The Accreditation Commission is meeting this week here at the AAM offices in Washington, D.C. Each time I walk past the big glass walls of the board room I see the huge binders scattered across the conference table, and the long, long list of agenda items posted on a flip chart at the head of the room. Bear with me while I set the stage for explaining why this triggers in me a deep sense of the irony of my current job.
I used to be in that room. For almost seven years, as the director of Museum Advancement & Excellence at AAM, I read the self-studies and Visiting Committee reports. Three times a year I listened as the Commissioners debated not only the specific museums under review, but the broader implications of these cases for the field. I participated in, and in some small way helped shape the discussions that lead, in the end, to the codification of national standards and best practices for American museums. I was privy to long, fascinating discussions regarding what constitutes the museum’s “community” (as referenced in the standards regarding public trust and accountability.) Are your neighbors necessarily part of the community you serve, and if not, don’t you owe them some responsibility, too? (Yes, the Commission decided, a good museum should also be a good neighbor, and be considerate about such things as the effects of their parking, evening events, and signage.) I was deeply engaged in the extended exploration of the role and purpose of collections planning, and the debate over whether it should be a standard—something all good museums should be doing. (Not yet, the Commission concluded, but probably soon.)
One of my proudest accomplishments at AAM was pulling together the documents resulting from these discussions, explaining the reasoning behind them and exploring what they look like in application. It was my hope that the resulting publication—National Standards & Best Practices for U.S. Museums—would be useful in explaining the values that form the bedrock of our profession. Many museum practitioners have told me of their acute need to educate people entering the museum profession, as well as board members, policy makers and journalists, on these core values.
Hence the irony. The Buddhist master Línjì Yìxuán famously instructed his students: “if you meet a buddha, kill the Buddha.” He was encouraging them to question authority, to experiment and discover for themselves what is true and right. Having spent much of the past decade helping to codify and enforce museum doctrine, I now find myself in my role as founding director of CFM, encouraging museums to kill Buddha—to question the standards, experiment and discover for themselves what works.
Sometimes, in the course of hundreds of accreditation reviews the Commission encounters an innovative, even visionary museum that looks at some aspect of the standards and says “no, we don’t do that—we do this instead, and look! It works.” And the museum may stick to its guns and decide not to become accredited, rather than conform. From my new perspective, such museums are as important to the field as the valiant few* that complete the arduous process of getting accredited. Heck, they might be more important.
I floated a trial balloon along these lines here. Using an ecological metaphor, I discussed how museums have traditionally succeeded by operating in a very conservative manner, sticking pretty much to tried and true methods. This is a good strategy in a stable environment. But the best forecasting information available about all aspects of our future—economic, political, cultural, ecological, technological—suggests we are entering a profoundly unstable age. The old strategies may not work. In which case, the future of the museum field may depend on unorthodox, visionary rebellious institutions that meet the Buddha on the road…and kill him. By consciously and creatively choosing to reject the standards and testing for themselves what works and what does not, in this new world, they break trail for the rest of the field.
How, after decades of lecturing museums about the need to conform, does an organization like AAM encourage museums to disregard the standards? Maybe we need a recognition program to find these visionary museums and honor their work. It could be almost the opposite of accreditation, celebrating iconoclasm and heterodoxy. Such museums do a service to the field, whether their experiments succeed (providing models for the future) or fail (helping us understand what does not work and why.) It would be a hard program to design and administer—how do we tell the difference between a museum that doesn’t have written plans because it is lazy, and one that has truly found a successful new method of mindfully guiding the museums through the future, a method that doesn’t rely on codified documents? How can we recognize and reward “intelligent failures” without accidentally validating sloppy management? Maybe we start by modeling good behavior, acknowledging that such a program doesn’t have to be perfect to be useful. Maybe it would anoint some museums that, in hindsight, merely seem imprudent, impractical or even delusional. If that’s the worst that happens, in the course of finding and recognizing real innovation, we can bear the risk.
So, what museum would you nominate for the “Killing Buddha” award, and why? Weigh in…
*776 museums are accredited by AAM at last count—hopefully a few more after the current meeting