Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Killing Buddha

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

4 comments:

KayBee said...

But... how do you get 'agreement' on those deserving of recognition - when agreement implies consensus and rebellion/innovation is often divisive? Are the 'experts' and leaders in the field the best to evaluate the renegades... or does the rule 'trust no one over 30' apply to this process? (joking... kind of).

Karen

Paul Orselli said...

The good news is that many truly innovative organizations that don't fit the "best practices" Buddha mode aren't wasting much sweat in applying for AAM accreditation --- they're just making cool stuff.

Peter Linett said...

As Paul points out, many of the museums doing pathbreakingly cool work don't think of themselves as part of the museum community in anything but the broadest sense. I once asked the (now former) director of the Lower East Side Tenement Museum if she thought of herself as a museum person, and without missing a beat she replied, "No. I'm a community organizer."

The same seems to be true of City Museum (St. Louis) founder Bob Cassilly, who insists -- with a twinkle? -- that his vast playground of creativity has nothing to do with learning. (I went to the City Museum for the first time last week, and it's an unforgettable experience: full-body fun and totally participatory without being even slightly technological. It's a tour through somebody else's fearless imagination that leaves your own imagination somehow changed.)

So a few iconoclasts from outside the museum field have created dazzlingly different kinds of museums. The question that you and CFM are asking, Beth, is how to bring some of that spirit to mainstream institutions -- ones that do care about professionalism and "best practices." I think an award for icon-bashing is a good start. It will also be crucial to give a little training in creative risk and innovation to the people who are in that room today, making those accreditation decisions, along with funders, newspaper critics, museum studies faculty. It may be possible for professionalism and innovation to coexist, if we can first get them talking to each other.

ObergResearch said...

Why should accreditation and icon-bashing be mutually exclusive. Can AAM fold innovation into the accreditation process? Is the accreditation process as it currently stands part of the Buddha we must meet and slay?

Second, how do other industries, especially for-profit industries that must constantly innovate, recognize and reward innovation?

Lastly, I don't believe we should be too concerned rewarding an innovation that is the "result of sloppiness" or otherwise not "worthy" in some way. Innovation and creativity asks that one let go of fears of failure. That not only means from the museum's perspective but also from AAM's.