On Museum Responsibility: A Generative Thought Exercise

Over the past year, the museum world has been turned on its head, laid bare, its ills continually exposed each day. Amazing work has been done by groups like For the Culture, Change The Museum, and Dismantle NOMA to detail accounts of racism, tokenism, and labor exploitation (just to name a few transgressions) that manifest in museums across the United States and beyond. This work, a blend of exposé and catharsis, is necessary. It supports the case that museums are not the neutral, safe, harmless spaces they like us to think they are.

As evidence against museums accumulates, Marabou has been thinking about Grace Lee Boggs and her assertion that protest and exposure of wrongs should be part of a larger process. A lot of thinking and analysis should take place alongside the criticism. We simply cannot tell museums what they do wrong and expect them to fix it. (They won’t fix it. If they do, it is in the service of reputation, not to address actual harms.) And it’s not necessarily our responsibility to fix the museum. We need to think generatively at the same time we are picking museums apart. This work of reimagining the museum has become popular. Marabou thinks this is a good thing. But along with reimagining, we also need to start conceiving of and taking action to build our imagined, alternative spaces so we have something to transition to if and/or when we decide the museum as it exists is not the best way forward. One way to start this generative imagining is to ask straight forward questions and consider the implications of the answers. Marabou asks, “What is a museum’s responsibility?”

Marabou poses this question around responsibility because the answer (to whom or what a museum is responsible) is not clear or straightforward. It varies depending on the institution. Factors like a person’s position within or relationship to the museum will certainly influence their perspective. Despite variations in response to this question, the answers are illuminating and relate to all aspects of how a museum functions, from its labor practices, funding, curation, to whom and what it prioritizes. A timely example of this is the February 2021 job posting (which has since been edited) for a new director of the Indianapolis Museum of Art at Newfields. The new director’s responsibilities were detailed including,

“maximize unique programmatic opportunities, working closely with the curatorial, education and public programs divisions to animate the permanent collection galleries in innovative ways that attract a broader and more diverse audience while maintaining the Museum’s traditional, core, white art audience.” [1]

The Newfields post revealed that diversifying its audience must not be done at the sacrifice of the institution’s “traditional, core, white audience.” In short, Newfields made explicit that they center whiteness, a symptom of white supremacy. A director is a high-level, powerful position whose decisions impact all levels of the museum. A director’s main responsibilities reflect the museum’s top priorities. In July 2020, curator Dr. Kelli Morgan [2] resigned from Newfields and publicly addressed and detailed the institution’s embedded and palpable culture of white supremacy. Dr. Morgan’s reasons for leaving included experiencing a racist rant from a Board member and examples of how the museum doesn’t provide support to artists and museum employees of color.[3] Newfields’ February 2021 job post (unintentionally) reaffirmed Dr. Morgan’s claims.

Interrogating a museum’s responsibility and priorities is revelatory.

Join Marabou in this generative thought exercise:

Think of a specific museum or cultural space that is familiar to you. It doesn’t matter whether you love or hate the place.

Ask yourself, “What is X Institution’s responsibility?”

You may think, “But Marabou, a museum has many responsibilities.” Marabou agrees. Write down all the responsibilities of your chosen museum, then rank them according to how you perceive the museum prioritizes them.

What responsibility is at the top of the list? Take time to consider how prioritizing a certain responsibility impacts the museum. Think of this holistically including collections, labor conditions (pay, work environment, worker protections such as unions, opportunities for advancement), curatorial vision and voice, education, audience, and more!

Marabou offers some of their musings below:

Is a museum’s main responsibility to preserve and protect objects and artifacts? What type of museum environment does this create? If object preservation and protection is of utmost importance, are all the people who preserve and protect those objects (including security guards, art handlers, and registrar, facilities, exhibition design, and preservation staff) equally valued within the institution? Who benefits and what is sacrificed when a museum prioritizes object preservation and protection?

Is a museum’s main responsibility to its Board of Trustees? What does this mean in practice? How much power and influence does the board have in decisions about: museum content and exhibitions, hiring and labor practices, collections, etc.? If the board is a dominant voice in museum decision making, who else is included in the conversation and how much does their perspective count? Does a museum’s board reflect the institution’s values? What type of museum environment does this create? Who benefits from a museum that prioritizes its board? What is sacrificed?

Are museums responsible for public education? Who is defined as “the public”? Does the museum attempt to reach multiple audiences by offering different levels of engagement, or must the public adapt to the museum’s education style? Who is included and what perspectives are considered in the development of museum content and interpretation? Are the people who engage and educate the public (educators and other visitor-facing staff) valued within the institution? Is public education really a priority of the museum, or is it simply stated in the mission while Education functions as an under-resourced department?

Museums have multiple responsibilities. The point of this exercise is to figure out and illustrate how prioritizing certain responsibilities influences museum structure and culture. For example, a museum that prioritizes Boards and objects maintains systems that exploit workers, exclude large parts of the public, and benefit just a fraction of people within a museum’s ecosystem. It’s important to highlight that there are some museums and cultural spaces doing good things. What can we learn from them? What aspects of their functioning do we want to keep in our next iteration?

Marabou asks you to return to your museum’s responsibilities list and poses three more questions:

In your opinion, what should be a museum’s responsibilities?

Which of these responsibilities should be a top priority?

What type of new museum environment would this reprioritization create?

Marabou thinks changing what is currently prioritized as a museum’s foundational responsibility can help create a new type of cultural space within which we all want to work, visit, and thrive.

Decisions around how to build our reimagined “museums” (quotes used since we may not use that term for our new conception) or cultural spaces can be informed by exploring questions about responsibility and how it influences museum structures and functioning. Asking these questions is part of a larger discussion in which museum critique takes a next step and is used in the service of transformation, providing possibilities to generate new cultural spaces.


[1] Domenica Bonogiovanni,“Newfields director job post calling to maintain ‘core, white art audience’ sees criticism,Indianapolis Star, February 13, 2021.

[2] For a better idea of Dr. Morgan’s experiences and perspective, Marabou suggests reading her essay, “To Bear Witness: Real Talk about White Supremacy in Art Museums Today” from June 24, 2020.

[3] Bonogiovanni, “Curator calls Newfields culture toxic, discriminatory in resignation letter,” Indianapolis Star, July 18, 2020.

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