Which history, whose history? Finding common ground in a cultural tornado

This post originally published on the Mid-Atlantic Association of Museums Blog on October 31, 2010.

Attendees proved to be willing participants in this session-turned-workshop on creating reflective discussion about change in museums. Participants walked into a room of several circles of chairs with white paper and pictures on the walls. Sitting at random, we were given a page of material on a certain topic as far-reaching as New Age knitting circles.Annual Meeting attendees in "Which history, whose history?" session

The first question each group was asked was:

What are the stories people need to hear and how do we know?

We were then directed to brainstorm what QUESTIONS, not answers, arose in our mind after reading the material and being asked the first question.

In the second round each group was asked to move to a different circle with a different topic. We were then asked a different question:

If museums are changing, does that mean they are better adapted for the changing culture? If not, why and what can we do about it?

During each round of this activity the presenters Linda Norris, Managing Partner, Riverhill and Ken Yellis, Principal, First Light Consulting, were impressed with participants’ eagerness to discuss the issues.

Conversation topics that were spurred included:

  • Who has the authority to decide upon or enforce change?
  • Do museums sometimes change just for changing’s sake? Is that a good thing?
  • Is the role of museums to resist or embrace change?
  • Are museums able to engage diverse audiences without necessarily catering to each?
  • At what point do you critique change?
  • What changes are only necessary from a financial, visitor, or internal staffing viewpoint?
  • Risk: how far do you go?

Participants in this exercise enjoyed being able to have open discussion with many people from different museums, instead of only hearing about a topic from two presenters. It offered a wide perspective and generated incredible conversation over many topics that are prevalent in museums today.

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2 responses to “Which history, whose history? Finding common ground in a cultural tornado

  • Martha Morris

    Pam, the session on Change sounds interesting Thanks for posting to the MAAM blog. Were there any new ideas about change that arose? What approaches were the participants taking in creating or leading change? (PS I teach a course in Leading Change at GW) Nice to meet you in Philly and congrats on the Craig Fellowship.

    • Pam Schwartz

      Martha, it was nice having met you too. I know we sat together at the Leadership Luncheon. I feel museums are being faced with change so often that they often view them as a do or die situation. There were many new ideas that arose on how to think about change more so than actual ideas about change itself. As the exercise was based on asking questions, for me, it mostly gave food for thought.

      The main ideas around change that I came away with were that there are many different ways of thinking about change and that there is a lot of gray area. Change isn’t always good or bad, but it is what we do with it in our institution to create a positive outcome. I could go on for hours about the possibilities for positively embracing change in institutions. Your course sounds very interesting, is it museum specific or a general course?

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