Why it’s time to rethink everything you thought you knew about museums

Established and emerging institutions are shaking up what it means to be arbiters of culture.
Photo of man looking at larger-than-life portrait exhibit

True or false: When you think of a museum, you picture a silent gallery of European antiquities or roped-off walls of look-but-don’t-touch Americana. If you said “true,” there’s good reason; even Merriam-Webster defines a museum as “a place where objects are exhibited.” Affixed to this stereotype is the perception that museums are boring. And, given some museums’ diversity problem—a 2019 study published in the journal PLoS One found that major U.S. art museums feature mostly white, male artists—it’s no wonder. Many people simply find them unrelatable.

The good news? All of that is changing. Here are four ways museums are transforming to reflect and support a modern and inclusive world:

They’re zeroing in on what’s socially relevant right now.

Many museums do preserve historic artifacts, but they also provide context for current events. “Over the past decade or so, we’ve shifted our programming as well as our audience-development goals,” says Lori Fogarty of the Oakland Museum of California. “We identified social cohesion as the critical issue we are uniquely poised to address.” The change was driven in part by improvements to the institution’s physical structures and landscaping—like two new entrances, native plantings, and an outdoor stage—but also by a more modern approach to programming and curation. With exhibitions and programs on timely topics like immigration, marijuana legalization, and the Black Power movement, the museum fosters a more complete understanding of the present and helps inform the future.

CCHR Exhbitions
Center for Civil and Human Rights in Atlanta
Their communities are curators.

Professional curators remain invaluable assets to museology, but museums are increasingly seeking ideas and inspiration from the public to create programming and exhibits. During the pre-design process for the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C, museum leaders enlisted the help of the Black community to bring their vision to life. “We had a public engagement phase where [then-director] Dr. Lonnie Bunch traveled the country listening to different audiences, asking, ‘How do you want your story to be told? How should the museum address painful subjects?’” says Brenda Sanchez, senior architect and design manager at the Smithsonian Institution. “Their answers shaped the transparency of the content in the museum.”

“We had a public engagement phase where [then-director] Dr. Lonnie Bunch traveled the country listening to different audiences, asking, ‘How do you want your story to be told? How should the museum address painful subjects?’ Their answers shaped the transparency of the content in the museum.”
Their programming meets people where they are.

At the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, many museums pivoted to outdoor programming, creating opportunity for historically underserved populations. Those programs proved to be popular, and now many of them are here to stay. Other museums were always meant to be outdoors and easily accessible to the community. In Los Angeles, Destination Crenshaw is transforming a 1.3-mile stretch of a new light rail line that bisects historically Black neighborhoods into a vibrant cultural celebration honoring Black Angelenos. “Destination Crenshaw is an open-air people’s museum that’s designed to celebrate the contributions of African Americans in Los Angeles to our city, state, country, and world,” says Marqueece HarrisDawson, Los Angeles city councilmember.

They’re welcoming fresh and diverse talent.

Although NXTHVN in New Haven, Connecticut, isn’t actually a museum, it’s helping museums expand community representation by accelerating the careers of emerging and historically underrepresented artists and curators. The organization provides fellows and local high-school apprentices with mentorship, studio access, and opportunities to exhibit their work. In essence, it’s helping foster a more inclusive arts ecosystem by nurturing new and early-career talent.

“People trust museums as places where they can learn about the world, and learn about themselves, museums do so much more than meets the eye.”
Video still from recorded discussion: How can museum design be more empathetic and equitable?
Continuing the conversation

Diverse museum professionals and designers come together to reimagine how we can create more equitable museums.

Learn more at Don’t Call It a Museum >

Main photo: Mark Herboth, Portraits: Platon Antoniou