Welcome to impactingmuseums.org and thank you for taking the time to visit. I hope you will enjoy the content I have here and that it might spark a question, thought, or idea about museums and impact. My name is Jennifer Bergevin and I am a PhD Researcher at the School of Museum Studies at the University of Leicester.
I’d like to start with a brief (very brief) introduction to my work. In the spirit of the 3-Minute Thesis competitions known far and wide to PhD researchers, I am going to give you a taste of my work. I have used only one slide and a three-minute recording (three-minutes and a bit actually). You can find a transcript of the recording below.
Over the past 30 years, museums have undergone a remarkable shift in purpose, from being focused mainly on methods of practice such as collections care and preservation to being audience-centric, reflexive, and socially focused. There are still debates about the social role of the museum but more and more institutions are realising their social potential.
Writing specifically about disability rights in the museum sector, Sandell and Dodd (2010: 3) coined the phrase “activist museum practice” to define an emerging trend within museums and galleries “intended to construct and elicit support amongst audiences (and other constituencies) for alternative, progressive ways of thinking about disability.” The idea of activist museum practice has since been expanded to include a number of social justice topics. (Sandell 2017) At its core, activist practice is inherently impact-oriented with a focus on promoting and recruiting support for positive socio-political outcomes through museum practices.
I became aware of this landscape only a few years ago after a visit to the Anne Frank House. Throughout my time there, I was aware of a very clear call to action; a call which encouraged visitors not to waste the opportunities they had to make positive change in the world. I began to wonder just how many people around me might change their attitudes, thoughts, and actions as a result of what they were experiencing and how many, like the girl in the slide, went back to their daily lives and old ways of thinking.
I embarked upon a PhD to try to better understand how activist museums impact visitors in the long-term. More specifically I wanted to understand the context in which the museum visit fits and to find out how museum visits shape people’s views and attitudes, and whether people were spurred on to do something as a result of what they had experienced.
Three years after my visit to the Anne Frank House, I am now beginning to write my thesis. What I can say thus far is that impact is a highly individual and personalised phenomenon. How people respond to their museum experience is bound up in their personal narrative of transformation. This is a phrase I am using to describe the stories of impact and change which have arisen from my research. You might think of each visitor as the main character in a story of change; who they are and what they do is continually shaped by their experiences and how they construct their own meaning from those experiences. The museum visit is just one of many chapters in their story. For some, the museum is the spark that they needed in order to take action; for others, the museum is one nudge among many that pushes them further towards new understandings of the world. For example, we shouldn’t “write-off” the girl in the cartoon. Tomorrow she might have another experience which again nudges her towards wanting to do something. Perhaps in a few months, she will have started thinking more specifically about what she can do and how she can do it. In a year, she might be helping at a homeless shelter or raising money for a charity.
Whether the visit is one nudge among a thousand that eventually spurs someone towards taking action for social justice or it is an epiphany which changes someone’s entire life, it cannot be denied that museums are having an impact.