Confronting Authentic Change in Museums

Robert R. Janes


It is one thing for museums to undertake change because of financial pressures and the need to improve efficiency and effectiveness. It is radically different to acknowledge that museums are deeply entrenched in the broader histories of colonialism, globalization, and capitalism and require systemic change. As difficult as this is to admit, the majority of museums are closely bound up with the forces that have led the planet to the brink of ecological collapse; to the separation of human and more-than-human life; to the marginalization and oppression of Indigenous Peoples, and to the celebration of narratives dependent on unlimited economic growth. Yet, despite all the efforts to the contrary, the traditional commitment to preservation, interpretation, and education remain largely unchallenged by museum practitioners (Museums in 2020).

Nor have the majority of the world’s museums confronted the climate crisis, much less the spectre of social and ecological collapse, and they are effectively absent in the wide-ranging initiatives to confront these challenges. This is understandable, recognizing that museums are mainstream institutions and thus embody the general consciousness and values of the public at large. The public, in turn, is “culture-bound”, meaning that both individual and societal perspectives are restricted in outlook by belonging to a particular culture. In this instance, the North American frame of reference is the modern technological-industrial culture, with its particular values and aspirations.

In short, we are the products of the culture we are born into (Nelson 2020). We are now in need of new cultural frameworks to identify, explore and debunk the myths, perceptions and misperceptions that are inviting collapse and extinction, such as the belief that unlimited economic growth is possible and that there can be more growth through technology (Rees and Nelson 2020). It is by developing new cultural frameworks that museums can make a vital contribution. Museums of all kinds are in a position to invent a new future for their communities by creating an image and a story of a desirable future – the essential first step in its realization. Joanna Macy, a Buddhist scholar and activist, calls this story the Great Turning – “the transition from a doomed economy of industrial growth to a life-sustaining society committed to the recovery of our world” (Macy and Johnstone 2012: 26). It is time for museums to honour the public trust that has been gifted to them and participate in the creation of this new story.

Museums remain largely relegated to leisure and entertainment, and remain unrecognized as key civic and intellectual resources. We know that education is a core mission, but we must ask what sort of education is appropriate and necessary now? Society is in dire need of the critical education that confronts the destructive forces of colonialism, globalization, capitalism. Most museum managers and their governing authorities remain mired in the status quo, seeking new buildings, increased visitation, and consumer consumption. It is business as usual.

An Ecological Metaphor

This persistent, maladaptive behaviour reflects an elemental misunderstanding that plagues the organization and management of museums. An ecological metaphor is useful in examining this dysfunction, as ecology is about the relationships between organisms and their environments – dependent, independent, and interdependent relationships. (Janes 2016: 379). Museums have built their survival on being both materially dependent (for their economic well-being) and subjectively independent, as exemplified by commonplace comments such as “give us the money; we know what to do” or “you can’t measure our performance because we have special missions.” In the process of overlooking the meaning of interdependence, museums have created their own marginalization.

It is time to forge an ecology of museums that recognizes that a broad web of societal relationships is the bedrock of successful adaptation in a complex, and increasingly severe, world. The lack of interdependent relationships among most museums is an increasing liability, and being valued for ancillary educational offerings and leisure entertainment is no longer sufficient to ensure a future for museums.

Deep Structural Problems

These leadership and management deficiencies are caused by numerous deep-seated, structural problems that are preventing museums from rethinking their role and responsibilities and realizing their true potential. These challenges are not inevitable or enduring, however, and there are abundant resources both within and outside the museum sector to assist in determining what can be done. What follows is a brief guide to some of the most harmful of the structural problems, along with comments on how to eradicate them.

1. Rethink the conventional vision, mission, and values – Museums are preoccupied with the “what” and the “how”. Few, if any, ever ask “Why are we doing what we are doing?” Asking “why” inevitably leads to questions about purpose, meaning, and values. There are four agendas in the museums world – why, what, how and for whom.

2. Ask and answer the big questions as part of examining the vision, mission, and values:

- What changes are you trying to effect?

- What solutions will you generate,

- What are your non-negotiable values?

3. Reform governance to reflect the community - One’s cultural background and life experience, are just as important as one’s title or formal position. Museums need deep civic roots to thrive, and local relationships are the soil in which these roots grow. (Vandeventer 2011). Governing authorities must reflect this diversity. In the absence of a board of directors, create an advisory group to grow civic roots.

4. Experiment with new leadership models - Museums and galleries are dominated by an outdated corporate model – the lone CEO. Other models must now be considered, such as the Roman model – primus inter pares or first among equals. It is based on collective leadership, a necessity in this profoundly complex world (Janes 1997: 89).

5. Create new organizational designs. - Although rarely discussed, how you work directly affects what you do. There is an urgent need to abandon hierarchy and replace it with new organizational designs, based on self-organization and authentic personal agency.

