Dean Phelus speaking at last month's Museums Association conference in Glasgow

Q&A with Dean Phelus

Geraldine Kendall Adams, 07.12.2016
How are US museums dealing with the prospect of a Trump presidency?
The victory of Donald Trump in last month’s US presidential election caused shockwaves around the world. Elected on a platform of ant-immigration, anti-globalisation rhetoric, Trump and the wider political movement he represents have deep implications for US society.

We spoke to Dean Phelus, the senior director of leadership programmes at the American Alliance of Museums, to find out how US museums and the people working in them are dealing with the prospect of a Trump administration.  

How have museum professionals in the US been responding to Donald Trump’s election victory?

The result of any US presidential election is always met with mixed reaction and opinion on candidates, policy, process and direction. But this election also reflects a widening divide in the viewpoints, aspirations, beliefs and values among Americans. It underscored the critical importance of balanced narrative, active listening, and preparing citizens for societal change.

US museum professionals will do what they always do: reflect on the election objectively, distill what was learned, and use this knowledge to provide guidance for others to make sense of it.

Throughout the presidential campaign, very little was said about support for culture and the arts. Although the majority of US museums do not receive government funding, there is still a lot of ambiguity about the climate for museums over the next few years.

Traveling abroad after the election, I was particularly struck by how it captured the attention of many other nations. In a world increasingly interconnected, the US presidential election reverberates, foreshadows and has a profound impact on global progress.

In this regard, there is an opportunity for US museums to provide more education on civic responsibility and service, continue to defend and reaffirm democratic ideals and principles, and advance understanding on the interrelationship between actions and consequences not only nationally but globally.
 
Because of Trump’s divisive campaign rhetoric and policy proposals, this is a worrying time for ethnic minorities, LGBTQ groups and other marginalised communities. What can museums do to help these groups?
 
This election certainly demonstrated that it is not only action – but words – that matter. The inflammatory rhetoric to divide, threaten, prey on fear and vulnerability may have secured votes but in the long run, the winning strategy for the progress of society will be one in which all have an equal stake in success.

As the US and other nations around the globe confront racism, discrimination, and oppression—and address issues of immigration, religious expression, sexual orientation, gender identity, and the equal treatment of all people — the commitment of museums to diversity, equity, accessibility, and inclusion has never been greater. Museums are a safe space in which to conduct civil and civic discourse, mediate conflict, and emphasise the value of diversity to guide how we see and interact with each other.
 
What can museums do to help build bridges and overcome the societal divisions exposed by the election, and reach out to those communities who feel ignored and angry towards the political establishment?
 
In this election, we saw the internet give rise to false news stories that not only misinformed but incited instances of civil unrest. Many contend these are some of the contributing factors that have fueled isolation, anger, and a disinterest in community. So where will society turn for lessons on compassion, civility and a moral compass to navigate its way forward?   

Museums have opportunities to embrace, ennoble, and empathise and to provide a context, perspective, and an understanding of the ever changing. Museums, certainly, are receptacles for facts that serve as crucibles to knowledge, but can also lead the way in posing questions that inspire inquiry.

They can celebrate the many truths that combat rigid dogma and political intransigence and liberate the imagination. They can serve as beacons of enlightenment, safe spaces for dialogue and discourse, and centers of community, that not only tolerate but accept differences that enrich human experience and our sense of belonging.

The election result has resulted in a great deal of uncertainty, but are there any opportunities that it might bring for museums?

Every era of history has been fraught with uncertainty and doubt. Today isn’t any different. Through their programs and activities museums have, and should, tell the stories of how past societies and civilisations surmounted the challenges and uncertainty they faced to endure, how this might enlighten the path forward, and its applicability for all people and all times. The future just doesn’t happen: museums help societies imagine possibilities, stimulate creativity and provide inspiration for the future they want to create.

In the past few weeks, some museums, like the Holocaust Memorial Museum, have spoken out to condemn the actions and rhetoric of Trump’s associates and supporters. In general, are US museums able to take a stance and speak out on these issues, or do they feel constrained from doing so for political reasons?

Museums are making choices every day on the objects, collections and exhibitions to be displayed, and how and what narratives get told and by whom. This decision making process is political. The majority of US museums are designated as non-profit organisations and are prohibited from participating in any “partisan” activities or actions that appear to support or oppose a political candidate or political party.

However, freedom of speech is a fundamental principle of democracy and museums have a responsibility to inform and impart knowledge, to express differences of opinion on issues of importance to them and combat prejudice. Collectively, they have and will continue to serve as a model in reaffirming democratic ideals that advance a pluralistic, inclusive, and tolerant society and foster values of equity and fairness.

A number of Trump’s cabinet appointments hold extremely regressive views on scientific matters like climate change and evolution. Will museums be prepared — and in a position – to challenge official government policy on such subjects if necessary?  

In their work, museums should continue to combat disinformation, be topical, relevant, and truthful. And they should encourage debate on controversial issues to better understand and address the cultural, societal, and political contexts for dissent. At the same time they should be comfortable in acknowledging that they do not have all the answers. Arguably, a museum’s greatest public service may not be in trying to provide answers but in helping others frame the important questions.
 
I encourage those who are interested in continuing the conversation to contact me at dphelus@aam-us.org

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