The Role of the Museum when Democracy is Under Siege (yes, today qualifies)

In 1941 Americans – both military and civilian – were busy preparing for their inevitable inclusion in the Second World War. The opening essay in the American Museum of Natural History’s annual report for 1940 succinctly, and powerfully, argued for museums’ role in defending democracy. The Report of the President, presumably written by F. Trubee Davison, began by detailing the terror spreading through Europe, fueled by ignorance. That paragraph was succeeded by the following:

“The struggle of the democracies against the dictatorships is not only a fight for freedom to live, a fight to satisfy physical and emotional hunger, but it is just as importantly at present, and even more importantly for the future, a fight for the freedom to think.

In this struggle the museum stands at the forefront of the institutions designed to satisfy intellectual hunger. The museum is not limited like the public school to the young. The museum is not dedicated like the college or university solely to the educated. The museum does not, like the library, serve only the literate. The museum deals with all people on all levels and can and does reach out to meet the intellectual hunger of all people of every degree on all levels of intellectual attainment. It is a democracy’s most important agency for the spread of honest understanding of life.”

I read this on a day when I also encountered stories about the rise of dictatorship and government corruption around the world, a measles outbreak fed by misinformation about vaccines, and of Americans preparing to endure more weather extremes exacerbated by climate change, even as they misunderstand that connection by conflating the two.

This is a time of horrors, both real and imagined and I have seen so many deal with their fears and what they perceive as the ignorance of others by using mockery, derision, judgement, and the aptly named repugnancy of trolling. That response is a large part of why I’ve removed myself from social media. How am I supposed to engage people so empowered by their own sense of being right? How can you reason with people who value “being right” more than they care about “getting it right?”

My aversion to the growing judgmental-superiority-complex is beautifully explained in the excerpt above, which was written 80 years ago as fascism tore a gash through the globe that still hasn’t healed. I was raised in museums, in more ways than one. As a result, I’ve worked in places where EVERYONE comes to learn. I’ve taught evangelicals wearing large wooden crucifixes and queer atheists. I’ve taught people rich, poor, and those navigating the volatile middle. I’ve taught conservatives and progressives, immigrants and Natives, non-English speakers and those who only speak English, and all of the races that racists have demanded that we recognize.

In short, in museums, I have learned that “intellectual hunger” is found in all of us, and that truth is liberating and can bring joy. Not that some truths aren’t hard and challenging, but when communicated with respect and honor for both honesty and the person with whom you’re speaking, they can heal more than they hurt. Where the hunger for truth meets honest facts are the wellsprings of democracy. All else is some form of anchor dragging us back to the authoritarian fascism that lurks in the shadows waiting to feed on fear, shame, and ignorance. The authoritarian fascism that now thrives in the open; demanding that all our bravery, love, and truth be mobilized in opposition.

I have a shirt in my drawer with the phrase “Museums are not neutral” that I plan to wear once my behaviors meet my knowledge and I lose a few pounds. This is true in ways both good and bad. When museum professionals attempt to be neutral, they remove facts from context and leave them open to be manipulated for evil. Museums have certainly been manipulated for evil, so we can’t pretend that they are somehow immune to reproducing lies. Our diligence and pursuit of truth must be constant, both within our institutions and ourselves. When museum professionals embrace hard realities, and resolve to fight them with openness and truth, then they can meet the challenges of our day, and those past. More importantly, they – we – can be a model for others to do the same. After all, in this day and age, what’s more radical than truly giving someone the freedom to think?