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  • Writer's pictureLivi Adu

What are Socially engaged practices in Museums?

My Journey into Socially Engaged Practices: Museums, Art Galleries, and Me

Hey there! I'm about to take you on a personal journey into the world of socially engaged practices in museums and art galleries. Together, we'll explore my experiences, both professional and personal, and how they've shaped my outlook on making these cultural spaces more inclusive and diverse. I'm all about breaking barriers, sparking meaningful conversations, and championing creativity and innovation in the heritage sector. So, let's dive in!

What does Socially Engaged Practices in museums mean?

Socially Engaged Practice refers to actively incorporating socially engaged principles, involving collaboration, participation, and people's engagement as essential components of the museum's programming and engagement strategies. This practice aims to connect museums with their communities, promote dialogue, and enhance inclusivity by working with artists or community members to create projects, exhibitions, and programs that foster interaction, responsiveness, and address societal issues.

Values That Drive Me

Solidarity is at My Core

Let's talk values. My journey is guided by honesty, fairness, and above all, solidarity – a vital principle that ensures marginalized voices are not just heard but respected. My journey has been shaped by a blend of experiences. I've navigated life on benefits, lived with disabilities, and embraced a mixed-race identity. These unique experiences have given me a profound sense of empathy and a keen eye for spotting institutionalized discrimination. I firmly believe that museums can be catalysts for breaking down these barriers, offering the space, influence, and ethos needed to tackle issues like institutionalized racism, ableism, and sexism.

But for true equality in the museum sector, we also need honesty and social equity to be at the forefront. That means fair pay, improved working conditions, and reshaping business structures to empower communities as stakeholders. For me, museums are more than just places to house artifacts; they're platforms for fostering discussions, encouraging reflection, and promoting transparency within our communities.

A painted  protest sign with red fists and black hands outlined in white. the words "DEFUND BRUTALITY" are painted in white at the top.
Funding has a huge influence over maintaining structures of institutionalised discrimination

Shaping Values Through Experiences

The Museums and Society Connection

The academic literature and my personal journey have highlighted museums' critical social role. There's a growing call for greater accessibility and involvement of local organizations and individuals in museum governance. But there's a hitch – there's often a disconnect between museums and communities. In their eagerness to be "helpful," museums sometimes end up doing things for vulnerable and marginalized people instead of with them. It's a well-intentioned but counterproductive approach that can undermine people's autonomy and independence, a phenomenon known as infantilization. This observation echoes my own experiences and those of vulnerable adults in my community. To truly make progress in inclusive practices, we must invest in community-influenced governance structures. This approach breaks down barriers to engagement and paves the way for meaningful community partnerships and public involvement.

The Transformative Power of Storytelling

Anansi and the Magic of Storytelling

Storytelling is a powerful tool for inducing empathy for others and can be utilised to create meaningful connections between people and any kind of information, whether it is to share perspectives outside experience, family history, or even statistics!

Folktales, myths, and legends are ways human cultures around the world to pass on wisdom and knowledge. So, I began to investigate my own Ghana heritage and explored Ashanti tribe’s folklore of Anansi, who is a prominent legend throughout the African diaspora. Anansi, the original spiderman, is known for his courage, cunning, and ability to overcome seemingly impossible tasks. His tales have inspired me deeply, demonstrating the incredible transformative power of storytelling.

Fakunle et al. (2021) have discussed this further, linking the tale of Anansi to show how storytelling can help address historical oppression, promoting healing and justice for all. As the keepers of stories, museums have a pivotal role in this process. Anansi's tale has encouraged me to explore how museums can gather and present stories that capture the rich complexity of human experiences, especially those of historically marginalized communities.

A digital painting of Anansi. he is depicted as a small man with spider-like features. He is a trickster and quick-witted man with a large head and a long, thin and a sly smile wearing. In the background there is a lake with groups of trees either side of Anansi. The sky is blue with yellow at the treeline and interlocking symbols above Anansi’s head.
Anansi is a legendary figure of the African Diaspora. He is seen as a symbol of creativity, intelligence, and resourcefulness.

Future Aspirations

Charting a Course for the Future...

1. Cultivating Digital Specialization

One of my foremost goals is to cultivate a group of skilled digital specialists within the museum sector. I recognise a pressing need for digital expertise and am determined to expand access through digital platforms. Moreover, I envision a future where volunteers and local societies are integral partners right from the start of co-collaborative projects.

2. Navigating Environmental Roles:

Our journey extends to exploring the environmental roles that museums can play, particularly within the context of global warming, flooding, wildfires, and resource scarcity. Museums have the potential to communicate the impact of these global issues on a local level through the art of storytelling. It's about creating a space for meaningful discussions and reflections on the environmental changes we face.

3. Celebrating Diversity:

My ultimate goal is to create digital spaces where individuals with protected characteristics can freely share their personal narratives. By fostering transparency and representation, I believe we can begin to heal the divisions and harm perpetuated by institutionalized discrimination.

3D rendered image of a 2 floor modern building that will become a virtual geology museum.
Sketch up snapshot of my digital geology museum

Questions I want to explore

As I continue on this journey as a socially engaged practitioner, I find myself pondering some thought-provoking questions:

1. Immediate Steps for Museums:

What actionable steps can museums take to establish good practices and build stronger relationships with the public right now? I'm eager to bridge the gap between theory and practical application. Let's make it happen!

2. Cultivating Community Ownership:

How can museums cultivate a sense of community ownership and belonging within their spaces? I'm keen to dive into case studies involving storytelling in collaboration with underrepresented communities. Let's explore together.

3. Harnessing Anansi's Wisdom:

How can I harness the wisdom of Anansi in my socially engaged practices? I believe effective and inclusive storytelling methodologies can cultivate empathy and understanding. Let's unleash the power of storytelling!

Conclusion: Shaping the future of the Cultural Sector

Socially engaged practices are at the forefront of the ever-evolving museum and art gallery landscape. My journey reflects the growing recognition of museums' profound social responsibility and potential to spark transformative change in society. As museums transition from traditional models to eco-centric frameworks, they wield the power to dismantle barriers, foster inclusivity, and amplify the voices of those who have been marginalised.

My commitment to upholding values of honesty, fairness, and solidarity envisions a future where museums transcend their role as mere repositories and actively engage with communities to create a fairer world. I'm dedicated to exploring the realms of storytelling, inclusivity, and digital opportunities, each of which forms an integral facet of socially engaged practices within the museum sector. As I continue on this journey, I invite you to join the conversation, to ask the tough questions, and to work collectively towards shaping a cultural landscape that is truly inclusive and equitable. By exploring our history, sharing untold tales and growing our heritage with Honesty, Social Equity, and Solidarity; we can create a fairer world.

museum professionals and community members of Indian decent checking museum antiques.
Community members with lived experience of the objects' providence need to be treated equally to museum professionals when interpreting and reviewing objects in collections.


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