6. Foster personal agency and end the exploitation of museum workers - personal agency refers to the capacity of staff to take action in the world, irrespective of their positions. The relationship between workplace and personhood remains largely unrecognized, unexplored, and often abusive in museums. I am shocked to note that thousands of U.S. museums, zoos, and aquariums received US$1.61 billion in forgivable loans through the Payroll Protection Program (PPP) during the Covid pandemic. The report found that 228 of the nation’s biggest cultural institutions shared US$771.4 million in PPP loans, but collectively cut 14,400 jobs during the pandemic. Many of those same institutions ended with budget surpluses in 2020, including 67% of art and history museums (AFSCME Cultural Workers United 2021; Thistle 2021).

7. Install an advocacy policyThis policy will underpin a socially responsible vision and mission, by delineating what issues are important and how the museum or gallery will respond when confronted with moral and civic challenges, such as the climate crisis.

8. Accept that museums and galleries have ethical obligations - Including being open to influence and impact from outside interests and being responsive to citizens’ interests and concerns.

9. Rethink collections - Museum and gallery collections are the seed banks of humankind’s successes and failures, and are akin to biological seed banks. One immediate challenge is to assess museum collections to determine what is essential to save (and learn from) in advance of a low energy future and the cessation of unlimited economic growth.

10. Scrap the edifice complex - Stop building new museums and galleries, most notably those that aspire to vanity architecture. There are more than 55,000 in the world. A new building will not create meaning and relevance - mostly distractions, budgetary deficits, and large greenhouse gas emissions from concrete and steel.

11. Discard the myth that museums and galleries are neutral voices of authority. They are not neutral and never have been (Janes 2009: 59 - 61).


The question is no longer if museums can retain their historical privilege of authoritative neutrality, but whether they will concede that society and its institutions have now entered a dangerous time. I submit that a competent museum can, and must, provide their communities with the means of intellectual self-defense against the corrosive dominance of corporations, government complicity, and the consequences of the consumer society. Museums have the opportunity and obligation to both resist the status quo and question the way in which society is governed. Museums will succeed to the extent that they are self-critical and contribute their knowledge and resources to the action required to address the enormous crisis we face. All those engaged in the museum enterprise, be they scholars, students, practitioners, or consultants, are essential to this task.

There are no barriers to social responsibility and there is no one way for museums to achieve this. The museum world is wonderfully diverse, and approaches and solutions will, of necessity, be localized. The museum sector’s preoccupation with money, collections, increasing audiences, and trivial consumption, however, has no future. Museums may choose to persist with these outmoded practices, or invest in renewal. In either instance, it is clear that all museums have now arrived at the metaphorical watershed discussed by Peter Drucker (1994: 1-8). This is the point in history “when society rearranges itself – its worldview; its basic values; its social and political structure; its arts; its key institutions.” Are museums to be active participants as these events unfold, or victims of their own myopia?

Individual museums can no longer delay in combating the intensification of climate chaos. Only a handful of the world’s museum association have declared a climate emergency and even fewer have followed through with a full program of mitigative and adaptive measures to assist their members. I will leave the last words to social critic, James Kunstler (2007: 1), with the hope that it will strengthen our collective resolve to create a new future for museums:

Hope is not a consumer product. You have to generate your own hope. You do that by demonstrating to yourself that you are brave enough to face reality and competent enough to deal with the circumstances that it presents. How we will manage to uphold a decent society in the face of extraordinary change will depend on our creativity, our generosity, and our kindness …

Notes on Contributor

Robert R. Janes is a museum scholar-practitioner, Editor-in-Chief Emeritus of Museum Management and Curatorship, a Visiting Fellow in Museum Studies at the University of Leicester (UK), and the founder of the Coalition of Museums for Climate Justice. He was the President and CEO of the Glenbow Museum (1989-2000) in Calgary, the founding Director of the Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre (1976-1986), and the founding Executive Director of the Science Institute of the Northwest Territories (1986-1989), both in Yellowknife, Northwest Territories. Janes has a Ph.D. in archaeology and has worked with Canada’s First Nations and Inuit throughout his career. He was given a traditional Blackfoot name in 1995. He has worked in and around museums for 45 years as a director, consultant, author, editor, archaeologist, board member, teacher, volunteer, and philanthropist - devoting his career to championing museums as important social institutions that can enhance the well-being of individuals and communities. His latest book is Museum Activism (with Richard Sandell) and his museum publications have been translated into ten languages. He lives in Canmore, Alberta, Canada.


Thank you to Julie Decker, Museum Director of Anchorage Museum, for the permission to reprint.

Citation: Janes, Robert (2022), "Confronting Authentic Change in Museums", Journal of the Anchorage Museum, 5, pp. 11-13.


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Nelson, Ruben . 2020. “Exploring Civilizational Overshoot.” Canadian Association for the Club of Rome. May 13. (accessed 21 October 2021).

Rees, William E., and Ruben Nelson. 2020. “Will Modern Civilization be the Death of Us?” Canadian Association for the Club of Rome. June 29 and 30. (accessed 21 October 2021).

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