the future of museums based on the activist and academic perspectives we have always brought to our work through this site. What she wrote about the need for museums to take on the role of coordinating and centering the wide-ranging activist efforts of their communities through the important work of making and providing space is something I completely agree with. This is exactly the kind of work we encourage institutions to do, and try to perform ourselves as well. Today I want to talk about this same work in a different direction: not just activism, museums should also be vector points for academic efforts too.
It’s no secret that I am deeply invested in the academy — I love the kind of deep-thinking, close-reading work that happens in post-graduate education — but I don’t see that investment coming at the expense of my work with museums. Academics, and especially higher education, is the path that many people, not just me, take to museum work. Academia is the proving-ground for PhD students that later become directors, curators, exhibition specialists, and museum educators. So when museums end up recycling the same tired content that life-term academics are rethinking daily, the museum workers who speak the language of higher education have a responsibility to bring these innovations to the institution.
Critical race theory, radical geography, and public humanities are all producing new theories and uncovering new information. Instead of thinking about museums as display cases for things that have proven themselves, why not start considering museums to be test kitchens for the cutting-edge work that is happening in academics? If scholarship needs public enfranchisement to be successful, museums have the access on both sides of that equation to put new knowledge to the test.
Let’s make sure the future of museums is not just providing space for activists and communities, although this work is equally valid and important. Instead, let’s make museums into the laboratories of public scholarship, testing new knowledge and bringing the forefront of scholarship to the people. If museums are afraid to be communicating new theories about the world in case they are wrong, we have to remember that history, art, and culture are established by public endorsement. What museums choose to enshrine helps determine what is true — and by changing what they include, we can change the way we think about the world.