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A Call to Action: Rise of the Social Museum

Elizabeth E Merritt, founding director of the American Association of Museum’s Center for the Future of Museums describes two types of mindsets in museums today in her article How can Museums Empower Communities. There are museums that start with the collection from which grows a desire to share that collection with the world. Then there are those museums that largely emerge from the community, often in response to a societal need or problem. This raises the question if one can be both and if so, how might museums set out to move beyond the collection? W. Richard West, Director of the National Museum of the American Indian stated,

Only by deconstructing many of the existing boundaries that define our thinking

as museum professionals, and by involving, systematically and consistently, those

who sit outside of museums but within the communities that we serve and of which

we are a part, can we begin, truly and effectively, to contemplate, dream about,

envision, and formulate the 21st-century possibilities regarding museums and


Williams, a museum columnist, states that museums are not something people normally think about as being identified as a charity organization. Williams states, “there are actually 1,118 independent museums in the UK which are actually registered as charities.” Great Britain has explicitly charged its national museums with serving as agents of social change. As stated in Britain’s policy document Centres for Social Change: Museums, Galleries, and Archives with the DCMS (Department of Culture, Media, and Sport), it states, “The cultural sector is an important source of informal learning; learning can be a powerful agent in combating social exclusion…” It appears the U.K. is ahead of the U.S. by way of putting this mindset into action and into policy. A museum focused on transforming itself to being a more “social museum” will inevitably challenge current ideologies but will be at the forefront in the creating of new best practices in the area of museum education. The “outie” or indie/outie hybrid, as proposed by Merritt, will inevitably ask questions as to what adaptations or changes can we make today that will promote meaning or give voice to the community being served.

This does not imply that the museum should as part of their outreach agenda feed the hungry and end global poverty, but rather a simple shift of awareness as to who is in your community is a good starting point. How might a museum support a need, solve a problem, promote awareness or create accessibility?

In April 2010, participants from cultural and educational institutions in 11 countries met at Rockefeller Foundation’s Bellagio Center to discuss the museum’s potential role as related to design and creating social change. In this report it was stated, “If you want to be an agent of social change, don’t go down the path of collecting.” Paul Thompson argued that, “the act of acquiring objects burns through resources that may be better spent in a museum’s education department.” A perspective and philosophy for which our (MPEC) Museums as Partners in

Education and Enrichment Coalition is based on.

To effectively connect the community with the message behind the collection strong collaboration is needed along with the willingness to cross boundaries. Wenger states in his book Communities of Practice, “Communities of practice cannot be considered in isolation from the rest of the world. . .we can participate in multiple communities of practice at once.”

Creating change within the confines of an institution can mean facing resistance as there is an innate fear of change or doing things that have not been done before. Change requires one to be both in the institution and outside of it…to situate yourself at the border. It might be a rather uncomfortable place to be but it is perhaps the only place where bridges can be built. It is perhaps the exact place one needs to be. To build a community of practice that will cross societal boundaries is to place yourself at the intersection. As Wenger proposes, that intersection is the very place where innovation and new communities of practice are born.

In our changing world the role of the museum as educator and changemaker has perhaps never been greater. Museums will need to be able to adapt quickly to a constantly changing environment. We will need to have one finger on the pulse of society, with the other on the collection and the building of scientific knowledge. Merritt’s call to museums for action in this regard I believe will usher in a new identity for the social museum of the future.


Merritt, Elizabeth, (2018). How can museums empower communities? American Alliance of Museums [Blog] (Retrieved from

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