A flippant Tweet for mine recently took off in a way that I hadn’t expected. The reaction to it has given me the impetus to explore ideas around what Twitter means to both me and the museum sector.
The world is changing extraordinarily quickly with improvements in global communications, and social media is playing a big part of that. Despite a worrying resurgence of the far-right across the developed world, we are also seeing a growing awareness (amongst liberal audiences at least) of the inequality that continues to blight society. Be it through the Women’s Marches, a growing understanding of the nature of gender or the #MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter movements, perspectives have been changing. As a white, middle-class male, I only began to realise in the last few years my own immense privilege. Not from self-discovery, but from the diverse views coming into my social media feeds from outside and from voices with which I would not have otherwise engaged.
The Museum sector has responded to these sorts of changes in various ways. Trends (pioneered decades earlier) in the democratisation of interpretation are fast becoming the mainstream. Community participation is now less an experiment than an expectation. Didactic and paternalistic approaches are now routinely laughed out of exhibitions.
Front of house staff, for so long undervalued, are now widely and rightly seen as the champions of visitor engagement and the most valuable source for exhibition evaluation. Curators are no longer seen as the ‘only’ members of museum staff, and the sector’s petty attempts at ownership of the term have rightfully been called into question, even if some of the more elaborate uses of it have been appropriately ridiculed.
Wellness and mental being are topics that are being talked about more and more openly. Burnout and stress are no longer badges of shame, but acknowledged as factors than can effect all of us. Suicide is no longer a taboo – we can grieve it publicly, and shout about the sources of help available.
Our most prestigious museums are now enlivened by LGBTQ tours, and organisations such as the National Trust (long associated with a sense of green-wellied, middle-Englander conservatism) are celebrating the LGBTQ heritage and stories enshrined within their properties.
Finally, recruitment and its equitability are beginning to be discussed more and more openly. No longer is it considered acceptable to make as essential requirements expensive post-graduate requirements that are impossible to achieve by so many who would be absolute assets to the sector. Unpaid internships are increasingly being called out as exclusive preserves, while inclusivity in recruitment is being championed more and more.
To claim that any of these developments began in and because of the social media age would be an utter disservice to the giants on whose shoulders we stand. But their prevalence has certainly been accelerated and entrenched by the rapid exchange of ideas and thinking that social media platforms can facilitate.
Is talking to a museum professional not on Twitter the same as talking to a museum professional from the 1950s? Of course not. But it is remarkable how prevalent the qualities of classism, snobbery, homophobia, transphobia, misogyny, un-empathy and gatekeeping are amongst those who favour the siloed-Hobbit Holes of personal comfort over the vast, terrifying awesomeness of wide horizons.
Engage with new ideas, listen to new voices, and put your feet in other people’s shoes. But let’s not grow complacent either and assume that the regressive conservative voice in our sector is dead. Only last week did the alarming comment below appear on the Museum’s Association website, in reaction to the story about the People’s History Museum removing a transphobic sticker from an exhibition space.
Social media is both a receiver and a transmitter, and we all have a duty to challenge bad practice, exclusory attitudes and hate-driven agendas – whilst also toasting the many, many good things out there.