Skip to content

Matching Museums to a New Reality

Alli Burness - Sahara Sunset Sand Dunes - Morocco - October 2013

My journey hasn’t included obvious destinations in a museum pilgrimage. Typical choices might have been New York, London, more of Europe. Instead of traveling to major museum centers, I’ve gone off the grid for short periods.

Onto oceans, into deserts, up mountains. I went into the Sahara in Morocco around the time of the US government shutdown, when many American museums also went off the grid. I had to ask, in a space and time where museums seemed absent, are they necessary? If they needed to be recreated, who would want to reinvent them and why?

Alli Burness - Morocco Sahara - On the Road - October 2013

John Falk describes how visitors don’t learn new information when visiting museums, but rather tune into information which confirms previously held understandings (Identity and the Museum Visitor Experience, 2009). This applies more broadly, as I’ve found ways to understand what I’m experiencing in my travels according to previously known information. This seems to be human nature, but isn’t as restrictive as you might think. Porchia Moore states in her article rethinking diversity in museums, “all culture is connected”. I’ve found ways to connect with people from very different cultures to my own, and watched as other travelers do the same. If you can find the link between one person and another, connections across culture can be made.

These ideas persisted for me when I crossed paths with Imazighen (Berber) nomads who make their way between the Atlas mountains and the Sahara depending on the season. Or when I passed shepherds also traveling on the edges of the desert with their camels or goats, headed for destinations I couldn’t imagine. I wondered, “how could my life connect with yours?” Of course, the answer is my life and work in museums doesn’t impact their lives.

Alli Burness - Locals in Sahara Morocco - October 2013

All culture may be connected but I also know that who I am, my identity and worth, is challenged, conflicted or contradicted by a multitude of different cultures, politics and ways of living. I’ve experienced people who disagree with who I am, or like the Imazighen nomads, for whom I am irrelevant. I know going home doesn’t mean I’ve escaped these realities, although it may enable me to ignore them. My perceived normality is not normal or the majority.


Thanks to Susan Cairns’s latest post about power and technology in museums, I’ve been reading and rereading this article about power and culture or culture as currency:

The power of [Europe] seems today to lie in the richness of its history. But to be truly modern is precisely to have a rich and legitimate history that one can master, draw from, and transcend. It is to have a history that is valuable in the present, transactable as social capital in an economy of competitive relations; in clear contrast to other, ‘anthropological’ histories – ‘African’, ‘Oriental’ – that are outdated, unusable, primitive….

How to recognize the narrowness of this so-called broadened mind – to realize that Europe is not the universe – and to take your sensing and knowing beyond those dominant ideas of the true, the good, and the beautiful. To move towards a pluri-verse that gives dignity to both the girl in the pajamas and the one in the little black dress – and yet to do so in a way that, unlike Western liberalism, is not naïve about either the ‘equality’ of the two, or about how we got from the one to the other.

I encourage you to read the article in full, it’s a delicate tour through a complex issue. It’s helped me process the array of cultural experiences I’ve had and how to continue to see evidence of this. I wonder how we can, as museum professionals, remain aware of the privilege and cultural power embedded in our own industry?

It’s well-known that museums in Western centers still rely on socially and economically privileged visitors (see this recent article in the Economist and Colleen Dilenschneider’s High Propensity Visitor for evidence). Anecdotally, I would say this is not unique to museums in major centers, but a feature all over the world. Museums cater largely to advantaged audiences, even if that audience may vary in cultural background when compared to demographics in America, UK and Europe. I’ve visited many museums outside of Europe which frame it’s collection against objects and artworks from Western centers. Nina Simon’s ‘social bridging’ at the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History is working to change the audience which it best serves. But there are examples which confirm the traditional audience too, like the De Young Museum monetizing their VIP exhibition tickets. As a sector overall, we have a long way to go in changing our audiences and how our institutions are perceived by the public.


Alli Burness - Tamegrout Holy Site - Sahara, Morocco - October 2013

Tamegroute Holy Site, Morocco

People will always be drawn to visit resonant or important objects. Did I feel this resonance in Europe? Yes. But I also felt it out in the Sahara, at the library in Tamegroute. Established in the 1600s as part of a university and holy site, it now holds a collection of 4,000+ volumes. Among various gems is an interpretation of the Qu’ran written in 1065 on gazelle skin. With no database or computer, there was one man, explaining the significance of the Arabic volumes by moving between 3 different languages, many groups of tourists and a range of locals. The site is a pilgrimage destination too, drawing people who are psychologically unwell in the hope of relief. It’s a collection which attracts a wide range of people in the region and across the world. Tamegroute Holy Library is an exceptional collection in many ways.

Alli Burness - Tamegroute Kasbah - Morocco Sahara - October 2013

Tamegroute Kasbah

The realities of privilege which still drive the museum industry conflict with how I understand myself and the world after experiencing many different cultures and places. I see museums as full of potential to refocus their visitor base and reinvigorate their role in communities. I’m not sure how much the sector is unified in its motivation to take advantage of this potential. Now I’m heading home, I wonder how museum workers cope with knowing their institutions cater to advantaged audiences rather than fulfilling the social role we often aspire to? Is it possible for museums to make the changes required for this new future and where do we start? Should we consider this a cultural change in our sector and treat it with a long-term approach? How can I reconcile my understanding of the world with the biases of the sector which I’m so passionate about?

Alli Burness - Sunset - Morocco Sahara - Sand dunes - October 2013

* I’d like to see similar data forecasts for the UK and Australia.

One Comment Post a comment
  1. Thoughtful post Alli, raising issues I myself have been grappling with in my work of late.

    In the visitor numbers arms race, I sometimes wonder about the finer demographics of audiences and who museums are actually serving/reaching.

    Mission statements (motivations) indicate that collections and programs are designed to attract and engage diverse audiences, but in the day to day operational reality is often preaching to the converted (private school groups etc).

    I’m wonder ‘what is the (long term) point of what I do?’ and ‘how can we shift public perceptions that museums are primarily for the privileged?’

    I overheard a facilitator taking a group of students through a gallery the other day and he was saying ‘Art doesn’t have to be something you analyse. When you listen to music, do you break it down and contextualise it, try and figure it out? This doesn’t have to be a place you only visit on a school excursion, you can just bring your boyfriend here and show him something you like – that’s ok.’

    Maybe we need to get the public more comfortable with varied reasons for visiting cultural spaces. Maybe it’s the scholarly talk getting in the way of simply being with art.

    3 February 2014

Leave a Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: